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Supporters of treaty to ban nuclear weapons, including survivors of the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, displayed banners for their cause near the United Nations on October 21. (Photo credit: ICAN)

US to the World: “We Can’t Eliminate Our Nukes, Because We Rely on Our Nukes"

When the song remains the same, the dangers of nuclear weapons will never go away

Kevin Martin

Last week, the United Nations took an historic step towards global elimination of nuclear weapons, in voting to begin negotiations next year on a treaty to ban nukes. The U.S. and other nuclear weapon states, other than North Korea, declined to support the resolution, with the U.S. and its allies lobbying hard to defeat it. The contradictions in the official U.S. statement are myriad, but here are just a few.

“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 U.S. special representative to the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. “The ban treaty runs the risk of undermining regional security.”

Taking the first sentence, Ambassador Wood actually has it backwards. With its huge conventional military superiority, the U.S. would be much more secure in a world free of nuclear weapons. Instead, nuclear weapons are increasingly relied on by other countries, particularly Russia, as a counterweight to the U.S. conventional advantage (which is why nuclear disarmament is unlikely to happen in a vacuum; U.S. conventional military superiority is an impediment to global denuclearization).

So, other countries are more likely to hang onto their nukes, making the U.S. and the whole world less secure, not more. As for the second sentence about the risk of undermining regional security, Wood did not say which regions he was referring to, probably because he couldn’t plausibly name one. Regional nuclear-free and weapons of mass destruction-free zones, which cover the entire global South, are wildly successful and have helped increase regional security. And wouldn’t the Middle East, Indian subcontinent, and Korean peninsula be much safer if Israel, India, Pakistan, China and North Korea ditched their nukes?

Similarly, Wood’s statement “…while we respect the views of the proponents, we disagree with the practicality of their approach and are concerned with the negative effects of seeking to ban nuclear weapons without consideration of the over-arching international security environment” is a head scratcher. Nuclear-free and WMD-free zones have been very effective and practical, and moreover, the increasingly unstable, insecure and militarized international security environment is a terrific reason to move toward banning nuclear weapons worldwide. And hasn’t U.S. military intervention, particularly in the greater Middle East and Near East Asian regions over the last decade and a half significantly degraded said international security environment?

The following paragraph uttered by Ambassador Wood packs a lot of unwise “conventional wisdom” into a short statement and deserves some critical deconstruction:

“The current challenge to nuclear disarmament is not a lack of legal instruments. The challenges to disarmament are a result of the political, technical and security realities we presently face.  The United States is ready to take additional steps including bilateral reductions with Russia and a treaty ending the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, some states are currently unwilling to engage in further nuclear reductions, and others are increasing their arsenals.”

1. “The current challenge to nuclear disarmament is not a lack of legal instruments.” That is true. The problem is the U.S. and other nuclear states blowing off, since 1970, their legal obligation under article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to pursue negotiations toward nuclear disarmament. If they were doing this in good faith, last week’s UN vote would never have happened. The Republic of the Marshall Islands courageously stepped up to sue the nuclear weapons states at the International Court of Justice for the failure to uphold article VI. The court recently threw the cases out on procedural grounds, but the Marshalls and their allies will persist with appeals, including in U.S. District Court.

2. “The challenges to disarmament are a result of the political, technical and security realities we presently face.” Also true, but with a heavy dose of cynical, feigned naivete, as if those realities fell from the sky one day. As the unipolar super power, the world’s leading country politically, economically and militarily, doesn’t the U.S. bear a disproportionate responsibility for the dangerous state of global affairs? Aren’t our “security realities” mostly of our own making through our overly militarized foreign policy, which has earned us enemies and adversaries in so many corners of the globe?

3. “The United States is ready to take additional steps including bilateral reductions with Russia and a treaty ending the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, some states are currently unwilling to engage in further nuclear reductions, and others are increasing their arsenals.” There is a lot to dissect here. Yes, the Obama Administration did want to negotiate further nuclear cuts with Russia. Regrettably, Russia refused, but it was understandable. Between astonishingly arrogant U.S. post-Cold War triumphalism, NATO expansion eastward to Russia’s borders (violating a pledge not to do so by the first President Bush), vilification not just of Russian President Vladimir Putin but of Russia itself, and the afore-mentioned U.S. conventional superiority (with foreign bases and military allies surrounding Russia, and also China), U.S. interests in further nuclear cuts were thwarted - by U.S. foreign policy. And in terms of increasing arsenals, the U.S. has initiated a 30 year, $1 trillion program to upgrade and overhaul the entire U.S. nuclear weapons complex, from weapons labs to warheads to missiles, planes and submarines, predictably starting a new nuclear arms race, as every other nuclear state has followed suit in announcing plans to “modernize” their own nuclear arsenals.

The phrase that jumps to mind in all of this is “Physician, heal thyself.” Instead of whining about the majority of the world’s countries (123 of the 177 countries voted for the resolution to commence nuclear weapons ban treaty negotiations) being unrealistic, the U.S. needs to cancel its exorbitant, proliferation-inducing nuclear “modernization” plans and get serious about banishing the scourge of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth. Joining in, and perhaps even leading, the ban treaty negotiations would be fitting for the only country ever to use nuclear weapons in war.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin

Kevin Martin is President of Peace Action and Peace Action Education Fund, the country’s largest peace and disarmament organization with approximately 200,000 supporters nationwide.

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