In July, the UN, with the backing of 122 countries, adopted a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. Optimistic advocates of disarmament believed the move was path-breaking. Sceptics noted that the treaty didn’t remove a single nuclear weapon, and that none of the nine nuclear armed states (US, Russia, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea) showed any constructive interest in the treaty. Some said the treaty represented missed opportunities, believing the energy and politics behind it would have been better spent on more modest and more achievable, more realistic goals (e.g. ensuring nuclear deterrence is made safer, rather than the allegedly futile objective of prohibiting all the weapons for all time). Unsurprisingly, there was a debate over the treaty’s pros and cons, although this was very limited in terms of media coverage.
As for already established arms control, the story was unpromising. The 1970 nuclear weapons non-proliferation treaty (NPT) limped along, full of holes but keeping afloat, more-or-less. And, in a sign of how wildly optimistic the ambitious new UN treaty seems, the comparatively very modest 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) has still not entered force because it lacks key ratifications (arguably, over the years the key hold-out here has been the US Senate). Yet the CTBT is good sensible, measured arms control and a precondition for serious progress. Also, strains in the US-Russia relationship put pressure on, among other things, the pivotal 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and both Washington and Moscow are modernising their nuclear plans. On this last point, it’s worth noting that America’s current, costly, nuclear weapons modernisation program was set in motion by President Obama, the same man who won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize after promising to work toward their abolition.
Meanwhile, despite almost universal condemnation, as well as typical Trumpian blustering that he would not allow it, North Korea loudly continued improving its illegal nuclear forces.
In addition, members of the Trump administration remained deeply hostile to the 2015 international agreement (widely welcomed by arms control experts) to manage Iran’s nuclear program. However, these noisy critics offered no clear or convincing ideas about how to replace the existing deal with anything better.
From today’s perspective, the prospects for the new UN treaty look extremely bleak. Perhaps a generational change in world leaders will, in time, make a difference. Or perhaps we will have to wait for the equivalent of a nuclear train crash to see progress (although there’s also a chance a nuclear war might well increase interest in acquiring/keeping nuclear weapons).