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Book reviews: Banning the Bomb. The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons

Banning the Bomb: Smashing the Patriarchy and The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters   November 2021

Reviving Hopes for Nuclear Disarmament

Banning the Bomb: Smashing the Patriarchy
By Ray Acheson

The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters
By Alexander Kmentt

Reviewed by Rebecca Davis Gibbons

As a former denizen of Washington working in the nuclear weapons space, I know how it can seem as though the only important conversations about nuclear weapons are happening in the U.S. capital, or Omaha, or Brussels, or in capitals of the other nuclear-armed states. Yet, two recent books on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), often called the nuclear ban treaty, demonstrate that activists around the world and diplomats from non-nuclear-weapon states have also been engaging in serious discussions about the future of these weapons. Both books make clear why so many diplomats and activists came together in 2017 to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons despite significant criticism from nuclear-armed states and their allies. Understanding their arguments matters for the future of nuclear deterrence and U.S. alliance relationships, the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and global governance of nuclear weapons more broadly.

In Ray Acheson’s Banning the Bomb: Smashing the Patriarchy and Alexander Kmentt’s The Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons: How It Was Achieved and Why It Matters, readers are offered two recent histories of the movement to change the discourse surrounding nuclear weapons and bring about the TPNW. The books offer unique but complementary views from two actors involved in the process. As the director of Reaching Critical Will and a member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) steering committee, Acheson offers the insights of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) participant. Kmentt, a career diplomat who is the director of disarmament, arms control, and nonproliferation in the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, provides the perspective of someone operating within the core group of states leading the effort. The books are rich, behind-the-scenes accounts that reveal key details of the process of trying to ban nuclear weapons. Both would be enjoyable for general audiences interested in nuclear issues. More importantly, they should be read by those in the nuclear policy space, whether they support the ban treaty or not, because the arguments behind the movement have become part of the global conversation on the future of nuclear weapons and they are not going away.

Each book provides an account of the development of the humanitarian initiative, an effort to bring humanitarian considerations into global discourse about nuclear weapons, and the TPNW. The recent origin of these efforts lies in concern over the future of the 1968 NPT. In addition to prohibiting all but five countries from having nuclear weapons, NPT Article VI calls for all treaty members to pursue effective measures toward complete disarmament. Many non-nuclear-weapon states that signed the treaty never expected the five treaty members possessing nuclear weapons (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) to
retain them permanently…………………………………..

Although government officials and nonstate actors cooperated to bring about TPNW negotiations, in the end it was states that had the final say in the treaty text. ICAN was disappointed that some of its recommendations were not included in the final document. Nonetheless, the umbrella group was a significant political force in bringing about the ban treaty negotiations and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this effort in 2017.

After all this, what does the TPNW mean for the NPT and global governance? The fact that the TPNW came to fruition is an indictment of the NPT’s inability to foster progress on disarmament. In other words, states pursued the ban treaty in part because the NPT forum lost legitimacy after the nuclear-weapon states reneged on several disarmament commitments and pursued modernization programs to maintain and expand their arsenals for decades to come.

Maintaining the NPT and the strong nonproliferation norm it enshrines is undoubtedly in the interest of the United States and the rest of the international community. A key question for the NPT nuclear-weapon states is whether the treaty can survive in perpetuity with this loss of legitimacy. Can it continue for another 50 years when the most lethal armaments remain in the exclusive control of a select few powerful states while so many others clamor for disarmament?

Rebecca Davis Gibbons is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine. She previously served as a fellow and associate of the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Her book The Hegemon’s Tool Kit: US Leadership and the Politics of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime will be published in spring 2022.

November 2, 2021 - Posted by | resources - print

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