Current policies: time to turn things around?

These aforementioned problems have been compounded by the failure of Western states to tackle seriously some of the key pressing concerns that were evident after the cold war ended. We may have been confident about how our values prevailed over those of the Soviet Union, but still, it is believed that we made some serious mistakes: instead of cultivating Russia as a partner, the US isolated and infuriated many Russians, by expanding NATO; we did not think seriously enough about a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and we allowed the grievances of a dispossessed people and the increased US presence in the region to coalesce into a vengeful fury against the West; we failed to take seriously the need to alleviate global inequality and poverty (something that we are more than capable of doing, if the political will can be mustered); and we failed to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Eliminating nuclear weapons

It is this latter topic that has occupied much of our thinking in the past two decades. This is because we cannot conceive of a situation when any state or group could ever be justified in using a nuclear weapon against another and because the retention of these weapons – and there are still around 16,000 nuclear weapons in existence, most of which are far, far larger than the Hiroshima bomb, many of which are on hair trigger alert – and because, unless eliminated, one day these weapons will be used, either deliberately, or by accident. We have been heartened that in May 2015, a majority of states in the UN conveyed their dismay at the lack of progress in disarmament made by the nuclear weapon states and are now seeking to create a legal prohibition of nuclear weapons. Over 120 states have signed the ‘Humanitarian Pledge' promising to stigmatize, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons, as we have done already for chemical and biological weapons.

The need for prohibition is clear: recent studies showed that the use of even a tiny proportion of the nuclear weapons still in existence would result in massive loss of life, the destruction of built and natural environments, rupture of food and water supplies and widespread famine which will kill up to two billion people. Not surprisingly, the nuclear weapon states (the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea) do not want such a prohibition put in place and are trying to resist it. But in some ways this does not matter; stigmatizing a weapon and putting in a legal prohibition has been the first step in getting subsequent non-use and destruction of the weapon. This is what happened when the Landmines Treaty and the Cluster Munitions Treaty were put in place (and also the chemical and biological weapons conventions). Ray Acheson, Thomas Nash and Richard Moyes have written an excellent paper on this: A Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons (See Further Reading).