Sunday, October 8, 2017

The International System: Undermining a Ban on Nuclear Weapons

The 2017 Nobel Peace Prize went to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons for the group’s work on behalf of a global ban on nuclear weapons. Just a few months earlier, two-thirds of the U.N.’s General Assembly approved the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. “The risk of nuclear war has grown exceptionally in the last few years, and that’s why it makes this treaty and us receiving this award so important,” Beatrice Fihn of the group said.[1] Unfortunately, the stance to ban rather than merely limit nuclear weapons was already being marginalized as utopian and even potentially counter-productive even though ongoing efforts to limit the proliferation were falling short. I submit that the international system itself had become problematic, given the relatively new global threat of nuclear war.  
Even amid “rising global alarm about a potential nuclear conflagration” between the United States and North Korea, Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., said that “we have to be realistic” about the spread of nuclear weapons—meaning that a total ban could actually increase the risk of nuclear war.[2] Yet with Pakistan having an estimated 140 nuclear warheads and India having 130, Israel having an estimated 80, and North Korea presumably working on developing warheads, the status-quo policy of the U.S. could be said to be insufficient to stave off the risk of nuclear war. Put another way, as proliferation was already underway, non-proliferation policies could be reckoned as faulty.
Why do human beings continue to hold onto a boat that is sinking while seeking to undercut an alternative that actually could work? The tyranny of even a deficient status quo is such that the answer may lie with human nature itself. The risk of nuclear war has such a gigantic downside (i.e., nuclear war) that drastic measures to eradicate the risk may be necessary, and yet none of the nuclear powers in the U.N. would be bound by the treaty. Why even ratify it then? The exercise could be said to evince the impotence of the world body even in the face of such a horrible risk. Given the propensity of human nature to ingratiate itself and the existence of grave global risks, the very survival of the species may have already come to depend on a reform of the nation-state system wherein nations hold a monopoly on governmental sovereignty such that some of it is moved to the global level. National governments face a conflict of interest in this regard, as they would be ceding some power. Even if the survival of the species depends on advancement from the nation-state hegemony, national governmental officials may demur out of sordid self-interest.

1. Michael Birnhaum of the Washington Post, October 6, 2017.
2. Ibid.

For more on conflicts of interest that governments (and businesses) face, see Institutional Conflicts of Interest.