Getting Back on the Path to a World Free of Nuclear Weapons

Keynote Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, for the "International Symposium for Peace: The Road to Nuclear Weapons Abolition," sponsored by Asahi Shimbun, Nagasaki city government, and the Nagasaki Foundation for the Promotion of Peace

Nagasaki, Japan
July 30, 2022

The English live streaming can be accessed at at 9:00 pm U.S. Eastern time (July 29) / 10:00 am Japanese Standard Time (July 30). 

Over the long course of the nuclear age, millions of people—from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the United States, Russia, and around the globe—have stood up to demand meaningful action to halt arms racing and nuclear testing, to reduce and number and role of nuclear weapons, and move toward the elimination of nuclear weapons.

When working together on shared goals through smart campaigns, networks of citizen activists, nongovernmental organizations, engaged scholars, scientists, diplomats, faith leaders, social and environmental justice organizations, survivors of nuclear war and nuclear testing, along with dedicated local and national decision-makers have changed the course nuclear history for the better. Among other successes, we have:

  • raised awareness of the existential dangers posed by nuclear weapons and nuclear war.
  • pushed U.S. and Russian leaders to halt arms buildups and to negotiate the nuclear arms control and reduction agreements, including New START in 2010 and its extension in 2021.
  • demanded legislation and treaties to prohibit nuclear weapons testing.
  • forced the cancellation of new and destabilizing nuclear weapons programs.
  • spurred the negotiation and entry into force of 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

But there is no room for complacency.

The Growing Risk of Nuclear War and Nuclear Arms Racing

The nuclear weapons threat has not gone away. Nuclear competition is accelerating. The risk that a regional military confrontation could escalate to a nuclear conflict is real and growing.

The danger of an all-out arms race and nuclear weapons use has been exacerbated by President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale attack Ukraine and his threats of nuclear use against any states who might interfere militarily.

  • The war has significantly increased the risk of fighting between NATO and Russian forces, which could—given both sides’ nuclear weapons use policies—quickly lead to nuclear escalation.
  • Russia’s attack on Ukraine has underscored the fact that nuclear weapons don’t prevent major wars. Rather, they can facilitate aggression by nuclear-armed states and make wars waged by nuclear-armed states far more dangerous—especially when nuclear-armed states become pitted against one another, dangerously increasing the risk of miscalculation and miscommunication.

Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine has also derailed the strategic stability and arms control dialogue between Washington and Moscow, made a mockery of the repeated security assurances that nuclear-armed states will not attack non-nuclear states, and created a major challenge for the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regime.

Russia’ invasion of Ukraine follows more than a decade of worsening tensions between the world’s nine-nuclear armed states.

Since New START was completed more than a decade ago, the U.S.-Russian dialogue on disarmament and risk reduction has stalled. Treaty compliance disputes have dominated the bilateral U.S.-Russian agenda, and key treaties that have helped keep the post-Cold War peace, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty, are now gone. The only remaining treaty that verifiably limits the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals—the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—will expire in early 2026.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Washington are both spending tens of billions of dollars each year to replace and upgrade their deadly strategic arsenals. Russia is also threatening to deploy exotic new strategic systems, including nuclear-armed torpedoes. President Putin recently suggested he might put nuclear weapons-capable missiles and aircraft in Belarus.

And in recent days, the U.S. Congress voted to overrule President Biden’s recommendation to cancel funding for a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile—an expensive and destabilizing weapon proposed by the Trump administration that would, if developed and deployed, prompt China and Russia to develop similar capabilities and accelerate the arms race.

Although China, France, and the U.K. have engaged in discussions on nuclear terms and doctrines through the N-5 Process, they have stubbornly refused to seriously engage in talks on ideas and proposals that would cap or reduce their own deadly arsenals.

Instead, China is responding to a more adversarial relationship with the United States by moving quickly diversify its relatively smaller nuclear stockpile of some 300 nuclear weapons. The United Kingdom announced last year that it would increase the cap on the size of its submarine-based nuclear arsenal.

The only genuinely positive development on nuclear disarmament in recent years has been the so-called Humanitarian Initiative, designed to highlight the existential dangers of nuclear weapons and stigmatize nuclear weapons and the threat of their use, which led to the negotiation of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) by a group of more than 130 states.

The treaty represents a constructive new approach to reinforce the taboos against nuclear weapons, bolster the NPT, and create more pressure for meaningful action by the nuclear possessor states to verifiably cap, reduce, and eventually eliminate their arsenals.

In June, in a welcome move, TPNW states parties, citing “increasingly strident nuclear rhetoric,” issued a consensus political statement declaring that “…any use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is a violation of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations. We condemn unequivocally any and all nuclear threats, whether they be explicit or implicit and irrespective of the circumstances.”

Unfortunately, thus far, all nuclear-armed states have refused to engage with the TPNW.

It was also unfortunate that Japan decided not to attend the first meeting of states parties to the TPNW even though Prime Fumio Kishida said in October 2021: “I believe that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons is a very important treaty for a world without nuclear weapons.”

Going forward it is important that all states recognize that the TPNW is a positive contribution to global security and seriously consider joining the treaty. If Japan wants to be an effective “bridge-builder” between nuclear-armed states and non-nuclear weapon states, it will need to engage in upcoming meetings of the TPNW.

What Can Be Done?

Given the growing risk of nuclear war, we must do all we can to encourage our elected leaders to provide leadership and to take meaningful action.

Our actions will determine if we can succeed – or not – in moving away from dangerous nuclear policies and toward renewed and productive disarmament diplomacy.

An important catalyst for change is increasing societal awareness about the horrific effects of nuclear weapons use and the risks of nuclear war. Here in Japan, the persistent and dedicated efforts of the Hibakusha have been essential in helping the world understand the grave consequences of nuclear weapons. That work must continue in new and creative ways.

Now, some 77 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we must take inspiration from the Hibakusha and share their stories and testimonials even more widely ensure that successive generations understand that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Just as importantly, we must also do our part to explain why national security strategies that depend on nuclear deterrence are inherently risky and will eventually fail, and that the only cure for nuclear war is the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Progress also will continue to depend on effective and sustained pressure of concerned citizens here in Japan and around the globe on their elected leaders to take meaningful action to reduce dangers and verifiably eliminate all nuclear weapons and to use every opportunity available to put the world on a safer course.

The 10th NPT Review Conference

The next global debate about nuclear weapons and the dangers they pose will take place at the 10th NPT Review Conference at UN headquarters in New York.

The review conference is a critical opportunity for the treaty’s 191 states-parties to reinforce the norms against nuclear weapons, to strongly condemn any threat of nuclear weapons use, and to intensify the pressure for action to fulfill the treaty’s Article VI disarmament provisions.

Just as they did when states-parties gathered for 1995 Review Conference to negotiate the terms for the extension of the treaty, states-parties must produce results.

At that pivotal NPT conference 27 year ago, NPT states parties committed to the “complete elimination of nuclear weapons,” and endorsed specific disarmament actions, including further nuclear reductions, the conclusion of talks on the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and more.

Today, the deficit in disarmament diplomacy and the growing nuclear danger means that this is no ordinary NPT review conference.

As always, the conference must review, comprehensively implementation and compliance on all major political commitments and legal obligations that states have undertaken.

But make no mistake: history will judge the success or failure of this pivotal meeting as on whether or not delegations can reach agreement on a meaningful and updated disarmament action plan, and whether governments make good on that plan in the months and years that follow.

All states need to act with a sense of urgency, a spirit of cooperation, and a determination to produce meaningful results that transcend old fault lines.

Even if a consensus final document is not attainable, a supermajority of states should seek to chart the path forward through a joint declaration.

One key issue this conference must address is the potential collapse of the U.S.-Russian nuclear arms control system.

In early 2021, within days the original expiration date of New START, President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin wisely agreed to extend the treaty by another five years, and re-launched a “Strategic Stability Dialogue” in the fall of 2021 with the goal of negotiating a new agreement or agreements to supersede New START and address other issues of mutual concern.

Shortly after Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the U.S.-Russian dialogue on strategic stability and arms control was put on indefinite hold.

Without new arrangements to supersede New START, there would not be any limits on the size or composition of the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. Both sides recognize the danger but have not yet agreed to resume their dialogue.

“Our progress must continue beyond the New START extension,” Biden wrote June 2 in a message to the Arms Control Association. “Even as we rally the world to hold Russia accountable for its brutal and unprovoked war on Ukraine, we must continue to engage Russia on issues of strategic stability,” Biden wrote. “Today—perhaps more than any other time since the Cold War—we must work to reduce the risk of an arms race or nuclear escalation.”

For his part, Russian President Vladimir Putin said June 30 that “Russia is open to dialogue on ensuring strategic stability, preserving agreements on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and improving the situation in arms control.”

Unfortunately, officials on both sides have equivocated on when the dialogue might resume.Delegations at the NPT Review Conference, including Japan, must be vocal and united in calling upon them to do so.

Some NPT nuclear-armed states and their allies may bemoan the fact that the environment for disarmament progress is “challenging.” We can expect some of these states will continue to claim that many past NPT commitments on disarmament have been overtaken by events. Disarmament progress has never been simple or easy, but such deflections are irresponsible.

Instead, the five nuclear-armed NPT states should acknowledge their past disarmament commitments, work with other states-parties on a pragmatic action plan that sets new benchmarks and deadlines, and pledge to act with the urgency that the grave nuclear weapons threat demands.

Notwithstanding the different views on how to fulfill past NPT commitments and obligations, nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon states should cooperate on a updated disarmament action plan that could include the following elements:

  • A call for the United States and Russia to conclude talks on New START follow-on agreements that achieve further cuts in nuclear warheads and delivery systems no later than 2025 and, pending the conclusion of such arrangements, agree not to exceed the central limits of New START until such time as they enter into force.
  • A pledge by the other NPT nuclear-armed states—China, France, and the U.K.—to engage in bilateral or multilateral nuclear risk reduction talks and to agree to freeze the size of their nuclear arsenals.
  • A call for NPT states to agree to begin disarmament talks in a bilateral or a multilateral format no later than 2025.
  • A call for the five NPT nuclear-armed states to update their 1995 negative security assurances and to jointly or individually affirm that they will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT.
  • A call for the remaining holdout states to initiate their respective processes to ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and, pending the treaty’s entry into force, negotiate and implement new, voluntary confidence-building measures to address concerns about compliance with the treaty’s “zero-yield” prohibition.
  • A call for all states to refrain from developing and deploying nuclear-armed cruise and hypersonic missiles, as other new types of warheads and delivery systems.
  • A recognition that because the use of nuclear weapons would produce catastrophic humanitarian consequences, “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought and no state should, under any circumstances, directly or indirectly threaten the use of nuclear weapons.”

Even if a consensus final document is not attainable due to tensions over the war in Ukraine, a supermajority of states should seek to chart the path forward through a joint declaration.

As Pope Francis cautioned when he visited Hiroshima in 2019: “The use of atomic energy for purposes of war is immoral…. Future generations will rise to condemn our failure if we spoke of peace but did not act.”

Thank you for listening.