Written by Dr. Dan Plesch, Director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy (CISD) at SOAS University of London and Kevin Miletic (PhD Candidate and Project Manager, CISD)
Fear of war looms in the background of the latest round of presidential meetings. At a time when Stanley Kubrick’s General Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove seems an apt description for the behaviour of world leaders: ‘Politicians have neither the time nor the inclination for strategic thought’, the political world either supports an increasingly militarised approach, or is left directionless, with an aspiration for peace and security undermined by lack of a guide to the intimidating world of acronyms and military technologies.
The NATO Summit and subsequent Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki present the best opportunity for leaders to emulate predecessors who understood disarmament and arms control were pre-requisites for national security and international stability. At the height of the Cold War, the NATO Summits of the 1980s were full of debates on arms control and disarmament. Recently, there has not been such focus.
Back in 1986, a presidential summit in Reykjavik resulted in one of the greatest disarmament achievements of the last century: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty), which dramatically decreased tensions in European. Now, both the US and Russia are threatening to withdraw from it.
If disarmament and arms control continues to be disregarded in high-level talks, do we see a soft landing for regional and global crises without dialogue?
UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ Securing Our Common Future may be the strategy we need. You could call it a ‘rough guide’ to world peace. It is a visionary document produced after extensive consultations with governments and civil society that surveys the potential for general and complete disarmament from ‘hand grenades to hydrogen bombs’.
Never before has the UN Secretariat produced such a substantive document on disarmament. Having the whole of the UN integrate disarmament perspectives into their work, with support of Member States, could be a game changer.
While critics highlight the lack of detailed action points on technical issues, the document is meant to foster momentum for disarmament efforts of all sorts and could create synergies among different constituencies that do not usually work together.
Directly challenging the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Guterres argues instability and danger in international affairs provide additional incentives for disarmament. To spotlight how bad things have gotten, he offers a question: Do the leaders of the nuclear-armed states support the joint statement by Reagan and Gorbachev that nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought? For it seems today none of the nuclear-armed states are willing to say this. Rather, all except China declare they are ready and willing to turn a war into a nuclear war.
The agenda reminds us that reducing arsenals, increasing transparency, lowering alert levels and mitigating risks have promoted stability in times of crisis. Furthermore, disarmament talks do not need to start from scratch. The tools at our disposal provide tried and tested practical measures to effectively manage a broad range of disarmament issues.
It is worth revisiting the common ground of the past, which led to multilateral and bilateral treaties. Notwithstanding the highly politically controversial nature of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the UN-sanctioned WMD inspection regimes provide a sound technical blueprint for verified elimination of WMDs.
Similarly, the OSCE agreements on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and the associated confidence- and security-building measures and open-skies regime provide an institutional platform for the exchange of information, verification and regulation of conventional weaponry.
While both certainly need updating, these agreements offer precision tools for WMD disarmament and conventional arms control.