This year’s Nobel peace prize rewards a nice but pointless idea

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IT IS easy to see why the Nobel Committee decided to award this year’s peace prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. The North Korea crisis has brought nuclear weapons to centre stage again and the campaign group has succeeded in producing a nuclear-ban treaty, which reached the United Nations in July when 122 out 193 countries voted in favour. It has been signed by 53 member states since the ratification process began on September 20th and will go into effect after 50 states have formally ratified it. But then what?

In all probability, not much. The nine nuclear-weapons states (the five permanent members of the Security Council—America, Russia, Britain, France, China—together with the “unofficial” ones—India, Pakistan, Israel and now North Korea) had nothing to do with the negotiations and boycotted the vote. America, France and Britain have declared the treaty “incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence which has been essential to keeping the peace for over 70 years”. They added that it failed to “address the security concerns that continue to make nuclear deterrence necessary”—or to do anything to help solve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear programme. Close allies of the five permanent members, including NATO members, have been similarly disdainful.

Supporters of the treaty, who include William Perry, America’s defence secretary between 1994 and 1997, believe that the treaty would help further delegitimise the use of nuclear weapons. They think it would strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires officially recognised nuclear states to make efforts towards eventual nuclear disarmament, something critics accuse them of failing to do.

But that seems highly unlikely. Russia, China and America are committed to modernising their nuclear arsenals, which means they will exist until at least the end of this century. None of the unofficial nuclear states is remotely interested in reducing its nuclear capabilities. Indeed, North Korea’s rush to gain the capacity to deliver a thermonuclear device to the American mainland demonstrates nuclear weapons’ enduring allure.

The best approach to reducing the threat posed by nuclear weapons is through serious arms-control negotiations between the nuclear states themselves, above all between America and Russia. Those two countries still command the vast majority of the world’s arsenal. Talks should be aimed at cutting numbers further, banning some categories of weapon (such as battlefield or tactical devices) and taking land-based systems off hair-trigger alert (by shifting from launching weapons on warning of an attack to launching after an attack has begun). Unfortunately, there is little prospect of substantive new negotiations as long as relations between Russia and America remain poor.

The Nobel Committee no doubt regards the nuclear-ban treaty as a good deed in a bad world. Whether it will do anything to advance peace is, however, doubtful.