The development of nuclear weapons has led humanity into a new age of unprecedented insecurity and threat. In his valuable piece, David Krieger reminds us of the risks and wider implications of nuclear armament. He rightfully points out that “nuclear weapons stand as the quintessential shared risk, posing a danger to the whole of humanity” and that “the nuclear abolition movement must join with other movements seeking systemic global change.”
What kind of systemic change exactly? For nuclear scientists, it was clear early on that it is either One World or None, as the title of a volume published in 1946 went. Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard, and others strongly promoted a world government as the only sustainable solution they could think of that would allow for containing the danger of nuclear weapons. In said volume, Walter Lippmann wrote that it is impossible to rely on international agreements that are only enforceable insofar as sovereign states would and could coerce other sovereign states. In short, this was and still is a description of the status quo. What is required instead is to relinquish sovereignty in this domain and to accept a global authority that would provide for enforcement and collective security.
While steps like the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons represent important achievements that need to be celebrated, it must be recognized that today’s Westphalian system of international law and sovereign states is dysfunctional and that it does not provide for the security and enforcement architecture that is needed to achieve and sustain total nuclear disarmament. The abolishment of nuclear weapons, once and for all, is much more than a question of political will and awareness. It is indeed about systemic change. It is about institution-building and a transformation of today’s United Nations into a representative, democratic, legitimate, effective, and reliable system of collective security. It is about creating a system of world law. One important foundation, for example, will have to be a citizen-elected assembly that represents the interests of all of humanity.
This sort of institutional change is all the more crucial as the total abolishment of nuclear weapons cannot be achieved without substantial conventional disarmament and armaments control. Without nuclear deterrence, the importance of conventional military capability will grow again and raise the likelihood of military escalation of conflicts, including between great powers, which would immediately set off in turn a race for nuclear re-armament. For this reason, substantial conventional disarmament needs to be high on the agenda of the nuclear abolition movement in addition to far-reaching UN reforms (including the development of supranational military and police capabilities). In this vein, the McCloy-Zorin Accords of 1961 between the US and the Soviet Union, which sank into oblivion after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, represented an amazingly radical international program for “general and complete disarmament” which should be an important point of reference and inspiration to this day.
The abolishment of nuclear weapons in all its implications may be one of the biggest challenges on the path towards a sustainable and secure world, but the alternative may be no less than the destruction of world civilization.