Scaling the Mountain: The UN Ban Treaty & the Quest for a Nuclear-Free World

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The UN Ban Treaty & the Quest for a Nuclear-Free World

As the Soviet Union disbanded and the Cold War came to a close in the 1990s, many believed the dangers of nuclear weapons were a thing of the past. But as the new century dawned, it became increasingly clear that this existential threat had gone nowhere. Countries continued to modernize them and develop new delivery systems, North Korea was developing a growing arsenal and threatening to use it, and Iran was embarking on an ambitious plan to go nuclear.

Around this same time, several diverse groups began to explore a new approach to combating the problem. Rather than arguing for arms control and treaties, they began to push for a more drastic solution: abolish nuclear weapons altogether. Many had long thought that this was a pie-in-the-sky objective, not worth pursuing. But as former Senator Sam Nunn explained, the task was analogous to climbing a very high mountain: you couldn’t see the top, the road was long and difficult and filled with setbacks, but the ultimate prize made it worth the struggle.

Senator Nunn was one of four men with long resumes of work in the fields of national security who became known as “The Gang of Four”, the others being William Perry, former Secretary of Defense, and two Republican former Secretaries of State, George Shultz, and Henry Kissinger. In 2007, the four published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, boldly titled “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons.” Their arguments were given particular credibility given that all four had long histories as Cold Warriors.

The group went on to publish four additional op-eds, outlining both their vision of a nuclear-free world and a series of practical steps for realizing the vision. Their arguments played a critical role in President Obama’s famous Prague speech, in which he declared, “I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Around this time Bruce Blair, who had served as a nuclear missile launch officer and later spent years in academia in international security, had a similar vision of the threat, leading him to found the group Global Zero. Starting out as a bunch of former high-ranking military and security officials from around the world, Global Zero outlined an ambitious plan of intensive arms control negotiations to begin global disarmament, with a clear road map and timeline. And almost simultaneously with the emergence of Global Zero and the op-eds from the Gang of Four, an international group of activists were exploring an entirely new approach to the problem. Calling themselves the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or ICAN, they reframed the debate as a legal and humanitarian concern.

Under the leadership of Beatrice Fihn, a Swedish specialist in international law, ICAN began drafting a revolutionary document: a United Nations resolution to make nuclear weapons illegal. They argued that because nuclear weapons affected all countries, that decisions about them should not be limited to just the countries that possessed them. Nuclear countries fought hard against the resolution, but in 2017, the United Nations voted 122-1 to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and after being ratified by the required 50 countries, the Ban Treaty became international law in October 2021.

Beatrice Fihn notes that although you can’t force a country to do anything, that the powerful normative effect of a ban, like similar bans adopted against chemical weapons and cluster munitions, should have an important effect. The Ban Treaty was also the first document to formally recognize and provide assistance to victims of the use and testing of nuclear weapons. In recognition of their work, ICAN was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. It’s possible that eliminating nuclear weapons is a mountain we will never be able to scale. But if we never try, it ensures that we will never succeed. The question shouldn’t be, can we get rid of nuclear weapons, but, can we afford not to try?

Ray Acheson – Ray is an organizer and writer (“Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy”); they are currently the Director of Reaching Critical Will.

Bruce G. Blair – The late Dr. Blair served in the Air Force as a Minuteman launch control officer; he then became a scholar specializing in nuclear arms control, authoring several books and producing documentaries on nuclear issues. He co-founded Global Zero.

Beatrice Fihn –  Beatrice is an international lawyer; she was formerly executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). She is currently the Director of Vibes for The Treaty on Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). @BeaFihn

Derek Johnson – Derek is Managing Partner of Global Zero and co-founder of Beyond the Bomb.  @derekjGZ

Sam Nunn – Sam Nunn served as U.S. Senator from Georgia, and as Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee; along with Ted Turner, he founded the Nuclear Threat Initiative in 2001

William J. Perry – Dr. Perry was the 19th U.S. Secretary of Defense, and previously served as Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. Along with Tom Collina, he authored  “The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump”  @SecDef19

Setsuko Thurlow – Setsuko is a Hibakusha (Hiroshima survivor) and co-founder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).