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Protesters celebrate the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in New York on Jan. 22. Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

A UN treaty outlawing the existence of nuclear weapons went into effect on Friday.

Why it matters: The ban is chiefly symbolic, as neither the U.S. nor any other nuclear powers supported it. But moral statements should have meaning for weapons that, by their sheer indiscriminate power, are arguably immoral.

Driving the news: The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was ratified by Honduras on Oct. 24, the 50th country to do so, triggering a 90-day period that ended with the treaty going into force on Jan. 22.

  • The treaty requires that all ratifying countries “never under any circumstances ... develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."

The catch: 86 member states have signed onto the treaty and more than 60 have ratified it, but because no states that actually have nuclear arsenals agreed to its terms, it won't immediately lead to any reduction in atomic arsenals.

  • Nuclear powers including the U.S. have argued that gradual multilateral disarmament is a better way to reduce the nuclear threat, while some security analysts worry the new pact could undercut the long-running Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was meant to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

Yes, but: Advocates of the nuclear weapons ban point to the gradual erosion of multilateral nuclear arms control deals, including the expiration in 2019 of the Intermediate Nuclear-forces Treaty, which banned dangerous short-range missiles.

  • "The ban treaty rightly establishes abolition as the standard that all nations should be actively working to achieve, rather than an indeterminate future goal," former Defense Secretary William J. Perry wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Situational awareness: The Washington Post has reported that President Biden is seeking a five-year extension of the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which is set to expire in February.

The bottom line: As long as more than 13,000 nuclear warheads remain in existence, they'll be an existential threat to all of us.

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
Jan 26, 2021 - World

Biden holds first phone call with Putin, raises Navalny arrest

Putin takes a call in 2017. Photo: Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty

President Biden on Tuesday held his first call since taking office with Vladimir Putin, pressing the Russian president on the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny and the Russia-linked hack on U.S. government agencies.

The state of play: Biden also raised arms control, bounties allegedly placed on U.S. troops in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine, according to a White House readout. The statement said Biden and Putin agreed maintain "consistent communication," and that Biden stressed the U.S. would "act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies."

Updated 43 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Here come Earmarks 2.0

DeLauro at a hearing in May 2020. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House Appropriations Committee is preparing to restore a limited version of earmarks, which give lawmakers power to direct spending to their districts to pay for special projects.

Why it matters: A series of scandals involving members in both parties prompted a moratorium on earmarks in 2011. But Democrats argue it's worth the risk to bring them back because earmarks would increase their leverage to pass critical legislation with a narrow majority, especially infrastructure and spending bills.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
1 hour ago - Energy & Environment

UN says Paris carbon-cutting plans fall far short

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Nations' formal emissions-cutting pledges are collectively way too weak to put the world on track to meet the Paris climate deal's temperature-limiting target, a United Nations tally shows.

Driving the news: This morning the UN released an analysis of the most recent nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — that is, countries' medium-term emissions targets submitted under the 2015 pact.