Wake up, world! You need to hear this

December 1, 2023

By Wendy Stocker

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2023

This autumn I was in the audience when Ploughshares Executive Director Cesar Jaramillo delivered lectures on nuclear weapons at Conrad Grebel University College on the University of Waterloo campus and at a Science for Peace public lecture at the University of Toronto.

I have heard Cesar speak on this topic before, of course. I’ve read articles and op-eds. His words get scarier and scarier – even if he insists that there is reason for optimism.

A world with nuclear weapons is a scary place

In the lectures, Cesar outlined five fundamental truths that shape the contemporary reality of nuclear weapons.

1. The risk that nuclear weapons will be used has never been higher.

Cesar made a basic assumption (if you don’t accept it, then perhaps you aren’t too worried about the threat of nuclear annihilation): sooner or later, if nuclear weapons continue to exist, they will be used. According to Cesar – and other analysts – only “sheer dumb luck” has saved the world from the use of nuclear weapons since bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Cesar referred in both lectures to the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which illustrates the likelihood of a human-made global catastrophe. At the beginning of 2023, we were the closest to Doomsday that we had ever been – tied with 1953, at the height of the Cold War.

What factors contribute to the heightened risk? Cesar pointed to escalating global tensions – not only the Israel-Gaza war and the war in Ukraine, but sabre-rattling by China and tensions between India and Pakistan. Climate degradation and the continued existence of nuclear weapons are other major factors.

Today, the world is home to approximately 12,500 nuclear warheads. While the number is far lower than the almost 64,000 that existed in 1985 (according to Statista), there are still more than enough weapons to destroy the world as we know it. Moreover, as Cesar explained, in recent years, the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) have been modernizing their nuclear weapons, making them even deadlier.

The combination of nuclear weapons and global tensions is unsettling, especially when the following is considered:

  • Three NWS – the United States, Russia, and China – are directly or indirectly involved in almost every current hot conflict.
  • All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, Russia, and China, along with the United Kingdom and France – possess nuclear weapons.
  • The number of NWS is now nine, with four – India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel – not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • The Iran nuclear deal is all but dead.

Nuclear-armed states seem to hold all the cards. Certainly, they seem to believe in their strategy – that nuclear weapons will protect them in an increasingly dangerous world.

2. There is no plan in place for nuclear disarmament.

… no process, no project, no benchmarks, no goals. As Cesar noted, nuclear-weapon states are looking for an ideal set of circumstances before earnestly undertaking a disarmament process. But we know that those circumstances will never exist; instead, nuclear disarmament efforts must advance and coexist with a variety of global security challenges.

3. Every state has legitimate security interests and concerns.

Russia, for example, is concerned about the existence of U.S. nuclear weapons on the lands of other NATO countries, some uncomfortably close to Russian territory. As Cesar emphasized, no state has the right to pursue its own security at the expense of another country. (He was also clear, however, that NOTHING justified Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.) The use of nuclear weapons has become entangled with these security interests and disentangling won’t be easy.

4. The world is transitioning to a new, multi-polar order.

The United States is no longer the only hegemon, Cesar advised. China is on the ascendant. And there are other contenders. Solutions to conflicts must take this new world order into account. Presumably, such solutions will involve a recognition of the need to eliminate all nuclear weapons.

5. Sometimes nuclear deterrence works.

Yes, Cesar came right out and said this. While he admitted that this claim was controversial, he was able to find support for it in the containment of the Ukraine crisis. Neither NATO nor Russia (for the moment, at least) has wanted the war to grow outside its present boundaries, in part because of the chance that such an escalation will make an opponent feel sufficiently threatened to employ the ultimate defence.

However, Cesar was adamant that any strategy based on the possible use of nuclear weapons was too dangerous to keep and must be replaced by one based on common security.

Where is Canada in all of this?

The Canadian government says that it supports nuclear abolition but does not treat abolition as a priority. Canada shelters under the nuclear umbrella of nuclear-armed NATO members, although it accepts no nuclear weapons on its territory. Like all other NATO member states, Canada has not joined the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which entered into force in 2021. The Canadian government even refused to send representatives to the first meeting of States Parties to the treaty in 2022 and seemed unlikely at the time of the lecture to send any to the second meeting at the end of November this year.

Canadian civil society, however, has performed well on this file, in Cesar’s opinion, and continues to challenge the status quo. According to a 2021 opinion poll, Canadian citizens support the elimination of nuclear weapons; most also want Canada to join the TPNW.

Signs of hope

While Cesar did not explicitly explore grounds for optimism during these lectures, I was able to come up with the following list:

  • Our luck has held – so far.
  • Civil society organizations, including Canadian Pugwash Group, the Canadian Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2017 for its work on the TPNW, have made a major impact and continue to work hard to eliminate these weapons.
  • The TPNW exists! At the time of writing, 69 states had ratified it.
  • Many Canadians support the abolition of nuclear weapons, although there has been a move to the right since the latest phase of the war in Ukraine began in February 2022.
  • The commitment to nonproliferation found in the NPT has “held quite well.” (However, this plus factor is countered by the lack of any drive to disarmament.)
  • The ascendancy of survivors of nuclear bombs (Hibakusha) and nuclear testing (downwinders) to the world’s stage has made it clear that nuclear weapons exist in defiance of the tenets of international humanitarian law.
  • A few NATO member states attended the first meeting of States Parties to the TPNW.
  • Developing and middle powers, including Mexico, Ireland, and Austria, are being recognized globally as strong supporters and champions of the TPNW.
  • Many young people are eager and willing to work together to save the planet.

What to do now

Maybe you want some more detailed information. A good place to start is the Project Ploughshares website (www.ploughshares.ca). You will find recent reports and blogs on the topic. Almost every issue of The Ploughshares Monitor has a feature on nuclear weapons. And you will find a series of videos on Canada and the abolition of nuclear weapons on the Ploughshares YouTube channel.

Then you must act. The abolition of nuclear weapons is a cause that everyone should support. All the good actions and endeavours of governments, scientists, entrepreneurs, civil society, the young and the old to make the world a better place – all will be wasted if nuclear war breaks out.

Send us your ideas and plans. Let us all work together to save the world from nuclear destruction.

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