Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Opinion

Nuclear weapons: old dilemmas, new dangers

  • Preparations already afoot for 2020 NPT Review Conference at UN in New York (Photo: United Nations Photo)

Nuclear weapons have posed a challenge to international security since 1945. Today that challenge looms as large as ever.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty has been under severe threat for many years and even more so today.

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  • Czaputowicz (c) and Blok (right of centre) with fellow EU ministers at UN assembly in September (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

North Korea's nuclear weapons threaten the global security order and our multilateral system, and Iran's nuclear activities could form a potential threat. Implementation of arms control treaties is being challenged as well.

The way these problems are resolved will have an impact that is felt far into the future.

Moreover, tensions between major powers, pockets of instability on almost every continent, and revisionists challenging the rules-based international order are making the world less stable and predictable.

The emergence of military technologies such as autonomous weapons systems based on artificial intelligence, hypersonic weapons, and weaponised cyber and information technologies can severely disrupt communication lines, limit political discretion and shorten reaction times.

In a nuclear crisis this is a potentially fatal combination.

These developments call for an immediate return to effective nuclear arms control.

Luckily, a solid basis for that already exists. That basis is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has kept the number of countries with nuclear weapons below the level envisaged in the apocalyptic predictions of the 1960s.

The Treaty also binds us to a clear goal of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, and it has already helped achieve tangible nuclear disarmament.

No less important, it has fostered international cooperation in the peaceful use of nuclear energy for economic development and prosperity, helping to widen the availability of effective medical treatments worldwide.

The NPT regime is an example of a true and highly successful form of multilateralism that benefits everyone, rather than a zero-sum approach.

But now that the NPT is facing multiple challenges, we must all show a sense of ownership and responsibility if we want to hold on to the possibility of further nuclear arms control.

We need ambitious and sensible new agreements on how to curb the nuclear threat.

Opportunity

The 2020 NPT Review Conference, marking the 50th anniversary of the NPT's entry into force, is our chance.

With this anniversary nearing, the Netherlands and Poland are pledging to work together to strengthen and develop the nuclear arms control regime so that it is equal to current and future challenges.

Having chaired consecutive meetings of the NPT, we have been exploring new forms of cooperation, with an emphasis on responsibility and inclusiveness based on consultations in all parts of the world.

We will continue this effort together with this year's NPT chair, Malaysia, and the future president of the Review Conference. The 2020 Review Conference must be a shared success.

For this to happen, we must build bridges where differences persist and take bold steps where we see opportunities for deeper and wider cooperation. Only this way we can live up to our common obligations.

There is cause for encouragement in the recent initiatives for the development of technologies, mechanisms and procedures for the verification of nuclear disarmament agreements.

Following the Russian proverb "trust but verify", which former US president Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting, the hard work of diplomats and technicians alike will help lay the foundations for the further reductions of nuclear arsenals.

We see a need to improve transparency, dialogue and communication between nuclear states and their allies. This will foster strategic stability and minimise nuclear risks.

All of us have a stake in preventing the use of nuclear weapons.

This has always been acknowledged by those possessing these weapons, and this recognition has led to ground-breaking Cold War agreements and practices aimed at reducing tensions and preventing misunderstandings in times of crisis.

Stability

We should learn from our predecessors and adapt these ideas to the world of today. Greater stability may in turn contribute to creating circumstances conducive to further progress on disarmament.

We call on all parties to join us in working towards a positive outcome in 2020. Former US president John F Kennedy once expressed his fear that 20 or 25 countries might one day develop nuclear weapons.

The NPT has prevented that. But this nightmare can still become a reality if we do not remain vigilant. Nuclear weapons are an unfinished story, and it is incumbent on us to compose a positive outcome for it.

Jacek Czaputowicz and Stef Blok are the foreign ministers of Poland and the Netherlands

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