Foreign Affairs

Shaking off the spectre of nuclear war

If the coronavirus pandemic isn’t enough, there’s also what the UN’s disarmament chief has called the “spectre of unconstrained nuclear competition”. But Izumi Nakamitsu still has hope we can avoid the worst - and New Zealand has a vital role to play.

Between coronavirus and climate change, the world has enough existential crises on its plate.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the warning in February from Izumi Nakamitsu, the United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General of Disarmament, of the “spectre of unconstrained nuclear competition”, did not capture much public attention in New Zealand.

But the threat for the world at large is very real - as is the need to contain it.

One of the (peaceful) weapons to help with that battle is the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which marks its 50th anniversary this year.

The NPT was signed in the wake of World War II and with the uncertainty of the Cold War swirling around, with the nuclear weapon states agreeing to pursue disarmament and the non-nuclear states, in return, pledging not to acquire or develop their own arsenal.

Speaking to Newsroom during a New Zealand visit, Nakamitsu describes the NPT as one of the most important pillars for world peace and security, largely responsible for thwarting US President John F. Kennedy’s fear in 1963 that there would be 20 or more nuclear-armed states by the 1970s.

“The more nuclear weapon states, the more risk of nuclear detonation, so non-proliferation is actually useful for international peace and security.”

On its 25th anniversary, the treaty and its “grand bargain” between the nuclear and non-nuclear states was extended indefinitely.

But the document has also come in for its fair share of criticism, primarily for the failure of nuclear states to eliminate all their weapons as required under Article Six.

"It's been a very resilient treaty...but resilience and relevance are two different things."

While the US and Russia have indeed reduced their stockpiles, they have also developed new, more advanced missiles - leading to what Nakamitsu has called “a qualitative nuclear arms race - one not based on numbers but on faster, stealthier and more accurate weapons”.

Frustration with the slow progress was in part responsible for the 2017 launch of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, better known as the “ban treaty” for its more sweeping measures to eliminate the use of nuclear weapons.

While the ban treaty has been ratified by 36 states (including New Zealand), it has not been supported by any nuclear-armed state, and many of their allies have also shied away from signing.

Nakamitsu says the ban treaty is complementary to the NPT, but is hopeful the latter can be modernised at what is a critical juncture for the world.

“It's been a very resilient treaty...but resilience and relevance are two different things, and we need to make sure that the treaty will remain [relevant] in the 21st Century.”

If nuclear-armed states do not want to sign on to the ban treaty, she says, “then make sure that you double, triple your efforts in the context of the NPT to make sure that you implement Article Six”.

They could reaffirm the principle of non-use, while working on a “practical, pragmatic, visible demonstration” of their efforts to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

UN under-secretary-general of disarmament Izumi Nakamitsu says the United States and Russia must take special responsibility for eliminating their nuclear weapons. Photo: CTBTO (CC BY 2.0)

Nakamitsu places a particular burden on the US and Russia given they together hold more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal - but the news has not been good on that front.

Both countries withdrew from their bilateral 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty last year, each side blaming the other for non-compliance, while their New START nuclear arms reduction treaty appears set to expire next February without being renewed.

The UN has called on both countries to extend New START - a position Nakamitsu acknowledges is at odds with the body’s traditional aversion to intervening in bilateral treaties, but says is a sign of its importance.

“We have less than a year...if that is to expire, for the first time since the 1970s that two countries, the two nuclear superpowers, don't have any restrictions on their arsenals, that I think for me and for many countries around the world is a very dangerous situation.”

When the ban treaty does enter into force after it is ratified by 50 states, it will be a useful addition to the “nuclear disarmament toolbox” - along with political declarations and regional agreements such as the nuclear-free zone in the South Pacific set up by New Zealand and other Pacific nations in 1985.

New Zealand still has an important role to play now, Nakamitsu says.

“What I expect from New Zealand is a kind of influencing or bridge building - you are a strong voice in favour of disarmament, but at the same time you are able to work with other countries who have good communications.”

She notes the country’s “instrumental” role in the New Agenda Coalition, a group of middle powers established in the 1990s to make better progress on nuclear disarmament, as well as a more recent ‘Stepping Stones’ initiative which met in Berlin last month in a bid to renew the NPT’s credibility.

“Disarmament and arms control are very useful instruments for security. That has always been so and the two superpowers, the US and Soviet Union, used to know that - we would like them to return to that understanding.”

That sort of work may seem undercut by the renewed great power rivalry of which Nakamitsu has spoken, but she believes the evidence on the ground suggests otherwise.

“What dominates international news is more extreme statements, extreme positions, but I mean, living in the UN...there are actually quite encouraging signs coming from these middle groups wanting to work with us, work with the UN and wanting to get united amongst themselves.”

But the nuclear weapons states cannot be disregarded, and she makes a point of maintaining a close working relationship with them and taking into account “the legitimate security concerns that these big powers have”.

Whether Nakamitsu will have a chance to leverage those close ties into progress at the NPT’s five-yearly review conference this year is unclear; UN officials have mooted a postponement due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But she is hopeful that what some people have dismissed as a doomsday scenario of a new nuclear arms race, while of real concern, can be headed off - even in this period of renewed Great Power rivalry.

“During the height of the Cold War, two superpowers then, the US and Soviet Union at the time, were directly engaged because they knew that an unconstrained arms race was dangerous for them...

“Disarmament and arms control are very useful instruments for security. That has always been so and the two superpowers, the US and Soviet Union, used to know that - we would like them to return to that understanding.”

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