You don’t have to be a wide-eyed optimist to believe that, despite the many and serious challenges our world faces, time remains on the side of progress. In recent decades, remarkable strides have been made in tackling disease and reducing poverty. Scientific and technological advances offer the hope that solutions can be found to many of the long-standing problems that have held humanity back. Children today in every continent are likely to enjoy longer, healthier and more opportunity-packed lives than their parents.
But there is one large and ominous cloud that hangs over this improved future – one area where our world has moved backwards not forward in recent years. With the end of the Cold War, there was real and understandable hope that the threat of nuclear weapons and conflict was disappearing. That is no longer the case.
Instead of a new era of cooperation, we have seen increased suspicion between the major nuclear powers. These tensions have caused economic damage due to reciprocal sanctions, inflamed conflicts and increased risks that the localised disputes in which they are involved could spiral into something much more dangerous.
Even more frightening is the rise of a new breed of violent extremists whose aim is to cause as much death and destruction as they can. They are actively seeking nuclear weapons, which they will not hesitate to use. Whatever truth there was once behind the concept of nuclear deterrence, it simply does not work, as Henry Kissinger has pointed out, in a world of willing suicide bombers.
This is the reality and threat that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev addressed head-on during his visit to Washington to attend the Nuclear Security Summit on March 31-April 1. He raised the possibility of the major powers sleep-walking towards global conflict. Our world, he warned, was “now on the edge of a new Cold War which could have devastating consequences for all humankind.”
He warned that “international terrorism has gained a more sinister character.” It may, he said, be a question of when, not if, they get their hands on the knowledge, technology and components for a nuclear device.
He challenged world leaders to show the courage and vision needed to limit and eventually eradicate these threats. This must include, as U.S. President Barack Obama said at the summit, much tighter controls to prevent material and know-how failing into the hands of terrorist groups. But the only way truly to defuse this threat is to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.
This was the ambition that President Nazarbayev set out in the Manifest “The World. The 21st Century” published during this visit and outlined in his speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It is a document that mixes the vision of a world in which the “virus of war” has been eradicated with practical steps to achieve that vision.
In what was a detailed blueprint for peace, he called, for example, for urgent action to prevent the spread of nuclear arms to space, the development of new and more dangerous weapons and the retreat into competing military blocs. “We should have learnt from past wars and conflicts that it is impossible to ensure our own security by undermining the security of others,” the President warned.
The document stressed the importance of expanding and replicating existing nuclear-weapon-free zones and the need to modernise existing international disarmament treaties.
It also underlines how a world without conflict required the removal of the injustice that is its root cause. Barriers to fair trade and development have to be lifted while the principles of international law must be reaffirmed and respected by all countries. These steps should be completed, he urged, by the time the United Nation celebrates its centenary. He promised that Kazakhstan would convene a high-level conference this year to take this forward.
It was a challenging agenda in which no punches were pulled and global sights were set high. But his warnings carried all the more weight coming from the leader of a country that has suffered so badly from the effect of nuclear weapons and has put itself for a generation, through actions and words, at the forefront of the drive for nuclear disarmament.
It may not make comfortable reading, but, as President Nazarbayev said, ending the threat from nuclear weapons and reducing the lives lost from conflict must be the cause of the 21st century. The consequences of failing to act could see the planet turned into “a graveyard of radioactive materials.” As the President warned: “In the 21st century, humanity must take decisive steps towards demilitarisation. We won’t get another chance.”