[Viewpoint] Fighting humanity’s destructive impulses

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[Viewpoint] Fighting humanity’s destructive impulses

One might say that the more we think about disarmament, the more philosophical we become. For one thing, weapons have been a part of human history from the very start. Humans have always had a need for weapons for the purpose of protection from or dominance over others. As disarmament is about eliminating or reducing weapons, any serious discussion of it would necessarily entail such fundamental questions as “Why do we need weapons?” or, “Can we make do with fewer weapons?”

Developing more effective weapons to gain a military edge over adversaries has been an evident pattern. When everyone had only swords and spears, having a firearm was a decisive military advantage. This was also the case with automatic rifles, cannons, fighter planes and missiles. As a result of weapons development over many thousands of years, we acquired extremely destructive arms such as nuclear weapons. Now we realize that due to their unprecedented power to inflict massive and indiscriminate destruction, nuclear arms are capable of wiping out human civilization once and for all.

But is this only true of nuclear weapons? Let us assume that one day scientists come up with a new and deadlier form of weaponry to replace nuclear weapons. Would we then be happy, because we had managed to get rid of nuclear weapons? I presume not. Because our concerns may not actually be about nuclear weapons in and of themselves, but more about the existence of any weapon capable of destruction beyond a certain level.

The fundamental question, therefore, seems to be whether we can halt or reverse the process of weapons development at a certain stage. A great part of the answer lies in how we view the nature of human beings and their evolution. A classic divide is evident between schools of thought that are usually referred to as “realism” and “idealism.”

The realist camp seems to believe that human beings are bound to seek dominance over other human beings, most typically by physical force, and that this basic nature will never cease or change no matter how much civilization may evolve. For them, we do not fight because we have weapons; but rather, we have weapons because we fight. History tells us that once mankind has developed a new weapon, it has never voluntarily given it up until a more powerful one became available. If asked how the ban on chemical and biological weapons was possible, realists would say that it was not because these weapons were too destructive and inhumane, but because they became redundant due to the advent of nuclear weapons.

Idealists, on the other hand, believe that humanity learns lessons and evolves. We might have sought only to dominate others in the past, but now we have learned to coexist and cooperate with others. There is therefore less need to seek military superiority in our relations with others. Some even believe we might be able to do without wars altogether in the future, as we are getting closer to a Kantian world with more countries becoming democratic, where democracies do not fight with one another. If there is no need to fight a war, why would a country want to exhaust money maintaining expensive weapons, especially in a globalized world where economic power holds real sway?

The reality may lie somewhere in between these two views of human history. Whichever is closer to the truth, I believe most of us would like to see the world take shape in accordance with the second line of thought, or at least move in that direction. Even if realists are right and there is not much we can do about human nature, we should at least be able to minimize the risk of armed conflict.

Opinion may be divided as to whether disarmament contributes to reducing the likelihood of armed conflicts, especially in the case of nuclear weapons. There are people who believe in the so-called “nuclear peace theory” - that nuclear deterrence, whether on a regional or global level, can contribute to the maintenance of peace. A big problem with this approach, however, may be an increased likelihood of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists and the accidental outbreak of nuclear war. Obviously the more nuclear weapons are out there, the greater such risks would become. Given the disastrous consequences of the use of a nuclear weapon, this might not be an acceptable risk for many.

A much more desirable model to reduce the use of force in international relations can be found in the European experience of the last several decades. With concerted efforts to forgo the traditional concept of raison d’etat, the European countries have been formulating an unprecedented mechanism for security cooperation whereby they exclude the possibility of war amongst themselves. Even though there are still nuclear weapons states in Europe, a nuclear war is quite unthinkable there. Needless to say, such an environment will be highly conducive to nuclear disarmament.

Last April, in a speech in Prague, U.S. President Barack Obama set out America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of “a world without nuclear weapons.” Put forward as it was by the president of the country with the second largest nuclear arsenal in the world, this initiative was remarkably fresh. This vision, with various other initiatives, is generating active discussion of nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation on a global scale. A consensus seems to be forming on the need to make good use of this positive momentum to make substantial progress on important yet long pending issues in the field of disarmament and nonproliferation, in particular by ensuring a successful NPT Review Conference next year. At such a time, I believe it might help to pause to be a little philosophical and try to see things in perspective.

The writer is Deputy Minister for Multilateral and Global Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

by Oh Joon
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