Nuclear disarmament is the only way to avoid humanity’s collective suicide

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Ilmas Futehally
Ilmas Futehally

Co-Founder, Executive Director and Vice-President of Strategic Foresight Group

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.

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Show more information on This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform.

Since the founding of the ultimately ill-fated League of Nations in 1920, global governance has been dominated by a succession of supranational bodies, culminating in the foundation of the United Nations and the diverse Bretton Woods institutions at the end of the Second World War. These organisations have largely worked to ensure peace between the Western powers in the security sphere but also in finance and trade.  In a changing world, however, with the rise of new powers, it is imperative that the voices and needs of emerging nations are also adequately reflected. Given that 21st century global concerns focus far more than ever before on hybrid threats, human rights and the environment, is it time to draw a line under the past 99 years of global governance and look to re-evaluate and reform our established systems?

This article is part of Friends of Europe’s upcoming discussion paper on global governance reform, in which we ask the ‘unusual suspects’ to share their views on what reforms are necessary to make the rules-based order work for us all.

In a recent survey published by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, it was disclosed that about a third of Americans would approve of a pre-emptive nuclear attack on North Korea, despite the 1 million civilian deaths that would be incurred. This survey was released at a time when security experts were speculating about a possible tactical nuclear strike by the United States against Iran.

It seems that a section of American public opinion has turned completely callous to the possibility of the extinction of parts of humanity where radioactivity would also prevent the birth of future generations. 25 years after the end of the Cold War, the nuclear threat remains a credible one.

Indeed, in the past two decades, the nuclear risk has increased substantially. More than 2,500 nuclear warheads are now on hair-trigger alert – that is to say, these weapons could be launched within a mere 10-to-15 minutes. The modernisation of nuclear arsenals has produced deeply penetrating arms, which have 20 times the explosive capacity of their actual yield. Lethal autonomous weapons and hypersonic missiles are being produced. If they are used to deliver nuclear arms, the execution time will come down to a few minutes, and in some situations, algorithms rather than human beings will take the decision of mass destruction.

Efforts have been made to promote nuclear disarmament but with little enthusiasm from the nuclear-armed nations. While the treaty for the abolition of nuclear weapons was approved in the UN General Assembly, the countries that actually possess nuclear weapons – along with their allies – refused to sign. A number of retired politicians and military officials are now campaigning for ‘Nuclear Zero’, but their pleas have been falling on deaf ears in the corridors of power.

When combined with lethal autonomous weapons and hypersonic missiles, nuclear weapons can extinguish large segments of humankind

Why is the move towards nuclear disarmament stalling? Because, in economically and politically significant countries, there is still significant popular support for the possession and use of nuclear weapons and killing of millions of civilians in enemy states. The supporters of nuclear war do not realise that they can be counter-attacked and annihilated. People have not taken to heart the implications of mutually assured destruction. In fact, some of the countries that have yet to acquire nuclear weapons are seeking to obtain or build them.

Thus, the current narrative must be countered by explaining that nuclear weapons are not playthings. When combined with lethal autonomous weapons and hypersonic missiles, nuclear weapons can extinguish large segments of humankind. The threat of human extinction is real. Nuclear disarmament campaigns need to do much more to highlight the risk to the continued survival of humankind posed by thermo-nuclear and deeply penetrating nuclear weapons. In 1955, Bertrand Russell and Albert Einstein issued a manifesto asking, “Shall we put an end to the human race; or shall mankind renounce war?”

In 2019, on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, six thought leaders issued the Normandy Manifesto, reviving the spirit of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. The signatories included philosopher Anthony Grayling, four Nobel Peace Laureates – Mohamed ElBaradei, Jody Williams, Leymah Gbowee and Denis Mukwege – and conflict resolution expert Sundeep Waslekar.

The question of abolishing nuclear wars is an all-encompassing one, as it touches upon the limits to warfare, the arms race and militarisation

The Normandy Manifesto offers a compelling way forward for sustainable peace. It calls for a ‘New Global Contract’ underpinned by an international security system that gives primacy to rule of law and universal human rights. It warns that without a “reliable collective security architecture that everyone can have confidence in,” the proliferation of war weapons will persist. This means a “time-bound integrated action plan for the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, chemical and lethal autonomous weapons systems.”

Some of the elements of this new contract also include removing all nuclear warheads from alert positions, banning killer robots and ending the misuse of any biological material or techniques for weaponisation. This would be strengthened by a reformed United Nations with robust conflict resolution mechanisms and alternative means of collective security for nations. All this should be buttressed by a reduction in defence expenditure, with savings reinvested in initiatives to meet the Sustainable Development Goals

The question of abolishing nuclear wars is an all-encompassing one, as it touches upon the limits to warfare, the arms race and militarisation. Conventional wisdom tells us that weapons provide security and more lethal weapons provide even greater security. Yet the Normandy Manifesto shows evidence to the contrary: nearly two dozen countries have no standing armies and they have not been attacked. Security arrangements do not require weapons. A collective security system can be created that relies on evidence rather than fear. As the Normandy Manifesto states, “Let us conceive and establish sustainable peace before someone initiates the next war. If we do not, we will be sleepwalking into collective suicide.”

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