History was made at the United Nations today. For the first time in its 71 years, the global body voted to begin negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.
Eight nations with nuclear arms (the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, and Israel) opposed or abstained from the resolution, while North Korea voted yes. However, with a vote of 123 for, 38 against and 16 abstaining, the First Committee decided “to convene in 2017 a United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination."
The resolution effort, led by Mexico, Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Nigeria and South Africa, was joined by scores of others.
"There comes a time when choices have to be made and this is one of those times," said Helena Nolan, Ireland’s director of Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, "Given the clear risks associated with the continued existence of nuclear weapons, this is now a choice between responsibility and irresponsibility. Governance requires accountability and governance requires leadership."
The Obama Administration was in fierce opposition. It lobbied all nations, particularly its allies, to vote no. "How can a state that relies on nuclear weapons for its security possibly join a negotiation meant to stigmatize and eliminate them?” argued Ambassador Robert Wood, the US special representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, "The ban treaty runs the risk of undermining regional security."
The US opposition is a profound mistake. Ambassador Wood is a career foreign service officer and a good man who has worked hard for our country. But this position is indefensible.
Every president since Harry Truman has sought the elimination of nuclear weapons. Ronald Reagan famously said in his 1984 State of the Union:
"A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?" In case there was any doubt as to his intentions, he affirmed in his second inaugural address that, "We seek the total elimination one day of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth."
President Barack Obama himself stigmatized these weapons, most recently in his speech in Hiroshima this May:
"The memory of the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, must never fade. That memory allows us to fight complacency. It fuels our moral imagination. It allows us to change," he said, "We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves. But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them."
The idea of a treaty to ban nuclear weapons is inspired by similar, successful treaties to ban biological weapons, chemical weapons, and landmines. All started with grave doubts. Many in the United States opposed these treaties. But when President Richard Nixon began the process to ban biological weapons and President George H.W. Bush began talks to ban chemical weapons, other nations rallied to their leadership. These agreements have not yet entirely eliminated these deadly arsenals (indeed, the United States is still not a party to the landmine treaty) but they stigmatized them, hugely increased the taboo against their use or possession, and convinced the majority of countries to destroy their stockpiles.
I am engaged in real, honest debates among nuclear security experts on the pros and cons of this ban treaty. Does it really matter if a hundred-plus countries sign a treaty to ban nuclear weapons but none of the countries with nuclear weapons join? Will this be a serious distraction from the hard work of stopping new, dangerous weapons systems, cutting nuclear budgets, or ratifying the nuclear test ban treaty?
The ban treaty idea did not originate in the United States, nor was it championed by many US groups, nor is it within US power to control the process. Indeed, this last point seems to be one of the major reasons the administration opposes the talks.
But this movement is gaining strength. Two years ago, I covered the last of the three conferences held on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons for Defense One. Whatever experts and officials thought about the goals of the effort, I said, "the Vienna conference signals the maturing of a new, significant current in the nuclear policy debate. Government policy makers would be wise to take this new factor into account."
What began as sincere concerns about the horrendous humanitarian consequences of using nuclear weapons has now become a diplomatic process driving towards a new global accord. It is fueled less by ideology than by fear.
The movement reflects widespread fears that the world is moving closer to a nuclear catastrophe — and that the nuclear-armed powers are not serious about reducing these risks or their arsenals. If anything, these states are increasing the danger by pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into new Cold War nuclear weapons programs.
The fears in the United States that, if elected, Donald Trump would have unfettered control of thousands of nuclear weapons has rippled out from the domestic political debate to exacerbate these fears. Rising US-Russian tensions, new NATO military deployments on the Russian border, a Russian aircraft carrier cruising through the Straits of Gibraltar, the shock at the Trump candidacy and the realization — exposed by Trump’s loose talk of using nuclear weapons — that any US leader can unleash a nuclear war with one command, without debate, deliberation or restraint, have combined to convince many nations that dramatic action is needed before it is too late.
As journalist Bill Press said as we discussed these developments on his show, "He scared the hell out of them."
There is still time for the United States to shift gears. We should not squander the opportunity to join a process already in motion and to help guide it to a productive outcome. It is a Washington trope that you cannot defeat something with nothing. Right now, the US has nothing positive to offer. The disarmament process is dead and this lack of progress undermines global support for the Non-Proliferation Treaty and broader efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
The new presidential administration must make a determined effort to mount new initiatives that reduce these weapons, reduce these risks. It should also support the ban treaty process as a powerful way to build global support for a long-standing American national security goal. We must, as President John F. Kennedy said, eliminate these weapons before they eliminate us.
Follow Joe Cirincione on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Cirincione
This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.