Eliminating v. Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons? Debunking a False Dilemma

At the UN General Assembly's First Committee meeting last month, Australian Ambassador John Quinn stated:

We take a pragmatic approach to nuclear disarmament, which is why we do not support a treaty banning nuclear weapons. Such a treaty simply would not result in the elimination of nuclear weapons. States will only get rid of their nuclear arsenals when they feel it is safe to do so, which is why we also need to address the security dimensions of why states possess nuclear weapons ... We are collectively following a long and hard road. There are no short cuts to achieving our goal of eventual nuclear disarmament.

Ambassador Quinn speaks for many nuclear-armed states and umbrella states. Even before his speech, "no short cuts" had already become something of a battle cry for them. Given the world's security outlook, it would be wishful and irresponsible to advocate the prohibition of nuclear weapons without first eliminating them. Disarmament is the only way to rid the world of these weapons.

This charge is directed at the growing number of states and global civil society who urge that concrete step be taken with a view to negotiating and adopting a ban treaty. Some even insist that a prohibition is now a conditio sine qua non for nuclear weapons' eventual elimination. These voices reflect a widely shared sense of frustration at the glacial pace of nuclear disarmament so far.

Framing the issue as a choice between eliminating and prohibiting nuclear weapons may appear persuasive. The dilemma here is false, however. No serious proponents of a ban think prohibition will somehow be enough to bring about these weapons' elimination. Prohibition is but a necessary step towards a world free of nuclear weapons: states cannot claim to be making a credible disarmament effort without including the idea a ban as one of its components. Mischaracterising a necessary condition as if it is a sufficient one, and then disputing its supposed sufficiency, is a classic "straw man" technique used by those who have trouble accepting the idea itself.

There is also a curious historical echo.

In 1824, George Canning, the then British Foreign Secretary, spoke at the House of Commons about a great matter of his day:

I know that the impulse of enthusiasm would carry us much faster than I am prepared to go; I know it is objected that all this preparation will take time. Take time, Sir! To be sure it will; to be sure it should; to be sure it must! Time, Sir! ... Do we, in the ardour of our nascent reformation, forget that during the ages for which this system has existed, no preceding generation of legislators has ventured to touch it with a reforming hand? and have we the vanity to flatter ourselves that we can annihilate it at a blow? No, Sir, no: - we must be contented to proceed, as I have already said, gradually and cautiously ...

"Proceed gradually and cautiously" - Canning's admonition almost two hundred years ago closely mirrors Ambassador Quinn's counsel on pragmatism.

Except, Canning was not discussing nuclear disarmament. He was discussing ameliorating the condition of slaves in what was then the West Indies. Still, the same false dilemma is all too visible. Earlier in the same oration, Canning said:

If I am asked, whether I am for the permanent existence of slavery in our colonies, I say, No. But if I am asked, whether I am favourable to its immediate abolition, I say, No. And, if I am asked which I would prefer, permanent slavery, or immediate abolition, I do not know whether, under all the perplexing circumstances of the case, I must not say, I would prefer things remaining as they are - not, God knows! from any love for the existing state of things, but on account of the tremendous responsibility of attempting to mend it by a sudden change.

In fairness, Canning considered slavery evil. He also found it imperative that slavery be ultimately eradicated. Yet, trapped in his moral compass and political imagination between permanent slavery and immediate abolition, Canning needlessly cornered himself into effectively declaring preference for permanent slavery because of the upheaval that would follow immediate abolition.

Slavery's immediate abolition could indeed lead to turmoil. It would, however, only if one did nothing else about it. Diversifying sources of labour and wealth, cultivating wider recognition of equality and social mobility, preparing the newly free for different life trajectories, imparting the values of human dignity and co-existence - these and other ambitious measures together helped mitigate the disruptive consequences of outright abolition over time.

Today, we acknowledge the unacceptable peril in which nuclear weapons place us all. We agree that total nuclear disarmament is an imperative. Nevertheless, nuclear-armed and umbrella states protest that these weapons' hasty outlawry would threaten our fragile global security. The "long and hard road" not involving a ban, they assure us, is the only viable road.

Nuclear weapons' immediate ban can indeed lead to insecurity. It will, however, only if one does nothing else about them. The lack of progress on nuclear disarmament, denuclearisation of security policy, and the like, is precisely the kind of inaction that would make a ban treaty a source of instability. Those responsible for such inaction can hardly blame the proponents of a ban for stoking this danger.

It is no less disingenuous to claim that the elimination of all nuclear weapons must precede their meaningful ban, than it is utopian to insist that a prohibition alone will eradicate them. Those in favour of a ban are not as naïve or reckless as their detractors portray them.

History shows that doing the right thing is never about just doing it. It takes acceptance of its consequences and a readiness to address them. Shying away from these tasks is not pragmatism. It is called cowardice.