Experts discuss threats to the international nuclear order

Experts convened to discuss threats to the global nuclear order on Nov. 1 at Thomson House. Hosted by McGill’s Centre for Peace and International Security Studies and moderated by Jennifer Welsh, Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill, panellists discussed the shift in global power after the end of the Cold War.

T.V. Paul, James McGill professor of political science, emphasized the connection between global rising populism and the increasing acceptance of nuclear weapon use.

“Tradition has to be learned and socialized, and the new generation has to appreciate that this exists,” Paul said. “Unfortunately, our political leaders, including Mr. Trump, don’t give the impression that we’ve learned much from the past 70 years. The people who faced Hiroshima and Nagasaki […] are vanishing. And how can we teach our younger generation, especially when our leaders engage in cheap talk, and [use] this instrument for electoral purposes?”

The risk of populist leaders using nuclear weapons is present both in regional conflicts, such as rising hostility between India and Pakistan, as well as in global conflicts, like between the United States and Russia. Thomas Countryman, former United States Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation, believes that the greatest risk to the latter relationship is miscommunication.

“Communications are so bad [between Russia and the US] that we could inadvertently get into an incident, which becomes a conflict, which becomes a conventional war, which becomes a nuclear war,” Countryman said. “[But], I think that a war between the US and Russia is less likely than a war between India and Pakistan. But a nuclear war between India and Pakistan can only destroy that part of the world. A [nuclear] war between the United States and Russia can literally destroy human civilization.”

Speakers also addressed rising Indian nationalism and its contribution to the current crisis in Kashmir. Vipin Narang, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that escalating tensions between the two states can potentially destabilize the region.

“[There] is a flavour of nationalism and a nationalist government [in India] that we have not seen before,” Narang said. “[The Modi government] did say it was going to revoke article 370 in its constitution, [which grants Kashmir special status], but [this] managed to do what Pakistan not could not do for seven years, which is [to] internationalize the issue of Kashmir. You [now] have human rights subcommittees in [the American] Congress blasting the Government of India.” 

Countryman believed that treaties preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons were effective. He drew a distinction between how arms control is perceived versus its strong benefits.

“Arms control should not be seen as a sign of weakness, but as a sign of smart cooperation,” Countryman said. “But, […] with growing mindless nationalism, the far right has demonized arms control. They have made [arms control] efforts  […] seem inappropriate for a strong leader. And it’s very hard because it plays well for certain audiences.”

Cindy Temorshuizen, director general of international security policy for Global Affairs Canada, briefly discussed China’s role as a rising nuclear power. 

“The Chinese mood is not one of arms control,” Temorschuizen said. “It’s a mood of very significant military modernization. However, there is a real interest on China’s side in at least being perceived as a serious multilateral player […] China just announced in September that it will be acceding to the arms trade treaty that the US withdrew from. And they are quite frank to say that their rationale is that ‘it will make us look good compared to the US.’ So there are some very complicated dynamics around China [right now].”

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