By Rick Noack* – The Washington Post
BERLIN — The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) appeared like a logical step at a time when fears of nuclear conflicts dominate the political agenda. And yet, the organization’s track record also indicates how long the path toward a nuclear weapons-free world will be.
In its announcement, the Norwegian Nobel Committee referred to the organization’s support for the International Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was approved by the United Nations in July.
It was signed by 53 nations but so far has been ratified by only three of them: Guyana, the Holy See and Thailand. The five European nations that signed the anti-nuclear-weapons treaty were San Marino, Austria, the Holy See, Ireland and Liechtenstein. More interesting than who signed the treaty, however, is who didn’t. Neither the United States nor any other member state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is among the signatories.
During her announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize winners on Friday, Nobel committee chairwoman Berit Reiss-Andersen specifically recognized the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons for “its work to draw attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and for its groundbreaking efforts to achieve a treaty-based prohibition of such weapons.”
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN might also be a message addressed to NATO and other Western nations opposed to the ban: It isn’t only rogue countries such as North Korea that are preventing a nuclear-weapons-free world.
Why are NATO member states and others opposed to the treaty?
NATO member states such as the United States and Britain would have to give up their nuclear weapons if they were to comply with the treaty conditions, which broadly state that countries should not be in “control over nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”
NATO relies on nuclear weapons as a deterrent against other nations that its members consider to be potential enemies, which is why it is unlikely that they will ever sign any treaty restricting their access to such weapons.
But why are nations without their own nuclear weapons — such as Germany — also not in favor of a ban?
“Germany relies on nuclear sharing within NATO to keep itself safe. The nuclear weapons are stationed in Germany and key to maintaining nuclear balance,” said Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist at the University of Kiel in Germany.
The reliance on nuclear weapons is controversial in Germany, however, and it was a key campaign issue in the lead-up to last month’s election there. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s main opponent, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, promised to remove all U.S. nuclear warheads, but his party suffered a major electoral defeat. Reacting to Friday’s announcement, Schulz called this year’s Nobel Peace Prize “a powerful signal at the right time.”
Most Germans remain similarly skeptical. “The German public might be opposed to nuclear weapons, but the government knows that they are key to German national security,” said Dirsus. The disconnect between public opinion and policies in place is reflected in other NATO nations without their own nuclear weapons, as well.
Has there been any progress in limiting nuclear weapons in recent years?
So far, efforts have mostly focused on a mere decrease in deployed warheads and nuclear-capable vehicles. The Obama administration negotiated a treaty with Russia in 2009 in which both countries agreed to cap the number of deployed warheads. President Trump reportedly called the agreement a bad deal in his first phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this year, but administration officials have since backtracked.
As the United States and Russia are unwilling to give up their nuclear warheads completely, other nations either seek to build their own nuclear weapons or to expand their capabilities. North Korea has held a series of tests of nuclear weapons technology in recent months, and there are fears that its missiles could now reach the mainland United States.
Speaking to The Washington Post’s Michael Birnbaum, Beatrice Fihn, the Swedish executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, said on Friday: “The risk of nuclear war has grown exceptionally in the last few years, and that’s why it makes this treaty and us receiving this award so important.”
“We do not have to accept this [risk]. We do not have to live with the kind of fear that Donald Trump could start a nuclear war that would destroy all of us. We should not base our security on whether or not his finger is on the trigger,” said Fihn.
Trump is also expected to decertify Iran’s compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal next week. The agreement was intended to block Tehran’s ability to acquire nuclear weapons, and Trump’s European allies fear that decertifying the deal would remove those impediments. Under the accord, Iran pledged never to “seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons” and said it was pursuing an “exclusively peaceful” nuclear energy program.
*Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs and is based in Europe.