The G7 Vision on Nuclear Disarmament disappoints

June 15, 2023

By Cesar Jaramillo

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 44 Issue 2 Summer 2023

When you visit Hiroshima, a profound sense of history engulfs you. And you are reminded that the course of history is shaped by human decisions.

The decision to bomb Hiroshima was made on July 31, 1945, at a meeting of the Manhattan Project’s Target Committee – a group of scientists and military officials established to select potential Japanese targets for the atomic bomb. The Committee recommended Hiroshima as the primary target because of its military and industrial significance and because it had thus far escaped heavy bombing.

On August 6, 1945, U.S. bomber Enola Gay dropped the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima. By year’s end, an estimated 140,000 people had died as a result. The bomb exploded above what is now the Hiroshima Peace Memorial – and was from May 19 to 21 the site for the 2023 Summit of the G7 group of countries.

Almost 78 years after the first atomic bomb was deployed, the world was anticipating a sign that some of the world’s most powerful nations had resolved to craft a credible path to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

The world was disappointed.

A vision without insight

Hiroshima is the home of the family of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, some of whom perished in the atomic bombing. The Prime Minister, seen as a strong supporter of nuclear disarmament, reportedly insisted on this site for this year’s G7 Summit.

For the first time in its history, the G7 issued a standalone statement on nuclear weapons as well as a general communiqué. The “G7 Leaders’ Hiroshima Vision on Nuclear Disarmament” promised much in its title but failed to deliver. Instead, the statement rehashed familiar positions.

The tone was set in the first paragraph, when the G7 leaders reaffirmed their “commitment to achieving a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all.” That is the most consequential line in the whole document.

Although the combination of “a world without nuclear weapons” and “undiminished security for all” may appear appealing, the emphasis on undiminished security as a prerequisite for nuclear disarmament is fundamentally flawed. Making progress on nuclear abolition conditional on undiminished security inhibits meaningful action. As well, this focus casts a shadow over some positive reflections in the statement on the 77-year record of non-use of nuclear weapons as well as its call for the resumption of the New START treaty and negotiations on banning the production of fissile material.

In the end, the statement said little new. The G7 countries, which include nuclear-armed France, the United States, and the United Kingdom, were quick to see the nuclear threat all around them but acknowledged no responsibility for contributing to that threat. The few proposals on how to make progress on nuclear disarmament were merely a repackaging of the tried-and-failed approach that these states and their allies have pushed for decades.

Nuclear disarmament advocates were dismayed.

Gensuikyo – the Japan Council against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs – issued a statement in which it said:

[F]ar from “send(ing) out a strong message to realize a world free of nuclear weapons” from the A-bombed city, as repeated by Prime Minister Kishida, no new initiatives or proposals were made, betraying the expectations of the Hibakusha and the people. On the contrary, the Summit declared its open affirmation of the nuclear deterrence theory, which is very deplorable.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) – to which Project Ploughshares belongs – declared that the G7 statement “falls far short of providing any meaningful outcomes for nuclear disarmament. After months of preparation and amid high expectations, the leaders are missing the moment to make the world safer from nuclear weapons.”

ICAN was right. An opportunity has been missed. A new vision and commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons could have re-energized the nuclear disarmament movement. Instead the status quo was buttressed with more cement.

Separating the wheat from the chaff

The G7 statement articulated valid concerns about nuclear security and the escalating risk of nuclear weapons use. However, these concerns were framed as stemming only from external circumstances, for which G7 countries bore no responsibility. Portraying themselves as deeply committed to nuclear disarmament, the G7 countries nevertheless continued to embrace the precarious nuclear deterrence doctrine and the defensive value of their own nuclear weapons.

Not surprisingly, the statement refers to Russia’s invocation of its nuclear weapons in the context of the Ukraine conflict. The G7 leaders reiterated their position that “threats by Russia of nuclear weapon use, let alone any use of nuclear weapons by Russia, in the context of its aggression against Ukraine are inadmissible.” And they were right: such threats are reckless and unacceptable and should be unambiguously rejected by the international community.

However, as Project Ploughshares has argued elsewhere, including in earlier issues of The Ploughshares Monitor, the risk that nuclear weapons might be used, either in the Ukraine conflict or as a result of it, does not lie primarily in spoken threats. Rather, the risk exists because nuclear weapons continue to exist – an existence perpetuated by the dangerous logic of nuclear deterrence, to which Russia and all G7 countries adhere.

The G7 also expressed concern for the acceleration of China’s nuclear weapons program, which it said threatened global and regional stability. Again, they were right. Numerous reports have found evidence that China plans to grow its nuclear arsenal from about 300 warheads to as many as 1,500 by the year 2035. The world needs fewer, not more nuclear weapons.

But the G7 conveniently chose not to mention that its three nuclear-armed members spend billions of dollars annually to modernize their own nuclear arsenals. This upgrading is widely regarded as a primary hurdle on the road to nuclear abolition.

The G7 vision statement speaks of the urgent need for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to enter into force. A legitimate objective and necessary aspiration. But it neglects to mention that one of the states preventing its entry into force is the United States, one of eight states (along with China, Egypt, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan) whose ratification is pending, in this case more than 25 years after it signed the treaty. Still, even without the activation of the CTBT, the G7 statement makes a welcome affirmation of the moratorium on nuclear testing, which it calls on Russia to also observe.

In its Vision, the G7 expresses deep concern “about Iran’s unabated escalation of its nuclear program, which has no credible civilian justification and brings it dangerously close to actual weapon-related activities.” It rightly designates the nearly dead 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) as a useful point of reference. And it affirms its own “clear determination that Iran must never develop a nuclear weapon.”

Of course, Iran should not develop a nuclear arsenal. But, again, the G7 refused to acknowledge that Iran had been fully compliant with the nuclear deal, as verified repeatedly by the International Atomic Energy Agency, until the deal started to unravel after the United States unilaterally withdrew from it in 2018.

Tackling the fundamental problem

For far too long, nuclear-weapon states and their allies have argued that they cannot embark on concrete and time-bound nuclear disarmament until the right international security conditions exist. The nuclear disarmament movement meets such arguments with growing skepticism.

No such ideal moment has ever or will ever exist. If we understand “undiminished security for all” as a required condition, then nuclear disarmament will remain an elusive goal.

The G7 Summit did not honour its historic setting, a city forever scarred by the atomic bomb. Its so-called vision lacked the necessary innovation and concrete commitment required to eliminate nuclear weapons and disregarded the role of many nuclear-armed nations in perpetuating the nuclear threat.

To make real progress, the international community must transcend rhetoric and embrace courageous actions that challenge the prevailing narrative surrounding nuclear weapons. The Hiroshima summit presented a unique opportunity for G7 countries to forge ahead boldly on the path to nuclear disarmament. Shame on them for failing. □

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