As President Obama stated in his address to the Security Council on 24 Sept 2009, the United Nations (UN) “was founded at the dawn of the Atomic Age in part because man’s capacity to kill had to be contained.” Since its creation, the UN has been tasked with one of the most difficult processes of our area – total nuclear disarmament. For example, both the General Assembly and the Security Council, in articles 11.1 and 26 respectively, are tasked with the regulation of armaments for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security. To date, ten nations have obtained nuclear weapons – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Israel, and South Africa (not including former Soviet Union states who possessed weapons at the fall of the Soviet Union.) Only one of these nations, South Africa, has yet to fully disarmed its nuclear stockpile.
At the beginning of the nuclear age, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning of the dangerous of this new weapon. “A single bomb of this type,” he warned, “carried by boat or exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” This warning was effectively disregarded. Instead, after the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the global superpowers of the time began a global arms race to create and stock pile as many nuclear weapons as they could. In 1949, the Soviet Union (USSR) became the second nation to successfully test a nuclear bomb. Shortly after, in 1952, the United States took nuclear weapons a step further and successfully tested the hydrogen bomb, followed shortly by the USSR’s first successful test of the hydrogen bomb in 1953.
But quickly scientists raised the alarm, alerting politicians to the potential negative affects nuclear weapons testing could have on the air, soil, and water supplies. This lead to the creation of the Partial Test-Ban Treaty (PTBT), negotiated through the auspices of the United Nations in 1963, calling for the end to all nuclear weapons testing. However, despite the PTBT, China and France – neither of which ratified the treaty – continued to test nuclear weapons for many years. Thus began a long history of nations limiting aspects of nuclear weapons use, though never actually banning nuclear weapons in totality; and nations choosing not to ratify or comply with the treaties, therefore disregarding the international law and effectively classifying the treaties as functionally rhetorical documents.
After the PTBT, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was creating in 1968, and came into force in 1970. Currently, 191 states have joined the treaty, including all five permanent members, which is the largest number of states party to any arms limitation and disarmament agreement. In theory, this largest participation would be a signal of the treaty’s success; however, four nuclear-weapons-possessing states are currently not states party to the treaty – Israel, DPRK, India, and Pakistan. Unfortunately, these are also four of the world’s nations which are most likely to use their weapons due to current conflicts in their region (or, in the case of the DPRK, current policy by the ruling government).
In addition to the efforts of the international community during the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union entered into a series of bilateral agreements with each other. These include the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) in 1972, which led to a ban on ballistic missiles and limitations on offensive nuclear weapons; and the SALT-II negotiations in 1979 to strengthen and finalize SALT-I. However, it is notable that the SALT-I negotiations were limited to offensive nuclear weapons only – therefore allowing both nations to continue research on and stockpiling of nuclear weapons for ‘defensive purposes’. Further, SALT-II was never ratified by the US Senate (and therefore never entered force) due to concerns over the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons in Cuba.
In the 1980s, the United States and the Soviet Union entered into bilateral negotiations again with the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned all nuclear armed ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, and their infrastructure. This was the first nuclear agreement to reduce arms numbers, rather than establish ceilings that could not be exceeded, and led to the destruction of about 2,700 weapons. However, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the INF Treaty had to be multilateralized to apply to the twelve successor states of the USSR. Six of these states – Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan – contain inspectable INF facilities in their territory. Of these six nations, however, only four – Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine – are active participants in the INF implementation process.
The 1990s also saw bilateral negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union. In 1991, the two states signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-I), which reduced the strategic nuclear weapons by 30-40%. The second round of negotiations, START-II, furthered the reductions. However, the Soviet Union ratified START-II under the condition that the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty of 1972 remain in force. In 2002, the Bush Administration withdrew from the ABM, causing Russia to no longer be bound by START-II.
This was of little importance, though, as the START-II had never entered force – it was effectively superseded by the Moscow Treaty on Strategic Offensive Reductions (SORT), which was negotiated on May 24th, 2002. While SORT contained provisions similar to that of START I and START II, and went further by calling for the destruction of warheads, SORT lacked a timetable for reductions, simply stating both the US and Russia would implement their reductions by December 31, 2012 – the date that the pact expires. This has lead some to conclude that the treaty was technically impossible to violate. As international law’s coercive enforcement mechanisms can only be used should a state violate a treaty, SORT effectively becomes solely rhetorical – there is no way to ensure implementation.
As SORT had superseded START, the New START negotiations of 2010 superseded SORT. Under the New START, the United States and Russia have until 5 February 2018 to meet the limitations in nuclear arms set out by the treaty. The treaty does not, however, limit testing, development, or deployment of current or planned missile defense programs or long-range conventional strike capabilities. As of September 1, 2017, six months before the treaty is to lapse, both nations have declared their arms capabilities to be within the agreed upon limits.
After the Cold War, while the United States and Russia have been conducting bilateral agreements with each other for the reduction of nuclear weapons, the United Nations has been used to complete two important nuclear arms agreements. In September 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) was opened for signature. However, the treaty states it will not enter into force until “all 44 States listed in Annex 2 of the Treaty have ratified it.” This has caused serious complications that have led the treaty, 20 years after opening for signature, never to enter into force. Today, 8 of the required 44 nations continue to refuse ratification of the treaty, namely: China, DPRK, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, Pakistan, and the United States. This list also includes 6 of the 9 nuclear-weapons-possessing states. Despite regular conferences to persuade these nations to sign and ratify the CTBT, held in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2011, and 2013, the CTBT still lacks the ratifications required to enter into force.
The next attempt by the United Nations for a multilateral agreement banning nuclear weapons worldwide occurred 20 year later, in July of 2017. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons prohibits ‘all efforts to develop, test, produce, manufacture, acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, as well as the use or threat of use of these weapons.’ With 122 nations voting in favor of this treaty, it would appear to be a success. However, this overlooks the nations who chose to be absent from the negotiations of the treaty, namely: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and the DPRK. As you will recall, these are all of the nuclear weapons possessing states. Also absent from the negotiations were many of the ally states of these nations, who could – in theory – persuade the governments of these nations to assent to the treaty. In a joint statement, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France clearly declared their intention not to sign, ratify or ever become part of the treaty, stating that the treaty is “incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.” This statement summarizes the current reality of the international stage – no matter how long the international community works towards nuclear non-proliferation; no matter how many treaties are negotiated for this purpose; as long as nuclear weapons nations maintain nuclear deterrence as a cornerstone of their foreign policy, these nations will retain their nuclear weapons.
A further complication for nuclear weapons use is the reality that nuclear materials are not solely used for creation of weapons; these materials are also used for the creation of an alternate form of energy, for medical uses, for agricultural uses, and for industrial uses. In the late 1990s, around 17% of the world’s electricity was nuclear-generated. Today, that number has decreased slightly to 11%; however, some countries, such as France, are almost completely reliant on nuclear energy. While there is controversy towards the risk of the use of nuclear energy that has led to the decrease in its use, there is little controversy towards the use of nuclear techniques in treating medical diseases, such as cancer. Nor is there much controversy towards the use of nuclear techniques to improve agricultural techniques, or to advance our industrial capabilities with new products created through the use of nuclear materials.
As long as the use of nuclear technology pose some benefits to the world that cannot be achieved by other means, nuclear materials will continue to exist. And as long as nuclear materials exist in the world, whether they are currently used for weapons purposes or not, there is a risk of the materials being weaponized. This therefore casts serious doubt on the possibility of global zero for nuclear weapons being achieved. After all, even if all nuclear weapons are disarmed and disassembled, as long as the materials exist it will be possible for powers – either state actors or non-state actors – to reconstruct the nuclear weapons. And as long as there is a risk that an enemy of a state can obtain nuclear weapons, nations – such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States – will maintain their foreign policy of nuclear deterrence, therefore refusing to relinquish their defensive nuclear weapons.
As outlined in this essay, despite extensive efforts to limit nuclear testing, offensive nuclear weapons stockpiles, and to ultimately completely eliminate all nuclear weapons, there have always been obstacles too great for the international law to ultimately succeed. Further, the world relies on nuclear materials to achieve important advancements in agriculture and industry, and to treat deadly diseases like cancer. However, until the day that all nations are willing to completely relinquish both their offensive and defensive nuclear weapons, and nuclear materials are no longer used in any capacity in any part of the world – two preconditions that are highly unlikely to ever be achieved – a global zero for nuclear weapons will remain a utopia, impossible to be achieved.
 UN Charter
 Albert Einstein’s Letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt
 Blix, H. (1997) The Good uses of Nuclear Energy. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Vienna, Austria.