A network of global institutions were created in 1945 to try and avert another global conflict. They have been gradually undermined over the last 20 years, and now we see them being trashed wholesale. The world leaders responsible are perhaps best described by General Jack D. Ripper in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: “They have neither the time nor inclination for strategic thought.” The latest round of top-level summits and meetings have duly been coloured by a very real fear of war – but it doesn’t have to be this way.
This year’s NATO Summit and the upcoming Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki present the best opportunities in years for today’s leaders to emulate their more distinguished predecessors, who understood that disarmament and arms control were prerequisites for the enhancement of national security and international stability.
At the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, NATO Summit declarations were full of debate on arms control and disarmament. And back in 1986, the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Reykjavik resulted in one of the greatest disarmament achievements of the last century: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which helped dramatically reduce US-Soviet tensions in Europe. But this year’s NATO summit began with an openly acrimonious exchange over the allies’ relative defence spending, and the US and Russia have both threatened to withdraw from the INF altogether.
Outside of the North Korea-US talks, disarmament and nuclear arms control are all but left out of today’s high-level summits. All the while, the global arms control architecture is falling apart, global military expenditure is at its highest since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the potential nuclear flashpoints in Europe, the Middle East and the South China Sea are multiplying. In a climate like this, what hope is there for eliminating the nuclear threat altogether?
The challenge has been taken up by the UN secretary general, Antonio Guterres, who recently issued a document entitled Securing Our Common Future. This is an inspiring, visionary document produced after extensive consultations with governments and civil society. For those with no prior knowledge but now seeking less military solutions to global and regional problems, it’s an introduction and a handbook to the hows and whys of disarmament – a rough guide to world peace, if you will.
In clear terms, Guterres surveys the potential for world disarmament, everything from “hand grenades to hydrogen bombs”. He argues that the instability and dangers in international affairs should provide an impetus for disarmament – a direct challenge to the five nuclear-armed members of the UN Security Council, who typically argue that peace should be established before disarmament can be seriously entertained.
To tackle this line of thinking, Guterres poses a simple question: do the leaders of the nuclear powers agree with Reagan and Gorbachev that nuclear war by definition cannot be won, and therefore must not be fought?
Guterres’ agenda could not be more timely, and never has the UN secretariat produced such a substantive document on disarmament. If the whole of the UN infrastructure integrated disarmament into its work with the support of its member states, that could change the game profoundly. But will the member states heed Guterres’s call? Will civil and political society rally to his banner, or simply remain on the sidelines and wring their hands while nothing is done?
A rusty toolbox
Some critics point to the Guterres plan’s lack of detailed technical action points, and many will hesitate to accept its ambition to be truly comprehensive. But it should be understood as a rallying cry, an attempt to bring together different constituencies which don’t usually work together.
Missing this opportunity will further reinforce the status quo – and that in turn might have dire consequences. It’s hard to think of a scenario where the militarisation of international relations contributes to stablity and security rather than making the world less safe.
Guterres’s agenda is a handbook for those who want to find a way out of the gathering chaos. Disarmament progress in tense geopolitical times is not impossible. In previous times of crisis, rival superpowers have taken steps to reduce arsenals, increase transparency, lower alert levels and mitigate risks. If today’s major players wait indefinitely for security conditions to be “ripe” before pursuing disarmament and arms control, the resulting lack of dialogue will only make the climate worse.
Disarmament talks need not start from scratch. Many of the tools are tried and tested, and have simply fallen out of use, with past agreements long overdue for implementation and negotiations on strategic arms stalled. If nations fail to honour their existing commitments, they will not only put the entire disarmament and arms control regime at risk, but also damage the mechanisms designed to defuse tensions and foster dialogue on sensitive security issues.
It’s time to return to the common ground on which we stood in the past, the ground where world-changing multilateral and bilateral treaties were struck. Notwithstanding the events leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the UN-sanctioned inspection regimes provide a sound technical blueprint for verified elimination of weapons of mass destruction. The OSCE’s various agreements, confidence- and security-building measures, and “open skies” regime provide an institutional platform for the exchange of information, verification and regulation of conventional weaponry.
While they certainly need updating, the precision tools needed for disarmament and conventional arms control are readily available. What’s needed now is the political impetus to use them. The Guterres agenda offers an optimistic way forward at a deeply pessimistic moment; it must be taken seriously.