I was recently asked to identify the main threats to global security today. If we set to one side the COVID-19 pandemic, the two most formidable existential threats are environmental degradation and the existence of nearly 14,000 nuclear weapons.
Both could destroy human civilization and irreparably damage the ecosystem. Both are also the products of human decisions and actions; addressing the threat and containing the damage is now the responsibility of all humanity.
Other tensions in the global order also require creative solutions and urgent, concerted international attention. The main files that Project Ploughshares works on (nuclear disarmament, arms controls, emerging military technologies, outer space security, the protection of civilians in armed conflict) relate to some of the gravest challenges to international security.
A military incursion that violates international law and endangers civilian lives must be forcefully challenged—whether it is carried out by Russia or Saudi Arabia.
The rise of populist political leaders, both those on the far right and far left, is worrying. These figures thrive by spreading fear and misinformation, often stoking nationalistic fervour and exploiting identity politics. And, let’s be clear, liberal democracies are not immune to populist political discourse. All systems of governance can be manipulated and undermined by such leaders and their followers.
For many people, armed conflict and resource scarcity represent daily threats to their lives and livelihoods. The uneven allocation of resources – and the lack of any drive to share them more equitably – are big problems. An unacceptably high proportion of the global population cannot satisfy basic needs as a consequence of armed conflict, and/or are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Yet national and international budgets to address these needs continue to be only a fraction of military budgets.
When the international community does respond to pressing security challenges, a lack of policy coherence can often be observed. How can nuclear weapons be deemed unacceptable for Iran, but appropriate for nuclear-armed states? If the persecution of Uyghurs by China merits strong denunciation, so too does the oppression of Palestinians by Israel. A military incursion that violates international law and endangers civilian lives must be forcefully challenged—whether it is carried out by Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Double standards only erode the credibility of collective responses.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are more than 82 million forcibly displaced persons around the world – more than there were at the end of the Second World War. That so many exist in wretched conditions indicates the unwillingness of the international community to meet its responsibilities under international refugee law. And there are other problems, of oppression and suppression of human rights, that have become disconcertingly normalized.
Nuclear disarmament remains a chief concern
Yes, there are many things to regret in our world today. Nevertheless, I would contend that nuclear disarmament must remain a priority for the international community—and will remain one for Project Ploughshares – until there are no more nuclear weapons. For now, the risk remains that these weapons will be used, to devastating effect.
At the time of writing this column, Ukraine is under attack by Russia. Ukraine has no nuclear weapons, but Russia and three NATO states do. Together, the four possess more than 95 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
And it is little consolation that there are liberal democracies on one side, because, as the mantra says, there are no right hands for wrong weapons. It is far from impossible that any conflict between nuclear-weapon states could escalate to include the use of their most powerful weapons. This could occur even if none of the parties involved intends to take such a step. From this perspective, there is no moral high ground.
The thought that nuclear weapons might actually be used is, at its core, absurd. What a waste in scarce resources and human ingenuity. Such foolishness and faulty reasoning that could lead to such perilous brinkmanship. Such a loss of opportunity – because, in fact, any use of nuclear weapons is preventable.
Hope despite difficulties
But there is still hope that the international community will choose to craft more effective mechanisms that contain armed conflict and minimize harmful humanitarian consequences. Indeed, in the very challenges lie the seeds of progress.
At Project Ploughshares, we have witnessed the adoption and entry into force of the Arms Trade Treaty and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Canada’s arms export controls have been strengthened. The international community is restarting conversations about norms of behaviour in outer space. An ongoing multilateral process aims to enhance civilian protections in armed conflict.
There is now greater awareness of the perils posed by emerging military technologies. Civil society advocacy is growing in sophistication, effectiveness, and numbers. New avenues for communication are allowing the general public to be better informed about peace and security issues.
Of course, much work remains. One would be naïve to deny the multiple, overlapping security challenges facing the world today. The path to sustainable peace is full of obstacles. But Project Ploughshares is on that road, with our many partners and supporters.
Progress has been made. With work and resolve, more can and will follow.