Image source: Kings College London - Photo: 2022

Nuclear Risks and Technological Proliferation

Viewpoint by Sergio Duarte

The writer is a former High Representative of the United Nations for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and President of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

NEW YORK (IDN) — 60 years after the Cuban missile crisis, the spectre of the imminent use of nuclear weapons once again haunts humankind. On that occasion, however, the crisis lasted for just 13 days until John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, in direct contact, arrived at the agreement that made possible the withdrawal of the Soviet weapons from the Caribbean Island in exchange for the non-stationing of American nuclear arms in Turkey.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations had an active role in helping to solve the crisis.  An atomic war, however, was averted by sheer luck when the commander of a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine, without communication with Moscow, decided not to fire its missiles in view of what seemed to be the start of hostilities between the two superpowers.

In current times a major confrontation that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons has been raging for many months without a sign of a peaceful solution. Unlike the 1962 crisis, today, there is no agile communication between the top leaders of the main powers. Modern media has increased hostility and mistrust between the belligerents, and the existing international political and legal instruments seem incapable of dealing with the situation.

A few days ago, the whole world held its breath for a few hours until the responsibility of Ukraine, and not of Russia, for the launching of a missile that reached Polish territory, causing two deaths and some destruction, was ascertained. This incident raised the level of fear that an accident or miscalculation by any of the countries involved in the war between Russia and Ukraine might trigger an escalation with unpredictable consequences.

The risk of the use of nuclear weapons in that war remains high ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin declared his willingness to use all means at his disposal against what is deemed a threat to the security of his country. Russia’s indirect adversary, the Atlantic military alliance (the NATO-the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), reacted in a less strident but equally sharp tone.

The nuclear doctrines of both Russia and the Western countries that possess such weapons contemplate their first use, as well as in circumstances that they consider such use necessary. In the current delicate situation, a spark would be enough to set off a catastrophic fire, with dire consequences not limited to the parties in conflict.

Among the five nuclear-armed states recognized by the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), China is the only one to have pledged not to be the first to use such weapons. Many analysts and civil society organizations advocate the adoption of this stance by all nuclear countries. As usually articulated, the “no first use” (NFU) doctrine does not foresee the elimination of atomic arms and thus could also be used to justify the maintenance of the arsenals for the purpose of deterring or countering potential aggression, either nuclear or otherwise.

If adopted by all the current nuclear weapon states and accepted by the international community without a clear commitment and effective follow-up action to disarm, it may reduce, but not eliminate, the risk of use. It would moreover provide a rationale for the perpetuation of the possession of nuclear weapons—hence, the risk they pose would also be perpetuated.

The fierce negative reaction of the nuclear weapon states to the advent of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) made clear that those countries are not interested in making use of the opportunity brought by the adoption of that instrument to foster tangible progress in nuclear disarmament. Not only they refused to participate in the preliminary work and in the actual negotiation of the TPNW, but also formally repudiated it by claiming, among other tautological and self-serving reasons, that it would not bring about disarmament.

Evidently, in the absence of participation by those that possess such weapons, it will not be possible to take forward effective measures leading to the eradication of their nuclear arsenals. Nevertheless, even in the face of active opposition, the new treaty, rooted in international humanitarian law, has already become an important legal and moral barrier against the indefinite possession of nuclear weapons.

In spite of the strong campaign of intimidation and coercion by the nuclear states to prevent new countries from signing and/or ratifying the TPNW, almost half the members of the United Nations have already become signatories, and the number of ratifiers is gradually increasing. Public opinion polls show a high degree of support for the Treaty, including among the populations of some of the nuclear-weapon States and of several of their allies.

It might seem paradoxical that notwithstanding the reduction of the total number of nuclear weapons in the world, estimated today at around 13,000, the risk of their use has increased, which means everyone’s security has actually diminished. Possessing the largest number of warheads or those with the greatest explosive power is no longer seen as a decisive advantage, as was the case at the time of the Cold War.

Today, the search for such elusive military supremacy lies in the quest for constant technological improvement. The nuclear-weapon States, particularly the two largest ones, which own 95% of the total, continue to develop cutting-edge war technologies such as hypersonic missiles, launching and guidance systems by satellite, low-yield “tactical” nuclear weapons, artificial intelligence, and swarms of unmanned vehicles.

Innovations of this kind make existing atomic arsenals in fact, more effectively lethal. In some cases, the existence of such advanced weapons is even used to spread the notion that their use would be more “acceptable”, supposedly because their effects would be less blunt.

The nuclear weapon states seem to believe that this never-ending renovation of their armament guarantees their security. Yet, each new improvement by a potential adversary leads to an imbalance that its rival finds necessary to compensate by looking for new capabilities, leading to recurrent escalations in reciprocal threats. Far from generating security, this situation brings assured insecurity both for those involved in the competition and for everyone else.

Doubtless, any increase in the number of possessors of nuclear weapons—the so-called “horizontal” proliferation—would make the world more insecure. The world has at its disposal effective instruments to prevent this, such as the NPT and other multilateral or regional agreements, as well as sanctions that may be imposed unilaterally or by the United Nations Security Council.

Since the advent of the NPT 52 years ago, only four countries besides the five nations identified in that Treaty have acquired nuclear weapons. Any new aspiring member of this club will have to face strong pushback from the international community. A few attempts in that direction have been thwarted by diplomatic pressure or by the threat or actual use of force.

Recently, however, sectors of public opinion in a few technologically advanced countries, including some under Western countries’ nuclear “umbrella”, have come to the fore in favour of the acquisition of independent nuclear capability. In other states that decided to relinquish arsenals, they once possessed voices were quick to express regret in the face of real or perceived threats. It is necessary to remain vigilant by means of the existing international instruments of control through the United Nations, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and regional arrangements.

Despite the growing general concern with the risk represented by the very existence of nuclear weapons, the efforts of their possessors have not been directed towards reducing reliance on them. Rather, these countries strive, on the one hand, to prevent horizontal proliferation by creating as many formal and clandestine hindrances as possible to the development of civilian nuclear technology in other nations and, on the other, to justify and legitimize the exclusive possession of their own armament for as long as they see fit.

In nuclear weapon states and their allies, there are no governmental plans, structures or institutions turned to the eventual elimination of those arms. Their overriding focus is on the risk of proliferation, a term understood by them as applying only to the search for or the actual acquisition by other nations of nuclear advancement that may lead to military applications but never to the increase or improvement of their own arsenals. They remain engaged in a veritable proliferation of lethal nuclear technology supported by vast human and financial resources that goes on unchecked, while nuclear disarmament is portrayed as a distant and difficult objective, the attainment of which they invariably link to various ill-defined conditionalities.

Over half a century ago, the Brazilian diplomat João Augusto de Araújo Castro accurately identified the dominant attitude among the nuclear weapon states and their allies. In a speech at the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1970, the year the NPT entered into force, he stated:

“The cult of power and the reverential fear of force have become so respectable that they now inspire some of the basic documents about human relations. Take, for instance, the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which is based on a theory of differentiation between adult, responsible nations and non-adult ones. The fundamental premise of this document is that, contrary to historic experience, power generates moderation and moderation brings responsibility. […] The general assumption is that the danger comes from unarmed countries and not from the vast and always increasing arsenals of the superpowers. Danger is now a mark of the weak and not an attribute of the strong. By bestowing powers and special privileges on nations that reached an adult status in the nuclear age, this treaty may accelerate the race for power instead of preventing it. In the world of nations, as in the world of men, all may from now on strive to become powerful, strong and successful in spite of all difficulties. The treaty anoints power and represents the undisguised institutionalization of inequality among states.” [IDN-InDepthNews — 05 December 2022]

Image source: Kings College London

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