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Denuclearization a pipe dream? UN holds talks to ban nukes, but major powers don't show up

Some of the world's biggest economies won't attend high-level negotiations aimed at banning nuclear weapons — an indicator that global denuclearization remains a distant dream.

A photograph of a British nuclear weapons test over Christmas Island in the 1950s at the Imperial War Museum in London.
Ray Tang/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
A photograph of a British nuclear weapons test over Christmas Island in the 1950s at the Imperial War Museum in London.

The United Nations (UN) kicks off a five-day conference in New York on Monday to discuss such a ban in what many political commentators have called a milestone event. But visibly absent will be Security Council members U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China, who don't believe in the prohibition of weapons. Australia, Germany, Japan, Norway, and South Korea also don't support the measure. North Korea, which recently defended its right to nuclear arms following a series of recent ballistic missile launches, will also be absconding from this week's discussions.

Excluding Pyongyang, the decision to shun talks drew international criticism as it clashed with each government's obligations to a non-proliferation treaty that's been in force since 1970. Known as the NPT, the agreement is focused on curbing the spread of nukes with complete disarmament as its end goal.

"Given the dangers arising from a lack of cooperation on nuclear security issues and the potential emergence of a new arms race between the nuclear powers, principled and engaged leadership from nuclear-weapon states is sorely needed," said UNA-UK, a London based nonprofit that conducts independent analysis on the UN, in a recent statement.

Washington believes an outright weapons ban would be "fundamentally at odds with NATO's basic policies on nuclear deterrence," as it outlined in an October letter to NATO members. Deterrence, or the threat of nuclear retaliation to avert enemy attack, has been a staple of international security policy since the Cold War.

Instead, a gradual reduction of nuclear forces remains the only path to eventual disarmament, the U.S. stipulates.

Underlying reasons

Global hesitation to ban nukes stems from a multitude of factors.

Historically, Western countries have been at the forefront of the nuclear disarmament initiative but currently, many governments prefer to enjoy the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, John Park, director of the Korea Working Group at the Belfer Center, Harvard University, told CNBC on Monday.

Washington, whose nuclear arsenal of 6800 warheads is second to Russia's 7000, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), has long guaranteed to defend its non-nuclear allies, which include Japan and South Korea.

While this runs directly counter to denuclearization efforts, expectations for Pyongyang to launch an inter-continental ballistic missile has made the world increasingly reliant on the American umbrella, Park explained.

As a result, Park believes denuclearization is an increasingly remote option, warning that global priority will shift to non-proliferation by default.

Internal bickering among NPT signatories is another issue.

"The broad decision of nuclear-weapon states not to engage with this disarmament movement is a symptom of deteriorating relations between the nuclear haves and have nots," said UNA-UK.

According to the NPT, non-nuclear signatories are prohibited from developing nuclear weapons while nuclear-armed countries committed to a process of disarmament.

"But with little visible appetite for disarmament from nuclear-weapon states, this bargain is increasingly called into question," warned UNA-UK. Dissatisfaction with the slow pace of disarmament have thus resulted in tension between states, it added.

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