It has been 75 years since the United States dropped the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, which killed nearly 200,000 people. Since then, humanity has had to coexist with the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons.
Although such weapons have not been used in wars, they define the international order. Nuclear deterrence and agreements to restrict weapons between the United States and Russia have assured decades of precarious peace. Meanwhile, the adoption of the first Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) by the United Nations in 2017 raised hopes for a world free of these destructive weapons.
Now the sky is dark. In 2019, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty between the United States and Russia collapsed, beginning a new arms race for arms with a range of 500–5,500 km. China’s rise as a superpower has been fueled by an arsenal of rapid modernization. India and Pakistan are embroiled in the worst border dispute in decades. Iran is restarting its nuclear program, after the United States revealed a joint comprehensive action plan that would ban it. North Korea continues to expand its arsenal.
This environment had made the old rules of strategic stability obsolete even before the pandemic fueled nationalism and tension. There is an urgent need for new ways of thinking about nuclear security and arms control, and for more than two players.
First, researchers and security experts need to find preventive strategies acceptable to the three countries. China should engage in arms-control talks with the United States and Russia, even if these are open-ended. Second, there is a need to include nuclear weapons alongside emerging technologies and conventional weapons in international security discussions. Third, non-nuclear nations, including Japan – my nation – need to be on the table.
In the 75 years since the nuclear holocaust at the end of World War II, scientists have been central to deterrence, detection and verification, capitalizing on global cooperation to build trust, technology and treaties. The skill and commitment of researchers are needed now more than ever.
The control of nuclear weapons is at a critical juncture. On a positive note, world leaders are becoming increasingly vocal about eliminating these hideous weapons. Sadly, current geopolitics means the situation is far from over.
Former US President Barack Obama called for a world without nuclear weapons when he visited Prague in 2009, and in 2016 became the first US president to visit Hiroshima. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres argued that their elimination is important “to save humanity” in his 2018 Disarmament Agenda 1. When Pope Francis visited Nagasaki and Hiroshima in November 2019, he was created by “fear and distrust”. He criticized the concept of nuclear deterrence as offering a “false sense of security”. He said, instead, peace should be assured, through a “difficult yet relentless effort to build mutual trust”.
Similar sentiments among non-nuclear states gave rise to TPNW. It was adopted by 122 of the United Nations’ 193 members, and will enter into force after being ratified by 50 states. But, till this month only 40 have done so. Signatories agree not to develop, test, produce, acquire, possess, stockpile, use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.
However, elimination is unlikely. Notable absences from the treaty include all nuclear-armed countries. He did not vote for TPNW; He expressed his reluctance to join jointly. Nor do the ‘nuclear umbrella states’ in Europe and Asia, such as members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Japan and South Korea, whose protection from nuclear attack depends on the United States.
Global systems of arms control are still important for managing nuclear risks.
The United States and Russia together have 90% of the world’s 14,000 nuclear weapons. Their holdings have been shaped through four bilateral treaties at three levels: Strategic Nuclear Weapons, Missile Defense and Sub-strategic Nuclear and Conventional Weapons. Negotiations began in 1969 under the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT).
The SALT I Agreement, signed in 1972, restricted systems that were capable of delivering nuclear weapons directly to any country. That agreement was replaced by the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START 1), which limited the number of nuclear weapons as well as delivery systems that each country could have. President Obama and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a replacement ‘New START’ treaty in April 2010.
The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed in 1972, limited competition related to these offensive weapons, which took place in the framework of mutually assured destruction.