The only reason we’re still here and not totally destroyed is because of multilateralism and civil societyBertie Ahern
The Doomsday Clock, the metaphorical timepiece that serves as an expert reminder of the perils of the nuclear-age, now stands at 100 seconds to midnight. The Intergenerational Dialogue on Nuclear Disarmament conference made the implications of this dire estimation strikingly clear. As one of our expert panelists, Rut Einarsdóttir, noted: “Year on year, the nuclear threat proliferates and coupled with the perils of climate change, the danger is now closer than ever”. The clock reflects just how dire the international security situation is for humanity at the present day, despite the fact that our sense of urgency has weaned since the end of the Cold War. What’s more, multilateralism and inter-state diplomacy are at an all time low, amplifying and exacerbating the nuclear threat exponentially. The global reaction to the coronavirus must be viewed as an alarm bell for things to come. It strikes a stark picture of the sheer gravity of the transnational dangers we face.
In Ella Robertson’s opening statement to the meeting, she highlighted the resounding importance of diplomacy in this ever more polarised world. As the Managing Director of One Young World and moderator of the meeting, she knows this all too well for according to them: “At the heart of every global threat is a failure of leadership”. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the 50 year anniversary of Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and it has never been so imperative that we, as a global community, concentrate ourselves on reducing dangers of a nuclear holocaust. The dangers of a nuclear discord is so disproportionately huge that, as nuclear proliferation keeps getting worse every year, we need to focus on what Ella coins: “practical solutions to the nuclear tide”. And, in the words of Tom Axworthy from the InterAction Council who followed from Ella: “We now face a massive crisis in arms control and only by combining the experience of those that have held high-level state and non-state posts with the energy and passion of the youth generation can we counter this critical point”. With this in mind, the proceeding panelists went on to give eye-opening details of why intergenerational action against nuclear proliferation is so consequential within this ever so dangerous nuclear age.
A Conference for Change
The conversation proceeded with our first panelist, Dr Reb Johnson. Growing up through the height of the Cold War, she campaigned against the bomb in the 1970’s, participating and mobilizing with the Greenham Women’s Peace Camp. Succeeding that, Reb has carved a career in activism. As she proclaims: ‘I committed my life to analysis and activism for disarmament, human rights, feminist peace and environmental justice campaigns’. She makes the argument that with the rise of nationalistic and populist leaders such as Trump, we have to break the power structures that enable inept leaders to obtain office and, thereby, stop them from obtaining access to nuclear powers. This notion furthers the grounds for the so-called ‘New Normal’ and the added threat of nuclear weapons only heightens its relevance. Instead of enhancing nuclear weapons under the largely illusory banner of national and international security, funds need to be reallocated to areas of public welfare. As Hajer Sharief later comments, there is an ethical dilemma here: As taxpayers, we have an inherent right and duty to tell leaders to stop nuclear proliferation and use the savings to enhance civil society for the benefit of the public. Or, in the words of panelist Ibrahima Jalal: We need to reorient our goal to the objective of saving our planet. For Bertie Ahern, former Prime Minister of Ireland and our final panelist, our principle need in our current age is to rekindle our faith in multilateralism. “No one country can do it alone, yet all have a responsibility to forge a vision of peace”. This must involve a balance with the full and equal engagement of women and youth, pulling as many people together to force positive change.
A Treaty in Trouble
Much of the discourse centered around a treaty that has been consequential in capping the nuclear tide propelled by the two largest nuclear-armed powers. Combined, the United States and the Russian Federation hold 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arms today. In 1991, an agreement between the two states was enacted to limit and reduce the number of strategic offensive arms in their possession. The bilateral treaty was renegotiated by Moscow and the Obama Administration in 2011 under a refreshed name—New START—and since then it has served as one of the remaining vestiges to cap a potentially catastrophic arms race between the two most nuclear regimes. Its importance rests with the fact that it is highly effective:
As of late March 2020, U.S. and Russian teams have carried out 328 on-site inspections, visiting each other’s missile, submarine, and bomber bases. The two sides have also exchanged 19,815 notifications about the status of weapons systems. (If, for example, a missile is going to a maintenance facility, a notification is sent.) Each side thereby has a grasp on the day-to-day posture of the other’s strategic nuclear forcesAntonov and Gottemoeller, 2020
Based on a principle of reciprocation, New START works by incentivizing cooperation on non-proliferation and disarmament. It also serves to increase transparency through this, thereby decreasing the chances of an accidental fallout.
Nonetheless, the treaty is on course to wither and without concerted efforts and commitments to counter the ever-growing nuclear tide, New START will expire in February 2021. Although President Putin has offered a five-year extension on the agreement, President Trump rejected the suggestion unless the agreement was expanded to include a wider range of weapons, leading the talks to breakdown. The conversation about the treaty’s future is now at an impasse, bringing great concern as the current international sphere is already on course to become far more unpredictable and insecure, even without the prospect of a nuclear arms race. The loss of this international security bastion would likely mean a growing trust deficit between Washington and Moscow, not only over arms, as this could also spill over to other areas that rely on the bilateral discourse between both governments.
A people-centered approach to disarmament focused on preventing and remediating human suffering and environmental harm, rather than advancing national securityDr Reb Johnson
Our awareness of the danger is not the issue, the problem is creating the political urgency to enact change. Much like the cost/benefit dilemma with climate change, the problem of nuclear proliferation centers on the fact that the big players (those most responsible for the threat) are overbearingly the states that would gain the least from disarmament. During the Cold War, the fact that nuclear weapons were regarded as a vital security bastion for the US and its allies as well as the USSR determined that disarmament objectives were confined to regulation. Proliferation could only be managed at the margins, relegated to incremental changes to appease the veto players such as the US, Russia, UK, and France. The failures of this form of disarmament are vividly manifested by the coming death of the New START treaty, for while the accord and others like it have proven critical at preventing exponential arms races in the post-Cold War era, they fall flat when leadership is inadequate and willpower is absent.
Climate change and nuclear weapons both pose an existential threat to human existence. They are the only two issues in today’s age presenting such danger and countering them will not be achieved through incrementalism. Just over three years ago, this realisation was put to advantage with a global movement to ban nuclear weapons outright. As the nuclear armed nations continue to modernise their arsenals, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) has been reframing the nuclear question as an issue of humanitarian and environmental consequentiality. On July 7th 2017, 122 UN member states voted to adopt the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and ICAN received the Nobel Peace Prize later that year. With 10 more ratifications from UN member states, the use of nuclear weapons will become illegal under international law and it is up to us—the citizens of a world in peril—to put pressure on our governments to work to build a more stable and peaceful international domain, instead of heightening insecurity.
Antonov, A. and Gottemoeller, R. (2020) ‘Keeping Peace in the Nuclear Age’, Foreign Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2020-04-29/keeping-peace-nuclear-age (Accessed: 16th August 2020).
Carpenter, C. and Mitchell, R. (2019) ‘Nuclear Disarmament’s Lessons for Climate Change’, Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/06/12/nuclear-disarmaments-lessons-for-climate-change/ (Accessed: 19th August 2020).
Miller, L. and Narang, V. (2019) ‘Is a New Nuclear Age Upon Us?’, Foreign Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2019-12-30/new-nuclear-age-upon-us (Accessed: 18th August 2020).
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of IVolunteer International.
IVolunteer International is a 501(c)3 tech-nonprofit registered in the United States with operations worldwide. Using a location-based mobile application, we mobilize volunteers to take action in their local communities. Our vision is creating 7-billion volunteers. We are an internationally recognized nonprofit organization and is also a Civil Society Associated with the United Nations Department of Global Communications. Visit our profiles on Guidestar, Greatnonprofits, and FastForward.