Opinion: The emperor has no clothes

Viewpoint by Pantelis Ikonomou

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) International Review Conference scheduled for April 2020 has been postponed to April 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak. This has delayed an official outburst in the international community due to the divide between the NPT nuclear weapon states, including their close allies and the vast majority of the international community. The reason for the world rift is the frustration of most states with the lack of progress in nuclear disarmament, as agreed by the NPT. 

Control and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons are gradually weakening with the termination of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty between the US and Russia, the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA), and the upcoming expiration of the New START treaty. While the world focuses on the coronavirus crisis, North Korea is increasing its nuclear weapons activities and missile tests. At the same time, the US is proceeding with testing hypersonic missiles and tightening the noose around Iran’s neck, a state much weakened by the coronavirus outbreak and US nuclear sanctions. 

In a recent statement supported by 13 Nobel Prize laureates, atomic scientists warned that the world is closer to a nuclear catastrophe than at any time since 1945. The risk of a nuclear war is now higher than ever before due also to the increasing number of uncontrolled cyberattacks and the rising probability of a mistake in calculation or an accident.

Qualitative and costly upgrading (“modernization”) is compensating for a quantitative decrease of nuclear arms. The related military expenditures are disproportionate to national health care expenditures. According to the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, the four nuclear weapon states USA, Russia, UK, and France plan to spend more than $1 trillion for “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals and delivery means over the next ten years. At the same time these very states, hit by the coronavirus, responded with delay and dysfunction to the pandemic due to shortages of vital medical supplies. 

Characteristic of this grave reality is the case of the nuclear-powered US aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. This strategic spearhead was hit by the coronavirus some days ago. The lives of 5000 crew members were at risk, as was the prestige of the United States. The commander of the aircraft carrier sent a stark warning to his superiors urging them to act decisively in order to save the sailors’ lives from the virus spread. Some days later his letter leaked to the news media. The response was quick: the commander was relieved of his duties.

In this climate of fear and despair, how could politicians persuade the mostly uninformed international public that wide-spread conspiracy theories of the creation of the corona virus at American, Chinese or Canadian laboratories, as part of a military biological weapon, are all scientifically disproven? How could governments and world leaders, convince their citizens and the international community that they are able to protect them from a global catastrophe ? How credible are leaders who do not personally follow nor publicly apply the universal instructions of the World Health Organization, e.g. wearing face protection and testing as many citizens as possible?

The strategy of addressing a pandemic essentially considers, as any other comprehensive security plan does, three key components: prevention, detection and response. The appropriate measures for detecting and responding to the Covid-19 outbreak should stem from a holistic national security plan addressing pandemics. Such national plans ought to have been developed and be continuously updated by competent experts and thoroughly implemented under capable leadership. This is the global strategy for tackling the risks of all major threats, anthropogenic or not, whether military, humanitarian, or ecological. 

Mankind’s most effective weapon is scientific knowledge and people’s solidarity. Moreover, in periods of global crises history has shown that real leaders have made the difference. This time the emperor has no clothes.

This article was originally published on blog, peacefare.net.

Pantelis Ikonomou is a nuclear physicist, a former IAEA Safeguards inspector and a diplomat. Personal views are expressed here.