By Richard S. Johnson

PERSONS OF THE DIALOGUE: Mustela (the president); Socrates.

SCENE: Socrates’ house.

Socrates: What brings you here at this hour, Mustela? It must be quite early.

Mustela: Yes, certainly. The dawn is only just breaking.

Socrates: Well, what can I do for you this morning, my dear president; has something happened?

Mustela: Not precisely, old chap. I just couldn’t sleep. I have a prickly political dilemma on my mind, you see. There’s an initiative afoot at the United Nations; a group of states want to ban nuclear weapons. Of course I sympathise with the sentiment – nuclear weapons are dreadful things – but I don’t know whether a ban will truly further our security at this moment. I  do agree with those who say that we must factor in the humanitarian dimension of nuclear disarmament; a nuclear war, or even just a single nuclear detonation, would have ghastly humanitarian consequences, and the harmful impacts would not be constrained by time or national boarders. Yet at the same time we must not forget the security dimension of disarmament. Nuclear weapons have, after all, ensured the peace with our neighbours and the stability of our region. But which is more important: the humanitarian dimension or the security dimension? Socrates, my old friend, what should I do?

Socrates: Mustela, comrade, whatever do you mean? I would have thought that what you call the ‘humanitarian dimension’ was a perspective or lens through which to view the security dimension,  and not a separate concern? What does security mean if not the security of your people?

Mustela: I don’t know. I suppose what I mean is that while it is true to say that the use of nuclear weapons would be horrific, the utility of nuclear weapons lies in their capacity to avert war altogether. The catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons is precisely what makes nuclear war – and by extension all war – unthinkable.

Socrates: I think what you say is wise, Mustela. Rather than supporting this ban-treaty nonsense, we should recommend that all countries that have not yet done so to acquire nuclear weapons as soon as possible. That would surely make the world safer. If some poor countries would rather spend their money on education or health care, we could offer to pay for their nuclear armament!

Mustela: Stop being a wiseass, old man. Of course we cannot do such a thing. I cannot imagine anything more dangerous and destabilising!

Socrates: But, my dear president, I thought you just said that nuclear weapons ensure peace and stability?

Mustela: Yes, but only up to a point. There is such a thing as responsible nuclear agency. We cannot be sure that all nations will be as responsible as us and our allies.

Socrates: Maintaining the status quo seems to be the best option, then. Nuclear deterrence will protect us forever?

Mustela: Yes. Skeptics keep pointing out that messianic terrorists cannot be deterred, and that accidents or miscalculation could happen, but I am confident that nuclear deterrence works 99 per cent of the time.

Socrates: What about that last per cent, though, Mustela? Couldn’t that be quite significant? We are, after all, dealing with apocalyptic weaponry here. I’m just a silly old sod, but it seems to me that nuclear deterrence ought to work every time, from now and till the death of the sun, not just 99 times out of 100. I mean if it ever does go wrong, it goes terribly wrong! There is also something eerie about safeguarding one’s security by implicitly threatening to kill millions of people – not just of your adversary, but in third party states as well. Even a limited nuclear war, a war in which less than 1 per cent of the world’s total nuclear arsenal was used, could result in the death of two billion people through causing nuclear winter. That’s more death and misery than the crusades, the wars of the roses, the Thiry Year’s War, the Napoleonic wars, and than the first and second world wars managed combined. You could argue that these millions and billions of people are held, as it were, as perpetual hostages in a nuclear security deposit scheme of gargantuan proportions. That just doesn’t sit right with me.

Mustela: Two billion? That really is ghastly. Dreadful. I suppose you’re right, Socrates. Perhaps we do need to work for nuclear disarmament or at least greater control of the world’s weapons. But now that you raised the topic, even you would have to concede that the nuclear bombs did end World War II!? If the US hadn’t dropped the bombs, the war would have dragged on and even more people would have been killed.

Socrates: Actually I’m not so sure, Mustela. I’m but an old twit, but I think I’ve heard that the Japanese actually asked for peace talks before the bombs were dropped. And the Emperor’s unconditional surrender came almost immediately after the Soviet Union declared Japan war, not the atomic bombings. In fact, I do believe that most sophisticated historians now believe that the nuclear attacks had very little to do in ending the war. If you read the records of the meetings of the US president and his councilors before the attack, the motive of ending the war almost didn’t feature at all. It seems that what the US actually wanted, was to test the veracity of their new weapon, as well as to send a signal to Joseph Stalin, that bolshie bugger.

Mustela: You make some good points as usual, Socrates. But I’m not convinced by this ban treaty business. I’d much rather we pursue more practical measures such as negotiating a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty in the Conference on Disarmament.

Socrates: ‘Practical’ you say. Hasn’t the Fissile Material stuff been deadlocked for 20 years? That doesn’t sound very practical to me.

Mustela: Has it been 20 years already? Time flies when you’re having fun, eh?

Socrates: Whatever you say, president. But I still don’t quite understand why you hesitate to support a ban on nuclear weapons. If we agree that we cannot rely on nuclear deterrence to function forever, and the traditional approaches to disarmament have stalled, why won’t you support the ban?

Mustela: Well the timing is just so bad, isn’t it. The international security environment must be conducive to disarmament before we can adopt a total prohibition.

Socrates: Again, I’m just a layman, but is it really the case that disarmament is only a product of favourable security conditions and not vice versa? I would have thought that the relationship between the security environment and disarmament was more entangled.

Mustela: Well now that you mention it, I  suppose the PTBT, NPT, and SALT treaties were actually instrumental in bringing about the period of détente, or easing of tension, during the Cold War. Furthermore, Reagan and Gorbachev’s 1986 Reykjavik Summit and the disarmament processes that kicked off from there were just as much the causes as they were the consequences of the end of the Cold War.

Socrates: So perhaps a treaty banning nuclear weapons could actually help create more favourable security conditions?

Mustela: I guess you’re right as usual, you old boob. But, surely, a ban treaty, were it to be adopted now, would not be ratified by even a single nuclear-armed state. Or I suppose Britain might join were JC to be elected. But I think we’re more likely to see pigs fly than see that old geezer at number 10. So how on earth would the ban have any material consequences? Perhaps it would satisfy some normative impulses, but it wouldn’t have any material consequences. It wouldn’t guarantee disarmament.

Socrates: It seems to me that very little is guaranteed, old friend. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give it a go.

Mustela: You know what I mean. It wouldn’t lead to disarmament. The nuclear-weapon states are already obligated to disarm under Article VI of the NPT.

Socrates: You speak wise words, president. But it seems that the nuclear-weapon states subscribe to a fairly relaxed interpretation of Article VI. Sure, they agree that they need to disarm at some point, but at the same time they keep saying that they have a right to possess nuclear weapons and that they need them to ensure global peace and stability.

Mustela: Well, you’re right about the NPT. It’s an odd thing, really. I’ve often gotten the impression that my nuclear-armed colleagues find their atomic practices fundamentally legitimate. And I suppose the non-nuclear-weapon states are guilty of acquiescing. I’m not saying that the non-nuclear-armed states accept or like the big powers’ nuclear hegemony, but they haven’t made their rejection of nuclearism totally unambiguous either. I myself am guilty of this charge, in that our fair country relies on the extended deterrence of another for our security. If nothing else, a ban would certainly remove any ambiguity. It would make it impossible for the nuclear-armed states to say that what they are doing is accepted by others.

Socrates: You just said that you rely on extended nuclear deterrence for our security. But I thought we just agreed that any security benefit of nuclear deterrence is outweighed by the humongous risk nuclear weapons pose?

Mustela: Yes, yes. But a ban wouldn’t be verifiable.

Socrates: Why ever not? Isn’t the NPT verifiable?

Mustela: Sure the NPT is verifiable. The IAEA does splendid work. But all of that is to do with non-proliferation, not disarmament. For disarmament to happen, there must be mutual trust and enforcement and transparency!

Socrates: I agree. Disarmament should be verifiable. But how does the existence of a ban on nuclear weapon impede you from negotiating verification mechanisms for stockpile reduction treaties? The ban treaty, after all, wouldn’t be a stockpile reduction treaty. It would be a simple treaty that codified an unconditional rejection of nuclear violence. Come to think of it, it would actually be pretty much the same as the NPT only that it did not permit five of the world’s 193 states to possess nuclear weapons. I suppose a ban treaty would be to today’s nuclear-armed states what the NPT was for South Africa before South Africa decided to scrap its nuclear arsenal and join the NPT.

Mustela: So how did South Africa join the NPT?

Socrates: Well, after decades of ostracism from the international community, partly for its suspected nuclear-weapons programme but mostly from its contemptible treatment of its own people, the South African government decided to dismantle both its racial discrimination practices and its nuclear weapons and join the civilised world. Having gotten rid of its nuclear weapons, the South Africans invited the IAEA to come round to their nuclear facilities and inspect that they had indeed disarmed fully. As it turned out, the IAEA were happy with what they saw, and the South Africans were consequently eligible to ratify the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state. Simples. South Africa’s process of going from being a nuclear-armed state ineligible to join the NPT to becoming a  non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT regime was a matter between South Africa and the international community via the IAEA. The process of physical disarmament could, of course, have been provided for through verifiable and complex stockpile reduction and elimination treaties concluded between South Africa and other nuclear- or non-nuclear-armed states. I would be very surprised if anyone would have objected to that. The main thing was that South Africa reached zero and became eligible to ratify the NPT, don’t you agree?

Mustela: So what you are saying is that we could have a ban treaty and verifiable disarmament? That sounds like a cracking idea! Now that I think about it, I think a ban treaty could actually help the discussions we are having about an FMCT and other important instruments. If we kind of all agreed that nuclear weapons are unacceptable and had that as our baseline, it would be easier to negotiate other agreements. However, I am still concerned that our allies – our friends – would be quite upset if we joined the ban wagon. They like nuclear weapons quite a lot. I would be more comfortable trying to engage the nuclear-armed states. The ban might enrage them.

Socrates: But nuclear disarmament is in the interest of all states. You’d be a bad friend if you didn’t try to convince them of your view. And being their friend, your role is crucial. By constructively and proactively trying to convince your friends to disarm, you would be playing a key role in the struggle for a world without nuclear weapons. And even the nuclear-armed states agree that a world without nuclear weapons is the goal. Heck, even North Korea agrees with this. But I get it, they might get a bit upset at first. But after a while it will all blow over. Courage is one of the most importance virtues, Mustela, even for a president. Also, friends that won’t let you follow your convictions don’t seem to me to be very good friends.

Mustela: Ok then, Socrates. You’ve got me. Let’s go for the ban!

Socrates: What!? Let’s not get too carried away. I was only being obstinate and corrupting.

Mustela: I know, Socrates. I was just pulling your leg. Of course we’ll go for an FMCT in the Conference on Disarmament. But let’s really, really, really mean it this time.

Foto credit: © Bar Harel, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

Read more about Socrates here. Read Plato’s dialogues here. And read about the nuclear ban treaty here.

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