Professor Gibbons Wins US Grant to Study Proposed Nuclear Weapons Ban

Rebecca Gibbons

Last December, 113 nations voted at the United Nations to begin the process of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide. These nations will meet in June in an attempt to finalize negotiations and produce a treaty.

Their agreement stems from an earlier international pact called the Humanitarian Pledge, as their focus is on the widespread suffering that would follow a large nuclear bomb detonation. They argue that no one anywhere has the ability to effectively respond to what would be an enormous and unprecedented humanitarian disaster. Contemporary nuclear weapons are many times more powerful than those dropped on Japan by the US at the end of the second World War.

“The Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations will face significant challenges in responding to the aftermath of a large nuclear weapons explosion,” said Rebecca Gibbons, a visiting assistant professor of government at Bowdoin.

While the United States and other countries possessing nuclear weapons oppose the Humanitarian Pledge’s approach to banning them, the movement could gain traction and help organize and intensify resistance around the world. “It is not that this treaty will have a big effect initially,” Gibbons said, “but it will galvanize people. It is a normative endgame to stigmatize the weapons, and is affecting populations in Europe.”

The US nuclear weapons umbrella shields our allies by acting as a deterrent to states considering launching a enuclear missile, and our allies have so far hesitated to sign the Humanitarian Pledge. But if even just one or two of these nations sour on nuclear weapons and favor a treaty banning them, it could send reverberations through other allied countries, whose leaders might have a harder time continuing to align with US-favored positions, according to Gibbons.

For instance in Japan and New Zealand, there is strong domestic support for nuclear abolition. And “other US allies are under pressure domestically and internationally to support the nuclear ban effort,” Gibbons said. Japan in particular “is expected by many in the domestic population to serve as a global leader on nuclear disarmament,” she added.

Gibbons, recently awarded a grant from the US Air Force Academy, will spend the next few months, with help from a student researcher, looking into the possible effects of the wave of anti-nuclear sentiment on US allies. Gibbons teaches international relations classes at Bowdoin and is an expert on foreign policy, national security, nonproliferation, and arms control. With support from the grant, she will seek to understand the pressures on and incentives for five US allies — specifically, Norway, Netherlands, Italy, Japan, and Australia — to join the international movement to prohibit nuclear weapons.

“To date, there is little academic research on the current global campaign to ban nuclear weapons, and little if any on how particular allies are responding to domestic pressure in face of a nuclear weapons ban treaty,” Gibbons explains in her grant proposal.

The five nations Gibbons will examine are all strong democracies that must contend with the popular will of their citizens, and each has had some experience with nuclear weapons or dangerous nuclear waste. In addition, they have a record of independence, occasionally voting out of step with the US on other issues.

Over the next few months, she will research the strategies of the global campaign to ban nuclear weapons — a campaign propelled by NGOs and some state partners — and she will look at how leaders of US allies are responding to pressures to ban nuclear weapons. She will also address the potential longterm consequences for US nuclear policy and operations if allies do sign onto the treaty.

The US — along with France, Great Britain, China, and Russia, all of which have nuclear weapons — has said it does not support this treaty effort to eliminate nuclear weapons. Instead the US wants to take a step-by-step approach that is consistent with an older agreement, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and take international security conditions into account. By this logic, Gibbons said “a nuclear weapons ban would be a potential last step, not a first step, toward nuclear disarmament.”

But Gibbons said that many non-nuclear weapons states and NGOs perceive that “the normal ways of doing this aren’t working” and nuclear disarmament progress have stalled in the eyes of many, which is why anti-nuclear advocates are seeking alternative avenues.

Gibbons’ research will result in policy recommendations for the US government to address the challenges that will arise from the anti-nuclear weapon campaign. She plans to write a journal article in a peer-reviewed international relations journal, and publish a short policy piece for a more popular publication.