But putting aside this irony, it is clear that selecting and announcing the recipient of the prize not only serves as an opportunity to recognize exceptional efforts to prevent or stop conflict; it is also an expression of what, in the eyes of the selection committee, is currently the most pertinent topic affecting world peace. Awarding the prize to the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons — or ICAN — reflects deep concern that the proliferation of nuclear weapons is still one of the most acute dangers the world is facing. It was not shocking news considering that there are still 15,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled worldwide, there are escalating tensions with North Korea over its nuclear military nuclear program, and Donald Trump has cast doubt on the future of the nuclear deal with Iran.
ICAN is a coalition of hundreds of non-governmental organizations in 100 countries which is devoted to the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Last July the organization achieved a major success when its lobbying, as well as its contribution to actually drafting parts of the treaty, played a key role in the endorsement by 122 countries at UN headquarters in New York of the world’s first legally binding treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. This was followed by the opening of the treaty for the signing ceremony during the General Assembly’s annual gathering last month. Under the new treaty, signatory states must agree not to develop, test, manufacture or possess nuclear weapons, or threaten to use them, or allow any nuclear arms to be stationed on their territory.
In its reasoning for awarding the honor to ICAN, the Norwegian Nobel Committee states that the work of the recipient draws “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.” ICAN is indeed an extremely efficient global partnership that in the 10 years of its existence has gained much needed credibility and respect for its work, not to mention influence.
Nevertheless, it is the case that the minority of countries who have not signed the treaty are, at least for the time being, of more significance than those who have, especially considering that no country that is known to, or is believed to, possess nuclear weapons, has endorsed or signed the treaty. Arguably this makes the treaty redundant, leaving it a mere declaration by those who don’t belong to the “exclusive” nuclear club. Worse, they are helpless in the face of the potential totally destructive consequences of nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, it remains a very powerful declaration, even if its aims are not going to be implemented immediately.
Without oversimplifying the debate over the acquisition and possession of nuclear weapons, those who support nuclear deterrence see the opposition to it as naïve and ill-informed. For them, the extreme destructiveness of this military capability, making it impracticable for achieving any rational political gain, gives it its main power to prevent wars between those who possess it. Since the United States lost its monopoly on nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union emerged as a rival nuclear power, and with the development of a second-strike capability, nuclear weapons have become an efficient deterrent, and their use a threshold that no one has dared to cross. Hence the response of the US, UK and France to this treaty, in a joint statement, asserted that this disarmament initiative ignores the “realities of the international security environment,” and the stability in different parts of the world that is a consequence of their nuclear capability. This is a very pessimistic approach to world affairs that is derived from the realpolitik tradition that human beings respond to fear, rather than to reason.
The theory of ‘mutually assured destruction’ has kept the world safe for 70 years, but this year’s Nobel Peace Prize and a new international treaty suggest a growing view that deterrence is no longer enough.
ICAN and those countries behind the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons hold the opposite view. To insist on stockpiling nuclear warheads is to create a humanitarian and environmental cataclysm just waiting to happen, especially if proliferation intensifies. Nuclear weapons have not been used for more than 70 years, since in 1945 two atomic bombs were dropped by the US on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, with horrific consequences. The sheer scale of the devastation caused is only part of the story. In the long term, the illnesses, the genetically damaging radioactive fallout and other impacts are almost immeasurable. For generations, this instilled sufficient fear of seriously contemplating the use of nuclear weapons. The Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was the exception, when the two superpowers dragged themselves from the brink of nuclear apocalypse.
The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, are a signal from large quarters of the international community that nuclear deterrence, as successful as it has been so far, is no longer sufficient. Treaties to ban cluster bombs and land mines have already been reached. Why not nuclear weapons?
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg