The necessity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still a topic of hot debate, but one thing we can all agree on is that it was a tragic event the likes of which the world never need experience again. Cities whose names were once unheard of to those outside Japan are now worldwide synonyms for destruction. One survivor recalls stomachs bursting open and people carrying their own eyeballs. But, with the vote to renew Trident passing the House of Commons on Monday, it is important to remember that to this day, no international treaty banning or condemning nuclear warfare has ever been ratified.
More importantly, despite the creation of organisations like the UN to prevent further international conflicts in the wake of WWII, Western foreign policy has not changed drastically – the US alone has been responsible for the deaths of more than 20 million people since WWII ended, while less than 8,000 UK and 103,000 US military personnel have lost their lives. Only in the last 15 years or so has the West started to feel the effects of the resentment many harbour in affected nations, and in France this has taken a serious step up in intensity in the last couple of years. Unfortunately, ISIS may be just the first serious manifestation of our foreign policy coming back to haunt us, hitting us where we seem to care. In Paris, Nice, and Brussels, as opposed to Beirut, Ankara, and Medina.
These two issues are linked. The proliferation of the jihadist groups that threaten our sense of safety is a direct consequence of Western foreign policy stretching all the way back to the early 20th century (for a fantastic disentanglement of this, watch Bitter Lake). They wildly misappropriate the principles of Islam via an at least partially understandable hatred of the West. As safety disappears, so does trust, and trust is essential for a world to agree that nuclear deterrents are no longer necessary, for we can all trust that there is no threat to deter.
It’s a safe bet to say that the majority of the world’s citizens don’t consider nuclear bombs as positive for humanity. The more important question is, do the majority of Britons think that it’s feasible to remove our primary bastion of defence now? Do they trust enough in the future of the world to feel that without a nuclear deterrent, Britain will be safe? A recent YouGov poll indicates that a clear majority doesn’t. Our dependence on the US for the continued viability of Trident is irrelevant here, as is the strong likelihood that the USA would jump to our defence if any threat were to occur. What matters is the public perception of the level of threat in this world, and if that is high, then advocacy of nuclear disarmament may harm political progress.
Nuclear disarmament is often seen as a left-wing policy, and it’s also a black or white issue for many – you either do or don’t want to see Trident renewed. Refusing to cede ground hinders the chances of seeing many badly-needed domestic reforms, as well as smaller baby-step foreign policy changes that would likely lead to a world where nuclear disarmament is much more plausible to the masses. If, in the 71 years since Little Boy and Fat Man were dropped on Japan, we haven’t been able to stop playing power games on the world stage, then how can we expect to make the immediate jump to nuclear disarmament?
This is not to say that serious conversation to that end shouldn’t be happening yet – in fact, Obama and Corbyn show that it already is. But while Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize with his public calls to move towards multilateral nuclear disarmament – reiterated most recently on a visit to Hiroshima – his presidency has seen a slower rate of reduction in the country’s number of nuclear warheads than the previous three presidents, and has committed to a $1tn modernization of the country’s nuclear arsenal over the next three decades. This is in no small part due to uncertainty and insecurity over the world’s future. It’s all too easy to be in vehement opposition to nuclear weapons in principle – it’s highly unlikely we will ever need them. But when you’re the one making the call, the decision becomes a lot harder – what if I’m wrong? How many lives might I cost?
- Protest by Peaceworks KC at the construction of a new nuclear bomb parts plant in Missouri
Within the current geopolitical climate, this fear is enough to stop world leaders like Obama from backing up their rhetoric and taking the plunge. It’s also enough to stop most voters opposing Trident’s renewal. It’s a well-known rule of thumb to politicians that irrational fear prevails over rational evidence.
And yet you can easily see why the fear takes hold. ISIS, for all intents and purposes, are more than just a band of fundamentalist radicals. They have significant wealth and oil reserves and they control key roads, infrastructure, and cities in vast swathes of northern Iraq and Syria. A population the size of Portugal lives under their control. Most ISIS propaganda now aims to portray themselves as a viable and functioning alternative state to their predecessors, and in places like Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, this already appears to be the reality. Despite their hardline enforcement of Sharia law, militants fix infrastructure, restore electricity to neighbourhoods, and keep hospitals running.
It’s vital to remember that the predominantly Sunni northern Iraq sees the 15 years of turmoil following the removal of fellow Sunni Saddam Hussein in a much less positive light than the previously oppressed Shia majority in the south. This latent anger towards Western interventionism combined with a potent mix of fear and provision of basic services makes ISIS an entrenched and formidable force.
While Isis do not have the capability to be a nuclear threat in the near future, the world can change a lot in 30 years. In the days following the fall of the Berlin Wall, very few would have predicted this future. In the next 30 years, who knows what might happen if our approach to the Middle East and beyond doesn’t change? Aside from ISIS, North Korea possess both a megalomaniacal leader and between 6 and 8 nuclear warheads, and who’s to say more potent threats won’t pose serious danger if we continue to make the same mistakes? One might argue that disarmament is even more urgent if the world does continue its antagonistic slide, but again, this is irrelevant and unrealistic. Under these conditions, fear will prevail.
The fear we now experience is a result of numerous Western policy failures, including those attested to by the Chilcot report and many more since. The prospects of nuclear disarmament depend on the extent to which we address and repair these failures. Not until we stop perpetuating and benefiting from turmoil, for example by drilling for oil in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, can nuclear disarmament be thought of as feasible. Not until we stop making vast amounts of money selling government-sanctioned weapons to Saudi Arabia in support of their illegal bombing of Yemen. Not until we make a genuine effort to tackle ISIS, while truly understanding the region, playing a consistent supporting role in planning for the long-term, and holding power games at bay.
And for the sceptics out there, it’s entirely possible for the Middle East to become stable and democratic. If we zoom out the lens of human history, Europe’s stability is relatively short-lived in comparison to other regions – we are just fortunate that the distribution of resources catapulted us into the Industrial Revolution first. In a quickly globalising world, this does not bestow upon us the right to demand other countries play catch-up on our terms. We have a tendency to look upon the East through the prism of the West and accept its instability as a timeless reality, rather than a transient phase in a chain of events that we have played a significant part in. This chain will continue and, as the Iran nuclear deal demonstrates, can do so for the better – and if you don’t believe that to be possible, then how can you believe a world without nukes to be?
Nuclear disarmament is a valuable political tool that can be used to mark a clear departure from a protracted era of flawed foreign policy and go some way towards healing relations with those we have harmed. Once we have started righting our wrongs and building trust, we can apologise for our past and demonstrate a genuine commitment to a better future, with multilateral nuclear disarmament forming a key arm of that restitution. The start of a new era.
I’m sure many of us wish this era to be ushered in as soon as possible, but the sad reality is that it’s an idea ahead of its time. A society’s values always lags a couple of generations behind what the youngest voters idealise – the formative years of many of those currently in office were strongly affected by the geopolitical climate surrounding the Cold War, when the nuclear threat loomed far more menacingly. Despite the groundswell of support for disarmament in the 60s, ultimately the movement was incompatible with global powers and policies. At the moment, it still is, if not more so. But the millennial generation has a big part to play in determining the nuclear landscape of the future. The young of today will be the rulers of tomorrow, and maybe then the world will be different. If the forthcoming crop can transform the world to one that is based more on trust and harmony, then nuclear disarmament will inevitably follow. Let’s build up that trust, and then we will dismantle fear.