http://ipolitics.ca/2017/03/30/is-a-world-without-nuclear-weapons-possible Thursday, March 30th, 2017
This week, the United Nations began negotiations to create “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.” The goal, in other words, is to make the possession of nuclear weapons illegal.
These negotiations are the culmination of lengthy and energetic efforts by the international nuclear disarmament community, including in Canada, to rid the world of nuclear weapons once and for all. The belief is that making nuclear weapons illegal could contribute to their eventual demise. The negotiations are born of frustration — of a sense that nuclear states have done little to live up to their legal commitments to get rid of these weapons.
Last fall the UN General Assembly passed, by an overwhelming majority, a resolution that allowed these negotiations to proceed. The U.S., U.K., France and most members of NATO — including Canada — voted against the resolution. The only exception was the Netherlands, which abstained. Russia and nuclear-ambiguous Israel also voted against, as did Australia, South Korea and Japan — the latter three having formal defence arrangements with the U.S.
The other nuclear weapon states — China, India and Pakistan — abstained. North Korea, the only other state with a demonstrated ability to detonate a nuclear device, was absent for the final vote.
Full disclosure: Last year I joined four other former Canadian disarmament ambassadors in signing a public letter in favour of a nuclear weapons convention. I agreed that the humanitarian consequences of using any nuclear weapon would be catastrophic.
Separately, however, I am also on record as stating that nuclear weapons will not go away anytime soon, given prevalent old military thinking. At its 2016 Warsaw Summit, NATO reiterated that “as long as nuclear weapons exist, NATO will remain a nuclear alliance” and regretted that “the conditions for achieving disarmament are not favourable today.”
Russia’s current military doctrine maintains the right to use nuclear weapons, including against a dire conventional threat. China, along with the U.S. and Russia, is modernizing its nuclear forces. India and Pakistan continue to update their nuclear delivery capacities. Israel’s nuclear ambiguity remains its existential guarantee.
All blame each other for their ongoing reliance on nuclear weapons. And would France and the U.K., without nuclear weapons, cede their seats on the UN Security Council to Japan and Germany?
It is uncertain whether any nuclear weapons state will participate in the UN negotiations, although China and India did attend a preparatory meeting. The U.S., U.K. and France will not participate. Nor is it likely that any U.S. ally will participate — the Netherlands being perhaps the only exception.
This does not mean, however, that these negotiations will simply be an aspirational Don Quixote effort. We should view the talks as a serious opportunity to not only craft possible treaty language but to address substantive questions about nuclear weapons. These questions include how to disarm and dismantle nuclear weapons, how to verify that they are indeed dismantled, and how to ensure that they will not be recreated again.
These negotiations must also ensure that any outcome will not undermine the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons which is already under severe stress.
While such questions need serious attention there is arguably one overriding issue regarding the proposed ban on nuclear weapons that demands a credible answer. What would a world without nuclear weapons look like?
Given man’s well-established inhumanity to man, how would states govern themselves or allow themselves to be governed in the absence of nuclear weapons? The 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto, the humanitarian plea against thermonuclear weapons and a reference point for the nuclear disarmament movement, presciently refers to the challenges around state sovereignty.
Times have not changed. If anything, geopolitical calculations have become more difficult, unpredictable and dangerous.
As conventional munitions become more accurate, faster and more deadly — to the point where they can destroy targets that once were reserved for nuclear strikes — and as once-exotic weapons such as lasers become more credible, the utility of nuclear weapon use must be questioned. Future battlegrounds will more likely be in cyberspace and outer space.
In the interim, however, any credible push to get rid of nuclear weapons must also have realistic answers as to how a world without nuclear weapons will function.