Responding to a question, Albert Einstein, the German-born physicist who won the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics, predicted rather ominously: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
Einstein, who regretted the marginal role he played in the creation of the atomic bomb, was implicit in his warning of a world going back to a pre-historic stone age in case it is annihilated by nuclear weapons in a third world war.
With the treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons (TPNW) receiving its 50th ratification last week, and scheduled to go into force in 90 days, there is a lingering fear as to the effectiveness of these treaties, particularly when the world’s nine nuclear powers stand defiant or are openly violating these treaties.
The slew of anti-nuclear treaties has, undoubtedly, acted as a deterrent against a nuclear war since the devastation caused by the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people back in 1945.
Paradoxically, there is also an often-quoted near-truism that “nuclear weapons have done more for world peace than any peace treaty” as most nuclear powers have affirmed “no first use of nuclear weapons.”
Still, it did not prevent the emergence of four new nuclear powers since the 1970s – India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel (which has officially refused to admit its nuclear status) ¬ – even as four countries de-nuclearized, including South Africa which disassembled its arsenal while Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine repatriated their weapons to Russia.
And despite these treaties, the world’s major nuclear powers, particularly the US, UK, China, France and Russia, who are also veto-wielding permanent members of the UN Security Council, have continued to modernize their weapons.
According to the London Economist, the US alone has spent over US$ 348 billion in a decade-long modernization programme followed by the UK, France, Russia and China.
“In short, there has been no attempt to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the military and security doctrines of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council despite their commitments under the NPT,” said the Economist back in 2015.
There are also reports that some of the Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are harbouring intentions of developing weapons perhaps in a distant future.
So, how far are we from the longstanding struggle for a nuclear-weapons-free world? Is this an achievable goal or a political fantasy?
According to an Associated Press (AP) story last week, the Trump administration has sent a letter to governments that have either signed or ratified the treaty, telling them: “Although we recognize your sovereign right to ratify or accede to the TPNW, we believe that you have made a strategic error.”
This has been interpreted as an attempt by the US to exert pressure on signatories to withdraw from some of the anti-nuclear treaties.
Asked whether it was possible for Member States to withdraw their ratifications from the TPNW, if they were under pressure to do so from other Member States, Brenden Varma, the Spokesperson for the President of the UN General Assembly referred journalists to the Secretariat and its legal affairs officers.
From the President’s side, he said, the TPNW represented a significant step, and in general, he supported the objective of a nuclear weapon-free world.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the total inventory of nuclear weapons worldwide, as of 2019, stood at 13,865, of which 3,750 were deployed with operational forces. And, more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons were owned by Russia and the United States.
Dan Smith, Director at SIPRI said all nuclear weapon states are upgrading their arsenals. “And arms control is in crisis,” he warned.
“The strategic arms agreement between Russia and the United States – the last bilateral arms control treaty still standing – must be extended by February next year. It is not surprising that a radical change of direction is gaining this degree of support worldwide,” he added.
Professor M.V. Ramana, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security and Director, Liu Institute for Global Issues, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, told IPS the quest for a nuclear weapons-free world has been longstanding, since the beginning of the nuclear age to be precise.
“The goal is definitely difficult to achieve and we are not close to it, but I don’t think it is a fantasy,” he said.
Other weapons of mass destruction, he pointed out, have been banned and there is no essential reason why nuclear weapons cannot be too, although this would require far-reaching changes in how countries interact with each other.
“The entry into force of the Ban Treaty is definitely a step toward the goal of the abolition of nuclear weapons because it allows non-nuclear countries to increase pressure on the nuclear weapon states to get rid of their means of Mass Destruction,” declared Dr. Ramana, who is also 2020 Wall Scholar, Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, University of British Columbia.
Since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been violated by all the nuclear powers, one reporter asked at the UN press briefing last week, “what actually is accomplished by this?”
In his response, UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said: “ I think the treaty itself is a very important message on the need for total elimination of nuclear weapons, and I think that’s reflected in what the Secretary General said its most immediate effect is that when it comes into force the treaty will become binding International Law for those States who have ratified it.”
Those States will also have to submit an initial declaration regarding any past or present nuclear weapons under their control within 30 days of the entry into force, he explained.
He also pointed out that the Secretary General is very well aware of the general climate, and he’s consistently called for dialogue among Member States so that they may return to a common vision and a path leading to the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
“Despite the differences over the treaty itself, the frustrations and concerns that underlie it must be acknowledged and addressed in that spirit.” The Secretary-General, he said, supports the continued engagement between supporters and critics of the treaty.
Dr. Joseph Gerson, President of the Campaign for Peace, Disarmament and Common Security, told IPS if there is hope for creating a nuclear-weapons-free world despite the reality of new arms races and possible proliferation, the obvious answer is “yes.”
There is hope, but no guarantee, he added. Humans inherently have free will and the possibility of taking action.
During the darkest days of the Vietnam War, with its massive daily death toll, he said, it was difficult to imagine a day when the murderous bombs would stop falling. But they did.
Generations of African-Americans suffered and courageously resisted brutal slavery and Jim Crow racism, said Dr. Gerson.
“It took centuries, but legalized US apartheid was overcome. And I had the unique privilege of knowing and working with courageous men and women who survived Nazi death camps and who resisted – nonviolently and otherwise – the Nazi occupations of their countries. Their actions, small and ambitious, saved lives and helped to build post-war democratic societies.”
“As long as there is life, there is hope,” declared Dr Gerson, author of With Hiroshima Eyes, and Empire and the Bomb. (IPS)
(Thalif Deen is a former Director, Foreign Military Markets at Defense Marketing Services; Senior Defense Analyst at Forecast International; and military editor Middle East/Africa at Jane’s Information Group. He is also the co-author of “How to Survive a Nuclear Disaster” (New Century,1981).