VIRTUE SIGNALING: The Nuclear Ban Cometh… Unfortunately.

In New York, negotiations towards a nuclear weapons ban treaty—involving approximately 130 countries plus sundry civil society groups—are drawing rapidly to a close. A second draft (PDF) of the text is already under discussion. In the end, supporters of a ban will have their day. So it now seems a foregone conclusion that the UN will soon open for signature a treaty banning nuclear weapons, which would enter into force 90 days after 50 signatories have ratified it (Article 16.1).

Does that mean nuclear disarmament is close? No. In fact, the ban treaty probably won’t remove a single nuclear weapon from the face of the earth. No nuclear weapon state is attending the negotiations. And, of all those countries known to enjoy an extended nuclear deterrence guarantee, only the Netherlands is attending. Disarmament aficionados aren’t dismayed though: they get to criticise the nuclear weapon states and their allies for not attending, and to write the treaty text that best codifies their own understanding of ‘international norms’. Problems that might be genuine difficulties in any real nuclear disarmament exercise—like verifying dismantlement, punishing breakout, or designing new stable force balances at key strategic fulcra—are either postponed to a later date or avoided altogether.

In fact, the treaty’s better seen as a normative commitment than as a practical aid to a nuclear-free world. That shows up straight away in the preamble—a treaty of 21 articles is preceded by 24 paragraphs in which the signatories describe the many ways in which they are holier than thou.

It’s easy to give up what you never had, and it’s satisfying to scold others for failing to follow your non-example.