Dusting off a concept from the 19th century, my roundtable colleague Rajesh Rajagopalan characterizes international affairs as a “great game.” But the destructive power of nuclear weapons has fundamentally changed the nature of international politics and the practice of statecraft. There are no winners in a nuclear war. The only winning move is not to play.
Mao Zedong apparently intuited this not long after the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In August 1946, he told a US journalist that the atom bomb was a “paper tiger.” Metaphors allow varied interpretations, but it is not unreasonable to assume that Mao anticipated a taboo against using nuclear weapons, one that would grow stronger as they proliferated. China’s nuclear thinking always presumed the existence of a strong nuclear taboo. The sole purpose of Beijing’s “small but effective” force was to relieve the fear that nuclear weapons would be used against China.
If every nation adapted to the nuclear age the way China did, the world would be awash in nuclear weapons. This realization was the essence of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—a collective recognition that unless nuclear weapons were abolished, every nation could justifiably claim the right to develop them. Either no one would have nuclear weapons or everyone would.
Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and the founders of the People’s Republic were not party to NPT negotiations—they weren’t even recognized as the legitimate Chinese government—but they seem to have understood the essential truth underlying the treaty. General Nie Rongzhen, who managed China’s nuclear weapons program, famously told the scientists and engineers working under him that China was building the Bomb to eliminate the Bomb. This was the core message of the only detailed statement on nuclear weapons that China has ever issued, released immediately after its first nuclear test in 1964.
In that statement China’s leaders proposed that “a summit conference of all the countries of the world be convened to discuss … the complete prohibition and thorough destruction of nuclear weapons.” The NPT later aimed for the same result, but has now been transformed into a mechanism that preserves a world of nuclear haves and have-nots. Forty-six years after the treaty’s entry into force, the nuclear weapon states now prepare to spend lavishly on modernizing their arsenals. The non-nuclear weapon states—feeling betrayed, with ample justification—are moving to enact an international legal convention to ban the Bomb.
This effort is a critical test of China’s commitment to nuclear disarmament. So far, Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping is failing the test. His unsupportive responses to the treaty initiative risk legitimating the views of critics from other nations, especially the United States, who have always viewed China’s commitment to nuclear disarmament skeptically.
My roundtable colleague Hua Han’s third essay may explain the reasoning behind Xi’s apparent disregard for the principled position on nuclear disarmament articulated in the 1964 statement. She ties Chinese nuclear weapons policy to the imbalance in conventional forces between Beijing and Washington. Yet the United States in 1964 enjoyed much greater conventional superiority over China than it does today. Is Xi turning a cold shoulder on the 123 nations advancing the nuclear weapons convention because he believes China needs to threaten the use of nuclear weapons in a conventional conflict with the United States? If so, the 1964 statement is a dead letter and Xi is leading his nation, and the world, away from nuclear disarmament and toward a new nuclear arms race.
The broad-based international effort to use a nuclear weapons convention to compel nuclear weapon states to honor their NPT disarmament obligations is not utopian, as Rajagopalan characterizes it. It is a desperately necessary appeal for collective common sense at a time when the governments of the nuclear weapon states are slipping into the hands of “strong” leaders who rise to political power on vainglorious appeals to anachronistic tribal prejudices.
Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and the scientists who signed their famous manifesto understood that with the dawn of the nuclear age the “great game” of international politics was over—because the next round would be “disastrous to all parties.” They urged us to consider ourselves “only as members of a biological species which has had a remarkable history, and whose disappearance none of us can desire.” To pretend a nuclear holocaust is unlikely—or to continue seeing war as a game—is to deny the perils of the present political reality.