It can be hard not to lose heart these days after going through daily news headlines. Sometimes history seems to be moving backwards. The absurdity often makes one wonder if the world is going mad.
Among the crazy things that took place this week, here is one that is not getting much attention: the United Nations called for a meeting on Tuesday to continue negotiations for a legally binding ban on nuclear weapons, but nearly 40 countries – including the US, China, Russia, Britain and France – decided to skip it. None of the participants from the 100 countries attending the meeting belong to the group of states in possession of nuclear weapons.
US envoy Nikki Haley explained afterwards that national security concerns required Washington to keep its nuclear weapons because of “bad actors” who could not be trusted. “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons, but we have to be realistic,” she told reporters. “Is there anyone who believes that North Korea would agree to ban nuclear weapons?”
China, Russia, Britain and other nuclear powers did not even talk to the media.
If Kim Jong-un were watching the news, he would probably have a big smirk on his face. Yes, Kim is a cold-blooded power-hungry maniac. But judging from what happened on Tuesday, leaders of the world’s major capitals are probably just as callous.
While North Korea is aspiring to build a few nuclear bombs, the big five – US, China, Russia, France and Britain – are sitting on arsenals that between them could destroy this planet many times over. Still, none of them feel they have enough.
For those born in the 1980s or later, the threat of a nuclear war seems remote. But for older generations, such a threat was once very real. From the end of the second world war until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, fears of a nuclear Armageddon were widespread.
At the peak of the cold war, all major powers devoted precious national resources to building their nuclear capacities, with the US and the USSR leading the race. The atomic bombs the US dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the second world war were powerful, but they were mere popguns compared to the thermonuclear weapons of the cold war era.
The cold war stand-off established the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine. According to MAD, major nuclear powers would refrain from direct conflict because a nuclear exchange would result in the complete annihilation of both sides. Some historians credited this balance of nuclear deterrence as an important factor behind the longest period of peace in modern history, with no war breaking out between major powers for almost 70 years.
Dread of a nuclear holocaust forced world leaders to cool the hysteria. The end of the cold war brought brief hopes of optimism. But today, the situation is getting more dangerous.
After a brief slump, spending on nuclear weapons by major powers has increased again. Meanwhile, many emerging powers are trying to get their hands on such weapons. It seems that a nation has to own some weapons of mass destruction before it can be truly sit at the “big boys’ table”.
India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea have all joined the nuclear club, with Iran, Japan and even South Korea at various stages of acquiring membership.
Globally, annual expenditure on nuclear weapons is estimated at US$105 billion. In comparison, the Office for Disarmament Affairs, the principal UN body responsible for advancing a nuclear-weapon-free world, has an annual budget of US$10 million.
Two studies, one by the Brookings Institution and another by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recently drew the same conclusion: governments around the world are going to spend a crazy amount of money on nuclear weapons in the next decade.
Together, nine major nuclear countries will spend a staggering US$1 trillion on new research, production and maintenance of nuclear arms over the next 10 years. At a time of economic crises and imposed austerity measures, world leaders led by US president Donald Trump have decided to cut investment on education, health care and climate change so that we can have more powerful weapons of mass destruction.
Last year, Washington gave the green light to a new generation of “smart” nuclear bombs – the B61-12s – which will be the most expensive ever produced. Moscow and Beijing both expressed concerns and hinted they would respond in kind. This year, Chinese scientists announced a theoretical breakthrough in developing the so-called “N2 bomb” – a new type of weapon of mass destruction that is as strong as a nuclear bomb but produces no radioactive fallout.
The chance of a hot nuclear war among major powers remains astronomically small. The only real reason for them to continue pouring precious resources into the arms race is because they cannot break out of their cold war mentalities.
Today, terrorism, climate change and contagious diseases are much bigger and more realistic threats to the world than invasion by Moscow or a nuclear war between Beijing and Washington.
The only real nightmare is for such weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists.
No matter how much major powers improve their nuclear arsenals, it will not deter terrorists – there is no such thing as nuclear retaliation against people who want to see the world blow up.
A World Bank study estimated that if governments cut their spending on nuclear weapons by half and used the money on poverty alleviation, it would have been possible to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.
It would be naïve to ask the major powers to give up their nuclear weapons, but if they could divert more resources to fighting poverty, terrorism and global warming, we would have a much safer, better world. ■
Chow Chung-yan is the executive editor of the South China Morning Post, overseeing daily print and digital operations