Leaders of the international peace movement met in New York City over the weekend to grapple with an increasing threat of nuclear war. Taking a cue from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and its famous Doomsday Clock, a day-long conference, held Saturday, May 12, at Judson Memorial Church, was titled “Two Minutes to Midnight.”
Opening keynote speaker Noam Chomsky struck a dour tone, wondering whether the human species is an “evolutionary error.”
“An objective and informed observer might conclude that, since World War II, the species has been dedicated to establishing the thesis that humans are simply a mistake,” he declared.
Hanging heavily over the proceedings were President Donald Trump’s announced withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—reneging on a U.S. promise formally endorsed by a unanimous U.N. Security Council—and Israel’s immediate response of striking Iranian assets in Syria. Participating leaders of the Abolition 2000 disarmament network discussed whether they needed to focus immediately on efforts to prevent a war that could soon erupt between Israel and Iran.
The gathering of activists had originally been scheduled to coincide with a United Nations High-Level Conference on Nuclear Disarmament in May, an event the U.N. General Assembly has indefinitely postponed.
The idea for the conference grew out of a proposal from the 120-member voting bloc representing the Non-Aligned Movement, which controls a majority in the U.N. General Assembly. The explanation provided for the postponement was that no member state had been selected to chair the conference. Diplomats from non-aligned states conceded that not all of the nine nuclear-armed nations had committed to attending the High-Level Conference, or to be represented there by high-level officials. And indeed, all nine nuclear-armed governments are committed to upgrading their arsenals.
But after years of dormancy, there have been surprising stirrings of late in the nuclear disarmament field. In 2017, the non-aligned states of the global south used their General Assembly majority to pull off an insubordinate act of multilateral nuclear diplomacy. With a handful of northern states joining them in negotiations—the nine nuclear powers declining to participate—122 countries voted to approve the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. One country, the Netherlands, voted against it. Fifty-eight of the countries that voted in favor—including two that have relinquished nuclear armaments, South Africa and Kazakhstan—have since put their signatures to the treaty. On May 8, Austria became the ninth nation to ratify it. After fifty governments have ratified the accord, which could occur within a year or two, it will become binding upon all states that have signed.
A new coalition of civil society groups, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, helped galvanize support for the process. For its efforts the coalition was awarded the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize.
The ban treaty endeavors to put in place a new global norm stigmatizing nuclear weapons, just as the 1997 Ottawa Treaty banned anti-personnel landmines. The text of the agreement, particularly its preamble, explicitly repudiates nuclear weapons and declares any use of the bomb flatly illegal under international humanitarian law.
In drafting this agreement, anti-nuclear campaign groups worked alongside diplomats, creating what Reiner Braun of the International Peace Bureau called “a new atmosphere” of cooperation inside the United Nations. The campaign’s success, with many young people coming on board, generated a sense of excitement not felt in disarmament circles since the 1980s.
However, the “Two Minutes” conference made clear that the ban treaty may have a more limited value than its proponents claim, and has raised difficult questions about how to advance disarmament. Even if enacted, the treaty would not eliminate a single warhead. The United States, France, and the United Kingdom have voiced outspoken opposition and said they will never sign such an agreement, and every NATO member, save the Netherlands, boycotted the process entirely.
States whose security doctrines rely on nuclear deterrence are not likely to be persuaded to renounce their policies in the near term by a renewed effort to stigmatize the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
Critical voices in the disarmament field note that the ban treaty negotiators shied away from some of the more confrontational proposals put forward, that could have had direct impact on the nuclear-armed states even if they did not join the treaty. These included banning the transit of nuclear-armed vessels through the ports or airspace of non-nuclear states, and provisions mandating divestment from corporations and financial mechanisms supporting the nuclear arms industry.
Some veteran activists and analysts, even in the nuclear abolitionist camp, were skeptical of ICAN’s tactical focus on achieving the ban treaty within a rapid time frame and without the engagement of any of the nuclear-armed states or their allies. They feel the whole exercise has only deepened the diplomatic divide on nuclear weapons.
“We have a problem of international order,” said the physicist Zia Mian in one of Saturday’s most striking speeches. “The way the world is, is beyond the capacity of our systems of management of the world to cope.” This broad assessment extends beyond issues of war, weaponry, and arms control to the other intractable predicaments that have brought midnight so nigh, like climate change, poverty, and wealth inequality.
Mian, of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, also noted the heightened danger posed by Trump’s violation of the multilateral Iran deal. “The system is now being undermined by its own leading members,” he said. “So the crisis of legitimacy of the international order is now coming into full view. And we have to deal with this, otherwise the system may well fall apart.”
Roger Kimmel Smith is a freelance wordsmith based in Ithaca, New York. He is a former network coordinator for the NGO Committee on Disarmament at the United Nations.