Vol. 19, No. 3

Editorial: Competition, confrontation, and conflagration—or constructing peace through cooperation and care
16 October 2021

Ray Acheson

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As First Committee wrapped up its general debate and moved through the first of two thematic debate segments, concerns with rising militarism were forefront in the statements of most delegations. Perhaps because of the spotlights that the COVID-19 pandemic and increasing climate chaos have shone on government preparedness and expenditure, more and more states are conveying dismay at the resources wasted on militarism at the expense of everything else. “The resources being expended as military budgets are direly needed elsewhere,” said Zimbabwe, “including for post pandemic recovery, development finance, preventing future pandemics, poverty eradication and climate adaptation and mitigation.”

Beyond the wasted resources, delegations are also concerned with the ongoing competition among heavily militarised countries—especially the nuclear-armed states. Many governments worry that this competition will lead to confrontation. “Perceptions of insecurity are fed by the return of aggressive rhetoric, stockpile announcements, and erosion of treaties,” warned Mexico, while Sierra Leone said that rising military spending breeds mistrust and indicates that states have “reverted to the arms race in preparation for military engagement.” This has once again reached the point of an existential threat to humanity, Nepal admonished, arguing that today’s nuclear weapon modernisation race does not demonstrate ability, but rather the inability to make peace and build confidence, and our “propensity to live under constant fear.” Costa Rica cautioned that there is a “risk of a self-fulfilling prophecy” in the escalation of tensions between some nuclear-armed states, “as each takes progressively hostile measures in response to the actions of the other.”

The pursuit of peace through disarmament

Most governments have appealed to the nuclear-armed states for decades to reconcile their differences and engage in multilateral action to eliminate their arsenals of mass destruction. Two decades into the 21st century, these appeals are still forthcoming. “Hopefully, one day in the not-too-distant future,” said Kiribati, the leaders of nuclear-armed states “would finally trust each other and agree to do away with all nuclear weapons and all other life-destroying machines and put all their wealth and resources to making the world a truly peaceful, loving, caring and happy home for all.”

While still issuing these appeals, many countries have worked to create this world themselves. The development of humanitarian disarmament treaties, including the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the Mine Ban Treaty, the Convention on Cluster Munitions, the Arms Trade Treaty, and other agreements, are part of a genuine effort to construct a world where human security and human rights guide government action, rather than the profits of war and the perceived power of weapons. Building this world, a more just and secure world, requires us to “let weapons fall from our hands,” urged the Holy See. “When we yield to the logic of arms, we distance ourselves from the practice of dialogue and forget, to our detriment, that weapons monopolize financial resources, interrupt projects of solidarity and of useful labor, cause damage to the environment, and warp the outlook of nations even before their use wounds a single person.”

Warped worldviews and tonal shifts

This warping is greatest amongst the most militarised countries in the world. Their arsenals and violent global engagements are reinforced again and again by investing in weapons and waging war, regardless of how many times (every time) this results in more conflict and carnage. A feature of this warped perspective is the construction of narratives justifying the perpetual cycle of violence. It spawns rhetoric that contradicts reality, which works to preclude real action for change.

Purporting to being interested in pursuing a different path, for example, the United States told First Committee it will “head off costly arms races and re-establish U.S. credibility as a leader in arms control.” Yet in the same breath it said that it will ensure “the U.S. strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that U.S. extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.” The emphasis on credibility in both sentences is curious, as being credible in one precludes credibility in the other. Either one is committed to arms control, or one believes in deterrence, but not both. As we have seen for the past 76 years, believing in deterrence means investing in, modernising, deploying, and threatening to use nuclear weapons, all of which undermines any credibility of commitment to arms control, let alone disarmament.

The change in rhetoric is not unwelcome. In fact, in First Committee it feels like a breath of fresh air. The tone of the tensions between Russia and the United States is a much lower pitch so far this session. Russia reiterated its “cautious optimism” that it will be able “to creatively work on finding common ground” with the United States, while still expressing concern with the US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty and US nuclear weapon “sharing” with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) members. Furthermore, following an informal briefing from the chairpersons of the two UN cyber processes, Russia announced that it and the United States will jointly table a single resolution on cyber security, in order to allow the UN to “return to a single-track process” after three years of division.

The US delegation, in turn, highlighted its efforts to work with Russia on a Strategic Security Dialogue to “lay the groundwork” for additional arms control measures. Rather than berating Russia, as it has done extensively in past years, the United States focused its critique on China, proclaiming, “The PRC is building a larger, more diverse nuclear arsenal than the ‘minimum deterrent’ it has touted for decades. This rapid build-up has become more difficult to hide and highlights how China is deviating from decades of nuclear strategy based around minimum deterrence.” The US delegation argued that this demonstrates “why it is in everyone’s interest that nuclear powers talk to one another directly about reducing nuclear dangers and avoiding miscalculation,” and encouraged China to engage with the US “on practical measures to reduce the risks of destabilizing arms races and conflict.”

The US has been trying for more than a year to cajole China into joining nuclear arms control discussions with it and Russia. Several US allies also echoed the calls for China to join these talks, while in contrast, Russia said that “attempts to ‘compel’ anyone to participate in such discussions are counterproductive.” Last year’s First Committee theatrics in this regard were much more aggressive. However, while the language is toned down under the new US administration, the aggressive military posturing has increased dramatically with the recent announcement of the new nuclear submarine-based alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom (AUKUS) aimed at fortifying US military power in the Asia-Pacific region (see last week’s editorial for details).

China remarked that the US, “in pursuit of absolute military advantage, keeps hyping up major-power competition, strengthens military alliances, makes huge investment in upgrading its nuclear triad, lowers the threshold for using nuclear weapons, and constantly develops and deploys global anti-missile system, undermining global strategic balance and stability.” Arguing that the United States has a “special and primary responsibility” for nuclear disarmament given that it has conducted the most nuclear tests and makes the largest investments in its arsenal, China said the US must “create conditions for other nuclear-weapon states to join nuclear disarmament process.”

Conditioning and posturing

It was only a matter of time, perhaps, before the nuclear-armed states started demanding condition-creating efforts of each other, rather than just of states that don’t possess nuclear weapons. A tiresome tactic to displace their responsibility for the stalemate in nuclear disarmament, the demand on other states to “create conditions” more “favourable” for disarmament is like an abuser arguing that the abused is responsible for the abuse and needs to change their behaviour for the abuse to stop. This patriarchal ploy has been deployed in First Committee and other multilateral disarmament forums for years. This new twist, while putting the responsibility at least partially where it lies, continues to displace the responsibility of others. That is, everyone concerned here has nuclear weapons, but some purport that their arsenals are not as devastating or as menacing.

Except, they are. Regardless of the possessor, Palestine said, “in all cases nuclear weapons are the enemy.” This is neither theoretical nor historical, noted Palestine. “The world has been on the verge of a nuclear war too many times to underestimate the risk. Let us not tempt fate any further.”

Why is it that the nuclear-armed take this risk in the first place? More and more governments are demanding answers to this question, as it is only a small fraction of countries that possess nuclear weapons or defend their existence. Mexico pointed out that 116 states are part of denuclearised zones and do not belong to military alliances that base their security on nuclear weapons and deterrence doctrines, the threat from which “is a form of terrorism against humanity.” Despite this, the nuclear-armed states argue that the security environment is not conducive to nuclear disarmament. “How long will they keep trying to deceive us?” asked Mexico.

Arguing that the world cannot just stand by and wait until the “conditions” are right for disarmament, Palestine remarked that the logic of this approach implies that everyone is entitled to pursue “security” through “deterrence,” in which case all weapons of mass destruction are fair game. “But that is not the international law-based order we built,” said Palestine.

Every First Committee, this order appears more fragile than the last. “The aggressive postures of a few States to secure themselves through military means negatively affects the security of all States, in every layer of the atmosphere,” warned Liechtenstein. As the nuclear-armed states modernise and enhance their capabilities in the name of “deterrence,” they escalate tensions and enhance the momentum of nuclear proliferation, with dire consequences for global security. “The time is now for the world to completely shift the paradigm from armament,” proclaimed Zambia, and instead use the “huge sums of funds used in nuclear weapons research, manufacturing and testing” to save lives instead.

Shifting from weapons to welfare

Costa Rica made some important suggestions in this regard, offering some concrete ideas for how to make the shift from weapons to well-being. It highlighted the value of taking a feminist approach to disarmament, “which challenges the archaic assumption that power competition is the right way to conduct foreign relations and ensure national security.” A feminist approach recognises that “the most dire threats to human security—from pandemics, food and water insecurity, to climate change—do not recognize the artificial constructs of borders, and they cannot be effectively mitigated by unilateral action.” A feminist approach also confronts “women’s underrepresentation and other patterns of marginalization” in disarmament fora and works to ensure “the participation of victims and survivors—those who have been most directly impacted by the trade and proliferation of weapons, along with the full consideration of their humanitarian consequences.”

Costa Rica noted that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) “shows us some ways in which it is possible to create a more inclusive and safe future for all.” But, it argued, “that future will only be possible when the nuclear-weapon States stop multiplying and modernizing their nuclear arsenals; when reductions are verifiable, transparent, and under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).” And that future will only be possible when nuclear-armed states comply with all the obligations arising from relevant treaties, and not just some of them.

Outside of First Committee, we are seeing shifts both away from and towards such a world. The nuclear-armed states, unfortunately, are violating their non-proliferation and disarmament obligations while also investing in new technologies of violence. But others are not. The humanitarian disarmament treaties noted earlier are providing the guideposts for the policies of many countries in the world. States are seriously engaged in their implementation and universalisation. The newest instrument, the TPNW, is receiving support even from currently non-states parties, with Norway announcing last week that it will attend the First Meeting of States Parties (1MSP) as an observer—the first NATO member to do so, along with Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland. TPNW states parties Kiribati and Kazakhstan delivered a detailed joint statement to First Committee suggesting important considerations for 1MSP, signalling that they and others are preparing now for the meeting in March and are working hard to ensure the treaty has a meaningful impact in the world.

This is a possible future. Endless war and wasted resources and rising tensions are not inevitable. They are chosen, by a handful of states that have oriented their economies and politics around violence. They can change. The rest of the world can help them change, by guiding the way in climate action, in disarmament action, in human rights, justice, equality, and care. Standing together in solidarity is the best way to create this kind of change; we have seen it happen before, and at this point, it is the only way we’ll survive.

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