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The Pandemic-Nuclear Nexus

Introductory Keynote to the Nagasaki Workshop on the Pandemic-Nuclear Nexus, Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, 31 October 2020

As Chair of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (APLN), I am delighted to join with our co-hosts, RECNA at Nagasaki University and the Nautilus Institute, in welcoming participants in this Online Workshop on the Pandemic-Nuclear Nexus. I thank my colleagues, and especially Nagasaski Mayor Tomihisa Taue, for their opening remarks.

It was seventy-five years ago that the terrible bombing of Hiroshima ad Nagasaki put beyond argument that nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised. But the distressing reality we now face is that the risk of nuclear catastrophe is, in 2020, as great as it has ever been, and the goal of achieving their elimination from the face of the Earth is as far from achievement as it has ever been.

Existing nuclear arms control agreements are dead, dying or on life support. Hopes for progress on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula have completely stalled. There has been no progress on moderating the salience of nuclear weapons in strategic doctrines: if anything the reverse. Stockpiles are growing in most of the nuclear armed states.

But as depressing as all this is, we must never abandon the global zero dream, and we must pursue that dream with a new sense of urgency. The risk of catastrophic misuse of nuclear weapons, deliberately or ― more likely ― by accident or miscalculation, by system error or human error or idiocy, is as grave and immediate as it has ever been.

I see the objectives of this Workshop as being not only to broaden our analytic understanding of the connections between the pandemic and nuclear threats and the world’s responses to them, but also – informed by that understanding – to reach as much agreement as we can on the kinds of strategies that will be most productive in overcoming the nuclear threat.

The first and most obvious connection between nuclear weapons use and pandemics is that they are not just serious risks but are – along with climate change – existential risks to life on this planet as we know it. Hopefully the Covid pandemic – and the abundant evidence of high-level incompetence and institutional failings that have accompanied attempts to suppress it – will help shake both policymakers and publics out of their complacency. And above all make them better appreciate the absolute necessity for effective international cooperation and coordination if all these existential risks are to be effectively tackled.

Other points of connection include the ways in which Covid and future pandemics might, through their impact on the health of key individuals, increase the vulnerability of nuclear command and control systems, and increase the likelihood of poor crisis decision-making by military and political leaders. And we need to explore how future pandemics might, through their impact on wider populations, reduce the availability and capability of conventional forces, and lead to greater reliance on weapons of mass destruction, especially those deliverable from great distance.

I very much hope that this Workshop will have not just an analytic but a strong prescriptive focus as well, focusing on the nuclear threat but exploring in that context what we can learn from how pandemics and other global threats have been, or should be, addressed.

As to process, almost any major policy change – whether at the global or national level – comes about as a result of one or more of three different dynamics being at work: top-down decision-making; decision-making influenced by sideways or peer-group pressure; and decision-making influenced by bottom-up community pressure.

In the nuclear context, with none of the leaders of the nuclear armed states currently showing any top-down will, most of the energy and drive for change is going to have to come from the wider international community of states – from peer group pressure applied through institutions like the NPT Review Conference, support for regional nuclear weapons free zones, and mobilizing standard-setting initiatives like the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty. And it is going to have to come from governments feeling the sting of public opinion, through bottom-up pressure from civil society activists and wider publics.

As to substance, most successful campaigns for major policy change again have three dimensions: they harness the power of emotion, they harness the power of reason, and when necessary they are very pragmatic, recognizing the need not to make best outcomes the enemy of very good ones.

The emotional force of the moral case against nuclear weapons -- with the experience of Nagasaki and Hiroshima centre-front – has always been an important energiser of both bottom-up public and peer group international pressure, and that case must be relentlessy sustained. But moral persuasion won’t take us all the way. Most hard-headed nuclear policymakers quite unashamedly argue that the sheer awfulness of nuclear weapons is what makes them so effective as a deterrent.

What they need to be persuaded about are the rational, strategic arguments against nuclear weapons: that whatever the context ― from superpower standoffs to small states fearing regime change attack –their benefits are negligible, and far outweighed by the risks involved.

As to being pragmatic, it is sometimes hard for campaigners to compromise their ultimate objectives in any way. Whatever the response should be in the case of Covid and other pandemics – with all the health versus economics trade-off issues that arise – when it comes to nuclear disarmament, I think it imperative not to be too absolutist in how we pursue the goal of global zero That means, to me, concentrating primarily for the foreseeable future on minimization rather than elimination strategies – on nuclear risk reduction.

No-one should even think of settling for less than elimination as the ultimate goal. Yes, a world with very low numbers of nuclear weapons, with very few of them physically deployed, with practically none of them on high-alert launch status and with every nuclear-armed state visibly committed to never being the first to use them, would still be very far from being perfect. But a world that could achieve these risk reduction objectives would surely be very much safer than the one we live in now.

My final word is on the need to stay optimistic – and active. As desolate as the nuclear scene now is, pendulums do swing, wheels do turn, and Presidents and Prime Ministers do change. It is up to those of us who believe in both the possibility and necessity of a nuclear weapon free world, however disappointed and frustrated we may be right now, to get out there and argue and work for it, in every way we can and through every channel of influence we can mobilise.

Best wishes for your deliberations in the Workshop sessions ahead, and for the achievement of that common goal I know we all share.