On Oct. 27, a majority of United Nations member states voted to move forward in negotiating a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons. Among the states that opposed such a treaty are the nine nations with known nuclear weapons: the United States, China, France, Britain, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.
To understand the impact a nuclear disarmament treaty would have on U.S. foreign policy, the Vanguard spoke with Richard Beyler, Ph.D., a professor in the history department at Portland State whose areas of expertise include the history of science and its cultural, social and political implications.
“All the time, individually and as societies, we’re making decisions about what is important and what is not important, about what attracts our attention and what do we neglect, about where we should put our time and resources,” Beyler said.
In a sense, technology is being constantly controlled by the collective decisions of individuals and societies, which ultimately shape not only the types of technologies that emerge or don’t emerge but also how they are used or not used.
“I think it’s also a kind of myth, or just not very helpful to just offer the assertion that well, knowledge does what it does, technology does what it does,” Beyler said. “This idea of an autonomous technology, that is completely outside of human control, so there’s nothing we can do but let it run its course, is historically misleading.”
One example of collective decisions shaping the course of nuclear development is the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957. The organization’s stated purpose is to “pursue the goal of making nuclear science and technology available to its member states in a safe, secure and peaceful manner.”
A number of treaties, including the “Partial Test Ban Treaty” and its successor the “Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty” were intended to reduce the testing of nuclear weapons in areas where radioactive fallout can endanger the health and environment of local communities. Inconsistent ratification of these treaties by nations with nuclear weapons has undermined their effectiveness.
A treaty that exemplifies the challenges associated with nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament is the eponymous “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” known more commonly as the NPT.
The treaty defines nations as either nuclear-weapon states or non-nuclear-weapon states and establishes several articles designed to hold up three basic principles: non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Organizations such as the IAEA, under the umbrella of the U.N., both assist and monitor non-nuclear states to ensure the third pillar is upheld.
While the non-nuclear states signed on to this treaty have consistently honored their commitments (Iran and North Korea being notable exceptions), it appears unlikely that nations with current nuclear stockpiles will make any significant moves towards disarmament in the near future.
Despite the fact that the United States helped draft the NPT, formerly secret agreements have revealed intent to share nuclear weapons with other North Atlantic Treaty Organization member states; this would appear to be in direct violation of Articles I and II of the treaty, which forbid the transfer and acceptance of nuclear weapons between states with nuclear weapons and those without.
Several nations have refused to sign the NPT. Of these, India and Pakistan have made their nuclear programs known, while Israel is assumed to have nuclear warheads despite a concerted effort on behalf of both Israel and the U.S. to remain ambiguous about its capabilities.
Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists describes this trend in a 2014 report discussing challenges to the NPT:
“[The] slowing of reductions and open-ended nuclear modernization appear to contradict the promises made by the five NPT nuclear-weapon states nearly five decades ago to ‘pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament,'” Kristensen said. “Promises that have been reaffirmed every five years at the NPT review conferences.”
Moreover, Kristensen points out that the nuclear weapons belonging to the United States and Russia constitute over 90 percent of all nuclear weapons, despite considerable reduction in nuclear arms following the fall of the Soviet Union.
In the same way that the nuclear policy of the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during the Cold War was characterized by increasing proliferation of nuclear weapons as deterrence, it appears the inverse of that approach is now being seen, with states refusing to reduce their nuclear stockpiles below what they consider the threshold for a “minimum deterrence posture.”
The report continues: “[The] overwhelming and disproportionate size of the Russian and U.S. arsenals indicates that they predominantly are shaped by each other rather than other nuclear-armed states, and that the sizes of their current arsenals are more an indication of how far the Cold War draw-down has progressed (and how far it still has to go) rather than an expression of how many warheads the two countries actually need for their national security.”
When we asked Dr. David Kinsella, professor and Chair of Political Science at PSU, if he thinks nuclear weapons will always be part of the geopolitical landscape, he expressed his belief that while the norm of non-proliferation will continue, it’s doubtful total nuclear disarmament will be a realistic possibility any time in the near future.
“We may see the de-nuclearization of North Korea, if something amazing happens, like that regime collapses,” Kinsella said. “I can’t see China giving up their nuclear arsenal. I can’t see any of the permanent five members of the U.N. security council. I can’t see Britain or France giving it up. Israel, it’s hard to know. It’s hard to imagine; they live in a pretty insecure neighborhood. There’s a difficult relationship between India and Pakistan; it’s unlikely either nation is going to denuclearize.”
Dr. Beyler stressed, “It is important to understand these issues from a non-U.S. perspective. For all the disagreements and enmity there might be, the leaders of these nations are not irrational—maybe with the exception of North Korea. The countries that are doing this are doing it for reasons that aren’t the same as the reasons the U.S. and Soviet Union had during the Cold War.”
Beyler pointed out that from a science and technology standpoint, the scientific knowledge required for nuclear development is no longer the biggest hurdle of nuclearization. While he was quick to point out that he would much prefer a world without any nuclear weapons, he suggested it might be illuminating to consider the underlying reasons why nations would take the political risks and commit the massive resources and effort required for such a technologically complex undertaking.