How to save our planet from nuclear annihilation

Toronto Star | May 29, 2018
Keynote speech at University College, U of T | May 30, 2018 | video of lecture

In an open letter last week, the president of the United States addressed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: “We greatly appreciate your time, patience and effort with respect to a summit [meeting] long sought by both parties …”

Then in the same paragraph, Donald Trump cancelled the summit and threatened obliteration: “You talk about your nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.”

Seldom are the alternatives of meeting, or killing, so baldly stated. It is something new, that millions live with these threats in mind.

This awareness dates from the time, nearly a half a century ago, when perhaps the most reproduced photograph in history showed our planet as seen from space. This was a milestone in human history.

There had been earlier milestones, some in secrecy. One such took place, in December 1949, in a committee room in Washington. The advisory group to the U.S. Atomic Energy Authority was meeting to determine the advisability of a crash program to build a hydrogen bomb — a weapon 1,000 times more powerful than the ones that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Eleven of the 13 committee members were scientists from the previous A-bomb project. Ten voted against the H-bomb, one abstained. The two non-scientists voted for it.

U.S. President Truman accepted the advice of the non-scientists. The U.S.S.R. had just shocked the world by testing its first A-bomb. The U.S. was determined to keep its lead.

The lead, however, proved illusory. The new U.S. H-bomb was tested three years later. The U.S.S.R. took one year to catch up.

The majority of the scientists close to this project were conscious of the important divide being crossed. A decision was being made, in secret, that would affect the entire future of mankind.

The last major milepost, in my view, was reached in 1983. Computation had by then made it clear a nuclear war would give rise to firestorms, hence nuclear winter and global famine. This had till then been overlooked.

My milestones comprised a photograph, a committee, and a calculation. Where do they leave us? How can we save the world?
There is a hint of the direction in which hope lies, in the first sentence of Trump’s recent letter to Kim Jong Un. It lies in restraint.

I witnessed attempted international negotiation of restraint when attending a Pugwash conference in Moscow in 1960. The participants argued the best hope for stability in a nuclear world lay in “minimal deterrence,” guaranteed by one bomb under Moscow, one under Washington.

The existence today of 10,000 weapons in the hands of nine nations, with plans far advanced to modernize them, make a mockery of restraint. If I could turn the clock back to Moscow in 1960, I would say that two nuclear weapons were too many.

The reason is simple. Peace is ascribed to the awesome power of nuclear weapons. Why, then do we always need more?

It is because deterrence, to be effective, must be capable of failing. Only then will it be seen as real. The nuclear powers have ensured that the threat is indeed real. But this sets us on the path to disaster.

Is there an alternative?

There is. It is embodied in a treaty agreed to this past summer at the U.N., making illegal the possession of nuclear weapons. This is already the case for all other weapons of mass extermination (chemical and biological weapons, cluster bombs and landmines).

There is, of course, an obstacle. Existing nuclear powers and their allies, such as Canada, reject the ban. Earlier, others have opposed bans on dueling, on slavery and on the burning of witches. But their views have not been allowed to prevail.

We have reached a turning point in history. The implications go beyond nuclear weapons. Military force can no longer arbitrate differences between nations. That new truth is becoming discernible.

What will take its place?

Economic force, no doubt. But beyond that, the force of opinion. It can be seen when world leaders resort to writing open letters. They appeal to the court of public opinion.

Simply stated, we have become too good at killing. This obliges us to use our vast new powers for caring.

John Polanyi is a Nobel laureate at the University of Toronto who has written widely on the dangers of nuclear war.

Sleepwalking towards the 2020 review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

First published in | 8 May 2018

If ensuring smooth proceedings was your chief criterion for judging the second preparatory committee for the 2020 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference that concluded May 4, then the meeting was a clear success.

This was the second of three preparatory committee meetings held in the run-up to review conferences, which are held every five years to review implementation of the treaty and decide on future action. With 191 state parties, the NPT embodies the global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament regime. Some 105 of these states participated in the recent two-week session in Geneva, alongside many NGO representatives.

Key procedural decisions were taken, such as the selection of the chair of next year’s preparatory committee, or PrepCom (Malaysian Ambassador to the United Nations in New York Muhammad Yaakob), and the setting of dates for the 2020 Review Conference (April 27 to May 22).

This year’s PrepCom chair, Polish Ambassador to the UN in Vienna Adam Bugajski, also duly produced a 19-page factual summary of the proceedings issued under his personal authority, which avoided the difficulties that would be attendant on any effort to have the meeting adopt such a summary as its own. (This did not spare the chair from numerous expressions of disappointment by delegates, however.)

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Trump’s Terrible Nuclear Posture: More weapons, higher spending, lower threshold, less control

Published in Cape Breton Observer, 7 March 2018

On February 2, the United States released its first Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) since the 2010 study commissioned by President Barack Obama. The Obama NPR disappointed many disarmament advocates in its doctrinal timidity – its failure to declare the US would never use nuclear weapons first, and only ever use them in response to a nuclear attack on itself or its allies – and its strategic conservatism – its recommitment to a ‘triad’ of land-, sea- and air-launched long-range weapons. It did, though, seek to both diminish the number of warheads in the American arsenal (and, through arms control negotiations, the arsenals of the other nuclear-armed states) and limit the role of such monstrously indiscriminate ‘weapons’ to always and only deterring war.

In stark contrast, the Trump NPR seeks, at immense cost, new ways to make nuclear war more thinkable, ‘practical’, and ‘winnable’, including deploying new, ‘low-yield’ systems blurring the lines between conventional and nuclear conflict, and lowering the ‘threshold’ at which their use becomes ‘acceptable’. While building on Obama’s ill-conceived, 30-year $1.2 trillion modernization of the triad, the Trump blueprint has been widely denounced (by both champions and critics of deterrence) as a defence of the indefensible, nuclear war as a legitimate exercise of military power, at a time of heightened nuclear danger in the Korean peninsula and beyond.

Read More (external link, Cape Breton Spectator, 7 Mar 2018)

Folding the Umbrella: Nuclear Allies, the NPT and the Ban Treaty


The adoption of the Nuclear Weapons Prohibi­tion Treaty (NWPT) by 122 states in July 2017 introduced a powerful new dynamic into the stagnant realm of nuclear disarmament. The decision by the nuclear weapon states (NWS) and their nuclear dependent allies to boycott the NWPT negotiations created a schism within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) community that will not be easily repaired. The NWPT did not come out of the blue, but was in itself a manifes­tation of the building frustration of non-NWS over the failure of the NWS to deliver on their nuclear disarmament commitments. While shar­ing some of this frustration, the nuclear depend­ent allies opted to privilege adherence to the doctrine of nuclear deterrence over advancing nuclear disarmament goals. If the NPT regime is not to suffer serious erosion, these nuclear de­pendent allies will need to convince their NWS partners to undertake tangible nuclear dis­armament action. The Nonproliferation and Dis­armament Initiative grouping of states (which includes both pro and anti NWPT states) may have a special role to play in this regard.

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The Caricaturing of UN Peacekeeping

Published in Policy Options, 20 February 2018

Complex, multidimensional, multipurposed modern peacekeeping has been the default framework for a long time, despite what critics would have us believe.

Peter MacKay has written a provocative and useful Policy Options article about the dark side of peacekeeping. While he is mostly wrong on many levels, we should be indebted to him for amassing so many of the straw man arguments in one place.

MacKay suggests that traditional peacekeeping is antiquated and obsolete. What Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Prize for, a mission where peacekeepers stand between warring parties that have agreed to a truce, is no longer the most requested operation type. MacKay is without question correct that this kind of peacekeeping is mostly not what happens these days (although it still has a place). But nobody denies this! Complex, multidimensional, multipurposed modern peacekeeping has been the default framework for a very long time — and at least since the 2000 Brahimi Report on United Nations peace operations. A quick read of the UN Peacekeeping website is warranted for those who think “traditional” peacekeeping is what the UN still mostly does.

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