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Achieving a Nuclear Weapons-Free World

Panel Presentation (Online) to Session on Peace Agenda 2045: Abolish War and Nuclear Weapons, PyeongChang Peace Forum, ROK, 8 February 2021

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki put beyond argument that nuclear weapons are the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised. But, seventy-five years later, the distressing reality we have to face is that the risk of nuclear catastrophe is as great as it has ever been, and the goal of achieving their elimination from the face of the Earth is, notwithstanding the coming into force of the Nuclear Ban Treaty (TPNW), as far from achievement as it has ever been.

So what do those of us who want a safer, saner, nuclear-weapon free world actually now do? How do we bring all the key political players to the understanding that – as Reagan and Gorbachev memorably agreed thirty-five years ago – "A nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought." And what can we do to not only get political leaders to recognise that reality, but to act on it?

Achieving progress here is always going to be a slow, grinding, frustrating, unrewarding business. But I do believe progress can be made if we do four things: utilize the power of emotion; utilize the power of reason; unite around a common, realistic disarmament agenda; and, above all, stay optimistic.

Emotion. Emotion matters at all levels. It is important not to underestimate the extent to which, in high-level government nuclear decision-making the international taboo against any deliberate, aggressive use of nuclear weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of a state is not at imminent risk, plays a serious part. But that has not translated into any commitment at all by any of the nuclear-armed states to actually eliminate them.

If policymakers are ever to get serious about a nuclear-weapons-free world, it is crucially important that this taboo message be continually reinforced by strong bottom-up community pressure. And the best way of mobilizing that pressure will always be to harness again, through visible street and media action, the raw emotional power of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the horror and fear of that experience being repeated.

But we know that is not going to be enough. The world’s sheer dumb luck in avoiding a new nuclear holocaust for so long has generated a degree of complacency and indifference to nuclear risk which it has proved extremely difficult to overcome for even the most dedicated and able civil society campaigners – like those associated with this PyeongChang Peace Forum. We have to worry whether it will ever be possible to regenerate mass momentum, short of a new Cuban-style crisis developing in North Korea, or – God forbid – an actual nuclear exchange on the India sub-continent or elsewhere.

Reason. This is why we have to utilize not only the power of emotion but the power of reason as well. Hard-headed policymakers know perfectly well that any use of nuclear weapons would be immoral, an indefensible assault on our common humanity. Many of them 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 their benefits are negligible, and far outweighed by the risks involved. I haven’t time to spell out that case now but, believe me, it can be made, whatever the context – deterring war between the major nuclear players, deterring large-scale conventional attacks, or deterring regime-change attacks on smaller states.

A Realistic Disarmament Agenda. Third, it is critical that we pursue a realistic disarmament agenda. If we want real-world progress, we should never make the best the enemy of the good – i.e. take the view that settling for anything less than perfection is not necessary compromise but capitulation. And that means in this context not putting all our eggs into the "global zero" basket.

In relation to the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty, we have to acknowledge that despite its huge moral and emotional appeal, and its importance in reinforcing the normative case against the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, there are a whole variety of reasons why it is manifestly not going to get buy-in from nuclear armed and umbrella states, now, by 2045, or perhaps ever. And those reasons are not just ideological, or geopolitical or psychological - the treaty has real technical problems when it comes to safeguards, verification and, above all, enforcement.

I think we have to accept that nuclear weapons elimination is only ever going to be achievable on an incremental basis, building into the process a series of staging-points. It makes sense to focus most of our immediate efforts not on elimination but on "minimization", or risk reduction, summarizable as the "4 Ds": getting a universal buy-in to No First Use (Doctrine), which is already supported at least by China and India; giving that credibility by taking weapons off high-alert (Dealerting); drastically reducing the number of those actively deployed (Deployment); and reducing overall numbers to around 2,000, down from the more than 13,000 now in existence (Decreased numbers).

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. And no one should even think of settling for that as the endpoint. That must remain global zero.

But a world that could achieve these objectives would be a very much safer one than we live in now. And I believe these major risk reduction objectives are achievable within a reasonable time frame: particularly with the United States, after the horror of the Trump years, now again under civilized management with President Biden.

Staying Optimistic. My final short word is this. As desolate as the international environment for now remains, it is important to keep things in perspective. Pendulums do swing, wheels do turn, Presidents and Prime Ministers do change.

Optimism is self-reinforcing in the same way that pessimism is self-defeating. Achieving anything of lasting value in public life is difficult enough, but it is almost impossible to do so without believing that what seems to be out of reach really is achievable.

So 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 work for it, in every way we can and through every channel of influence we can mobilise.