Strategic Space

International Solidarity for Nuclear Security: Lessons from a Pandemic

27 Apr, 2020    ·   5680

Dr Manpreet Sethi recommends accepting the shared sense of vulnerability, and acknowledging the importance of a collective commitment to responsible action

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

In his September 2019 UN General Assembly speech, President Trump said, “The future does not belong to globalists… the future belongs to sovereign and individual nations who protect their citizens…” Less than six months later, the president found himself confronting a global emergency where no “sovereign and individual nation” could hope to exclusively protect its citizens, unless others did so, too. Ironically, therefore, human security is more globalised than ever before, as each state’s ability to fight COVID-19 is equally dependent other states being able to fight it just as effectively. The cover of Time magazine captured this reality well– “Apart, Not Alone.” Indeed, the fight against the novel Coronavirus has unambiguously highlighted the need for international solidarity.

As the battle against COVID-19 rages across the globe in as many as 185 countries, these efforts are largely being carried out at discrete national levels, with broad guidance from the WHO. None of the commonly thought of great powers—the P-5—have shown any attempt at collective leadership on the matter. Rather, at least two of them, the US and China, are caught up in mutual accusations on the virus’ origins. While the leadership in Washington has displayed arrogance and hyper-nationalism, in Beijing, it has resorted to non-transparency.

Owing to these sets of behaviour, international solidarity looks out of reach at this moment. But, there is an inherent limitation to handling a pandemic at only national levels. As it stands, most states have resorted to lockdowns and social distancing as their primary tools. These strategies make every individual’s health reliant on the behaviour of the other. Any person who defies the requirements could become a weak link and pose a risk to the safety of many. Similarly, at the international level, any state that does not effectively enforce measures to check the virus could become a weak link and fuel the crisis once global travel normalises. The health security of an individual, and that of a state, is globalised. Laxity in rigour, carelessness of action, or hiding of information in any one state could become a global threat in no time given the highly contagious nature of this virus.

Even more scary is the prospect of use of the virus by non-state actors (NSA) for the purpose of bio-terrorism. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres drew attention to this fact on 10 April when he issued a warning on the possibility of NSAs gaining access to virulent strains. He said, “the weakness and lack of preparedness exposed by this pandemic provide a window onto how a bio-terrorist attack might unfold.”

While the current crisis has brought a focus to the risk of bio-terrorism, the international community cannot afford to take its eyes off the challenge of nuclear and radiological terrorism either. In fact, nuclear security requires a similar level of solidarity as is being considered necessary in handling the current health emergency. All states, irrespective of whether they have nuclear holdings or not, need to understand and share the burden of collective action to ensure no leakage of nuclear and radiological material, technology, or equipment takes place.

Nuclear security, like bio-security, must be premised on the ethic of global cooperation, which is anchored in good nuclear governance. Just as the handling of this pandemic COVID requires robust national surveillance to detect, isolate, and treat, so also nuclear security. Such cooperation should ideally be facilitated by an international institution that is seen to be impartial, effective, and quick at sharing real-time intelligence and best practices. In the case of nuclear security, the IAEA is at the centre. The IAEA would do well to learn from the current experience of the WHO.  One of the most evident lesson relates to the public credibility of an international institution and how that is linked to funding and related loyalties, as also its enforcement ability. The WHO has suffered on all these fronts—and these are areas that require attention from the perspective of nuclear security, too.

The IAEA was built largely for the purpose of implementing safeguards to check horizontal nuclear proliferation. Subsequently, nuclear safety was added to its responsibilities. It has no regular budgetary provisions for nuclear security and can offer only an advisory, recommendatory role on the matter. These handicaps could seriously jeopardise its ability to demand and enforce national nuclear security commitments. The situation can be remedied only when addressed collectively by the wider nuclear security community. Preventing the risk of nuclear terrorism requires a comprehensive plan—at both national and international levels. These need to be developed and implemented as a whole-of-government effort at the national level, and adopted as an all-states approach at the international level. Every stakeholder has to recognise the criticality of their role.

COVID-19 exposes our common fragility as individuals and states and how open it is to exploitation if we remain narrowly concerned with only our own security. The reality is that security in the case of bio and nuclear threats is indivisible. The security of every unit—person or state—is contingent on others’ good behaviour and acceptance of rules. Important lessons for nuclear security can be learnt from the ongoing efforts to address this pandemic—the most important being the need to accept our shared sense of vulnerability, and assume a shared commitment to responsibility.


Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), Delhi.