The Ban Treaty and the Politics of Power

In a new article, Nick Ritchie analyses the power politics behind the recent Ban Treaty. He argues that the Ban Treaty challenges the set of core international social institutions of nuclear order. Whether this challenge is sustained remains to be seen.

We live in interesting times for the global politics of nuclear weapons. The resurgence of deep animosity between the United States, NATO and Russia, concerns about the ability of President Donald Trump to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, and the nuclear threats and insults between the US and North Korea in 2017 all revitalized public fears about nuclear war to an extent not felt since the 1980s. 

Global_Parliamentary_Appeal_for_a_Nuclear_Weapons_BanLess well known is a movement of governments, NGOs and international institutions over the past eight years to galvanize progress towards nuclear disarmament as the only long-term solution to the threat of nuclear violence. This resulted in a new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons negotiated at the UN in 2017 to ban nuclear weapons. It was supported by 122 states across the global South but rejected by the nuclear-armed states and their allies. This polarization is symptomatic of the fractious state of nuclear politics.

Given these significant developments, how can or should we understand the messy politics of nuclear weapons in today’s world? In my new article, I argue that the starting point has to be power. This might seem obvious, but it is often missing from serious analysis of nuclear politics and the idea of a ‘global nuclear order’. By taking power seriously we can get a much better understanding of the global politics of nuclear weapons as a ‘global nuclear control order’, one in which the power of the United States is central but not reducible to it. 

I define this as a well-established set of practices (material, institutional and discursive) that legitimizes, regulates, and disciplines the development and use of nuclear technology and knowledge. But it does so selectively and in ways that reproduce a global nuclear hierarchy in general and U.S. power and preferences in particular. This includes the selective regulation and disciplining of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy programmes and the selective legitimation of the possession of nuclear weapons and even nuclear attacks.

The United States has played the central ordering role in global nuclear politics as the world’s most powerful state. But my argument that the global nuclear control order is rooted in but not reducible to U.S. power is important because it demonstrates the ways in which the global politics of nuclear weapons is shaped by structures of power that have developed and endured over seven decades.

Three further points are relevant here: first, these power structures are hierarchical and they have enjoyed the widespread support of most of the world’s major powers with the exceptions of Germany and Japan in the 1960s, China until the 1990s, and India on a limited but continuing basis. Second, the United States might be the most powerful state in global nuclear politics, but only within a wider nuclear oligarchy of other nuclear-armed states and nuclear beneficiaries; and third, the nuclear control order is embedded in a broader set of power structures that characterize the post-1945 capitalist ‘international liberal order’.

Screenshot 2019-02-03 at 20.13.06For these reasons, the global nuclear control order should be understood as a hegemonic order. Hegemony, in this sense, refers to a structure of power that is sustained through a combination of coercion and consent between the dominant and dominated. Political scientist Robert Cox argued that coercion and consent are practiced through material power, institutions, and ideas about how political life should be organized. A hegemonic structure describes “a particular combination of thought patterns, material conditions, and human institutions which has a certain coherence among its elements” as Cox put it (p. 135).

Thinking about global nuclear politics in this way means thinking about power beyond traditional notions based on material military and economic power. Instead, we need to think about material power, institutional power, the discursive power of ideas, and structural power. It is the way in which these forms of power are exercised and experienced in global nuclear politics to selectively empower and legitimize that is captured by Cox’s framework. Through this lens, global nuclear politics constitutes a hegemonic structure of control.

Screenshot 2019-02-03 at 20.14.01

This unequal and hierarchical nuclear control order is often framed as universal, normal, and legitimate in ways that conceal its underlying power relations. But the ways in which the ‘ban treaty’ process has actively challenged these power structures has made them more explicit. By taking power seriously and by using Cox’s understanding of hegemony and a more nuanced appreciation of power, a set of core international social institutions, or ‘structural pillars’, of nuclear order can be distilled. These include:

  1. A nuclear weapons and nuclear trade oligarchy centered on the five nuclear weapon states recognised in the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and their positions as permanent members of the UN Security Council;
  2. An understanding of security that requires a permanent operational capacity for strategic nuclear violence for an exclusive ‘club’ justified by an ideology of ‘nuclearism’; 
  3. A bilateral US-Russia institution of competitive, limited, negotiated and verified constraints on their strategic nuclear delivery systems alongside competitive development of advanced strategic weapons and recapitalization of Cold War nuclear weapon systems; 
  4. A Western nuclear security community of alliances that maps on to global wealth and power in the capitalist economic system with the U.S. as nuclear patron at the core;
  5. A system of intrusive and institutionalized nuclear policing led primarily by the U.S. and centered on state and non-state actors and networks, often in the global South, such that it is inadvisable to confront or militarily resist the U.S. and wider West without nuclear weapons; and
  6. A set of formal international institutions that regulate civilian nuclear technologies, knowledge and practices, notably through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The ban treaty has challenged the legitimacy of some (though not all) of these social institutions because of the growing permanence of nuclear inequalities and injustices. It is an expression of collective resistance to those aspects of nuclear hegemony, nuclear hierarchy, and practices of nuclear control that legitimize and perpetuate the existence of nuclear weapons, the practice of nuclear deterrence, and the continuing risk of catastrophic nuclear violence.

What is clear from this analysis is that changing the global politics of nuclear weapons through initiatives like the ban treaty entails confrontation with an embedded historical structure of power and hierarchy. A sustained challenge has the potential to change things at a time when wider power structures and hierarchies in global politics are in a period of flux, but it will need to be sustained. 

Nick Ritchie is a senior lecturer at the University of York, UK. He recently published “A hegemonic nuclear order: Understanding the Ban Treaty and the power politics of nuclear weapons”, Contemporary Security Policy, Advance online publication, available here

THAAD and Nuclear Deterrence on the Korean Peninsula

THAAD_1280px-The_first_of_two_Terminal_High_Altitude_Area_Defense_(THAAD)_interceptors_is_launched_during_a_successful_intercept_test_-_US_ArmyThe deployment of THAAD in South Korea has resulted in considerable controversy. In a new articleInwook Kim and Soul Park however argue that THAAD is vulnerable to readily available, relatively inexpensive, and highly effective countermeasures. They therefore suggest that the threat of retaliation should continue to be a dominant deterrence strategy.

In July 2016, huge political controversy and diplomatic friction erupted in Northeast Asia over the United States and Republic of Korea’s announcement to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a latest ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, designed to intercept short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missiles at their terminal flight stage.

Though justified as South Korea’s defensive measure against North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile threats, multitude of actors in the region opposed the deployment. They pointed out issues such as environmental concerns or intra-alliance politics, but most contentious was its possible ramifications on U.S.-China strategic balance in the region.

Unsurprisingly, a desirability of the THAAD deployment quickly became a subject of intensely politicized issues and debates, presenting significant challenges to regional politics and security.

Our recent article is motivated by this seemingly irreconcilable, complex, and consequential controversy. Rather than confronting these debates as a whole, however, we choose to focus on the two fundamental questions that underlie the debates: whether THAAD is a capable defense system, and how best to ensure South Korea’s national security against North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats.

Is THAAD’s interception capability what it promises to be? Although some are more critical than others, the conventional wisdom can be summarized as “qualified optimism,” or that THAAD is not perfect but net-positive to South Korea’s missile defense.

However, we find assumptions of this widely-shared assessment too static because it fails to properly take into account military countermeasures North Korea would be prompted to undertake in order to neutralize the new BMD system.

To address this gap, we give analytical primacy to the dynamic nature of arms race, more specifically, to the availability, cost, and effectiveness of military countermeasures North Korea can develop. Examining a variety of countermeasures against BMD systems, we find that manipulation countermeasures, those designed to exploit the THAAD’s technical vulnerabilities, are readily available, relatively inexpensive, and highly effective.

Three such countermeasures are particularly noteworthy. First, North Korea can deceive the THAAD system by making discrimination of real warheads from decoys difficult. By “mimicking the appearance of real reentry vehicle when viewed by various optical or radar sensors,” decoys have been an effective measure to confuse the radar and hence reduce a chance of successful missile interception.

Second, missiles could be turned into tumbling or spiraling in their terminal phase of flights. They make the missile flight movements erratic and unpredictable, against which THAAD and its radar is yet to demonstrate monitoring and interception capability. So far, the BMD tests have only been conducted against incoming missiles with stable and straight flights.

Third, North Korea can simply outnumber the THAAD interceptors. One THAAD battery comes with only 48 ready-to-launch interceptors and they take up to one hour to reload. It is also estimated to cost $800 million per battery. From Pyongyang’s point of view, the use of numerical superiority is an attractive option as no new technical knowledge is necessary and it imposes significantly higher cost to Seoul to maintain the numerical parity of THAAD interceptors.

In short, as missile technology decisively favors offense over defense, we find the technical and financial viability of defending North Korea’s missile threats through the construction of a missile defense system questionable at best.

Rather than to deploy the THAAD system to beef up defense capabilities, we argue that the current extended nuclear deterrence framework based on massive retaliation should continue to provide strategic stability on the Korean peninsula. In other words, a “deterrence gap” does not seem to exist against a nuclear-armed North Korea that warrants additional enhancement of defense capabilities.

In our article, we examine two key components of nuclear extended deterrence. First, the current nuclear balance and projections moving forward all remain highly favorable for the United States against regional nuclear states. As it stands, the overwhelming U.S. nuclear and conventional retaliatory capability can easily overwhelm North Korea’s small arsenal even in the most pessimistic of scenarios and without the added THAAD defense capability.

Such strategic nuclear arsenals are further supplemented with U.S. military commitment to the Asia-Pacific region at the conventional level. Thus, massive retaliation based on the current and conventional balance should serve as strong deterrence mechanism against any North Korean nuclear attacks or military provocations.

Second, extended nuclear deterrence remains a viable option as long as the U.S. remains committed to its allies against nuclear North Korea. To this end, successive American administrations in the post-Cold War era have continuously reaffirmed its security commitment to the U.S.-ROK alliance and to the maintenance of extended deterrence in East Asia. This policy stance has remained unchanged under the current Trump administration as key officials have continuously identified its alliance with South Korea as being the “lynchpin for peace and security” in the region.

Tellingly, as North Korea continued to conduct nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) tests in 2017, it was the logic of massive retaliation and not the logic of denial that underpinned the Trump administration’s strategic posture. More crucially, credibility does not necessarily have to operate with 100% assuredness. Pyongyang only need to believe that the U.S. might respond to an attack for extended deterrence to remain credible. In fact, the credibility of extended nuclear deterrence has been institutionalized even further within the U.S.-ROK alliance framework as the Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group (EDSCG) was regularized under the Trump and Moon Jae-in’s administrations.

In sum, how should South Korea maintain “deterrence under nuclear asymmetry”? Given the relatively inexpensive countermeasures readily available and with the technological imbalance favoring the missile offense over the THAAD defense capabilities, the threat of retaliation against a nuclear North Korea should continue to be a dominant deterrence strategy.

However, we caution against outright rejection of THAAD’s deployment. THAAD has never been a mere technical issue but increasingly become one concerning alliance credibility. Therefore, while Seoul and Washington are ill-advised to treat THAAD as a reliable defense system, they still should evaluate its benefits and costs in the larger context of alliance credibility management.

More broadly, our article draws attention to a lack of appreciation for security dilemma among practitioners–security is a product of interactions between two or more states and therefore the optimality of weapons acquisition must be assessed with the adversary’s ability and willingness to respond.

Inwook Kim and Soul Park are respectively Assistant Professor at the Singapore Management University and Lecturer at the National University of Singapore. They  recently published “Deterrence under nuclear asymmetry: THAAD and the prospects for missile defense on the Korean peninsula”, Contemporary Security Policy, Advance online publication, is available here

How contestation can strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime

BantheBombHow robust is the Non-Proliferation Treaty which has recently come under severe attack? In a new articleCarmen Wunderlich and Harald Müller examine contestation within the nuclear nonproliferation regime. They argue that debate over international norms does not necessarily result in erosion, but may also strengthen international norms.

122 countries voted, last July, for the legal prohibition of nuclear weapons. Yet, the five official nuclear weapon states and their allies strongly oppose a nuclear ban. They argue that it might undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT is, after all, the cornerstone of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime.

With near universal membership, the NPT can be considered a success of global security governance. However, like all systems of norms, the regime has not been free from contestation; challenges to its normative structure have been a common feature. Yet, so far it has proven robust. Why this relative stability, and what about the future?

Multilateral treaty regimes like the NPT present complex compromises among actors with multiple interests and worldviews. Therefore, the regimes incorporate structural fault lines deriving from the main differences of interests and ideas manifest already during the negotiations. These fault lines spark continued processes of contestation which keep normative dynamics within the regime alive.

Norms are never carved in stone but subject to interpretation and change of meaning – triggered by intrinsic (non-compliance or internal disputes) as well as extrinsic events (technological developments or shocks like 9/11). Such disputes about normative meaning are the engine driving norm dynamics. They are instantiated by actors committed to preserve the status quo, to reform, or to revolutionize the regime.

Whether contestation leads to normative progress, or blockage or even decay ultimately depends on three factors: commitment by the powerful parties to appreciate the concerns of the many, the work of bridge-builders for compromises, and the construction of reciprocal gains from compliance by all.

Many disputes within the NPT relate to its inherent inequality: it distinguishes between nuclear weapon states (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) which bear different rights and duties. These differences create opposite perspectives on the NPT, the way it operates, and how to improve its functioning. From these perspectives, different ways to understand the regime norms, their relative weight and their interrelations result, all structured by conflicting justice claims.

NWS justify their privileged status by their responsibilities for world order as permanent members of the UN Security Council: a status-related concept of justice. NNWS demand the elimination of the power difference which different NPT status implies: an equality-based concept of justice. In addition, developing countries claim preferred access to civilian nuclear energy as compensation for the past wrongs of colonial exploitation: compensatory and need-related concepts of justice.

What is called the NPT’s three interrelated “pillars” – nonproliferation, peaceful uses, and disarmament – installed as result of a “bargain” between the different groups of states, constitutes the regime’s fault lines, from which key patterns of contestation derive: the disarmament and the peaceful uses/nonproliferation disputes. Additionally, contestation results from disagreement on the relative weight of the “pillars” (are disarmament and peaceful uses as weighty as non-proliferation or even weightier?), the difference between states parties and non-NPT members, and procedural disputes. In all issue areas, contestation is related to the NPT’s inherent inequality.

Contestation consequences vary: disputes have repeatedly led to incremental norm improvement by specifying prescriptions and proscriptions, sharpening the nonproliferation tools, and widening the NPT agenda. If accompanied by a spirit of understanding and compromise, positive norm dynamics emerge.

But when norm contestation engenders an antagonistic feedback cycle that drives parties further apart, the regime community is shattered; blatant non-compliance might then meet insufficient response, parties turn to unilateralism and seek progress outside the procedures of the NPT. This may lead to norm erosion or even regime collapse. Such processes might arise when deeply emotionalized justice claims guide either side and make compromising difficult.

The origins of the Humanitarian Initiative and the failure of the 2015 RevCon on the Middle East suggest that this is most likely when parties get frustrated by a series of broken promises: The CTBT is still not in force, the FMCT is not even being negotiated, and there is no progress on the Middle East. Disregard by the powerful for the majority’s complaints betrays a lack of respect and recognition that drives negative emotions.

When such antagonistic contestation coalitions face each other over time, preventing all adaptation of the norm system to changing circumstances, the regime will look increasingly ineffective. Members may lose interest in membership. This stalemate motivates norm entrepreneurs (mostly of the “good citizen” type) willing to build bridges and to shape cross-cutting coalitions beyond the boundaries of the established groups, to explore and shape compromises. Their activities enhance the chances for consensus-building considerably.

Eventually, the NPT inequality problem can only be solved through a credible disarmament process, reciprocated by improved nonproliferation measures. Without satisfactory offers of civilian assistance and cooperation to the Global South by the North, regime efficiency will remain limited. The prospect of win-win results mitigates regime inequality and induces cooperation.

What does that tell us for the future of the NPT given the newly established nuclear ban treaty? For one, the ban treaty should not be regarded as competing with but rather as complementary to the NPT. Sure, a stronger wording would have been desirable. Yet, the humanitarian initiative is a direct result of ongoing contestation processes within the NPT, which resulted in frustration and anger of many NNWS with the slow pace of disarmament within the NPT.

By moving the issue beyond the NPT, the protagonists of the humanitarian initiative and the promoters of the ban treaty took a last resort, regained recognition for their demands and exerted considerable normative pressure on the NWS (and their allies). Furthermore, many ban advocates have been actors with a long-standing commitment for the NPT. That they went beyond the NPT does not mean they want to destroy it. It could rather be assumed that they keep their long-standing commitment for the NPT.

Carmen Wunderlich is a postdoctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). Harald Müller was Executive Director of the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (ret.) and is Prof. emeritus for International Relations and Peace Studies at Goethe University Frankfurt. They are authors of “Not lost in contestation: How norm entrepreneurs frame norm development in the nuclear nonproliferation regime”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming. It is available here.

Donald Trump and Nuclear Cooperation: the Art of the Deal

csp_blog_16_14_fruhling_oneilThe election of Donald Trump raises questions about nuclear cooperation with allies in Europe and Asia. Reducing the role and prominence of U.S. nuclear weapons in its alliances, however, would remove a major avenue for U.S. influence.

The election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States heralds a time of volatility, if not crisis, in U.S. alliances worldwide. Trump’s characterisation of America’s NATO allies, Japan, and South Korea as free riders on the military capabilities of the United States points to a more transactional approach to international relationships than we have been used to in the recent past.

Burden-sharing has always been a sensitive issue for the United States and its allies. But what really caught the attention of observers during the election campaign was Trump’s solution to the alleged free riding of Japan and South Korea: If elected President, he would give the green light for Tokyo and Seoul to develop their own nuclear forces rather than them relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. This comes after several years in which both allies have sought increasingly detailed and firm understandings with the United States about the functioning of the nuclear umbrella in Northeast Asia.

Reports that at this year’s U.S.-ROK ‘2+2’ meeting South Korean officials requested a semi-permanent presence of U.S. ‘strategic weapons’ on the Korean peninsula confirms a growing concern in Seoul that credible extended deterrence requires forward basing along the lines of NATO. The establishment in October 2016 of the US-ROK Deterrence Strategy Committee–which promotes greater interagency coordination between Seoul and Washington, DC–builds on initiatives taken shortly after the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review to institutionalise nuclear consultation in the U.S.-ROK and U.S.-Japan alliances.

The Obama administration was receptive to demands from Tokyo and Seoul for greater reassurance regarding the nuclear umbrella in spite of the President’s landmark 2009 pledge in Prague to reenergise US nuclear disarmament efforts. But Washington, DC was sure to set clear limits on this consultation: Despite strong preferences in Seoul and Tokyo for the NATO model of the nuclear umbrella, American officials made it clear that consultation arrangements would not replicate detailed NATO nuclear policy planning. Nor would they involve the forward basing of nuclear weapons in Japan or South Korea, at least not yet.

In NATO, notwithstanding the questioning by some ‘older’ European members of the continuing need for nuclear weapons, the Deterrence and Defense Posture Review (DDPR) of 2012 reaffirmed the Alliance’s commitment to the nuclear umbrella. As Russia’s threatening references to its nuclear capabilities have become more explicit, there are signs that NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group is returning to strategic discussion of a kind it has not had for many years. NATO nuclear exercises are a regular feature of the Alliance’s activities and discussion of nuclear issues has become less abstract and more operational in tone in recent years.

What if anything should the United States expect in return for this extended deterrence cooperation? Posing the question in that manner, as seems to be President Trump’s approach, assumes that extended nuclear deterrence is, or should be a direct and distinct bargain between the United States and its allies. But history shows that this would be very misleading. Nuclear weapons cooperation has been a crucial factor in reinforcing institutional commitment within alliances and achieving consensus on strategic priorities; it promotes alliance cohesion at times when that cohesion is potentially threatened by perceptions of differing strategic priorities among allies. Rather than a bargain in its own right, nuclear weapons cooperation creates the basis of trust and commitment upon which allies are then able to negotiate–and strike–the necessary deals on burden-sharing and alliance strategy.

All the iconic steps by which NATO developed into a genuinely ‘nuclear alliance’–including the reliance on nuclear weapons after the failure of the 1952 Lisbon Summit goals, the development of nuclear sharing in the late 1950s, the creation of the NPG in 1966, and the dual-track decision of 1979–were ultimately taken to promote broader alliance bargains about relative costs and benefits embedded in NATO strategy and posture.

In most of these cases, the need for a new bargain arose because of allies’ concerns about U.S. policies, rather than a changing threat from the adversary. The creation of the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK extended deterrence dialogue forums in 2010-11 also resulted from broader concerns that Washington, DC might be backtracking from the nuclear dimension of its alliance commitments in East Asia, with potentially adverse implications for broader U.S. security assurances.

In Cold War Europe, and more recently in East Asia, consultation on nuclear strategy and posture has been an important means for the United States to influence the choices of its non-nuclear allies. American interests in this regard are far broader than the objective of avoiding further proliferation among allies. In the past, Washington, DC has been able to gain increased emphasis on conventional forces in NATO defence planning when negotiating the new role of nuclear weapons under flexible response, and alleviated allied concerns about concessions to the Soviet Union by pushing for NATO nuclear force modernization.

As U.S. relative strategic weight continues to decline, and as Washington, DC confronts fiscal pressures to curtail defence spending while tensions mount in Europe and Asia, President-elect Trump is right to highlight the need for greater military burden-sharing with allies. Reducing the role and prominence of U.S. nuclear weapons in its alliances, however, would remove a major avenue for U.S. influence.

In the Trump era, the success of future alliance strategy will almost certainly have to rest on greater contributions by U.S. allies. But simply demanding–or expecting–greater contributions is not a strategy itself. Like many Presidents before him, Trump will find that the way Washington, DC approaches extended nuclear deterrence is the real ‘Art of the Deal’ in U.S. alliances.

Stephan Frühling is Associate Professor and Associate Dean (Education) in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the Australian National University. Andrew O’Neil is Professor of Political Science and Dean (Research) in the Griffith Business School at Griffith University. They are the authors of “Nuclear weapons, the United States and alliances in Europe and Asia: Toward an institutional perspective”, Contemporary Security Policy, 38, forthcoming. It is available here.