There has never been as much dissatisfaction with the international framework governing nuclear weapons (the Non-Proliferation Treaty) as there is today. The treaty is being reviewed and debated at the United Nations in New York this month, and for the first time in 35 years there are serious concerns that it might tear apart at the seams. Increasingly, there are those who feel strongly that the world would be safer without nuclear weapons, and that the nuclear-armed states (whose promise to work seriously toward disarmament in Article VI of the treaty is one of the tender spots creating anger and resentment) are not fulfilling their obligations.
The potential unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is causing a careful reexamination of the assumptions that underlie the entire nuclear weapons debate. And like a captain who waits too long to put his boat into dry dock to look for rot under the waterline, the results have been shocking. Much of the intellectual structure supporting the rationale for nuclear weapons is made up of anachronistic ideas from the Cold War. Much of what we thought we knew has turned out to be wrong or inadequate. This has led to some sharp, interesting exchanges. Rather than being a stale debate that occasions stifled yawns, the debate about nuclear weapons is suddenly full of surprising new developments.
Perhaps the most interesting new thinking involves the familiar framing of the debate as a contest between realists and idealists. It turns out this division was not really a distinction created for intellectual clarity but a sort of gerrymandering that aimed to fix the outcome of the debate. This gerrymandering has been so successful, with one side in the debate losing so consistently, that most people now hesitate to be associated with the losers. In the United States, where this framing is most prevalent and shapes the debate most strongly, enthusiastic support for disarmament (except in the most far-off, one-day, maybe-someday terms) is tantamount to professional suicide.
Politicians, for example, rightly see that in the current environment taking an anti-nuclear position is a quick way to be branded as starry-eyed, inexperienced, and unrealistic. Carl Bildt famously said in the summer of 2013, when he was Foreign Minister of Sweden, that states questioning the importance of nuclear weapons are “not serious.” Opinion shapers and thought leaders draw back as well. Journalists, particularly, like to think of themselves as hard-boiled, worldly cynics. Because opposition to nuclear weapons has been cast as “idealism,” journalists who take disarmament arguments seriously risk their credibility with colleagues. Even anti-nuclear activists are likely to see themselves as Don Quixotes, tilting valiantly at targets they know they cannot dislodge, but bound by honor to keep on with the hopeless fight.