The Singapore Summit between the leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong-un, and US President Donald Trump—preceded by an historic border crossing and sit-downs with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping—is a tremendous moment by any measure. Almost exactly 55 years after the Korean Armistice Agreement, the prospect of a formal end to the Korean War and significantly thawed relations on the Korean Peninsula seems possible. Just a few months ago, North Korea and US were threatening each other with war.
On 7 July, 122 states voted to adopt a new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It articulates the world’s collective revulsion at the humanitarian consequences of the use of nuclear weapons, under any circumstances. The foreseeable effects of use in the indeterminate future make the possession of bombs today morally unacceptable to the international community. The treaty’s primary intent is to stigmatise nuclear weapons through a legally binding prohibition instrument in order to induce movement towards nuclear disarmament by the bomb-possessing countries.
In late 2016, the United Nations decided to launch discussions on the establishment of a treaty banning all nuclear weapons, and on May 22, 2017 the Chair of the conference dealing with this issue presented a first draft of the proposed treaty. The proposed draft is of a treaty negotiated among states, not taking into account the existence of non-state entities that could be holding a trump card in the case of universal nuclear disarmament. Moreover, in many respects, the draft falls into the same troubling trap of previous treaties. It is a detailed treaty but with a number of loopholes that come to placate the diverse opinions and approaches of the states to the issue. Thus while striving toward nuclear disarmament is a noble goal, one must be realistic and not really expect the proposed treaty to achieve it.
A short time after nuclear weapons were used in World War II, a movement to eliminate these weapons, the most horrific weapons of mass destruction (WMD), began with what is known as the Baruch Plan. Although many governments and hundreds of non-governmental organizations supported and still support nuclear disarmament, their achievements(including the disarmament of South Africa, reductions of stocks, and a moratorium on testing that was not universally upheld) have been partial.
Led by Russia and the United States, the world reduced the nuclear stockpile from 60,000 weapons to about 16,000 held by nine nations. The total still poses a grave global threat. Any nuclear attack or accident would kill many, devastating an entire region, which in turn would revive demands for abolition, explains Bennett Ramberg, author and a former policy analyst in the US Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs during the George H.W. administration. No country has used the bomb since World War II, he explains, and “A presumption emerged that a nuclear-use taboo overwhelms any inclination toward nuclear use.” The potential for nuclear catastrophe runs high in an era of terrorism and chaos emerging out of failed states, but prevention is possible, too. Global agreement is required, notes Ramberg, and he points to the 1946 Baruch Plan as a foundation. The plan calls for an international authority to manage atomic energy and an end to manufacturing nuclear weapons.
Seventy years ago this month the United States placed on the global agenda a proposal that would have eliminated nuclear weapons for all time. Drawing on the US State Department’s Acheson-Lilienthal scientific advisory study, the Truman administration turned to the long-time confidant of presidents, Bernard Baruch, to craft a proposal for global action.
In June 1946, Baruch appeared before the newly constituted UN Atomic Energy Commission to present the nuclear abolition plan that would come to bear his name. He called for establishment of an International Atomic Development Authority that would retain “managerial control or ownership of all atomic energy potentially dangerous to world security,” eliminate weapons manufacturing and dispose of all existing bombs while asserting “power to control, inspect, license all other atomic activities” coupled with assured enforcement. Had Cold War politics not intervened – Stalin pressed his scientists to build a competitive Soviet bomb as rapidly as possible – the nuclear Damocles Sword that’s hung over the world ever since might have been avoided.
For much of the 46-year Cold War, many of the West’s most gifted strategists focused their talents on how to prevent the two nuclear superpowers from engaging in a war that could destroy them both — and perhaps the rest of the human race along with them. With the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, the threat of nuclear Armageddon receded dramatically and the First Nuclear Age drew to a close.
The world is far different today. On the one hand, both the United States and Russia have far smaller nuclear arsenals than they did at the Cold War’s end. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. At the same time, new nuclear powers have emerged. These developments have introduced a shift from the bipolar Cold War nuclear competition, to an increasingly multipolar competition among nuclear powers and the onset of the Second Nuclear Age.
Yet this new age has not yet produced the foundational analyses that guided policymakers through the First Nuclear Age. Perhaps it is because the Second Nuclear Age appears so much more complex than the first. Or maybe it is because the Second Nuclear Age lacks the immediate existential danger posed by the Soviet Union. Or it might be that in the current age the best analytic talent has been devoted primarily to reducing the number of nuclear players (nonproliferation) and number of weapons (arms control and disarmament), rather than the consequences of such efforts falling short of success.