The Limitations of TPNW

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) adopted by the UN General Assembly in July 2017 established an international treaty framework for ongoing efforts to abolish nuclear weapons. While the NPT obliges nuclear-weapons states to oppose proliferation and “pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals,” TPNW goes further and commits its signatories to never possess or threaten the use of nuclear weapons, among other provisions. For nuclear weapon states to sign, they must eliminate in an irreversible way their weapons programs through a verified disarmament plan approved by the other state parties.

Both Acheson and Mian argue in support of TPNW. Acheson describes the treaty as establishing “a legal ban on nuclear weapons” in defiance of the great powers. In “[changing] the politics and economics related to nuclear weapons,” TPNW gave the rest of the world the ability to assert their opposition to these weapons without relying on unsuccessful disarmament efforts by nuclear weapons states. Further, the efforts of the treaty’s proponents have challenged the legitimacy of nuclear deterrence and the possession of nuclear weapons by any state. Mian focuses on the treaty’s specific provisions and its position in international law. The treaty represents a concerted effort to universalize the view that “nuclear weapons are in fundamental conflict with basic humanitarian sensibilities and international law.” Additionally, Mian addresses the question of verification and how to obtain the support of nuclear weapons states. One of the treaty’s articles provides for the building of a framework by the state parties for disarmament and verification, creating flexibility and more certainty for nuclear weapons states should they choose to consider giving up their weapons. Further, the state party obligation to advance the aims of the treaty with non-party states will increase pressure on nuclear weapons states, both at the intergovernmental and civil society levels.

There are several notable issues with both TPNW and Acheson and Mian’s arguments in support of the treaty. While the non-participation of nuclear weapons states in this process is addressed, both authors do not give sufficient attention to this critical limitation to the movement. In theory, the treaty bolsters the ability of states to “name and shame” nuclear powers, but in practice the strong belief in nuclear deterrence and national self-interest in each state make it unlikely that this treaty or any related advocacy efforts will move the needle on nuclear abolition. Even more critically, the treaty actively harms the ability of the state parties to gain the support of nuclear weapons states for disarmament. TPNW does not allow treaty reservations, and amendments require the support of more than two-thirds of the state parties. Although Acheson might argue that these provisions keep power over this process in the hands of non-nuclear states who initially sign the treaty, it makes TPNW unworkable for realistic arms control negotiations to abolish nuclear weapons. There is little flexibility for nuclear weapons states to use this treaty as a framework for multilateral negotiations, making it a statement of principles, not a pragmatic way to facilitate the actual abolition of nuclear warfare.

There are a few questions on this issue I want to raise for discussion: How effective is an agreement like TPNW without the support of any nuclear weapons states? Have we reached the limits of arms control, requiring more radical measures to reduce the risk of nuclear war? What guarantees and verification regimes would be required for any major nuclear weapons state to consider unilateral or multilateral disarmament in accordance with the goals of TPNW? — Connor