Foreign Policy Lawrence Wittner Military

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and the World’s Future

As the first anniversary of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons approaches, the United States continues to express opposition.
, Anti-nuclear weapons protest, the White House,  Washington DC, by Matthew S. on Flickr

By Lawrence Wittner / Antiwar.com Blog

Late January of this year will mark the first anniversary of the entry into force of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This momentous international agreement, the result of a lengthy struggle by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and by many non-nuclear nations, bans developing, testing, producing, acquiring, possessing, stockpiling, and threatening to use nuclear weapons. Adopted by an overwhelming vote of the official representatives of the world’s nations at a UN conference in July 2017, the treaty was subsequently signed by 86 nations. It received the required 50 national ratifications by late October 2020, and, on January 22, 2021, became international law.

Right from the start, the world’s nine nuclear powers – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea – expressed their opposition to such a treaty. They pressed other nations to boycott the crucial 2017 UN conference and refused to attend it when it occurred. Indeed, three of them (the United States, Britain, and France) issued a statement declaring that they would never ratify the treaty. Not surprisingly, then, none of the nuclear powers has signed the agreement or indicated any sympathy for it.

Even so, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has acquired considerable momentum over the past year. During that time, an additional nine nations ratified it, thus becoming parties to the treaty. And dozens more, having signed it, are expected to ratify it in the near future. Furthermore, the governments of two NATO nations, Norway and Germany, have broken free from the U.S. government’s oppositional stance to the treaty and agreed to attend the first meeting of the countries that are parties to it. 

In nations where public opinion on the treaty has been examined, the international agreement enjoys considerable support. YouGov opinion polls in five NATO countries in Europe show overwhelming backing and very little opposition, with the same true in Iceland, another NATO participant. Polling has also revealed large majorities in favor of the treaty in JapanCanada, and Australia.

In the United States, where most of the mainstream communications media have not deigned to mention the treaty, it remains a well-kept secret. Even so, although a 2019 YouGov poll about it drew a large “Don’t Know” response, treaty support still outweighed opposition by 49 to 32 percent. Moreover, when the US Conference of Mayors, representing 1,400 US cities, met in August 2021, the gathering unanimously approved a resolution praising the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Meanwhile, a variety of institutions, recognizing that nuclear weapons are now illegal under international law, have begun to change their investment policies. In September 2021, Lansforsakringar, a Swedish insurance company with assets of over $46 billion, cited the treaty as a major reason to avoid investing in companies producing nuclear weapons. In December, the New York City Council adopted a resolution telling the city comptroller to remove investments from the city’s $250 billion pension fund from companies producing or maintaining these weapons of mass destruction. According to ICAN, 127 financial institutions stopped investing in nuclear weapons companies during 2021.

Despite this impressive display of respect for the landmark agreement, the nine nuclear powers have not only continued to oppose it, but have accelerated their nuclear arms race. Having cast off the constraints of most nuclear arms control and disarmament agreements of the past, they are all busy either developing or deploying new nuclear weapons systems or have announced their intention to do so. 

In this process of nuclear “modernization,” as it is politely termed, they are building newly designed nuclear weapons of increasing accuracy and efficiency. These include hypersonic missiles, which travel at five times the speed of sound and are better able than their predecessors to evade missile defenses. Reportedly, hypersonic missiles have already been developed by Russia and China. The United States is currently scrambling to build them, as well, with the usual corporate weapons contractors eager to oblige.

When it comes to “modernization” of its entire nuclear weapons complex, the US government probably has the lead. During the Obama administration, it embarked on a massive project designed to refurbish US nuclear production facilities, enhance existing nuclear weapons, and build new ones. This enormous nuclear venture accelerated during the Trump administration and continues today, with a total cost estimated to ultimately top $1.5 trillion

Although there remain some gestures toward nuclear arms control – such as the agreement between US president Joe Biden and Russian president Vladimir Putin to extend the New Start Treaty – the nuclear powers are now giving a much higher priority to the nuclear arms race.

The current buildup of their nuclear arsenals is particularly dangerous at this time of rising conflict among them. The US and Russian governments almost certainly don’t want a nuclear war over Ukraine, but they could easily slip into one. The same is true in the case of the heightening confrontation between the Chinese and US governments over Taiwan and the islands in the South China Sea. And what will happen when nuclear-armed India and nuclear-armed Pakistan fight yet another war, or when nuclear-armed national leaders like Kim Jong-un and a possibly re-elected Donald Trump start trading insults again about their countries’ nuclear might?

At present, this standoff between the nuclear nations, enamored with winning their global power struggles, and the non-nuclear nations, aghast at the terrible danger of nuclear war, seems likely to persist, resulting in the continuation of the world’s long nuclear nightmare. 

In this context, the most promising course of action for people interested in human survival might well lie in a popular mobilization to compel the nuclear nations to accept the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and, more broadly, to accept a restrained role in a cooperatively-governed world.

Lawrence Wittner

Dr. Lawrence Wittner, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

9 comments

  1. You know what bothers me about all these people promoting nuclear is that they have not yet determined a safe place to store spent fuel, like there is one. I read something some time ago about nuclear that only had life of 100 years, but still, where to place waste that’s safe. Oh people, between climate change, nuclear waste, military insistence on war, and a faction that wants facism to be empowered and is. it’s hard to hold hope unless I see the masses arising b because damn it, we outnumber them. Americans are soft and have little experience of hardship thanks to our corporate raiding of other countries. What do you think happens if we rely on each other, that our economies grow ever more local and serving of local communities? Might we need this in order to survive a world with supply chain problems and terrible equity problems. Why does so much of our country’s wealth not reach us? And why can we not grow and depend on local and regional economies rather than Amazon economies. All we have to do is be collaborating neighbors with ideas of stacked enterprises for the rural and the city. See Will Harris who had contiguous farmland from his father but the thing to see is how this can be done with contiguous farmland and land owners in cooperation. 100,000 Beating Hearts. We don’t need agricultural chemicals to feed our world. We need farmers who feel the same way as Will Harris, who said I don’t think I need to feed the world. I think I need to feed my community. More farmers feeding their communities without chemicals or poisons is a lovely idea. See what one man did to make his farm in alliance with the natural world.

  2. carboncowboys.org has a number of short videos on what is leading the way in agriculture. We truly do not need the poisons they put on our food or on the land that grows our food. And because it’s been years of poisons, since just after WWII, we need universal health care to deal with how fossil fuels and agriculture has poisoned us.

  3. We also might think of Tort law in order to sue the fossil fuel industry for mass murder since they denied climate change since 1896. I mean, come on. These people are murders. But yes. we know, the poor get more punishment for mediocre crimes than the 1 percent get punishment for huge crimes against humanity.

  4. “…the most promising course of action for people interested in human survival might well lie in a popular mobilization to compel the nuclear nations to accept the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and, more broadly, to accept a restrained role in a cooperatively-governed world.” Absolutely! You summarized it very well. The problem, of course, is that is the polar opposite of U.S. policy. Why? Because the elites who make policy (commonly called the 1%, but whom I call the thieves) reject the concept of a cooperatively governed world. Instead, they want a thug (the U.S.) which uses all of its power (military, economic, political, etc.) to dictate to the rest of the world and enable the chosen few to loot the countries of its choosing.

    What is truly amazing (in the worst possible way) is that the citizens of this Country are too ignorant to figure out what “their” government is doing to them and to the victims of the invaded (whether militarily, by illegal “sanctions”, or otherwise) countries. This appalling level of ignorance is produced by design by the U.S. propaganda agents, which include the MSM, the countless think tanks (paid for by us for the privilege of being propagandized by them), the “intelligence agencies” and, of course, the bribed folks who are supposed to represent us but actually represent their bribers. As planned by the thieves, the result is that the majority of people approve of, and enthusiastically support, the obscene militarization of this Country. The Congress is a cesspool of bribed, ignorant and corrupt servants of the thieves. To get elected, all they have to do is shrilly denounce “socialism” (which most of the people could not actually define if you held a gun to their heads), “terrorists” (vague enough to allow the lying politicians to freely use the term anytime it is convenient. Of course, due to the multiple lies spread by the MSM, “everyone knows” that China and Russia are evil beyond belief, ready to launch attacks on us at any moment. And, as Vonnegut said… “so it goes”.

    1. @Jim+Thomas
      Humans have been destroying the natural environment ever since they started using agriculture 10-12,000 years ago. Nuclear war would cause a quick end to humans, but humans are killing the planet and thereby themselves even without another nuclear bomb being exploded. If your interest is human survival, you need to also concern yourself with cessation of destruction of the natural environment, the root causes of which are human overpopulation and overconsumption, the latter including consuming things we should not be, like trees, farmed animals, fossil fuels, and anything else dug up from under the Earth.

  5. Exactly. There’s no way to win. The game itself is pointless! But back at the war room, they believe you can win a nuclear war. That there can be ‘acceptable losses.’

    1. but that is not new. Acceptable losses everywhere you look, whether it is the fossil fuel industry looking for places to do their dirty business or the drone strikes. It’s acceptable to military which makes me very concerned about the rest of us and when they will turn acceptable losses on us in other ways than they already have. Obviously, we 97% are expendable or the FDA would have outlawed chemicals used on agriculture that they have in other countries who seem to care more for their population. This country does not care about us. It is way so obvious.

    2. Of course, we must recognize that there are many among us who are crass opportunists who advocate the gross aggression and militarism in which this Country engages for purely selfish purposes. These include the war profiteers of all stripes (arms manufacturers, mercenaries and other “contractors” — can you say Haliiburton, Brown-Kellogg, etc.? — , the “generals” who navigate the profitable path from the military to media “consultants” to lucrative positions with think tanks to the boards of the arms manufacturers, the overpaid MSM personalities fraudulently posing as “journalists” or television personalities, and all those who serve these parasites. For all these people, the waging of war and all its associated activities is, by definition, “winning” because it enriches their personal, selfish, interests. Win the war of aggression, they win. Lose the war of aggression, they win. Oh, I left out one very critical group in my list of these misanthropes, the so-called “intelligence agencies”, many of the members of whom are the biggest war mongers the world has ever known. Also the biggest liars. Mr. Clapper, I am talking to you. Mr. Brennan, I am talking to you. We need to understand that these people are shameless parasites who are feeding on and looting us. Oh, in closing, let us also include the entire Washington establishment, i.e. both political. parties and their elites who serve the thieves so very well.

  6. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate monstrous evils that should never have existed. Nothing more to say on that. Obama’s modernizing of U.S. nuclear weapons was equally immoral, and shame on him for doing so.

    As to the media: At this point in the U.S., the media is nothing more than a propaganda machine for the elites and their establishment. It does not provide news; instead, it publishes sophisticated propaganda and sometimes outright lies. Russiagate and COVID vaccine coercions & mandates are perfect examples of this, but it applies to all major and even some minor issues.

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