“The only weapon in the world with potentially existential consequences.” That was how Deputy Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Section of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs Christopher King described nuclear weapons. At his talk “A Permanent End to the Threat Posed by Nuclear Arms: The United Nations Secretary-General’s Agenda for Disarmament” on September 23rd, 2018, Mr. King gathered a crowd of attentive attendees in the basement of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan to describe the threat of nuclear weapons and the UN’s plan to address the growing nuclear crisis. Following the twenty-year stagnation of multilateral disarmament agreements and the recent threats made by world leaders, nuclear disarmament is a pressing issue that requires immediate action.
Throughout the Cold War of the 20th century, nuclear weapons were regarded as the greatest threat to human existence. Based on the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the atomic bombing, this was an accurate claim. However, since the end of the Cold War, public concern over nuclear weapons has dropped significantly. According to a 2014 study published by the Roper Center at Cornell University, only 35% of respondents believed that nuclear war would put an end to humanity. According to Mr. King, though, if nuclear war were to happen, we would face consequences far greater than many presume. When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, they instantly killed approximately 80,000 and 40,000 people respectively. For many, these devastating figures are incomprehensible, but are minute in comparison to the devastation that modern-day nuclear weapons could cause.
Mr. King explained that due to limitations on nuclear arsenals, most nuclear states have stopped producing nuclear weapons, but have instead shifted their focus to updating and modernizing their nuclear arsenals. Rather than the quantitative arms race of the Cold War, we now face a qualitative arms race: nuclear states are competing to see who has the fastest, most accurate, and most powerful nuclear weapons. As a result of this, most nuclear weapons we have today are 8-100 times more powerful than the nuclear weapons used in 1945, according to Mr. King. This staggering statistic means that if a nuclear weapon was used today, the destruction would be irreversible. When states have weapons that are capable of killing hundreds of thousands in a matter of minutes, something must be done to prevent the weapons from ever being used. No international body would be able to address the humanitarian effects of one bomb, which is why it is crucial for the international community to focus on disarmament and non-proliferation, before nuclear weapons are ever used again. As former President Ronald Reagan declared in his 1984 State of the Union Address: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Although nuclear inventories have shrunk from their prime in the 1980s, progress on reducing nuclear arsenals has halted. Attention has shifted from nuclear weapons to other issues, like global warming, disease control, and domestic unrest. Because there is no longer a singular focus on addressing nuclear weapons, disarmament efforts have reached a roadblock. The New START Treaty has to be renewed in 2021, requiring support from nuclear states. Meanwhile, nuclear states continue to update and modernize their arsenals, resulting in a growing nuclear threat. Mr. King stressed the importance of focusing on nuclear disarmament even during times of peace, referencing the success of disarmament efforts in the Korean peninsula in improving diplomatic relations in other areas. These disarmament efforts are practical, not utopian, and according to King, are an “essential component for securing our world and our future.” Disarmament is crucial for preserving our humanity, saving lives, and protecting future generations, making the need for dialogue between states an urgent one. These are the reasons that elimination of nuclear weapons is the United Nation’s highest disarmament priority. King detailed the UN’s plan for nuclear disarmament through a series of steps.
First, and most importantly, there is a dire need for meaningful dialogue between all actors in the nuclear sphere. As King points out, this will be difficult, since states prefer to look out only for their own self-interest and would be hesitant to engage in disarmament measures if they did not feel that other nuclear states were doing the same. It is because of this self-interest that cooperation and meaningful dialogue is essential for getting nuclear states to agree on disarmament talks and treaties. This dialogue will go beyond the leaders of the states and will attempt to build partnerships between the private sector, the general public, nuclear states, and more. These partnerships will be crucial for creating new treaties and raising public support for nuclear disarmament. By reminding people that nuclear weapons are an existential issue, the UN hopes to inspire the public and world leaders to move towards disarmament.
King detailed further aspects of the UN’s plan for disarmament, beginning with acknowledging that parallel actions can take place. There is a nexus between disarmament and stability, and King hopes understanding this will help encourage public support for disarmament even during times of peace. If pursuing disarmament is connected to pursuing stability, then those with an interest in one topic should share an interest in the other. Getting nuclear states to agree that action should be taken to establish stability and disarmament requires not only meaningful dialogue, but also the final step that King outlined in the plan for encouraging disarmament: finding a common path.
Each nuclear state has its own reasons and motivations behind cultivating and preserving their nuclear arsenal. Those motivations can be defensive, offensive, or even technological, but nuclear states typically have nuclear arsenals as a way to serve their own self-interest. The same logic applies to private actors and the general public, who all hold opinions on disarmament and nuclear weapons based on what they believe will best serve their self-interest. Navigating these separate interests can seem daunting, but King suggests that finding a common path of compromise may be easier than it seems. To find a common path of disarmament, we must realize that addressing this existential issue is in the best favor of all actors involved. The UN intends to promote these steps and push our world towards a future of disarmament and safety for all of its inhabitants.