This week the UN Conference to “Negotiate a Legally Binding Instrument to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons, Leading Towards Their Total Elimination” took place at the UN Headquarters in New York. The location is particularly poignant as the US has the largest nuclear weapon arsenal in the world and a president with particularly worrying views on the use of nuclear weapons.
The conference featured a statement from the Pope on peace and security. The head of the Catholic Church asked “How sustainable is a stability based on fear, when it actually increases fear and undermines relationships of trust between peoples.” Pope Francis emphasized that nuclear deterrence is no longer an effective response to tackle modern threats to global peace and security and encouraged the adoption of a “forward-looking” approach in the promotion of peace and security which mirrors the goals of the UN on nuclear disarmament. The UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs Kim Won-soo argued that the creation of a world free of nuclear weapons is a common responsibility of all nuclear and non-nuclear states. However, Kim Won-soo recognizes the disengagement on the part of the general public and the general feelings of “defeatism” and “dismissiveness” in international negotiations on nuclear disarmament.
This dismissiveness is demonstrated in the boycott of the conference by several countries including the US, the United Kingdom and France who are among 40 nations who did not attend this week’s negotiations in New York, according to Nikki Haley the US ambassador to the UN. In fact, none of the nine “nuclear states,” US, UK, Russia, France, China, North Korea, India, Pakistan, and Israel, who all control nuclear weaponry, were in attendance. Successful outcomes from the conference were of course limited, as global nuclear disarmament is impossible without the engagement of the world’s nuclear powers. Especially as these countries are actively maintaining and renewing their nuclear weapons. Last year, the parliament of the United Kingdom voted to renew their Trident nuclear weapons system, with an overwhelming vote of 472 for the renewal and 117 against. Across the North Atlantic, there is a renewal of a different sort; Trump’s nuclear rhetoric from campaign through to presidency suggests a revival of a nuclear arms race with Russia, China, and North Korea.
Trump has not only expressed a desire to expand the US nuclear capabilities – in a tweet shortly before his inauguration he states: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes” but has also demonstrated a dangerous attitude in regard to the use of nuclear weapons against other states. In a TV interview with Chris Matthews in March 2016, Trump questioned why we make nuclear weapons if we are not going to use them. He has also expressed apathy to Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia developing their own nuclear weapon programs and critics have expressed concern about his diplomatic ability to avoid a nuclear war. Trump clearly deviates from the US policy of nuclear deterrence and President Obama’s commitment to a reduced role for nuclear weapons in the international system. This worrying rhetoric on nuclear weapons is not limited to Trump, the prime minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, has also expressed that she would be willing to press the nuclear button without hesitation, and Putin is accused of triggering a nuclear arms race by proclaiming “We (Russia) can say with certainty; we are stronger now than any potential aggressor. Anyone.”
In this context, what conclusions can be drawn from this week’s UN conference? Kim Won-soo suggested that to combat the global dismissiveness of the nuclear issue “We need to find a new way to inspire and motivate the public in support of disarmament, in the same way that they have been energized to respond to the challenge of climate change, an existential threat facing humanity.” His speech lacked suggestions on how exactly this could be done, but his message was clear: that nuclear disarmament needs to be considered a matter of urgency. However, the goal of a world without nuclear weapons remains in the distant future until the nuclear powers change their rhetoric and positively engage in disarmament negotiations.