Out of the Shadows: Navigating Modern Nuclear Diplomacy

The Princeton Science and Global Security program’s November 2017 exhibit “Shadows and Ashes: The Peril of Nuclear Weapons” is an informational piece about modern nuclear weapon technology and the possible “catastrophic effects”—environmental, health, existential—of using this technology in a modern international conflict. The exhibit coincides with a renewed focus on nuclear policy inspired by volatile global conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War and disputes between countries, such as the United States, Russia, North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iran and Israel.

SGS officials emphasize that the chances today for a modern international dispute escalating into nuclear war are high—and may be calamitous. One graphic, for instance, shows how a modern nuclear weapon yields a detonation 28,000 times greater than the 1945 Hiroshima atomic bomb, which killed tens of thousands of people. Their exhibit shows how the number of nuclear powers has increased, while these countries modernize and maintain their arms stockpiles.

Thinking about this and other readings from the week, vis a vis Gilinsky, I’m reminded of the adage that “those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.” What can be done, then, to mitigate such dangers of modern nuclear diplomacy? I agree with the exhibit that, perhaps, educating world leaders and policymakers on the present risks of nuclear destruction, the profound outcomes of the atomic bombings and the mistakes and successes of past decision making is a start. Such an approach can be part of a comprehensive program that encourages our world leaders not to trivialize the threat of using nuclear weapons.

However, the present, ongoing challenge remains for the international community to pivot the conversation away from deterrence to other policies such as détente or even abolition. The 2017 UN Treaty is a start, but I wonder how policymakers will be able to continue to work with world leaders who may be unpredictable or antagonistic. In a world of changing politics, advanced nuclear weapon technology, and proliferation, how can we constructively move forward? I look forward to learning more about these challenges, and the efforts to embrace the modern technologies, while supporting the current global health, environment, and security needs. — Jordan