Reprinted from The Age, August 28, 2007 edition.

At the end of the Cold War there was an opportunity for the world to create a new collective security order. In 1991, after decades of blockages in the Security Council, it authorized armed intervention to stop the Iraqi aggression against Kuwait. In the same period, Russia and the United States took steps to reduce the number of deployed non-strategic nuclear weapons: the Chemical Weapons Convention was adopted in 1993, the Non-Proliferation Treaty was prolonged indefinitely after renewed commitments by nuclear weapon states to take get serious about disarmament; a Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty was negotiated and adopted in 1996; and at the review conference of the NPT in 2000, countries agreed on 13 practical steps to disarmament.

But the window of opportunity soon closed. The US embarked on unilateralism. In 2003, the UN Security Council was said to be irrelevant if it did not agree with the US and its coalition of the willing.

By the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, US confidence and trust in international negotiations, particularly in dealing with disarmament issues, was at a record low. And tensions continue to grow. Instead of negotiations towards disarmament, nuclear weapon states are renewing and modernizing their nuclear arsenals.

In 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear device. After a US decision to place components of its missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia declared its withdrawal from the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. China has demonstrated its space war capabilities by shooting down one of its own weather satellites.

These developments are worrying and somewhat paradoxical. At a time when there are no longer any ideological differences between the main powers, when the economic and political interdependence between states and regions reaches new heights, and when the revolution in information technology brings the world into the living rooms of billions of people, we ought to be able to agree on steps to restrain our capacity for war and destruction.

So, where do we go from here?

There is some movement indicating that key actors may be moving back to multilateral approaches and diplomacy. The failure and vast human cost of the military adventures in Iraq and Lebanon may have demonstrated the limitations of military strategies to achieve foreign policy objectives. The shift in strategy towards North Korea in negotiations over its nuclear program and the resumption of the six-party talks is encouraging. Waving a big stick may be counterproductive. An alternative path, containing suitable carrots, needs to be offered. It remains to be seen if this approach will be taken also in the case of Iran.

For the past few years, I have chaired the independent international Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, with 14 experts from different parts of the world. In June 2006, I presented our report, Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear Biological and Chemical Arms. We made 60 recommendations on how to revive disarmament and restore the confidence in the international disarmament and non-proliferation regime.

The commission urged all states to return to the fundamental undertakings made under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty is based on a double bargain: the non-nuclear weapons states committed themselves not to develop nuclear weapons and the nuclear weapon states committed themselves to negotiate towards disarmament.

So long as the nuclear weapon states maintain that they need nuclear weapons for their national security, why shouldn’t others? The commission concluded that one of the most important ways to curb weapons’ proliferation is working to avoid states feeling a need to obtain nuclear weapons.

The co-operative approach needs to be complemented by the enforcement of the test-ban treaty, a cut-off treaty on the production of fissile material for weapons, and effective safeguards and international verification to prevent states as well as non-state actors from acquiring nuclear weapons.

I hope the window of opportunity is not yet shut. There may still be time to wake up and turn back to co-operative solutions to contemporary security challenges.

The new generation of political leaders has an unprecedented opportunity to achieve peace through co-operation. We do not have the threat of war between the military powers hanging over our heads. Admittedly, there are flashpoints that need to be dealt with constructively — such as Kashmir, the Middle East, Taiwan and so on. But the numbers of armed conflicts and victims of armed conflicts have decreased. Never before have nations been so interdependent and never before have peoples of the world cared so much for the wellbeing of each other. Prospects are great for a functioning world organization devoted to establishing peace, promoting respect for universal human rights and securing our environment for future generations.

If all can agree that we need international co-operation and multilateral solutions to protect the earth against climate change and the destruction of our environment, to keep the world economy in balance and moving, and to prevent terrorism and organized crime, then should it be so difficult to conclude that we also need to co-operate to stop shooting at each other?


Dr Hans Blix is president of the World Federation of United Nations Association and was director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency from 1981 to 1997.