Back to the Nuclear Precipice

by JAVIER SOLANA

Published: Project Syndicate, 20 March 2019

 

Long a global leader in efforts to reduce nuclear-weapons stockpiles and limit nuclear proliferation, the United States is now fostering the conditions for a new global arms race. With hawks calling the shots in US President Donald Trump's administration, a nuclear conflagration in one of the world's hot spots is becoming more likely.

MADRID – Ten years ago, during his first trip to Europe as US president, Barack Obama delivered an historic speech in Prague. Much to the delight of the crowd, Obama described a world free of nuclear arms as being both desirable and within reach. That declaration was unprecedented for an American president, and would contribute to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize later that year.

the occasion to reassure Czechs – and Europeans generally – that the United States would never turn its back on them; that its commitment to the principle of collective defense under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty was permanent and unconditional. Those words now seem like a relic of a bygone era.

Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, has questioned that key pillar of NATO, departing from almost 70 years of diplomatic tradition. Worse, he recently announced his intention to withdraw the US from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia, which has been fundamental in guaranteeing European security since 1987. And though the Obama administration did end up deprioritizing nuclear disarmament over time, Trump seems to have replaced that goal with its polar opposite: rearmament.

To be sure, bilateral agreements like the INF Treaty – an artifact of the late Cold War – are no longer sufficient in today’s multipolar world. While the US and Russia are forbidden under the treaty from possessing land-based missiles with a range of 500-5,500 kilometers (300-3,400 miles), an estimated 95% of China’s missile arsenal now comprises precisely such weapons.

Moreover, the US and Russia have both accused the other of violating the INF Treaty, implying that the agreement has become moot anyway. But a far more sensible US strategy would have been to reaffirm its commitment to the treaty, thereby pressuring Russia to do the same in light of its own presumed violations. By taking the high ground, the US would have been far better positioned to extend the same normative framework to China and its arsenal.

Instead, the author of The Art of the Deal has followed the advice of someone who has yet to meet a deal he didn’t want to tear up: Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton. Having already dispensed with the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002, during his tenure in President George W. Bush’s administration, Bolton has used his position in the Trump administration to launch attacks against the INF Treaty and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. Most likely, his next target will be New START. Signed by Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in 2010, that nuclear arms reduction treaty will expire in 2021, barring an agreement on its extension.

With the steady collapse of the international arms-control architecture has come a fresh race to develop new types of nuclear weapons. The potential use of these weapons is now discussed with such frivolity as to foreshadow a return to the darkest days of the Cold War, but one that is even more dangerous, because other countries not subject to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), such as North Korea, have since joined the nuclear club.

During Trump’s first year in office, his incendiary public exchanges with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un brought relations between Washington, DC, and Pyongyang to their tensest point in decades. While Trump has since abandoned his threats of “fire and fury” and given diplomacy a chance, his administration’s approach to North Korea has ignored all of the canons of effective diplomacy. This has given rise to another kind of frivolity: the spectacle of vacuous praise.

In the end, the lack of consensus among US foreign policymakers and the misaligned expectations of the two negotiating parties, combined with Trump’s own improvisations, condemned his recent summit with Kim to failure. A reorganization is now urgently needed, particularly to incorporate the other regional powers and keep Bolton and other hawks in the administration from derailing the process further.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan, two other NPT non-signatories, recently engaged in a cross-border military confrontation, following a terrorist attack last month in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Once deemed“the most dangerous place in the world” by former US President Bill Clinton, Kashmir is essentially shared between three nuclear powers: India, Pakistan, and China. Not since Pakistan revealed its nuclear capacity to the world in the late 1990s have Indian-Pakistani relations been so tense. Worse, as the latest instability shows, the presence of nuclear weapons is not sufficient to prevent conflict. Instead, it merely raises the risk that quarrels will escalate into existential conflagrations.

Lastly, in the Middle East, the Trump administration has actively sowed the seeds for nuclear proliferation. The decision to abandon the JCPOA was entirely counterproductive, merely reflecting Trump’s blind support for Israel – another NPT non-signatory – and Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the Trump administration is even exploring the possibility of exporting nuclear material to the Saudi regime without putting the necessary safeguards in place.

Apparently, Trump is not bothered by the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has neither ruled out developing nuclear arms nor committed to a strict regime of inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. One false step, though, could plunge the Middle East into a nuclear arms race – truly a worst-case scenario for such a fraught region.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump raised a red flag for the umpteenth time when he suggested that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons as a means of self-defense. This idea couldn’t have been more wrongheaded. Logic dictates that if more countries acquire nuclear weapons, the likelihood of such weapons being used will increase.

The Cold War gave us a glimpse of the risks we run when our single-minded pursuit of some geopolitical interests causes us to lose sight of the most important of them all: international security. As Obama emphasized ten years ago in Prague, the US is the only country ever to have used nuclear weapons, and therefore has an historic responsibility to ensure that they are never used again. For the US to forsake this responsibility and champion a new era of nuclear proliferation would be a tragic outcome.

 

by JAVIER SOLANA

Published: 20 April 2018

 

The material and moral progress made possible by the Enlightenment is evident across a wide range of metrics, from human rights to life expectancy. But today's political leaders seem inadequate to the task of managing the Enlightenment's more troubling legacies.

 

MADRID – The opening line of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities retains its universality to this day. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Dickens writes, “it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, … it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Dickens’s classic novel, set in London and Paris during the French Revolution, decries both the social injustices of the despotic ancien régime and the excesses of the French revolutionaries. When asked his opinion of the French Revolution almost two centuries later, former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai reportedly answered that it was “too early to say.” That quip – though possibly the result of a misunderstanding – perfectly captures Dickens’s own ambivalence about the period of which he wrote.

The Enlightenment ideals that inspired the French to rise up against Louis XVI also drove the American Revolution. And both were set against the backdrop of another sea change: the onset of industrialization. The combination of more liberal political regimes and transformational scientific advances inaugurated the most prosperous period in the history of humankind.

The late British economist Angus Maddison once estimated that whereas global per capita GDP did not even double between 1 AD and 1820, it increased more than tenfold between 1820 and 2008. And this spectacular growth has been accompanied by equally extraordinary improvements in a wide range of socioeconomic indicators. Global average life expectancy, for example, has risen from 31 to almost 73 years in just two centuries.

Two centuries ago, the science and medical communities had not yet accepted the germ theory of disease, and the smell of beef was commonly thought to cause obesity. Today, such beliefs seem grotesque, owing to rapid progress in our scientific understanding. Not only can we now read the human genome; we are also learning how to edit and write it.

For Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, such achievements are signs that “the Enlightenment is working.” Moreover, Pinker argues that more moral progress has been achieved in the last few centuries than most macroeconomic measurements can reflect. For example, he points to the expansion – both geographic and substantive – of protections for individual and collective rights, as well as an overall reduction in violence.1

The sheer magnitude of the Enlightenment’s achievements tends to be undervalued, because we are prone to remembering and normalizing catastrophes rather than quotidian improvements. But while this bias is detrimental to decision-making, so, too, is excessive complacency. After all, there are plenty of reasons – many of which are secondary effects of the Enlightenment – for people to feel uneasy about the future.

In his 2013 book, The Great Escape, Nobel laureate economist Angus Deaton shows how progress in reducing aggregate privation, famine, and premature death over the past 250 years has left many social groups behind. While inequality at the global level has recently been mitigated by the economic rise of countries like China, numerous studies find that inequality within countries has been increasing. In countries such as the United States, broad segments of the population lack access to adequate medical treatments, and even democracy seems to be eroding.1

Today’s conventional wisdom links the emergence of populist movements around the world, including the election of President Donald Trump in the US, to the people who have missed out on the benefits of globalization. Yet many of Trump’s policies – not least slashing taxes for the rich – are intended to perpetuate the privileges of the economic elite. Trump has done very little to address the fears of those who feel left behind, but he is attempting a classic bait-and-switch to disguise this fact. Accordingly, he singles out China as the source of Americans’ economic woes.

The result of Trump’s “America First” approach and fear mongering about all things foreign has been to undermine global cooperation. Nationalism, one of the potentially harmful legacies of the late-eighteenth-century social revolutions, has made a comeback on the heels of rising nativist and xenophobic fears.

Likewise, the Enlightenment’s scientific and technological legacy has not been wholly positive. The theories of Albert Einstein and the discovery of fission in 1938 made nuclear power possible, but also led to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to the disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Similarly, technological progress has left critical national infrastructure potentially vulnerable to cyberattacks. And, as the 2008 crisis revealed, financial engineering carries many risks of its own.

All of these dangers are accompanied by what is perhaps the greatest threat humanity has ever faced: climate change. The peculiarity of this threat lies in the fact that it has not manifested in the form of a single, sudden shock. Rather, it is a cumulative phenomenon, which we might still be able to mitigate. Just as technological advances got us into this predicament, so might they rescue us from it. After all, technological innovation, along with an international effort to adopt the 1987 Montreal Protocol, is how the world put a stop to the erosion of the ozone layer.

Fortunately, scientific rationality is capable of creating tools to remedy its own excesses. Unfortunately, however, the state of political leadership today may mean that these tools remain unused. The world is in desperate need of leaders who are willing to maximize the benefits of science and technology through collective management and international cooperation. Without such leadership, what is quantifiably the best of times could very well become the worst.

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