Nuclear dangers are rising. This stark reality is haunting advocates of nuclear disarmament, deterrence and arms control alike. Strategic changes – including the evolution of increasingly complex weapons systems and the emergence of new technologies – are eroding long-held assumptions about our ability to prevent and manage major war, including escalation to nuclear war. While some are clinging to the belief that a shared horror of nuclear use will induce enough restraint to prevent it, it’s becoming less likely that the nuclear taboo will hold and that catastrophic nuclear accidents won’t happen. It’s as if a life raft, which might once have seemed seaworthy to many onboard, has sprung a major leak, just as the wind is whipping up.
Amid these developments, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) dialogue on nuclear disarmament, deterrence and strategic arms control could not be timelier or more significant. The dialogue (convened under the guidance of UNIDIR staff and Lewis Dunn, former US Ambassador to the NPT Review Conference) released its findings this week in Geneva – a key output of a year-long initiative that brought together experts from around the world to search for collaborative ways to reduce nuclear dangers. The dialogue’s goal was to find common ground among diverse international perspectives on nuclear disarmament, deterrence and arms control, and to use this as an opportunity to identify confidence-restoring and risk reduction measures that are ripe for pursuit.
It’s notable that nearly all of the dialogue’s participants who are based in the Asia-Pacific agreed to put our names to the dialogue findings – an indication of the widespread recognition among this region’s experts of the urgent need to bring divided communities together to address nuclear dangers. It’s also no coincidence that virtually all of the Asia-Pacific participants are associated with the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network, including Marty Natalegawa, Nobumasa Akiyama, Fan Jishe, Tong Zhao, Manpreet Sethi, Rakesh Sood, and myself – a group of experts who are concerned that nuclear dangers are rising and are convinced that we need to work together to address them.
More details of the dialogue – including the research papers that dialogue participants contributed to the initiative – are available on the UNIDIR website. Rather than summarise the findings, I’d like to highlight a couple that strongly resonated with me as a dialogue participant. The first is the recommendation that leaders, officials and the public should approach the challenges of nuclear arms control and disarmament not only as citizens of particular nations but also as global citizens – a point put forward by dialogue participant, Rakesh Sood. Efforts to transcend national identity (a conscious decision that can be fostered by leaders and educators) can encourage a more expansive, empathic worldview – an essential step if we are to successfully rebuild the habits of global cooperation needed to address nuclear dangers and break the cycle of action-reaction dynamics that is fuelling arms racing behaviours.
The second is the call for confidence-restoring measures, and specifically to renew dialogue between nuclear-armed states to improve understanding of nuclear risks, including the risk of deliberate and unintended nuclear use. This of course applies to all nine states that possess nuclear weapons (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the UK and the US) but the findings single out the increasingly adversarial relationship between the United States and China as a cause for particular concern, much of it stemming from mistrust bred by competing interests, military expansion and poor communication. There are many practical steps US and Chinese leaders can take to tackle this problem, from unilateral pledges not to be the first to conduct a strategic attack (with nuclear weapons or other potentially devastating military capabilities), to establishing emergency communication channels between political and military leaders in Washington and Beijing for use when tensions rise (so-called strategic hotlines). The latter are currently weak or non-existent, and yet setting them up is in the interests of both countries, the Asia-Pacific region, and the world. Pursuing this path is becoming more difficult as disagreements flare over the future status of Taiwan and disputed territories in the East and South China Seas, but all states can help by encouraging Washington and Beijing to engage in dialogue to lay out their concerns, including their uncertainties about military programmes and strategic intentions, which is a requisite step to restore confidence, reduce nuclear risks and eventually negotiate new arms control and disarmament agreements.
These are just two of the dialogue’s recommendations, many of which are more specific and actionable now or in the short-term. UNIDIR’s next step is to present these findings to UN member states during the UN First Committee in New York, which is due to run from 4 October – 4 November 2021. The First Committee offers an ideal opportunity to contribute to high level discussion on these issues, as official delegations meet to address global security challenges, with input from other UN bodies and agencies, such as the Disarmament Commission, IAEA and CTBTO, as well as NGOs and civil society groups that are concerned with nuclear arms control, disarmament and peace.
Ultimately, the UNIDIR dialogue underlines both the severity of today’s nuclear challenges and the urgency of addressing them across venues, whether multilateral, regional, bilateral, or national. As global citizens, all stakeholders have a role to play in this endeavour – to find spaces to move forward and take collaborative action.
Download the UNIDIR Dialogue PDF on the left.
Image: Twenty20 @jaaljona