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Global Security: The Need for a New Beginning

New Delhi, India
Hindustan Times Leadership Summit


The search for security remains the overriding concern for many peoples and nations. But the definition of what constitutes security, and the strategies for attaining it, vary greatly. For billions of people, the quest is to ´secure´ basic needs: food, water, shelter and health care - in other words, freedom from want. For others, it is to ´secure´ other fundamental human rights: freedom of expression, freedom from oppression, freedom from fear. Even among States, security has different definitions. For some, it is the achievement of economic or military parity or superiority, for others the projection of power and influence, and for still others the resolution of grievances and disputes.

The Challenges

Regardless of which aspect of security we consider, the current global picture is one of failure on many fronts.

If we look at the quest to secure basic needs, we are struck by the persistent inequity in the global distribution of wealth. The contrasts are stark. One fifth of the world´s population lives in countries where people see nothing extravagant about spending $2 per day on an ice cream. By comparison, the poorest one fifth - including 300 million here in India - make do with less than $1 per day as their entire income.

US President Franklin Roosevelt once said, "The test of progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

By this measure, we should not rank our 21st century progress very high. A study by the United Nations University found that, as of the year 2000, the richest one percent of the world´s population owned 40 percent of the world´s assets. By contrast, the poorest half of humanity owned barely one percent of global wealth.

If we look at the quest for other fundamental human rights, the picture is also grim in many regions, with problems ranging from religious intolerance and the lack of political freedom to systematic oppression and torture. Perhaps the most severe critique of our global progress in this area is reflected in our uneven approach to the sanctity of human life.

For example: the recent collapse of a coal mine in the United States, trapping six miners, kept Western audiences riveted to their television screens for weeks, and the unhappy ending brought an understandable outpouring of grief and sympathy. But where was the proportionate share of attention as, for example, the ethnic killings and mass displacement of civilians began to unfold four years ago in Darfur? Despite 200 000 deaths and up to 4 million people in urgent need of international humanitarian assistance, it has taken years to generate sufficient concern and funding to support effective international intervention. Why should we grieve more for some lives than for others?

If we look at the security of nation-States, our record is also poor, particularly as reflected in regional conflicts that have been allowed to fester for decades. In the Middle East, for example, the subjection of the Palestinian people to 40 years of occupation has led to increasing polarization and militancy in the Arab and Muslim world. These and other conflicts could be solved. Consider the recent positive steps in Northern Ireland, where once bitter enemies, who until recently were given to labeling each other as ´terrorists´, are now mutually engaged in a democratic power-sharing arrangement.

To bring such conflicts to resolution requires more than intermittent effort on the part of the international community; it requires committed, sustained diplomacy. But the investment is clearly worth it. Too often, dialogue - the first tool of diplomacy - is perceived as a reward for good behaviour, rather than as a means to change behaviour and reconcile differences. The lesson should be obvious by now, especially when working across cultural divides: respect breeds respect; confrontation begets confrontation. Pressure without negotiation is like a pressure cooker without a relief valve.

Against this backdrop of global insecurities, we should not be surprised that the effort to curtail nuclear threats is still a work in progress. Consider the events of just the past few years. The war in Iraq over suspicions that nuclear and other weapons programmes had been revived. North Korea´s withdrawal from the NPT and subsequent test of a nuclear weapon. Libya´s relinquishment of a fledgling nuclear weapons programme. The discovery of A. Q. Khan´s illicit nuclear procurement and distribution network. The still ongoing investigation of Iran´s clandestine nuclear programme. And not least, a surge in the sophistication of extremist networks - underscoring the potential for nuclear and radiological terrorism.

Add to this the 27 000 nuclear warheads that still exist in the arsenals of nine countries, and the fact that some of these weapons are deployed on hair trigger alert - meaning that the leaders of these countries have only 15 to 30 minutes to decide on the authenticity of a nuclear attack and whether to launch a counterattack. But what is disconcerting is that some of these countries continue to repeat two inherently contradictory mantras: first, that it is important for them to continue to rely on nuclear weapons for their security; and second, that no one else should have them. "Do as I say, not as I do."

As the President of the International Crisis Group and former Australian Foreign Minister, Gareth Evans, recently stated: "Nobody likes double standards, and there are few areas of international public policy where they are more obvious than in the weapons states´ indifference to what the rest of the world regards as their commitments under [the NPT]" - referring to their commitment to nuclear disarmament. While India has never joined the NPT, and therefore has not made the same legal commitments, it shares responsibility in terms of the urgent need for leadership on nuclear disarmament. In fact, next month it will be 50 years since Prime Minister Nehru made an impassioned appeal, here in New Delhi, for a worldwide end to nuclear testing and the elimination of all nuclear weapons arsenals, in order to "save humanity from the ultimate disaster".

The Crossroads

Clearly, we face an array of urgent and diverse challenges. Yet whichever definition of security we use, there are a number of commonalities.

The first commonality is that these security threats are all interconnected. Poverty is frequently coupled with human rights abuses and a lack of good governance - which results in a deep sense of injustice, anger and humiliation. This in turn provides an ideal environment for breeding violence of all types, including extremism, civil strife and interstate wars. And it is in regions of longstanding conflict where countries are most frequently driven to increase their standing or seek greater security through the pursuit of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

India is a country in which, despite persistent and widespread poverty, there has been comparatively less conflict and extremism. This is clearly attributable to the strong and sustained democracy that has been a hallmark of Indian society for the past six decades. The sustained economic growth of recent years has given hope that the political freedoms enjoyed by the Indian people can be coupled with economic prosperity for all.

Second, these are all ´threats without borders´. They cannot be solved by any one country; by their nature, they demand global responses and multinational cooperation. Taking together all these aspects of global security, it should be clear that our society is at a crossroads. If we hope to achieve progress, it is time for a new beginning.

The Opportunities

What is to be done? Complex as these insecurities may be, there are nonetheless obvious steps that could be taken to address them. We must share the wealth of the planet more equitably - recognizing that poverty, too, is a weapon of mass destruction. We must invest in more advanced science and technology to meet development needs - seeking to do more than create more wealth for the wealthy. Investments in technology are invariably profit driven; more emphasis, therefore, should be placed on innovation to address problems of hunger and disease. And we must engage in the sustained diplomacy necessary to resolve longstanding conflicts.

If we begin to alleviate problems of poverty and hunger, we will also be able to generate momentum for good governance. When basic human needs are met, the environment is created for citizens to turn their attention to achieving political and social freedoms. Democracy is an evolutionary process; however, it must begin from within, and it must be nurtured and supported, regardless of whether the particular leader is a political friend or foe, and regardless of the outcome of a given election.

The international community must also deal with symptoms of insecurity at the State level, including nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. On the nuclear front, we must enhance further the security of existing stocks of nuclear and radiological material, and tighten controls over sensitive nuclear operations that produce such material. The IAEA must receive the support it needs to carry out effective, independent verification of States´ non-proliferation commitments. World leaders must be persuaded to acknowledge the inextricable linkage between non-proliferation and disarmament - and therefore the critical need for accelerated efforts towards a nuclear-weapons-free world. The proliferation challenges of recent years - and the near-total impasse in international efforts to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation and arms control regime - have made it clear that the current system is not sustainable: it needs to be strengthened, and it needs to be universal.

At the end of the day, we will only succeed if we have the foresight to develop an alternative system of collective security. A system in which no country could rely or would need to rely on nuclear weapons for its security. A system with effective global mechanisms for conflict resolution. A system in which security is not perceived as a zero sum game, but rather a system that is equitable, inclusive and effective. And above all, a system that places human security at its centre.


During the 15 minutes it has taken me to deliver this speech, more than 200 of our fellow human beings have died of starvation - most of them children under the age of five. An additional 125 have died of waterborne diseases. Another 85 have died from HIV/AIDS. Most of these deaths could have been avoided by a more rational and humane distribution of resources.

In this same short time interval, five new inventions have received a patent. More than 23 000 cell phones have been purchased worldwide. About 1300 new automobiles have been produced. And governments have spent another $30 million on armaments - approximately ten times the amount provided, during the same time period, as development assistance for the poor. All just during the past 15 minutes.

This is our world. It is our great privilege to live in an age where we are witnessing incredible advances in science and technology - with discovery and innovation at an accelerated pace in areas like nanotechnology, bioengineering and information technology. But it is also our great shame to tolerate, in parallel, a set of primitive ethical and social values hailing back to the caveman, always in search of a bigger club with which to protect our privileges and settle our differences.

As human beings, we have great potential. Why does one individual turn out to be a Mother Teresa, and another a suicide bomber? It is mostly a matter of how we are treated, and how we choose to treat others. Ultimately, the human family is the master of its own destiny.

It is time for an adjustment of our mindset, and a change in our values. It is time for a new beginning.

Last update: 16 Feb 2018

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