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

12 thoughts on “The Limitations of TPNW

  1. I agree with Connor on questioning the effectiveness of TPNW on the grounds that it lacks the support of any nuclear weapons state, and furthermore any nations that receive defense or security from US nuclear weapons, such as South Korea. As Connor pointed out, Acheson and Mian bring up strong points as to why TPNW is necessary, but Acheson also mentions the unsuccessful history of nuclear disarmament. He notes that “while the United States and Russia dismantled thousands of warheads after the Cold War, they and the other nuclear-armed states have continued to invest billions since that period in “modernizing” and extending the lives of their nuclear arsenals. These countries broke disarmament commitments made to each other and to the rest of the world.” He continues saying that Obama sparked the flame that was “dead” after the cold war on bringing disarmament as a possibility, and that TPNW is a product of such possibility. However, he fails to address how TPNW would be successful without the support from other countries, and how it would be different from history in regards to verification. While it is hasty to jump to the conclusion that TPNW is a radical product of the limits of arms control, it is extreme and requires a lot more details of how it would be verified and carried out then what is delineated in the treaty. It would also be helpful for studies or debates to be carried out in perspectives of other countries as well to be able to address the feasibility of the treaty to be carried out.

  2. I also agree with Connor in regards to the effectiveness of the TPNW without the support of the nuclear weapons states, and I think this is a crucial aspect. Throughout our lectures and guest lectures for this course and our readings we have discussed the merits of arms control measures, deterrence, sanctions, etc. The measures that led to the greatest reductions in arms, better safeguards, and restrictions on testing all had the backing of the nuclear weapons states. And while many of our guest lecturers have mentioned the failures of deterrence, looking back at the historical record there must be some credit given to this strategy at least in terms of forcing nuclear weapon states to the negotiating table and avoiding nuclear launches.

    While the TPNW was passed, and while I personally think it is a step in the right direction towards nuclear non-proliferation and reduction, I have to wonder how it can be enforced if the nuclear nations, all of which are either on the security council (US, Russia, China, UK, France) or are often the most talked about nations at the UN (Israel and DPRK). Without their support its hard to see how this treaty, any component parts, or penalties could be imposed on the international stage. Moreover, thinking back to one of our first lectures when we discussed why nations might attempt to acquire a nuclear weapon, one of the most common responses was to draw larger powers to the negotiating table. However, the current situation pits non-nuclear states trying to impose regulations on nuclear states–there is very little leverage in that sense.

    However, do I think this task is impossible? No. While the nuclear weapons states did not ratify the treaty, I think that we are seeing more and more attempts in the news to come to a consensus regarding the DPRK’s nukes, Russia and the US are talking again, and nuclear verification and non-proliferation is clearly a hot topic. Thus, if we could start making strides toward getting nuclear weapons states to start certification programs, reduce a little, agree to a global reduction, etc. We might be able to get towards something like the TPNW with support from these nations in the future.

  3. In the course of modern history, the development of nuclear weapons has come hand-in-hand with bitter international entanglements. Herein lies the primary limitation pf the TPNW. Unilateral disarmament unhinges the balance of powers that currently keeps antagonist countries from attacking each other. Even if the nine nuclear-armed countries were to approach a multilateral disarmament, the inability to ensure with complete certainty that no country maintains current/future nuclear capabilities would reduce the likelihood of a fruitful agreement. Furthermore, the potential for future regimes in a country that enters the TPNW to resume nuclear weapon production threatens the state of world order that the treaty seeks to instate. One radical solution that just might work would be organize a truly neutral, truly representative organization/pseudo-state to act as the one holder of nuclear capabilities. It sounds wild and unfeasible, but if such an organization could be organized and agreed upon, we just might see a world without nuclear weapons in our lifetimes.

    In this UN-style coalition, every country would have equal representation, and the one inflexible resolution would be that the state would maintain a limited nuclear arsenal whose sole purpose would be to prevent countries from producing nuclear weapons. Weapons would only be deployed under a very specific, predetermined set of circumstances. The coalition could be formulated such that withdrawal from the coalition would be seen as an act of war, to be met with immediate military threats the aligned nations of the world (who would not be able to retaliate with nuclear weapons, as they wouldn’t have any). As a last resort, this world policing body would have the power to deploy nuclear weapons upon rebelling states who resume production of nuclear weapons.

    This idealistic vision is probably in line with how the United States hoped to function before other nations inevitably produced their own nuclear capabilities. It’s clear that the US can never be an effective neutral policing body that is trusted by the world. No country can be. But unless there is an armed governing organization for the governments of the world’s many nations, world destruction seems a far more plausible future than global nuclear disarmament.

  4. The thought of completely eliminating nuclear weapons in the near future is a transformative idea. However, I believe that Zia Mian and Ray Acheson both overstate the impact of the TPNW. Ultimately, to put this in rather crude terms, the TPNW amounts to an agreement where all the non-nuclear weapons possessing states are advocating strongly for a ban on something they do not, or are not known, to possess. Meanwhile, all the 9 countries that actually have nuclear weapons are completely absent from the treaty. This is a point that has been reiterated above. The TPNW is worthless, and is certainly a first step towards a global zero situation, but its significance is greatly diminished from a purely objective standpoint.

    Mian claims that Article 12 of the TPNW “mandates that states practice disarmament diplomacy and more.” His claim that a coalition of TPNW signatories will find it in their best interest to unite and oppose the nuclear armed states is far too idealistic. Yes, there may be political and diplomatic maneuvers available such as divestment, sanctions, and supporting civil society groups within nuclear armed states. However, even assuming that these maneuvers work, which is a stretch especially when considering the analogy to pressuring the US on its human rights track record, it still remains questionable whether these states national polities are going to support abandoning economic ties with great powers for abandoning a weapon that has not been used since 1945. The threat is grave, but people’s immediate needs in these countries will override any nuclear ban commitment they may hold dear.

    Acheson’s argument becomes diluted when she begins discussing nuclear weapons as part of broader systems of oppression. The notion that pressure on nuclear countries to eliminate their arsenals is similar to BLM or the LGTBQIA movement is distracting and largely irrelevant. By historical chance, the US got their hands on a nuclear weapon, and I do not believe the US’s might in international relations stems only from their nuclear posture; it arrives also from the its political and economic might as well. As I read it, this point was tangentially argued near the conclusion of the article and not relevant to her main subject of the role of TPNW at large.

  5. I do agree with Connor that currently, the TPNW is more symbolic than anything. Since it does not have the explicit support of nuclear states or, as Julia pointed out, states that greatly benefit from the protection offered by nuclear states, the penalties for proliferation may not be meted out at an international stage. It’s hard to have countries to actually keep to the promises they made (violations of international treaties happen all the time), let alone the ones they didn’t make.

    I do think that completely eliminating the possession of nuclear weapons is such a radical goal that I can’t see us achieving it in the foreseeable future. Mainz’s claim that countries will find it in their best interest to oppose nuclear states doesn’t seem to ring true to me. Smaller countries across the globe have developed alliances with nuclear states. Take, for example, Julia’s apt example of South Korea. South Korea, which always faces a more aggressive neighbor to the North, is in many ways dependent on the US military forces. South Korea doesn’t have many reasons to completely oppose the United States for its nuclear weapons; the nuclear weapons that the US possesses, on the contrary, provide South Korea, an American ally, with a strategic benefit.

    But I also don’t think that some significant disarmament/ prevention of proliferation is impossible. Even nuclear states oppose the nuclearization of other countries; nuclear states that have not explicitly supported the TPNW will happily join the naming and shaming of other countries trying to proliferate (think about the vehemence with which the US opposes DPRK’s nuclearization). So it is true that many nuclear states face a completely hostile international reaction, which deincentivizes nuclear technology.

    Connor writes, “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.” I’m tempted to agree with his logic, but I also want to point out that we have historical examples of significant disarmament that went against national interests (the example I’m thinking of is Gorbachev).

  6. Without the support of any nuclear weapons states, TPNW might initially seem somewhat ineffective or easily overlooked. Though it may be preferable or more effective to gain the support of the nine nuclear weapons states, it is equally, if not more, important to cap that number at nine. In other words, there are currently nine nuclear weapons states, and observing these large state actors at the negotiating table might encourage smaller states to begin development of their own nuclear programs. If the ultimate goal is Global Zero, then the first step on that path is to ensure that states currently without nuclear weapons do not suddenly start developing them. In that sense, the TPNW is an effective agreement.

    Given that the Iran Nuclear Deal is hailed as a major achievement of the Obama Administration just 3 years ago in 2015, I do not think that we have reached the limits of arms control as a legitimate measure to reduce the risk of nuclear war. Foreign cooperation between Iran and the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, China, and Germany in reducing economic sanctions incentivized Iran to constrain its nuclear program. Despite the fact that the Trump Administration is considering modifying the deal, I think we should still consider it as a non-radical measure that was successful in compelling Iran to limit its nuclear capabilities. Indeed, coercive diplomacy prevailed in reducing the risk of nuclear war.

    On a somewhat tangential note, I wonder if we might compare the ultimate objective of Global Zero in the nuclear realm to the ultimate objective of pre-anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions levels. Total disarmament (Global Zero) cannot occur overnight, just as reduction of greenhouse gas emissions cannot quickly return to an environmentally safe level overnight. However, reductions in the number of nuclear weapons states and in the levels of greenhouse gas emissions can eventually help us arrive at those long-term goals. Regarding climate change, the Paris Agreement attempted to have each country (developing and industrialized alike – prior to Trump’s pulling the US out of the agreement…) pledge to reduce emissions by an appropriate amount, comprising a set of Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC). These NDCs were published such that signatories could be publicly held accountable to meeting their pledged goals. It is unrealistic to expect all countries to fully satisfy their pledges, but it is certainly a step in the right direction. Bringing this back to nuclear weapons, small reductions in nuclear programs are better than no reductions or worse, expansions. As I mentioned above, there are currently nine, very powerful nuclear weapons states. Thus, a published NDC-esque system might be effective in terms of capping that number at nine and eventually decreasing it to zero.

  7. While I agree with Connor’s opinion that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) lacks the necessary teeth to convince nuclear states to permanently eliminate their weapons programs through externally approved dismantlement programs. And Mian’s claim that the TPNW exemplifies a hope to universalize the view that “nuclear weapons are in fundamental conflict with basic humanitarian sensibilities and international law” is far-fetched. However, given today’s geopolitical landscape and rising tensions between new and old nuclear states, nuclear abolition is impossible.

    However, I believe the true value of the TPNW is that it reinforces a nuclear status quo. The nuclear landscape has changed substantially since the end of the Cold War. Despite a general trend of disarmament between traditional nuclear power states, Russia and the United States, recent nuclear states North Korea and Iran have introduced a multi-polar nuclear landscape that threatens global stability. A multi-polar system, in which nuclear states jockey for nuclear prominence serves as a potential source of conflict, which could potentially escalate to nuclear conflict. Evidently, countries like North Korea and Iran, continue to development weapons programs and will not give up their nuclear arms. Whereas rising tensions between the United States and Russia make it unreasonable to suggest an agreement in which both sides permanently disarm. I would instead judge the TPNW’s success by how effectively did/does it maintain the nuclear status quo. The key to maintaining the status quo could be involving all non-nuclear states in forming a strong coalition against nuclear states, pressuring them to disarm. Perhaps this suggests that nuclear stability is more important attempting nuclear zero.

  8. I too, mostly agree with Connor’s skepticism of the TPNW, despite the support of Mian and Acheson (although I actually found Mian’s article not as ardent a defender of the TPNW as Connor made it out to be – it actually seemed to be one of cautious optimism). The central reason that I believe the TPNW will not be as effective as the UN believes, is that it presents a short term solution, rather than a long one. Due to its excessive arms control restrictions, many countries, which may at first sign the TPNW based on the foundations of principle, may no longer remain interested in being part of the treaty. Given its current state, the TPNW allows countries to leave one year after it has declared its intention to leave, which lends room for a lot of fluctuation on the part of national decision makers. With every new leadership, global ideal, or national/political movement, the member composition of the TPNW is at an unstable balance. This means that not only is the future of the interaction between these countries – that sign, leave, or never recognize the treaty – unclear, but also that the TPNW itself may be shaped according to the member nations that stick by it for a long time.
    My biggest point of confusion stems from both Connor and Mian’s criticism that the Treaty is ‘unrealistic’. While the Treaty does indeed lend limited “flexibility for nuclear weapons states,” I do believe that it sets principles that the global body expects each other to adhere to. Given that there has never been a single document that delineates what is considered acceptable in the realm of nuclear warfare and development, I believe that the TPNW’s true value lies in the guidance that it can give countries, as they determine their next violence-pertaining move. My earlier agreement with Connor and Mian does not detract from this crucial feature of the TPNW: while the actual weapon implementation can afford to be more lenient, as to incentivize member nations to stay, the ideals that it paints is beneficial in its unprecedented rule-setting.

  9. Like others who have posted, I appreciate that the TPNW has established the global norm that nuclear weapons should be abolished. The Global Zero norm provides (a) citizens of signatory countries a standard by which they can hold their governments accountable and (b) a standard by which signatory governments can hold other signatories accountable. Hence, the TPNW makes it harder for signatory countries (who lack nuclear weapons) to suddenly acquire nuclear weapons: non-compliant signatories will likely be noticed, shamed (by their own citizens too), and possibly punished by sanctions from other signatories too. Even without the participation of 9 nuclear states, the TPNW can still have value by upping the costs of nuclear acquisition for non-nuclear states.

    Yet thus far I have only explained the (likely) consequences of the TPNW. Another important question is, why did the TPNW’s signatories (a) agree to the treaty in the first place and (b) maintain their commitment to treaty by not developing nuclear weapons? Perhaps domestic pressure played a role, and perhaps the TPNW’s played a role for (b). But given the priority of security in any nation’s policy objectives (security is an existential priority without which no other priorities can be achieved), I doubt that domestic pressure or int’l norms were actually sufficient causes for TPNW signatories to join and comply with the TPNW.

    How can smaller states be okay with “never” pursuing nuclear weapons (specifically, second-strike capabilities), when other states have nuclear weapons that could wipe them off the face of the earth? …Benefit of the doubt? No. I suspect that the actual key reason explaining why smaller countries joined/complied with the TPNW (or why non-nuclear states don’t pursue nuclear weapons in general), is that they know they have the backing of larger, NUCLEAR states who can launch nuclear counterattacks at nuclear aggressors. (More empirical research to back this point up would be appreciated, but I am using logic here). In other words, in an ironic sense, TPNW may be effective not in spite of nuclear states’ non-participation, but precisely BECAUSE various nuclear states have not participated.

    This is why experts such as Michael E. O’Hanlon argue that nuclear states may actually harm global stability by consenting to abolish nuclear weapons. As Hanlon writes, America’s participation in a nuclear-abolition treaty “could make countries that depend on America’s military protection” (such as Japan, Taiwan, or Saudi Arabia) “decide they should seek nuclear weapons of their own.” (See

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that the 9 nuclear states should just abandon the pursuit of Global Zero altogether. Rather, my point here is that if the big powers are to successfully eliminate their nuclear arsenals, they will not only need verification measures to ensure that other big powers do so too. They will ALSO need to disarm in such a manner that non-nuclear states (including TPNW signatories) are not incentivized to pursue nuclear weapons themselves.

  10. Thank you for your blogpost!

    I share your skepticism when it comes to the TPNW, at least for the short to medium term.

    This discussion concerning the possession of nuclear weapons reminds me on the theoretical of norm formation. Finnemore and Sikkink (1998) identify three stages in a formulation of norm. The first, “norm emergence”, is the stage in which certain activists, States or other actors (referred to as norm entrepreneurs) try to persuade the adoption of a certain norms. The second stage, “norm cascade” describes a stage in which a sufficient number of actors of actors are subscribed to the norm so that the remaining actors start to join the norm as a result of “socialization”. The third and final stage is “internalization” in which these norms become entrenched that they no longer become a debated issue, but a standard that are naturally followed without much thought.

    On the surface, the TPNW, with over 50 signatories seem to represent the progress of the international community in the “norm emergence” stage, where an increasing number of actors are persuaded by the norm’s legitimacy. Perhaps one came hope that one day, the norm will successfully reach the “norm cascade stage”, and the remaining states will subscribe to the norm from the fear from being ‘left out’.

    I want to note here two factors that I find make norm formation concerning nuclear weapons particularly unique. First is the differing significance of each member states. Take an example of a norm such as women’s suffrage. At the turn of the 19th century, there were virtually no states that granted women the right to vote. Throughout the 20th century, we observed the norm’s “life cycle” from emergence to cascade to internalization to the point that in most countries in the world, it has become unthinkable to even suggest depriving women the right to vote. As is the case for this norm, one can say that each country’s significance in adopting the norm is roughly equal to each other – that is to say that if 185 out of 194 UN member states adopt this norm, one can quite comfortably say that this norm enjoys nearly universal consensus. The TPNW, as you have mentioned, is different in the sense that there are a number of states which have a disproportionate influence over norm-setting in this matter. Even in a hypothetical scenario if every single state except for those who possess nuclear weapons adopt the treaty, one can very well make the point that it just simply matter due to the specific 9 states who refuse to participate.

    Additionally, what I find quite peculiar about nuclear weapons norms is the fact that there already seems to be quite a strong international norm against the utilization or states newly acquiring nuclear weapons. While one can easily question the validity, there is no doubt that states who decide to start nuclear weapons (i.e. North Korea, Iran) are regarded with some shame from other actors on the international scheme. However, as established, the norm against the possession of nuclear weapons is far from universal. From my impression, norm building in this realm seemed to be an issue of bilateral negotiations (e.g. Russia-US nuclear arsenal reduction), rather than the rest of the international community collectively adopting a moral standard, until the adoption of the TPNW. The TPNW undoubtedly marks a shift in norm building in the realm of the possession of nuclear armaments, but I am curious to see if its effects will influence, and potentially disrupt the current norms against the utilization and the acquisition of nuclear weapons.

    One last thought on this matter to point out the merits of the TPNW in the extremely long run is the changing power balance between states. As Acheson notes, most of the signatories of the TPNW are from the Global South. With economic development and a relative increase in their diplomatic power, I wonder if there will be a moment where this consensus among a developed and powerful Global South can gather enough momentum to influence the nuclear arm states in the North.

  11. The root problem with the idea of nuclear deterrence is the internal tension that on one hand it requires states to be deterred from brinksmanship to avoid nuclear war, while on the other hand it encourages brinksmanship in order for any political objectives beyond the existential level to be achieved. It’s therefore not hard to see that the optimal collective outcome would be for all states to abandon all nuclear weapons. But the optimal collective outcome is nearly impossible to achieve because this is a typical collective action problem, where the actions of rational individual actors in pursuit of optimal individual interests do not lead to optimal collective outcome. Similar to the prisoner’s dilemma, where the rational choice and structural incentive for each actor is to defect regardless of the choice of the other actor, the structural incentive for states is to continue to possess nuclear weapons.

  12. Like everyone else, I am doubtful of the TPNW’s enforcement capability and the likelihood of the nine nuclear states to accede to it. Acheson mentions the international outlawing of biological and chemical weapons, land mines, and cluster bombs as evidence of the possibility that a nuclear ban is possible. However, the scale of damage that a nuclear weapon inflicts is far greater than that inflicted by aforementioned banned weapons. States thus perceive the possession of nuclear weapons as a greater need for protecting national security than, say, possessing land mines. As Sharon Weiner described, the idea of deterrence has been around throughout history; however, at least the people in Washington (and likely other decision-making capitals of the world) act like nuclear deterrence is novel. And they are thus unwilling to part with nukes and contend that nuclear deterrence brings peace rather than danger. Another wrench in enforcement is that “rogue states” like North Korea possess nuclear capacity. It is unclear whether they would follow a ban treaty, even if they acceded to it. Syria, for example, is party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, but this does not prevent Bashar al-Assad from gassing his own people.

    But these challenges don’t make the TPNW worthless. I think its existence is a vital first step in the whole process of global disarmament, which is likely to be a long one. The 122 states party to the treaty can begin to put pressure on the nuclear states by continuing to stigmatize nuclear weaponry and practicing “disarmament diplomacy.” It would be difficult for individual states to keep up the pressure alone, but perhaps the formation of coalitions of signatory states would be able to exert enough pressure on the nuclear states. Like Acheson, I think there are reasons to hope that change is possible.

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