Ban the Bomb!


(buckshot.jones / Flickr)

Several months ago, even the most politically engaged Americans had probably never heard of either the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) or the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

That was no longer the case after August 21, when news broke of a chemical attack in Syria that led to the agonizing deaths of more than a thousand people. A U.S. military strike on the regime of Bashar al-Assad was only forestalled by Russian diplomacy, intense public resistance in more than one Western nation, and Syria’s agreement to join the CWC. Just a few weeks later, the OPCW won the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize.

Chemical weapons have been banned all around the world since 1997 by the CWC. Biological weapons have been banned all around the world since 1975 by the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

So why aren’t nuclear weapons banned by a Nuclear Weapons Convention (NWC)?

Obama’s Half-Promise

In April 2009 in Prague, President Obama told an adoring throng that he intended “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” His administration has undertaken some baby steps in that direction. Most notably there has been the New START Treaty with Russia, which placed ceilings on each side’s deployed strategic nuclear warheads and launchers (albeit placing no limits on either “tactical” nuclear weapons or strategic nuclear warheads sitting in a warehouse). There has also been an ongoing series of multilateral Nuclear Security Summits that focus on securing all things nuclear from aspiring terrorists.

But the president has rebuffed any kind of initiative inside his administration to define what an NWC might look like. He has not convened any kind of consultations with other states to explore how state parties might go about negotiating an NWC. And he has never even stated that an NWC is the eventual goal of American nuclear policy.

Yet a very elaborate and carefully constructed Model Nuclear Weapons Convention—the product of dozens of scientists, lawyers, nuclear experts, and former government officials, and based in large measure upon the CWC—has been floating around the nuclear policy arena since 1997. Every year since, always completely unnoticed in the United States but widely recognized elsewhere, the UN General Assembly has passed a quite explicit resolution on the matter. It doesn’t just vaguely announce support for nuclear weapons abolition. Nor does it consign that goal, as President Obama did in Prague, to a date “perhaps not in my lifetime.” Instead, it calls for “commencing multilateral negotiations leading to an early conclusion of a nuclear weapons convention, prohibiting the development, production, testing, deployment, stockpiling, transfer, threat or use of nuclear weapons, and providing for their elimination.”

But the U.S. government has refused even to recognize a new UN working group tasked with pursuing formal intergovernmental dialogues about the road to nuclear weapons abolition. Last month, at the UN’s first-ever “high-level meeting” on nuclear disarmament, a low-level British official—dispatched to speak to the assembled on behalf of the UK, the United States, and France—expressed the “regret” of all three countries over the initiation of the new working group, the convening of the high-level meeting itself, and “the push for a Nuclear Weapons Convention.”

The Chemical/Biological Precedent

The OPCW has been portrayed in recent weeks as primarily concerned with overseeing the destruction of chemical arsenals—today in Syria but previously in both the United States and Russia. But the fundamental raison d’etre of the OPCW, as envisioned in the CWC itself, is not just to authenticate the destruction of existing stockpiles of chemical weapons but also to verify, over the very long term, that they never again re-enter history.

Both the CWC and the BWC provide for significant intrusions on national sovereignty in order to ensure such perpetual compliance—including, in the case of CWC, surprise, no-notice inspections. The BWC is unfortunately far less robust after the George W. Bush administration sabotaged efforts to build an accompanying verification regime with real teeth. But the prospect of compliance with the CWC and BWC is enhanced by the encouragement of “societal verification” (whistleblowing) and independent monitoring by national governments. Moreover, a taboo against the possession and use of these agents has arguably grown more widespread with each passing year. The signatories of these two conventions have concluded that they can forever forsake chemical or biological “deterrents,” because they are confident that the mechanisms of the CWC and the BWC will prevent potential adversaries from developing a secret stash and deploying apocalyptic chemical or biological arsenals.

There’s no reason why the nuclear-armed nations cannot someday arrive at the same conclusion about their apocalyptic nuclear arsenals as well.

The administration’s willingness to relegate the achievement of nuclear weapons abolition to the distant future becomes all the more excruciating when comparing the great horror that chemical or biological weapons could inflict with the far greater horror of a single nuclear warhead. Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists likes to say, “I hate the term WMD. Nuclear weapons are not in the same category as chemical and biological weapons. Nuclear weapons are the only thing that can destroy a city in a second.”

Or, indeed, a world in a morning. More than two decades after the Cold War’s conclusion, the shadow of full-scale global thermonuclear war, with thousands of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles passing each other over the North Pole, seems almost impossible to imagine. But the possibility remains for severe miscalculation during a hot political crisis involving one or more nuclear-armed nations. So too, however unbelievably, remains the opportunity for what we might call “accidental atomic apocalypse,” as illuminated so vividly in Eric Schlosser’s recent book Command and Control.

Also, we cannot rule out the possibility of a future geopolitical conflict between members of the nuclear club. History happens. Arms races happen. Unless humanity can someday manage to establish something like a world republic, the logic of anarchy will endure. So long as several thousand atomic weapons persist, so too will persist the possibility of not just genocide, but specicide (the extinction of all human life) or even biocide (the extinction of all terrestrial life).

That, of course, would exterminate not only every single living thing on our planet today, but all the future life on our planet yet to come. This is the “crime against the future” that we commit right now, every single day. Our reliance on nuclear deterrence places at risk an infinity of potential lives, never to be born, on and on into an infinity of tomorrows.

Perhaps we might we call that “chronocide.”

Creating the Convention

The nuclear weapon states—most especially the world’s leading nuclear state, the United States—should now do what the UN General Assembly has called on them to do for 17 years. They should initiate some kind of multilateral negotiating process, aimed at the eventual goal of designing and enacting a universal, verifiable, and enforceable Nuclear Weapons Convention.

Such a convention would outlaw the possession of nuclear weapons by all countries, provide for their dismantlement and elimination by a designated deadline, and create mechanisms to ensure that nuclear weapons never return to haunt humanity ever again. Many experts maintain that a ban on nuclear weapons would be considerably easier to verify than the bans on chemical and biological weapons.

Such a convention would also quite likely include something like an “Organization for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” Which might just merit another Nobel Peace Prize: either for that hypothetical future agency, or for the world historical figure who launches the initiative to finally bring it into being.

Tad Daley, who directs the Project on Abolishing War at the Center for War/Peace Studies in New York, is the author of Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World (Rutgers University Press). He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • DangerRuss

    “Chronicide”? Hmm. Might bear repeating. Meanwhile, at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, publisher Kennette Benedict raises the question of whether:

    “… the OPCW’s actions also properly be considered a fulfillment of the responsibility to protect?

    “Yes—and they could set a precedent not just for chemical weapons disarmament but for nuclear disarmament, as well.”

  • Jonathan Feldman

    Jonathan M. Feldman, We Need General and Complete Disarmament not Just Arms Control (or Even Disarmament) of Nuclear Weapons


    This article is very important and makes excellent points. I certainly concur that we should get rid of nuclear weapons, but I think there are a few points that have to be made to complement these arguments.

    First, you have to specify what you mean by disarmament. If you don’t do that, you risk advocating getting rid of one kind of weapons but leaving in place other destructive weapons. The peace prizes for abolishing specific weapons systems ignore the need for a general and complete disarmament process that eliminates most if not all major offensive weapons systems. This was advocated by President John F. Kennedy and other noted thinkers like Marcus Raskin at the Institute for Policy Studies and Seymour Melman, Chair of the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament (cf. “Outline…” 1962).

    Second, you have to address the fetishism of nuclear weapons that the peace movement has engaged in, this fetishism risks promoting arms control over disarmament. In Sweden, nuclear weapons were banned and the nuclear weapons program abolished. Yet, Sweden is per capita one of the major weapons exporters in the world. Why? One reason may be the narrowing of the discourse that fetishizes nuclear weapons at the expense of addressing problems attached to other weapons systems. Is it a surprise that those who get Nobel Prizes for rhetoric about nuclear disarmament also engage in drone attacks that slaughter civilians? I contend that it is not. The contradiction is based on a failure to understand disarmament or appreciate its meaning or a certain kind of pragmatism that thinks one way of dying is more important than another. While a major nuclear war would basically destroy the planet, we should not use posturing around nuclear weapons to perpetuate the political status quo as Alva Myrdal warned long ago in her classic study (Myrdal, 1976).

    During World War II and prior to the nuclear attack on Japan, an “earlier bombing of Tokyo by incendiary weapons killed some 100,000 people.” This attack is highly
    significant because it reveals that the use of the atomic bomb did not “result
    in casualties of a new order of magnitude” (Holt, 1995). While it is true that many more have died as a result of the nuclear bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this event does show that the destructive power of conventional weapons can approach that of nuclear weapons. On March 9th and 10th, 1945 the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) “conducted the most destructive
    air raid in history.” This firebombing resulted in “at least 83,793 Japanese civilians dead, more than 40,918 injured, and over one million homeless” (Searle, 2002: 103). Of course, newer varieties of nuclear weapons are even more destructive by a great order of magnitude. Yet, mass killings of millions in Africa have not required nuclear weapons, nor did the holocaust which killed far more during World War II than did nuclear weapons.


    Holt, Jim. 1995. “Morality, Reduced to Arithmetic,” The New York Times, August 5.

    Myrdal, Alva. 1976. The Game of Disarmament: How the United States and Russia Run the Arms Race. New York: Pantheon books.

    “Outline of Basic Provisions of a Treaty on General and Complete Disarmament in a Peaceful World.” 1962. In Disarmament: Its Politics and Economics, Seymour Melman, editor. Boston, Massachusetts: The Academy of Arts and Sciences: 279-331.

    Searle, Thomas R. 2002. “‘It Made a Lot of Sense to Kill Skilled Workers,’ The Firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945,” The Journal of Military History, Vol. 66, No. 1: 103-133.

  • trilemmaman

    Here are some possible reasons the Nobel Peace Prize didn’t go to
    the Organization for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

    First, many people believe that the existence
    of nuclear weapons actually saved lives by ending World War II sooner and then
    later preventing war between the US and the former Soviet Union. Today nuclear weapons could arguably be said
    to be useful in protecting Israel, South Korea and preventing a serious war
    between the US and China if hostilities break out over some escalation of
    violence over some territorial dispute with one of our sworn allies Taiwan or
    Japan. It’s fair to reason that the second
    Iraq war would have never happened if Saddam would have had nuclear

    Second, there is the remote possibility
    that nuclear weapons could be useful in protecting humanity from celestial threats
    such as asteroids or some other non-earthly force.

    Third, the possession of nuclear
    weapons is extremely expensive and complicated.
    Few in the world retain them, fewer still want to make them, and any actual
    imposed ban on making them could start another war (See Iraq and Iran).

    Fourth, while hypothetically it is technologically
    feasible to detect a violation of a ban on nuclear weapons (which radiate a unique
    and potentially detectible signal — unlike chemical or biological weapsons) any
    attempt to verify a ban would be prohibitively expensive and physically
    intrusive in nations that may not want, or allow such inspections. This would inevitably result in a
    deterioration of almost any ‘trust but verify’ schemes.

    Fifth, we have not witnessed the
    effects of a nuclear weapon in over 5 decades.
    The recent use of chemical weapons and the increasingly likelihood that
    more such incidences (state or rebel/terrorist sponsored) has many people in
    high or knowledgeable places very concerned, puts this potential WMD high on
    humanities ‘security’ radar.

    Last, and perhaps most important
    point is that bans on almost anything never work. Remember alcohol prohibition? How about the war like ban against drugs like
    marijuana, cocaine, methamphedamines (if you say Breaking Bad you get a sense
    of just how easy it is to hide a chemical or biological lab which with enough motivation
    could produce damn near bio/chem WMD one can imagine). If people want something
    bad enough they will find a way to get it or make it. Especially because of the dual-use nature of
    all technology.

    The dual-use nature of biotechnology, cyber technology or chemical precursors, not
    to mention conventional technology (car bombs, airplanes as missiles, pressure
    cookers…) means that any future focusing on the banning of any weapon will
    require the most intrusive inspection capacity ever known to Human kind or the
    NSA. Such an effort would be prohibitively
    expensive economically and politically…and ultimately a failure.

    If security is the priority, a far wiser
    use of resources and political will should be directed at creating a world of
    justice and well-being where the motivation to mass murder is virtually nonexistent. And when it does crop up…we will have maximum
    public support in finding and prosecuting anyone hostile enough to use them or just
    threatening to use them.

    Ultimately, security is not a
    function of armaments or disarmament. It is a function of justice and the protection
    of our most cherished inalienable human rights referenced in both the US Constitution
    and the more comprehensive list in the Universal Declaration of Human

    It appears we have forgotten the
    wisdom of our elders (Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King… and our
    profits (Jesus, Mohammad…) when they urged us to take care of one another, love
    one another, turn the other cheek, feed the hungry and cloth the poor. Heal the
    sick and treat others as you would want them to treat you.

    In this context Malala was infinitely
    more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize than any other individual or
    entity. Education and forgiveness is at
    the heart of peace…not popular notions to control what can never be controlled.