Home > Columnists > Joseph Gerson > Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will: Building on the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty | Joseph Gerson

Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will: Building on the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty | Joseph Gerson

About The Author

Dr. Joseph Gerson is Director of the American Friends Service Committee’s Peace and Economic Security Program, Executive Director of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, and Co-Convener of the Peace and Planet international network. His most recent book is Empire and the Bomb: How the US Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World.

On September 20, in a formal UN ceremony, the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty will be opened for signatures. The treaty further stigmatizes nuclear weapons and seeks to outlaw their use, threatened the use, development, testing, production, manufacture, acquisition, possession or stockpiling nuclear weapons, transfer and deployment.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could unconditionally celebrate the negotiation of the “ban” treaty? It emerged from the righteous anger of most the world’s nations at the nuclear powers’ refusal to fulfill their Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty (NPT) obligation to engage in good faith negotiations for the elimination of their nuclear arsenals.

Who wouldn’t want to celebrate 122 governments — more than half of the UN member states — having the gumption to insist enough and no more?

The nuclear weapons states and their allies — that’s who! Governments, militaries and elites who use preparations for and threats to use nuclear weapons to bolster their power and privilege. Men and women who practice international relations in the tradition of mafia dons. Those who profit from and have their fingers on the nuclear triggers.

Two trains are running in opposite directions. One is racing toward a nuclear weapons-free world. The other, now augmented by North Korea having become a nuclear weapons state, is spending unimaginable fortunes to upgrade their omnicidal nuclear arsenals and making threats to use them.

Honesty and the need for serious strategic thinking require that we acknowledge uncertainty and unpleasant realities. The treaty does contribute to the stigmatization of nuclear weapons, and it provides encouragement to people around the world who are working for nuclear disarmament. This is important.

But it will be law for only those states that sign and ratify it. All the nuclear powers boycotted the ban treaty negotiations. The US, UK, France and Russia denounced the treaty, falsely claiming that nuclear deterrence kept the peace for 70 years. (Ask the Vietnamese, Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, Congolese and so many others about that!) Led by US plans to spend $1.2 trillion for a new generation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems — including first-strike weapons, each of the nuclear powers is upgrading and/or expanding their nuclear arsenals. With NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders, and the West’s conventional, high-tech and space weapons superiority, Moscow has increased its dependence on its nuclear arsenal.

And it’s hardly a secret that since the treaty’s promulgation, the US and North Korea have exchanged nuclear threats, reinforced by Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, US and North Korean missile “tests,” Trump’s threat of “severe” actions and simulated US nuclear bomber attacks against North Korea.

With increased Japanese and South Korean anxieties resulting from Pyongyang’s nuclear threats and growing doubts about reliability of the US “nuclear umbrella” (would the US sacrifice Seattle for Seoul, Texas for Tokyo?) there are mounting calls from their elites for these governments to become nuclear powers.

We thus could be entering an era of nuclear weapons proliferation, not abolition.

Our future depends on how people and governments respond, and it dictates a global division of labor among nuclear weapons abolitionists.

Nations that negotiated the ban treaty must sign and ratify it as quickly as possible. This will reinforce the momentum created by its negotiation.

But winning nuclear weapons abolition still requires building mass movements, in alliance with other social movements, within the nuclear weapons and “umbrella” states: NATO nations, Japan, South Korea and Australia. These nations and their disarmament movements lie at the center of the struggle. If just one or two of these governments are led by their people to take advantage of the opening provided by the treaty and reject the strictures of their nuclear and potentially omnicidal alliances, the world’s nuclear architecture will be weakened. That in turn could lead to a global disarmament dynamic.

And for those of us in the world’s nuclear weapons states, the imperative of resistance remains. This includes ramped up education about the costs, preparations for, and dangers of nuclear war that can be brought on by miscalculation and accident, as well as intentionally. We need to highlight the deceit and deficiencies of “deterrence,” and teach about the forces that led to and won the ban treaty.

But good ideas and truth rarely prevail on their own. Fredrick Douglas was right when he taught that, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”We won’t prevail without visible and challenging nonviolence actions and mobilized popular opinion
Our best near-term hope may lie in the remarkable rise of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain or possible Scottish succession from what was once Great Britain. Jeremy has said he would not push the nuclear button, and the loss of the Faslane on the Scottish coast could leave London without a nuclear weapons base.

Reality is dynamic, and via education and action, we can and must build on the ban treaty and prepare to take advantage of whatever nuclear disarmament openings appear.

 

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