“We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” So say the leaders of the world’s largest nuclear weapons states in their recent joint statement, issued in preparation for the forthcoming nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.
And they are right. But what are they going to do about it? That is the vexed question. Commentators have been quick to point out that today’s leaders are quoting directly – though unacknowledged – from Reagan and Gorbachev at their 1985 summit in Geneva at the height of the cold war. At that time, these powerful words encapsulated a ground-breaking realisation on the part of the two global leaders which led to radical actions: the removal of a whole class of nuclear weapons from Europe through the agreement of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty – the very outcome demanded by the mass peace movements of those years.
Reagan and Gorbachev employed actions as well as words. They followed through. That is what we need today but this joint statement looks like words instead of actions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad this statement has been produced and that the dialogue required took place – at a time when dialogue between these powerful and well-armed states is more necessary than anything else. When countries have the capacity to destroy the human race you want them talking in a room together. But you also want concrete outcomes – real steps towards disarmament, not the nuclear weapons modernisation programmes that all these countries are undertaking, the arsenal increases and the additional scenarios for nuclear use which some are now adopting.
Unfortunately we are treated to a string of assertions that are not borne out by reality: that they are committed to preserving and complying with disarmament and non-proliferation treaties – yet the US under President Trump trashed numerous key treaties that have not been reinstated under President Biden; that they are committed to the NPT’s Article VI – this requires good faith measures towards nuclear disarmament, ridden roughshod over by all nuclear weapons states modernising or increasing their arsenals; and underpinning this is the continued false notion that nuclear weapons ‘serve defensive purposes, deter aggression, and prevent war.’
Of course it’s good to hear the leaders reiterating the validity of ‘previous statements on de-targeting, reaffirming that none of our nuclear weapons are targeted at each other or at any other State.’ This refers back to the agreement following the NPT Review Conference in 2000. But while it’s positive that our nuclear weapons aren’t pre-programmed to attack Moscow – or anywhere else, the truth is that they could be re-targeted in around 15 minutes. We need further steps to be taken, which would help reduce the risk of accidental or precipitous use – such as ‘de-alerting’, which puts an actual physical block within the weapons system, to prevent firing.
At this time of enormous interlocking threats and challenges, we must welcome their commitment to ‘increase mutual understanding and confidence, and prevent an arms race that would benefit none and endanger all.’ We want their resolve to ‘pursue constructive dialogue with mutual respect and acknowledgment of each other’s security interests and concerns’. We would also welcome their engagement with the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, freely negotiated by the global majority.
So who will take the first step, to ensure that these fine words become reality? Now is the time for us all to ‘Look Up’ and see the dangers that are facing us and take the necessary steps to prevent nuclear annihilation. Continued and intensified campaigning is at the heart of that.