As the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to a group that was instrumental in pushing through the landmark UN treaty banning nuclear weapons, the U.S. has quietly made its nuclear arsenal even more lethal
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is being awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons or ICAN. The group played a critical role in pushing through the first ever global treaty to ban the possession of nuclear weapons. The UN General Assembly approved it over the opposition of nuclear powers earlier this year. And now dozens of countries have signed on since ratification began last month. Rick Wayman is a Director of Programs and Operations at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. Welcome, Rick. Your reaction first to the Nobel Prize going towards this effort. RICK WAYMAN: Thanks for having me, Aaron. This is a huge honor for hundreds of activists around the world that are part of ICAN. ICAN is made up of over 450 partner organizations in 100 countries, so this is not some small effort that only a few people are undertaking. This is massive, this is global and it’s a really exciting movement to be a part of. To be honored in this way by the Nobel Committee, it’s really fantastic and really gives all of us around the world a lot of encouragement to keep at it, make sure this treaty enters into force and really to make sure that the name of the campaign is fulfilled, to abolish all nuclear weapons worldwide. AARON MATÉ: So this treaty, let’s talk about it. It was passed earlier this year by something like 122 nations at the UN General Assembly. Now it’s in the ratification process, dozens of countries have signed on, but it was not an easy road to get there. Can you tell us how it was achieved? RICK WAYMAN: This was a really fantastic partnership between civil society, between a lot of non-governmental organizations that are a part of ICAN and even those that are not a part of ICAN, really influential institutions like the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as a number of dedicated non-nuclear countries. Some of the leading countries involved in this were Austria, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Brazil, Nigeria, many others as well. Again, this was not just something that a few people thought of and moved forward, this is something that took a lot of work and took a lot of different parts of societies to come together and make it happen. AARON MATÉ: Right. Let’s talk about the other side of this. The major nuclear powers, including the US and Russia, were not so happy about this measure and they came out against it pretty early. RICK WAYMAN: They sure did. The US in particular was very opposed to this idea even under the Obama administration. Back last October when the UN General Assembly was debating the resolution on going forward with these negotiations, the Obama administration’s team was actively not only speaking out against it in the General Assembly, but also lobbying very hard with their allies around the world to oppose it as well. That opposition continued when Donald Trump took over, and we’ve seen that ever since. The US has been very actively opposed, as have all the nuclear armed countries to one extent or another. The US, UK and France have particularly been outspoken about their opposition, but none of the nine nuclear armed countries were involved in these negotiations, and up to this point they have all steadfastly refused to identify the treaty as a good thing, and definitely have said that they’re not going to sign on. But that was the idea to begin with. We didn’t expect the nuclear armed countries to want to come along right away. This is a process that has happened before with other classes of weapons, and once the treaty went into effect, once that international legal norm became part of international law, the countries that were in opposition to it came along, and eventually many of them have signed on. Chemical weapons, land mines are just two examples of how that process has worked. AARON MATÉ: Let me ask you, you mentioned the nuclear states being opposed to it, but isn’t it true that at the beginning there were signs from North Korea that North Korea might even be open to it? RICK WAYMAN: There were a few votes that it took to get to the point of actually negotiating the treaty, and one of the votes was in the UN First Committee, which meets in October every year in New York. Last year at the First Committee, North Korea voted in favor of the resolution to begin these negotiations. Then when the full General Assembly went to vote on it, North Korea no longer was voting in favor of it. North Korea also was not present at the negotiations themselves earlier this year in 2017. But yeah, there were some early signs, and I don’t know what happened. I don’t know the story behind it, but I do have to say to at least their small bit of credit, at the beginning they did seem willing to listen or to allow the process to move forward. AARON MATÉ: It is important to keep in mind as we have this unfolding nuclear standoff now with President Trump and Kim Jong-un, it suggests some possible diplomatic alternatives to what we’re currently seeing. The nuclear armed states, one of their arguments that they’ve made is that the existing process is sufficient, including the NPT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Your thoughts on that. RICK WAYMAN: The Non-Proliferation Treaty has been in effect since 1970, so we’re well over 45 years into that treaty, and there’s been no meaningful progress on disarmament. Perhaps one could argue that that treaty has been effective in terms of non-proliferation. To a large extent, it has. But Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty requires all parties to negotiate in good faith for an end to the nuclear arms race and for nuclear disarmament. That Article VI obligation has definitely not been fulfilled by the nuclear armed states, but the Article applies to all countries regardless of whether or not they possess nuclear weapons. So we were very happy to see this good faith multilateral negotiation process that resulted in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. For a lot of countries, that was one really concrete way for them to fulfill, or at least partially fulfill, their Article VI obligations. AARON MATÉ: I want to hone in on what you’re saying there about the obligations of the NPT, because it’s important. (A), nuclear countries are supposed to share in the peaceful benefits of nuclear power, at least under the terms of the agreement, with non-nuclear countries, and as you say, they’re also supposed to not proliferate, but that’s been quite the opposite, especially the US, Russia, and China have expanded their arsenals since the NPT was signed in the ’70s. And on this point, I want to ask you about a study that was in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists back in March. It talks about what the study calls “the revolutionary increase in the lethality of submarine-borne US nuclear forces.” They talk about this as a major threat to stability and to the idea of … the supposed idea upon which nuclear weapons are based, which is that they’re mutually deterrent. They write the increase in the US arsenal has increased “the overall killing power of existing US ballistic missile forces by a factor of roughly three, and it creates exactly what one would expect to see if a nuclear armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.” And they add, “This vast increase in US nuclear targeting capability, which has largely been concealed from the general public, has serious implications for strategic stability and perceptions of US nuclear strategy and intentions.” Rick, can you explain for us what these study authors are talking about there? RICK WAYMAN: They are scientists and I’m not, so I can try to explain it a little bit from a layman’s perspective, which is that the US has introduced something called the superfuse on their submarine launched missiles, and basically what that does is it greatly increases the accuracy of a nuclear armed missile that we could fire off from one of our many nuclear armed submarines that crawl around the world’s oceans. Back prior to this superfuse, the nuclear war planners believed that they needed perhaps three missiles on one target just to make absolutely sure that they hit it with enough certainty to destroy it. With the superfuse, they’re able to shrink the level of inaccuracy that they might predict from each missile, and so therefore they don’t need to target as many physical missiles on whatever it is that they’re targeting. That is one of the main reasons why we can see the total number of nuclear weapons in the US arsenal, similar for Russia as well, but it’s why we can decrease the quantity of nuclear weapons that we have while still in the minds of the nuclear war planners not give up any of our kill capability. One of the main arguments that we hear from the United States in particular is that our arsenal is 85% smaller than it was in the mid-’80s at the height of the nuclear arms race. On the one hand that’s true. Quantitatively, we have fewer nuclear weapons than we did 30 years ago, and that’s a good thing. The fewer we can have, that’s greater. But what we see happening simultaneously is a qualitative improvement in the ones that we have, therefore making it more dangerous in terms of theoretically making nuclear weapons more usable in the minds of military planners. We know that nuclear weapons are unacceptable under any circumstance. There’s no question from a humanitarian perspective that any use would just be an absolute catastrophe. So we’re very concerned that this qualitative nuclear arms race is underway, and it’s something that we’re working very hard to stop, both here in the US and worldwide. AARON MATÉ: If the treaty is ratified, that’s just at the UN General Assembly level, right? So it doesn’t have the binding authority that, say, a UN Security Council measure would. So what could it actually do towards the goal of reducing or eliminating nuclear weapons? RICK WAYMAN: One of the big criticisms that countries like the United States will level at this current prohibition treaty is that the treaty itself will not eliminate a single nuclear weapon from the world. One of the reasons for that is that the nuclear armed states aren’t signing on. But one really important thing that this treaty will do for any country that signs on, it will prevent those countries from assisting in the development and manufacture of nuclear weapons. We believe that that prohibition includes financing, so banks, financial institutions that are involved in financing the corporations that produce nuclear weapons, both here in the US and in other countries around the world, will either no longer be able to do so or will be acting against the law if they continue to do so. As we know, with all forms of war, nuclear war in particular, money is a big driving factor, and if we can take that profit incentive away, make it clearly illegal for many financial institutions to be involved in it, then that’s great. That’s going to help the cause a lot. And that’s something that we’re particularly excited about. AARON MATÉ: Rick Wayman, Director of Programs and Operations at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, thank you. RICK WAYMAN: All right. Thanks, Aaron. AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.