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Opinion Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump: The godfathers of the UN treaty to ban the bomb

Ramesh Thakur is a professor of public policy at The Australian National University and co-convenor, Asia Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation & Disarmament

With a protector-in-chief like Donald Trump, who needs enemies like Kim Jong-un? Clearly, history does irony: the president with the least previous foreign policy interest and experience could end up having the biggest impact on global affairs in a century.

Advocates for nuclear disarmament have long argued that deterrence stability depends on rational decision makers being in office on all sides at all times. The world could survive on the brink of disaster with one of the nine leaders with their fingers on the nuclear button being volatile, but risks going over the brink with two such leaders. With Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim, the specialists' warnings have become a global public nightmare.

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On Friday, a historic conference concluded in New York with 122 countries adopting a new UN treaty to ban the possession, use and threat of use (that is, deterrence) of nuclear weapons. It will open for signature in the General Assembly on Sept. 20 and enter into force after 50 countries have ratified it.

Read more: North Korea's missiles: What's happened so far, and what could happen next

Although Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim were not in the conference room, their Banquo-like ghosts were very much present. Mr. Trump will deserve an honourable mention in history for his role in galvanizing international sentiment to ban the bomb. Some countries that have previously championed disarmament credentials – Australia, Canada, India, Japan, Norway – will earn a dishonourable mention for boycotting the conference. Badly misjudging and disrespecting the dominant international sentiment, they failed in efforts to discredit and scuttle the growing prohibition movement. The rhetoric-action gap on the Trudeau government's commitment to liberal internationalism continues to widen.

In the 49 years since it was adopted, and 21 years after the World Court's unanimous opinion that all states parties have an obligation to engage in and bring to a conclusion negotiations on nuclear disarmament, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) count on elimination or a disarmament treaty is zero. There was palpable impatience with the dismissal by nuclear powers of growing calls to reduce nuclear threats with practical outcomes and concrete deliverables. Into this stepped Mr. Kim, with a dramatically increased speed and scope of his nuclear and missile programs and provocations, and Mr. Trump, with his strategically challenged serial nuclear tweets to stoke the sum of all fears.

In a recent 37-country survey of 40,448 people, only 22 per cent expressed confidence in Mr. Trump's global leadership. Most dislike and distrust him as "arrogant [75 per cent], intolerant [65 per cent] and even dangerous [62 per cent]." Only 26 per cent believe he is qualified to be U.S. President.

Mr. Trump effectively discarded president Ronald Reagan's crisp warning that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. In a tweet on Dec. 22, Mr. Trump promised to "greatly strengthen and expand [U.S.] nuclear capability." In February, he insisted that the United States would stay at the "top of the [nuclear] pack," adding a day later, "Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."

With diminishing confidence in Mr. Trump's judgment and commitment to their defence, attention is turning to the possibility of nuclear weaponization by Japan and South Korea in the Pacific, and an independent European nuclear deterrent across the Atlantic. In one of the most consequential statements ever from an ally, on May 28, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared the era of reliance on others was "somewhat over" and Europe should take control of its own destiny.

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That is exactly what the UN ban treaty seeks to do, literally on an issue of life and death for the world. Against the twin backdrop of the receding nuclear arms control and disarmament tide and elevated nuclear threat levels, most countries concluded that fresh "out of the box" efforts were necessary. They switched roles from rule takers to norm setters and reclaimed nuclear agency to proclaim a powerful and unambiguous prohibition norm.

Criticism of the UN treaty as ineffective in eliminating warheads, and thus impractical, is fundamentally misconceived. It confuses normative impact of a prohibition convention with operational results of a nuclear weapon convention. Only those possessing nuclear weapons can cap, reduce and eliminate them. But others can delegitimize and prohibit, affirming the collective moral revulsion of the international community.

The foreseeable effects of use makes the doctrine of deterrence and the possession of nuclear weapons morally unacceptable to the world community. By changing the prevailing normative structure, the UN treaty will shift the balance of costs and benefits of possession, deterrence doctrines and deployment practices, and create a deepening crisis of legitimacy for all possessor states. Stigmatization and prohibition are the necessary – not sufficient, but necessary – precursors to elimination.

Meanwhile, just like all the nuclear-armed and umbrella states, Canada still professes fidelity to nuclear abolition as the "ultimate" goal. This calls to mind St. Augustine's prayer: "Lord, make me chaste. But not just yet."

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