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Analyzing the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons Through Realism

[T]he UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (UNTPNW), signed on July 7, 2017 ... prohibits “nuclear weapons use, threat of use, testing, development, production, possession, transfer, and stationing in a different country.” The analysis in this paper will show that realist theories of international relations best explain why nuclear powers did not sign this particular treaty.

written by Elizabeth Goldstone on December 8, 2017

The United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, UNODA,  phrases the situation well: “Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons on earth.”[1]

Though one can analyze this topic through constructivism and liberalism, realism is the most comprehensive theory of international relations through which one can understand the refusal by these nuclear states to sign the ban treaty. In this paper, a brief background on the recent ban treaty will be provided, and a discussion will follow on advantages and disadvantages of using realism to explain this phenomenon. Furthermore, I will elaborate on the disadvantages, and state whether constructivism or liberalism would be the better choice for analysis in these cases. Concepts of realism I will discuss in this paper are “states wanting survival,” “balance of threat,” “balance of power,” and “anarchy in the international system.”

While nuclear weapons have only been used twice throughout history at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “about 22,000 [nuclear weapons] reportedly remain in our world today.”[2] Midway through the Cold War, global citizens began to question why countries continued to keep and create nuclear weapons when world powers had largely accepted after World War II that nuclear weapons were dangerous. In 1968, the United States had 31,000 nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union had 6,000, Great Britain had 400, France had 30, and China had 5.[3] Never have more nuclear weapons existed at one time.[4] In response to this situation, the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was created by the UN. The international community had concluded, “that the proliferation of nuclear weapons would seriously enhance the danger of nuclear war.”[5] This Treaty is the only multilateral treaty of its kind aimed at the goal of disarmament, with all five nuclear-weapons states as signatories.[6]

Other treaties followed. This paper will focus specifically on the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (UNTPNW), signed on July 7, 2017. This treaty prohibits “nuclear weapons use, threat of use, testing, development, production, possession, transfer, and stationing in a different country.”[7] The analysis in this paper will show that realist theories of international relations best explain why nuclear powers did not sign this particular treaty.

The first realist concept I will analyze is that of “states wanting survival.” According to offensive realist, John Mearsheimer, states naturally strive to be hegemons – having power equals having security.[8] Mearsheimer summarizes this point of view in his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. He writes that “given the difficulty of determining how much power is enough for today and tomorrow, great powers recognize that the best way to ensure their security is to achieve hegemony now, thus eliminating any possibility of a challenge by another great power.”[9] I would argue that there is no greater form of power in our current world than having nuclear weapons; therefore, having nuclear weapons makes a state safe, and a country that wants to stay safe would not willingly sign a treaty that would reduce their safety.

The first and perhaps most obvious reason nuclear weapons would nearly ensure a state’s survival is that nuclear weapons are a deterrent.[10] Thomas Schelling, an International Relations professor and author of Arms and Influence, concisely defines deterrence as “preventing an action.”[11] In this case, that action is a nuclear strike. If a country has nuclear weapons, realist theory dictates that no other country will attack them, since there is risk that the country will retaliate and nuclear war would ensue, leading to world mass destruction. No country wants to risk their own destruction; therefore, neither a non-nuclear nor nuclear state would risk their own safety by attacking a nuclear state.[12] If a nuclear state signed the UNTPNW and was forced to give up their nuclear weapons, they would be relinquishing the main deterrent that ensures their continued survival. This leads to my next point: what if one nuclear state signs the treaty and another does not? The nuclear state that signed would be virtually defenseless against the latter nuclear power that refrained from signing. Quite simply, a country cannot protect itself from nuclear weapons with guns.

Furthermore, since states are primarily concerned with security and survival in the “dark brooding world of neo-realism in which states can’t trust one another,”[13] they “must always be prepared to gear up for conflict.”[14] It is reasonable to assume that since the nuclear states did not sign the treaty, they are unwilling to discount the possibility of future nuclear war.

Kenneth Waltz, a defensive realist, says, “states seek to ensure their survival” since “it is a prerequisite to achieving any goals that states may have.”[15] A goal that nuclear states currently have is to prevent North Korea from gaining hegemony. Stephen Walt’s “balance-of-threat” realism asserts that nations form alliances based on perceived threat.[16] The issue of North Korean perceived aggression is relevant because together, nuclear states use deterrence tactics to protect themselves. Nikki Haley, the American ambassador to the United Nations, said, “We have to be realistic. Is there anyone who thinks that North Korea would ban nuclear weapons?”[17] It is illogical for nuclear states to sign the UNTPNW when they truly believe North Korea is a threat.

Differing from the type of relations the United States has with North Korea, Russia is at odds with America in a way similar to the Cold War. “Balance of power” realism explains at least why the United States and Russia would not sign the UNTPNW. Balance of power dictates that states will shift their foreign policies in order to keep one state from becoming a global hegemon and having more power than the other states.[18] Robert Jervis, a Columbia University professor, extrapolates upon this definition to discuss the current situation involving nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia. He writes that having nuclear weapons is preventing a war with Russia since the United States and Russia are evenly matched in present nuclear capability and therefore “balanced”. Presently, the only way the Russians would attack the United States would be if the “Russians are so highly motivated to expand that they would be willing to accept any level of destruction as long as they ended up ahead of the West and so were able to dominate the postwar world.”[19]

Even if one did not align with the realist theory of “states wanting survival” and one argued that Russia was indifferent about being destroyed in the process of United-States-takeover, “It is hard to have any sense of what the postwar world would look like, but geography alone should caution against believing that either the United States or Russia could easily dominate the other.”[20] By this logic, signing the UNTPNW would not make sense for America or Russia, for if nuclear weapons were out of the picture, one side could potentially start a conventional conflict in an attempt to win a conventional war. Furthermore, if a conventional war was sparked in the aftermath of nuclear weapons being destroyed and a side won this war, the distance between Russia and the United States would make control of one nation by the other impossible.[21]

The international system would also be affected if the nuclear states signed the UNTPNW. Kenneth Waltz discusses the anarchical international system in “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory” when he writes, “For the purpose of developing a theory, states are cast as unitary actors wanting at least to survive, and are taken to be the system’s constituent units. The essential structural quality of the system is anarchy – the  absence of a central monopoly of legitimate force.”[22] New measures would need to be taken to ensure that all signatories follow each part of the Treaty. The treaty mandates that signatory states cannot “develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”[23] How could the international community be sure that the nuclear states, even if they signed the UNTPNW, were fully disarming?

It is my opinion that, in relation to the international system of anarchy, the nuclear states did not sign the UNTPNW because they are not willing to take the risk of fully disarming when there is no confirmation that the rest of the nuclear states are doing the same. To quote Mearsheimer, “Indeed, central wars are likely when there is an especially powerful country in the system. A preponderant power, according to this perspective, is a potential hegemon. It has the wherewithal to make a run at dominating the system, which is the best guarantee of survival in international anarchy. Therefore, it will not be satisfied with the status quo, but instead will look for opportunities to gain hegemony.”[24] I would argue that in the eyes of the state, it makes little sense to sign a treaty that cannot be enforced by any form of international government, and such a government does not exist in the current anarchical sphere of internationalism.

While realism provides the best lens through which to understand why the nuclear states did not sign the UNTPNW, there are disadvantages to using realism that can be explained better as seen through constructivist and liberalist ideology. First, I will discuss reasons the nuclear states refused to sign the UNTPNW best understood through constructivism. In brief, constructivists argue that “individual agents and social structures” matter in the explanations of international outcomes, and that the relationship between the two is “reciprocal and reflexive.” Constructivists are concerned with “norms, identity, and ideas,” and believe that agents’ conceptions of the world are shaped by “the intersubjective structures created and sustained by their activities.”[25]

Signing the UNTPNW, and therefore relinquishing all nuclear weapons, is unthinkable for some nations because to give up nuclear power would be to lose a part of those nations’ identities.[26] For example, I would argue that North Korea would have nothing of significance to their identity if they halted their nuclear tests since there would be no more socially constructed threat to other nations of a nuclear attack by North Korea. If North Korea no longer had nuclear weapons and was no longer considered dangerous, who would “care” about them on the global stage? Therefore, North Korea would never sign the UNTPNW, for their “nuclear identity” would be lost. In relating constructivism to the social relationship that develops between states, Alexander Wendt writes, “500 British nuclear weapons are less threatening to the United States than 5 North Korean nuclear weapons,”[27] even though North Korea has stated they do not intend to launch a first strike.[28] Only 5 nuclear weapons from such an unpredictable nation are enough to deter the rest of the world, including countries that have been on the world stage for centuries. This shows that great powers’ fear of North Korea and North Korea’s “nuclear identity” have been socially constructed by the numerous (sometimes exaggerated) threats, and historically constructed by the past decade of continued militaristic rhetoric coming from within North Korea aimed at the outside world.

Another constructivist interpretation explaining why the nuclear states did not sign the UNTPNW is Nina Tannenwald’s idea of the “nuclear taboo.” Tannenwald said in an interview, “a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons has developed since 1945. [It’s] a normative prohibition on the use of nuclear weapons. It is associated with a sense of moral opprobrium regarding such weapons.[29] Tannenwald argues that nuclear weapons have not been used since 1945 due to socially constructed moral concerns. There is clear historical and social significance here, as the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was traumatic for both the victims and the perpetrators.[30] Tannenwald theorizes that countries will not use nuclear weapons again, despite having the ability to do so. Signing the UNTPNW would be irrelevant for a nuclear state since using the weapons is unforeseeable anyway.[31]

A final way to view the refusal by nuclear states to sign the UNTPNW is through liberalism. Two tenets of liberalism are that international organizations and non-governmental actors are key in shaping state preferences and policy choices and that mutual benefits and international cooperation are necessary for global societal progress.[32] A prominent international organization, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), was a pushback force during the creation of the UNTPNW. Powerful NATO countries urged less influential members along with non-NATO countries to boycott the signing.[33] In a statement released by the NATO council regarding the UNTPNW, it was explained that “Seeking to ban nuclear weapons through a treaty that will not engage any state actually possessing nuclear weapons will not be effective, will not reduce nuclear arsenals, and will neither enhance any country’s security, nor international peace and stability.”[34] NATO doubts that the treaty will effectively create peace, so NATO states (mainly those with nuclear weapons) pressured countries to refrain from signing. The Netherlands, the only NATO member that participated in the conference, wouldn’t sign.[35] This exemplifies liberalism since it is a time when NATO, an international organization, dictated a course of action that affected international policy choices.[36]

As for the principle that economic benefits and international cooperation are vital, many nuclear states did not sign the treaty for financial reasons. Free trade and transport, a concept that embodies mutual benefits, is limited in the UNTPNW. A signatory cannot allow “any stationing…or deployment of any…nuclear explosive devices in its territory or at any place under its jurisdiction or control.”[37] Nuclear states (many of whom support free market trade) were not eager to sign a treaty that restricted trade in any sense.

Despite valid advantages of using constructivism and liberalism to explain the refusal by nuclear states to sign the UNTPNW, the advantages of using realism are more compelling and numerous. While it is true that constructivism and liberalism provide helpful theories of analysis, realism offers a broader, more comprehensive, and more applicable range of explanations. Moreover, a government’s primary job is to protect its citizens and keep the nation strong; this is exactly what realism stresses through the four realist tenets of wanting survival, balance of threat, balance of power, and international anarchy.

 

Bibliography

Dorell, Oren. “North Korea Won’t Strike U.S. First despite Inflammatory Threats, Experts Say.”

USA Today, November 17, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/

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Hurd, Ian. “Constructivism.” Oxford Academic, January 18, 2008. Accessed December 8, 2017.

http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~ihu355/Home_files/17-Smit-Snidal-c17.pdf.

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Abolish Nuclear Weapons. http://www.icanw.org/treaty-on-the-prohibition-of-nuclear-weapons/.

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  1. Accessed December 8, 2017. https://ares.library.jhu.edu/aresCMS/

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by Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith, 71-88. 3rd ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press,

  1. Accessed December 8, 2017. http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/StructuralRealism.pdf.

———. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2001.

Norris, Robert S., and Hans M. Kristensen. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010.”

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 2, 2016. Accessed December 7, 2017.

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Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” News release. September 20, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017.

https://www.nato.int/cps/ua/natohq/news_146954.htm.

Schelling, Thomas C. Arms and Influence. 2008 ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966.

Shiraev, Eric B. “The Liberal Perspective.” In International Relations, by Eric B. Shiraev and

Vladislav M. Zubok. 2nd ed. N.p.: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Tannenwald, Nina. “The Nuclear Taboo.” Interview. Soka Gakkai International, no. 62 (October 2010):

8-9. Accessed December 8, 2017. http://www.sgi.org/resources/sgi-quarterly-magazine/

1010_62.html.

“The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).” 2005 Review Conference of the

Parties to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, May 22, 2005. Accessed December

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https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/.

———. “United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.” United Nations.

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Walt, Stephen M. “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power.” International Security 9, no.

4 (Spring 1985): 3-43. doi:10.2307/2538540.

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———. Theory of International Politics. 2010. Reprint, Long Grove, IL: Waveland

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[1] United Nations. “United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs.” United Nations.      https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Norris, Robert S., and Hans M. Kristensen. “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945-2010.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 2, 2016. Accessed      December 7, 2017. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2968/066004008.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).” 2005 Review
Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear
Weapons, May 22, 2005. Accessed December 7, 2017. http://www.un.org/en/
conf/npt/2005/npttreaty.html.

[6]United Nations. “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).”
UNODA. https://www.un.org/disarmament/wmd/nuclear/npt/.

[7]Gladstone, Rick. “A Treaty Is Reached to Ban Nuclear Arms. Now Comes the Hard
Part.” NY Times (New York, NY), July 7, 2017, Americas. Accessed December
8, 2017.

[8] Mearshiemer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York, NY: W. W.
Norton, 2001.

[9] Ibid

[10] Schelling, Thomas C. Arms and Influence. 2008 ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 1966.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13]Jehangir, Hamza. “Realism, Liberalism and the Possibilities of Peace.”
E-International Relations. Last modified February 19, 2012. Accessed
December 8, 2017. http://www.e-ir.info/2012/02/19/
realism-liberalism-and-the-possibilities-of-peace/.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Waltz, Kenneth N. Theory of International Politics. 2010. Reprint, Long
Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 1979.

[16] Walt, Stephen M. “Alliance Formation and the Balance of World Power.”
International Security 9, no. 4 (Spring 1985): 3-43. doi:10.2307/2538540.

[17]Gladstone, Rick. “A Treaty Is Reached to Ban Nuclear Arms. Now Comes the Hard
Part.” NY Times (New York, NY), July 7, 2017, Americas. Accessed December 8, 2017.

[18] Mearsheimer, John. The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York, NY: W. W.
Norton, 2001.

[19] Jervis, Robert. The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution. Ithaca and London:
Cornell University Press, 1989. Accessed December 8, 2017.
https://ares.library.jhu.edu/aresCMS/ares.dll?Action=10&Type=10&Value=333343.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22]Waltz, Kenneth N. “The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory.” Journal of

Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 4 (Spring 1988): 615-28. Accessed

December 8, 2017. http://users.metu.edu.tr/utuba/Waltz.pdf.

[23] ICAN. “UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (full text).”

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. http://www.icanw.org/

treaty-on-the-prohibition-of-nuclear-weapons/.

[24]Mearsheimer, John. Structural Realism to International Relations Theories:

     Discipline and Diversity, by Tim Dunne, Milja Kurki, and Steve Smith,

71-88. 3rd ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. Accessed December

8, 2017. http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/StructuralRealism.pdf.

[25] Jackson, Patrick Thaddeus, and Daniel H. Nexon. “Whence Causal Mechanisms? A

Comment on Legro.” Dialogue IO 1, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 81-101. Accessed

December 8, 2017. doi:10.1017.S7777777702000079.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Hurd, Ian. “Constructivism.” Oxford Academic, January 18, 2008. Accessed

December 8, 2017. http://faculty.wcas.northwestern.edu/~ihu355/Home_files/

17-Smit-Snidal-c17.pdf.

[28] Dorell, Oren. “North Korea Won’t Strike U.S. First despite Inflammatory Threats,

Experts Say.” USA Today, November 17, 2017. Accessed December 8, 2017.

https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2017/11/17/

north-korea-wont-strike-united-states-first-despite-inflammatory-threats/

872508001/.

[29]Tannenwald, Nina. “The Nuclear Taboo.” Interview. Soka Gakkai International, no.

62 (October 2010): 8-9. Accessed December 8, 2017. http://www.sgi.org/

resources/sgi-quarterly-magazine/1010_62.html.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32]Shiraev, Eric B. “The Liberal Perspective.” In International Relations, by Eric

  1. Shiraev and Vladislav M. Zubok. 2nd ed. N.p.: Oxford University Press,

2015.

[33]  North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “North Atlantic Council Statement on the
Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.” News release. September 20,
2017. Accessed December 8, 2017. https://www.nato.int/cps/ua/natohq/
news_146954.htm.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Gladstone, Rick. “A Treaty Is Reached to Ban Nuclear Arms. Now Comes the Hard
Part.” NY Times (New York, NY), July 7, 2017, Americas. Accessed December
8, 2017.

[36] Shiraev, Eric B. “The Liberal Perspective.” In International Relations, by Eric

  1. Shiraev and Vladislav M. Zubok. 2nd ed. N.p.: Oxford University Press,

2015.

[37] ICAN. “UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (full text).”

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. http://www.icanw.org/

treaty-on-the-prohibition-of-nuclear-weapons/.

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