The Biden administration wants to reinvigorate alliances and diplomacy to build a more secure world, but there are howling headwinds, including the pandemic, cyberattacks, climate change, and nuclear tensions. Escalating regional conflicts in Israel and Kashmir — both involving nuclear-armed nations motivated by religious and ethnic passions — are the latest reminders that the threat of nuclear war hangs over us, more ominously than ever.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists recently advanced its Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight, closer to the zero hour than ever before, warning, “The international security situation is now more dangerous than it has ever been, even at the heart of the Cold War.”
Credible sources report China plans to double its nuclear arsenal. Russia has a massive tactical nuclear stockpile, and is upgrading its strategic arsenal with ultra-powerful nuclear weapons. U.S. Adm. Charles Richard recently warned that Moscow and Beijing have “begun to aggressively challenge international norms” in ways not seen since the height of the Cold War. “There is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons,” he said.
Meanwhile, climate change is accelerating. New data shows carbon dioxide at its highest level in 3.6 million years, despite the disruptions of the pandemic. At the April climate summit, U.S. Defense Secretary Austin called climate change an “existential threat” which “is making the world unsafe.”
Unfortunately, that’s no exaggeration. Nuclear weapons and climate change are twin, mutually compounding threats that have spiraled into unprecedented territory and actively threaten humanity’s survival. Each one poses security risks that make the other more of a threat.
Climate change is a byproduct of a mania for economic growth beyond the planet’s limits, which also drives scarcity, social inequity and resource conflict, adding up to a steady, grinding threat to our long-term survival. Nuclear weapons codify adversity as avowed state policy — and pose an acute threat to near-term survival.
Our default approach to security is doubling down on adversity, buying more weapons and projecting more power, building military capacity rather than the resilience and well-being of communities and people.
This year the Biden administration requested a 2021 military budget of $753 billion, an increase of $12.6 billion over last year. That increase is more than the entire 2021 budget for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The cost of the nuclear weapons complex over the next 30 years is projected to be around $2 trillion — about as much as the cost of overhauling infrastructure across the U.S.
Other nations are also profligate in their military spending, especially the other nuclear-armed states (Russia, China, UK, France, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, and India). The world spent nearly $2 trillion in military outlays last year, but less than $50 billion on the United Nations.
This is the wrong bus to be on.
At this dangerous juncture in history, any coherent approach to defusing spiraling existential threats and promoting security means investing in Human Security.
Human Security focuses on how we live our daily lives. It prioritizes the environment and climate, sustainable development, education, jobs, health, food security, thriving cultures and communities, and the flourishing that comes from upholding freedom of worship and conscience, human rights, and the rule of law. As the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us, these personal needs are also global. Human security defuses threats by working cooperatively toward these goals.
Assembling at a world summit in Rome, Nobel Peace laureates declared that “the promotion of global cooperation is distorted by the possession of nuclear weapons by some… We must ensure the elimination of nuclear weapons before they eliminate us.” They framed three critical interconnected questions that world leaders must answer to achieve security, and urged all of us to press for answers:
- What are your plans to address crushing poverty?
- What are your plans to protect the environment?
- What are your plans to eliminate nuclear weapons?
As tensions rise in Kashmir, India and Pakistan continue to brandish nuclear weapons at each other while COVID-19 rages, and while a third of the children in both countries suffer malnutrition. For most Indians and Pakistanis, real security depends on personal and family health. For the rest of the world, security depends on lowering tensions between the two governments, for if they escalate enough to trigger a nuclear exchange, it would not only cause unthinkable casualties and suffering among their people, it would throw enough soot into the stratosphere to cripple agriculture worldwide.
Like Kashmir, the crisis in Israel is not amenable to military solutions. Both require a different approach that addresses how people can live their daily lives securely. Military expenditures don't do that, but the Human Security approach does. Its object is protecting ordinary people and the natural world.
The more the world perfects sophisticated high-tech weaponry, the less secure its people are. State power is not an end in itself, and it is irrational to promote it with weapons that can kill us all. The state is a means to serve human needs, and a construct which now needs reorienting toward that mission.
Today we face many threats which cannot be solved except by international cooperation. To address them, world leaders must work together. The April climate summit was an example of this, but we need a more integral approach cutting across today’s multiple, pressing, intertwined threats. We need a world summit on Human Security.
Jonathan Granoff is president of the Global Security Institute and representative to the United Nations of the Permanent Secretariat of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates. He chairs the Task Force on Nuclear Nonproliferation of the International Law Section of the American Bar Association, and he is a fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Science. He has testified as an expert before the U.S. Congress, United Nations, Canadian Parliament and U.K. Parliament. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.