Sitki Egeli - Turkey
It has been 72 years since the atomic bombardment of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which resulted in the death and injury of hundreds of thousands.
The discovery in Japan of the terribly destructive power of nuclear weapons apparently did not prove enough of a deterrent to convince humanity of the need to get rid of these dangerous weapons.
On the contrary, the extraordinary destructive power of nuclear weapons must have increased in attractiveness in the sight of many countries and their administrators so much that the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and the People's Republic of China followed in the footsteps of the United States in developing nuclear weapons.
Over the following decades, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea joined the caravan of countries that possessed atomic bombs.
Fewer nuclear warheads
Nuclear weapons are perhaps the most fatal threat that could end all human life on this planet.
We know for a fact that our civilization narrowly escaped a total nuclear destruction at least once, and that was during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
It is true that compared to the 1980s, when the number of nuclear warheads in the world exceeded 60,000, this number has declined to around 10,000 today thanks to the major reductions made in their arsenals by the U.S. and Russia after the Cold War.
However, even the presence of 10,000 nuclear weapons, the vast majority of which are kept ready for use at any given moment, makes it impossible to take a deep breath and relax.
Let alone relax, in recent years, we have witnessed developments that have brought the danger and possibility of a nuclear war back in the limelight across the globe.
As we saw as recently as the first days of September, North Korea, in particular, has been making a special effort to keep nuclear weapons on the agenda of the world by testing its nuclear weapons on almost a monthly basis as well as its ballistic missiles that would carry the warheads to their designated targets.
Risk of cyber-attacks and populism
As a matter of fact, nuclear weapons may not always be used knowingly and willingly. It is not a remote possibility that nuclear weapons are accidentally or unintentionally activated through outside interventions and cyber-attacks, which we have been gifted with thanks to rapidly advancing information technology.
Equally worrisome is the glut of populist political leaders influencing world politics today. They are mostly ineffective and bereft of the notion of empathy. It has always been assumed that whenever it came to nuclear weapons, countries that possessed them would display moderation and act maturely and with the acknowledgment of how tremendously different nuclear weapons are from conventional ones.
However, the irresponsible and dangerous rhetoric employed in the recent battle of words with North Korea by the leader of the oldest and supposedly mature nuclear power of the world, the U.S., has cast a shadow on this assumption. Among the nuclear countries using irresponsible rhetoric, one should mention Russia -- alongside the U.S. and North Korea -- which sees no harm in threatening its neighbors with using its nuclear weapons.
The fact that the proliferation of nuclear weapons cannot be prevented in any way, the cyber-security risks involved, and populist and/or authoritarian leaders now ruling many countries have now become factors that force us to reconsider the role of nuclear weapons with regard to world security today as well as the serious risks and dangers they pose in the meantime.
In other words, we are faced with a paradigmatic transformation, in which all of the arguments employed so far to legitimize nuclear weapons and portray them as necessary have capitulated one by one.
For example, the argument propagated by nuclear powers that nuclear weapons make conflicts too dangerous and risky and thereby actually better serve peace and international stability is losing its persuasive power and coherence to a great extent under the new circumstances developing.
New treaty adopted by 122 UN members
Quite unsurprisingly, we see that the international perception about nuclear weapons is rapidly changing and that this change is bringing with itself a number of processes and initiatives.
For instance, a new international treaty adopted in July at the United Nations by 122 members completely bans and outlaws the development, testing, deployment, and use of nuclear weapons.
The treaty will be presented to the member states for their approval in September and enter into force once signed by 50 states, and it will be a heavy yet ineffective blow to nuclear weapons' legitimacy and legal status.
Unsurprisingly, countries with nuclear weapons and their allies, who agreed to house nuclear weapons on their soil, sat out the UN vote.
With their conspicuous absence, they implicitly declared that they would not recognize this initiative and demand, already supported and approved by 122 countries.
What we can deduce from this is that the countries that own nuclear weapons as well as those who have secured themselves a place under the "protective umbrella" of nuclear powers favor the continuation of the current situation with nuclear weapons, in which these weapons remain an essential, legal, and institutional element of international relations.
And in favoring this present state, they are ready to face up to all the risks and dangers posed by nuclear weapons.
'70s legal framework
The current institutional and legal framework for nuclear weapons is regulated mainly by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), signed in 1970.
In sum, the NPT divided countries into two groups: those eligible to possess nuclear weapons, and those who were not.
The five states that had the right to have nuclear weapons and enjoyed the privileges were those that had already acquired nuclear weapons at the time when the treaty was being deliberated.
These five countries were also the very five that eventually became the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto power.
By putting the NPT into effect, what the international community actually did was to accept the nuclear status quo in the world as it was as of the late 1960s, with all its problems and injustices, and freeze it. And this was all done in the name of preventing a bigger number of countries from laying their hands on nuclear weapons.
And in return for that, it made certain promises to the states which relinquished their right to acquire nuclear weapons.
Among the things promised was, for example, that nuclear weapons would be reduced in number and be eventually done away with completely, that nuclear weapons would never be used against the countries who relinquished their right to nuclear weapons, and also that there would be no obstacles to accessing and using nuclear technology for commercial and scientific ends.
Nuclear states undermine deal's legitimacy
Unfortunately, in the almost half-century that has since passed, there have been many examples of negligence regarding these assurances and commitments, and even cases in which the complete opposite of whatever was envisaged by the NPT was done.
States with nuclear weapons themselves have in a way cast a shadow over the legitimacy and legality of the NPT and their own nuclear weapons by failing to properly comply with the requirements of a deal that provided their own nuclear arsenals with legitimacy and legality in the first place.
All the countries with nuclear arsenals, without exception, are currently carrying out modernization programs worth billions of dollars to make their warheads more effective and lethal, let alone get rid of them.
The secret restrictions on peaceful nuclear technology, however, remain in effect. Failing to give the necessary response and take real precautions in the face of, say, India and Israel's developing nuclear weapons despite not being NPT signatories had already undermined the main pillar of the treaty.
As a result, as the institutional structure that has formed around the NPT for half a century is cracking, a strong bottom current is originating in favor of a complete ban on nuclear weapons. But it is not difficult to predict that the nine countries with nuclear arsenals will not easily relinquish their privileged positions.
A threat that is not remote
In a nutshell, the world faces a very dangerous state of nuclear non-settlement and may not have much time to resolve this nuclear dilemma of humanity.
Trump, during his election campaign, remarked that the countries such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea which benefited from America's nuclear deterrence shield did a lot more harm in terms of causing nuclear weapons to spread even more and gain legitimacy, let alone helping to eliminate them.
When Germany and Japan, for example, have this right, who could say no, on what grounds and rationale, to Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey?
As a matter of fact, in all these countries we nowadays find opinions and ideas being put forth more and more assertively that the time is ripe to own nuclear weapons for "national" reasons.
So we wonder if a world where dozens of countries develop and deploy nuclear weapons will indeed be safer than today.
Above all, will the risk of accidental or involuntary use not increase dramatically? If nobody can enjoy any privileges in a setting where all the others also have nuclear power, would it not be easier and danger-free to try and achieve the same result by eliminating all nuclear weapons worldwide?
The well-known particle physicist Brian Cox thus explains the Fermi paradox, namely how it is possible that humanity has still not actually come into contact with extraterrestrial life forms despite the existence of around 100 billion planets in our own galaxy: If the speed with which civilizations gain institutional and political maturity happens to be smaller than the speed with which they develop their technology, every civilization with a sufficient level of technological advancement will eventually destroy itself.
And this is the reason why, according to Cox, there have never been any civilization in the universe advanced enough to reach our world.
It is possible to adapt Cox’s inference to our own world and our own civilization. If we fail to endow ourselves with the due maturity and capacity to be able to control the technologies that we have developed, we might easily destroy our own civilization with our own inventions. And if we fail to learn to control and manage these technologies as soon as possible, nuclear weapons are the candidates closest to proving this prophecy right.
In US sensitivity to and understanding of Turkish society, nothing has changed over the past 5 years
Rachael M. Rudolph joins Bryant Zhuhai as an Assistant Professor of Social Science in the fall term. Her research focuses on Sino-American relations, US-North Korean relations, strategic security in the Asia Pacific region, and transnational crime. She can be reached at: [email protected] M. Rudolph
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