Don't ban the bomb

"War," Georges Clemenceau supposedly said, "is too serious a matter to be left to military men." Maybe it's time for someone to say that peace is too serious a matter to be left to pacifists.

The thought comes to mind on news that the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, or Ican, has won this year's Nobel Peace Prize. The little-known NGO, founded just a decade ago, was cited "for its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its ground-breaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons". This makes Ican another tediously bleating "No Nukes" outfit, but with one big twist: Ican doesn't just want to get rid of nuclear weapons by the usual voluntary means; it wants to ban them outright.

In July, delegates from 122 countries voted in favour of an 11-page treaty that would ban the development, testing, building, acquisition, possession, transfer or threatened use of nuclear weapons, much as biological and chemical weapons are now banned. The treaty is supposed to enter into legal force if 50 states ratify it. So far, only Guyana, Thailand and the Vatican have done so. As a matter of international policy, this is a non-starter. None of the world's nine known nuclear powers - from the United States to North Korea - participated in the treaty-making process, none participated in the vote, and none accept its outcome.

As a matter of politics, the Nobel committee has managed to put the Trump administration, for once, on the right side of all the world's major powers - surely not what was intended. Even pacifist Japan didn't take part in negotiations, a telling sign that it is keeping its nuclear options open in the age of Kim Jong Un.

But Ican is playing a long game, trying to create a notional legal proscription that, over time, will gain popular, moral and political currency. It could even happen sooner than many people think if British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a nuclear-disarmament activist, becomes prime minister. Maybe he will someday win a Nobel Peace Prize too.

That's the problem with a prize that, as Jay Nordlinger observed in his 2012 history of the award, Peace, They Say, has generally confused the cause of pacifism with the cause of peace. Does anyone today remember what genuine, durable and historic contributions to world peace were made by Norman Angell, Robert Cecil, Emily Balch or Alva Myrdal - prize winners all? And how would those contributions stack up against the record of, say, the 82nd Airborne Division at Normandy?

More dangerously, the peace prize has nourished the flame of an idea that should have gone out for good 76 years ago - namely, that disarmament, particularly by democracies in the name of setting a good global example, is an essential ingredient of peace.

Walter Lippmann, nobody's idea of a right-wing reactionary, put his finger on the problem in the tragic wake of another supposedly golden era of arms control. "The disarmament movement," he wrote in 1943, proved "tragically successful in disarming the nations that believed in disarmament." In the name of peace, the good left themselves increasingly defenceless, their allies and dependants increasingly anxious, their rivals and enemies increasingly ambitious and, in time, violent.

"The generation which most sincerely and elaborately declared that peace is the supreme end of foreign policy got not peace," Lippmann added, "but a most devastating war."

One of the supposed paradoxes of our day is that the past quarter-century has been a golden age of nuclear disarmament. From a mid-1980s peak of more than 70,000 warheads worldwide, we are down to fewer than 15,000. South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus all voluntarily abandoned their nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War.

Yet none of this has made the free world safer. Ukrainians can rue their 1994 decision to abandon their nuclear arsenal as the reason Russian President Vladimir Putin felt free to invade in 2014. The US withdrew its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea in 1991 as a peace-building measure. So much for that. Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo are very quietly mulling over their nuclear options as doubts about the reliability of US guarantees grow.

Throughout the Cold War, non-winners of the Nobel Peace Prize such as Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Winston Churchill, Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Schmidt, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush prevented another world war by ignoring the anti-nuclear idealism that animates Ican. What a shame that a name as prestigious as Nobel should entrust the cause of peace to its most incompetent and - if heeded - dangerous practitioners.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2017, with the headline 'Don't ban the bomb'. Print Edition | Subscribe