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Commentary | 23 November 2021

Network reflections: Given competing global challenges, why is it important to sustain efforts toward multilateral nuclear disarmament?

Image of Alexander Kmentt

Alexander Kmentt |Ambassador, Director for Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation at the Austrian Foreign Ministry

Image of Henrik Salander

Henrik Salander |Former Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Secretary-General of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission

Image of Adam Kobieracki (1957-2024)

Adam Kobieracki (1957-2024) |Former Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center and former NATO Assistant Secretary General for Operations

Image of Uta Zapf

Uta Zapf |Former Chairwoman of the German Parliamentary Sub-Committee on Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation

Network Reflections Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Weapons Security Global Security ELN

The answer is simple: because the risks of nuclear conflict, nuclear escalation, or nuclear explosion by intent or accident are as high as they have ever been.

It is crucial, potentially for the survival of humanity, that a move away from reliance on nuclear weapons as a guarantee of security and stability is undertaken in earnest and with urgency. Experts are warning us about the existential risks of nuclear weapons, just as much as they have warned about catastrophic climate change and global pandemics. Geopolitical competition is not a reason to un-dust a Cold War nuclear deterrence playbook from which we emerged with a lot of luck. It is the reason to drive forward a nuclear disarmament agenda. We cannot rely on our luck forever, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons. Given what we know about the devastating humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and the risks that come with this weaponry – now further exacerbated with new technologies and cyber vulnerabilities – the case for nuclear disarmament is an urgent priority and the prudent and responsible way forward. Continuing to believe that nuclear deterrence will hold into an unspecified future is wishful thinking at best and more likely an irresponsible gamble with the security of all humankind.

The case for nuclear disarmament is the realist approach to security. Indefinite reliance on nuclear deterrence is probably a wishful, even utopian, belief in a stability that is simply unsustainable. A turnaround is urgently needed.

Alexander Kmentt, Director of the Disarmament, Arms Control and Nonproliferation Department, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and President-Designate of Treaty of the Prevention of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) first Meeting of States Parties (1MSP), Austria


When humankind contemplates the threats against its existence, two are more threatening than others: global warming and nuclear war. Both are manmade and are dangerous in different ways, but they are possible to rid, although challenging.

In the future, in the next 40-years, there will no longer be nine nuclear-weapon states; of this, I am sure. There will be fewer, or there will be more. Why? Because the civilian general public in many states outside the existing nine will not accept being held hostage by governments equipped with nuclear weapons, they will demand equal footing. The choice will be no nuclear weapons at all or possession of their own. The only way to avoid having more, therefore, will be to have fewer.

This process has started but is meeting stiff resistance. There will be one formidable obstacle further down the road, aside from national prestige, reliance on deterrence, and other well-debated objections: democracy.

The transparency and verification required for a world free of nuclear weapons are likely to mean all states with nuclear power and/or nuclear weapons are democratically governed. They are unlikely to accept enough transparency and a system of verification intrusive enough otherwise. But despite these difficulties, the process towards fewer -and eventually no nuclear weapons- has arrived. Either it will succeed over time, or these weapons will be with us to stay.

Henrik Salander, Former Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Secretary-General of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, Sweden


Even given the competing global challenges, it is still important to sustain efforts in global nuclear disarmament, but not because it is achievable in the foreseeable future. Using the phrase from a well-known car advertisement, in this case, “Der Weg ist das Ziel” or the route is the goal.

Technological arms development will soon deprive nuclear weapons of their status as the single most deadly wartime arsenal while not reducing their numbers. That may – just may, but is threatening enough – increase the possibility of using such weapons on purpose or by accident.

Expectations of efforts in global nuclear disarmament should first be realistic and linked to keeping the issue high on the international political agenda. Efforts should widen the scope for openness and transparency, possibly strengthening the mechanisms for nuclear non-proliferation, establishing a clear link between nuclear weapons and environmental damage, and, more broadly, making nuclear war “unthinkable.”

Under no circumstances, other global challenges – like climate, geopolitical changes, coronavirus pandemic – make us feel that they are simply a fact of life to which we get accustomed. And we must think of global nuclear disarmament efforts not in terms of a negotiating diplomatic forum but rather as a broad and multifaceted process involving politicians, military, experts, different parts of society, students, academic circles and more.

In other words, from a realistic perspective, if nuclear arms are here to stay with us for some time to come, let them remain as a political instrument of deterrence and not as means of actual fighting.

Adam Kobieracki, Former Director of the OSCE Conflict Prevention Center and former NATO Assistant Secretary-General for Operations, Poland


The Doomsday Clock is at 100 seconds to midnight!

Today’s global challenges are indeed manifold: climate change, epidemics and pandemics such as Covid-19, and looming nuclear war. Finding solutions to all these problems is paramount for the survival of humankind.

The escalating nuclear arms race and deterioration of arms control and disarmament measures is a matter of extreme concern. All nuclear-weapon states are modernising their arsenals. And this is true of the ‘P5’, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – Iran, too, is also a cause for concern. Some nuclear states have sharpened their nuclear doctrines and, consequently, presented nuclear weapons as weapons of warfare, but a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”.

President’s Biden and Putin confirmed this famous statement by Reagan and Gorbachev at their July 16, 2021 summit, and this insight must have consequences. The prolonging of NEW START was only a welcome first step.

Next, the world must see:

· declaration of No First Use: This will open the door to further steps toward nuclear disarmament

· reduction in budgets for the modernisation of nuclear weapons and weapon design, or agreement to a moratorium on modernisation while making the NPT Review Conference a success

· toning down of the role of nuclear weapons in all national defence strategies

· inclusion of missile defences in negotiations; and finally,

· ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and finalisation of a Fissile-Material Cut off Treaty (FMCT)

Uta Zapf, Former Chairwoman of the Bundestag Sub-Committee on Disarmament, Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and former SPD Member of Parliament, Germany

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.