A child born today could have worse-than-even odds of experiencing a nuclear war. This back-of-the-envelope estimate by Martin Hellmann flies in the face of the decreased public attention to nuclear armament and proliferation and should give us pause to reevaluate our priorities in terms of global politics. Since the end of the Cold War, other global issues, chief among them the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, have grabbed public concern and determined policy. Nuclear weapons have instead become something that we have merely learned to live with.
But as the quantitative analysis in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists shows, nuclear weapons are still a relevant topic and present an unacceptable risk to younger generations. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) has reignited the conversation about the morality of possession and use of nuclear weapons everywhere in the world. The treaty — a project that took more than two decades to come to fruition — entered into effect after 50 UN member states had ratified it. Needless to say, not a single nuclear power and no NATO power has signed the treaty. Beyond raising awareness and influencing public opinion to stigmatize nuclear weapons, the Nuclear Ban Treaty will remain another ambitious, yet ultimately toothless agreement.
One cannot deny that great progress has been made in the field of nuclear disarmament and preventing proliferation. The number of nuclear warheads has decreased to only a fifth of their peak during the Cold War, and multiple treaties between the biggest nuclear powers have built trust and encouraged dismantling older warheads while saving face.
However, these developments have faltered in recent years. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and Open Skies treaties have effectively been terminated, increasing tensions between Russia and the US, non-proliferation is at risk due to the failed Iran deal, North Korea is threatening neighbouring countries with its new weapons, and established nuclear powers have invested heavily into the modernization of their nuclear arsenals.
And what does the public think about that? According to a survey by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 84% of millennials say that the use of nuclear weapons is never acceptable. A similar survey by the Simons Foundation found that across the board, more than 70% of adults think that nuclear weapons make the world a more dangerous place, in Italy and Germany that figure is over 90%. Even in nuclear states, citizens are predominantly against nukes: 63% of Russians and 73% of Americans favour eliminating all nuclear weapons.
We see that the vast majority of the world’s population opposes nukes. At the same time, little tangible effort is made towards a world free from nuclear weapons. National governments act on the paradigm of national security to obtain or retain nukes. Our governments have maneuvered themselves into a stalemate, a prisoner’s dilemma, in which the most rational action is to build more nukes.
How can we resolve this discrepancy between the will of the people and the will of the governments? Global security policy through the lens of national interests has proven ineffective and potentially apocalyptic. We cannot continue in this fashion — we need a new approach.
What would the global stance on nuclear weapons be, if all people of the world could express their views on the subject directly? What if we had a supranational body that democratically represents all world citizens, independently of their nationality?
A world parliament would empower everyone in the world to express their opinions on matters of global concern and actively participate in finding global solutions. The weight of a binding world parliament resolution, legitimized by 8 billion people, would be a powerful voice against the destructive national interests of any government, and for the common interest of every human being.
A world parliament is not only desirable, but also feasible. Incremental steps to reform the United Nations can bring us closer to democratic representation at the global level. Surely establishing a world parliament would require great efforts and would meet significant resistance from the status quo of national governments insisting on their interests. But it is a necessary step on the journey towards a more peaceful world. In the words of Robert Schuman, founding father of the European Union,
“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”