Moral Leadership in a Dangerous World

By Sergio Duarte

“Action indeed is the sole medium of expression for ethics,” Nobel peace laureate Jane Addams once said. This is a good introduction to our subject, for it is in the realm of actions and results that the UN’s real contributions to humanity are made. I say this recognizing that our member states bear the heaviest responsibilities for action, and that their own citizens are ultimately responsible for ensuring lasting progress.

Many people might not know that disarmament is one of the UN’s longest-standing goals. When Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld referred in 1955 to disarmament as a “hardy perennial,” it was already a decade old, appearing twice in the UN Charter.

The Charter, however, was negotiated before any nuclear weapon had even been tested, so it fell to the General Assembly to clarify early on the meaning of this noble but often misunderstood term, “disarmament.” The General Assembly’s first resolution, adopted in January 1946, identified the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons and all other “weapons adaptable to mass destruction.” In 1959, the General Assembly put “general and complete disarmament under effective international control” on its agenda – an aim that encompasses the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction and the limitation of conventional arms to purposes of self-defense and peacekeeping. The Final Document of the General Assembly’s first special session on disarmament in 1978 referred to general and complete disarmament as the “ultimate objective” of the United Nations in this field, a goal that remains today.

Fusion of Idealism and Realism

Various institutions that comprise the “UN disarmament machinery” perform, in effect, as a kind of assembly line for the creation and maintenance of global norms in these fields of disarmament and multilateral treaties. The Disarmament Commission, for example, meets once a year to deliberate two agenda items, customarily nuclear and conventional weapons, and to develop voluntary guidelines at the end of a three-year cycle of such meetings. Meanwhile, the General Assembly’s First Committee considers resolutions, which, though non-binding, carry political weight. The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva has the job of negotiating the relevant multilateral treaties.

My own Office for Disarmament Affairs advises the Secretary-General and undertakes numerous activities to promote disarmament. These include our assistance to member states in pursuing their own disarmament-related activities, our administrative contributions at gatherings of states that are parties to multilateral treaties, our educational programs and publications, and our relations with non-governmental groups.

Thus, our goals are global in scope, and the norms we seek have been deliberated by all our member states and have been converted into commitments accepted by all. We are not in the business of promoting discriminatory norms. We are not seeking to outlaw certain weapons only in some countries, while certifying their legitimacy elsewhere.

Moral leadership requires a troubled conscience, a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a profound sense of repugnance for these weapons of mass slaughter.

The drama of history reveals the range of choices nations make to advance their security interests – the resort to military pre-emption, balance of power, ever-expanding military expenditures, arms exports. In terms of weapons of mass destruction, however, disarmament has two advantages over these other options. First, it conforms to the ideals of a universal, non-discriminatory standard and to the longstanding international desire to eliminate certain types of horrific, indiscriminate weapons. And second, it happens to be the most effective practical way to ensure against any future use of such weapons.

Disarmament, in short, represents the fusion of idealism and realism – it is the right thing to do, and it works. The UN is not merely seeking a world in which nuclear weapons reside in fewer hands, but a world in which no such weapons exist. We are not seeking only to reduce the risk that nuclear weapons will be used but to eliminate both the possibility and the motivations for any such use. We are not seeking only to limit the damages from a future nuclear war, but truly to achieve a world in which such a war cannot occur. And we are sure that this is what the world community wants us to do.

In my work as High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, and in my earlier efforts in other disarmament-related arenas, I have consistently been impressed by the diversity of groups that support this great goal. Though arms races and unfettered military competition may produce material benefits for certain constituencies in society, disarmament produces benefits that cut across all sectors of society. All the great goals of the United Nations – literally all of them – tacitly assume the non-existence of a nuclear war. In a very real sense, the constituency of disarmament includes not just all of humanity but also future generations.

Religions Step Up

It is small wonder that religious groups have consistently supported progress in this field. I note in particular the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, which the UN hosted in September 2000. The Summit’s joint statement underscored that humanity stands at a critical juncture in history – “one that calls for strong moral and spiritual leadership to help set a new direction for society.”1 This statement acknowledges that violence and war “are sometimes perpetrated in the name of religion,” yet also points to numerous ways that the world’s religions can work constructively together for the well-being of the human family and peace on earth.

The participants, for example, agreed “to join with the United Nations in the call for all nation-states to work for the universal abolition of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction for the safety and security of life on this planet.” I have seen similar calls issued by religious leaders across the globe.

Now, in surveying this brief history of disarmament efforts at the UN, one can easily see signs of leadership. Sometimes the agent of this leadership has been a Secretary-General, sometimes it comes from our member states, sometimes from coalitions of states, and sometimes it emerges from individuals or groups in civil society.

Leadership is essentially the quality to inspire, direct, and sustain collective action. It can be instinctive. It can also be learned. Yet it is difficult to teach. It can be performed by individuals with great charisma, by people performing official responsibilities, or by people who inspire others to act by appealing to custom. A leader can lead by reason, emotional appeals, or strength of character.

As I’ve used the term, leadership applies to a capability rather than a noble end. One can quite effectively “lead” others to oblivion. Moral leadership, on the other hand, insists on the issue of legitimate ends – goals that are both fair and adopted through an open process of voluntary consent. The individuals I would regard as true leaders are not simply those who prevail in conflicts, but those who inspire hard work for a noble goal. Moral leadership involves mu ch more than seeking to deter aggression. It involves inspiring the mighty to pursue righteous ends.

With respect to the actions of public officials, moral leadership is not limited to any specific level of government. It can be exercised by mayors, governors, national legislators, civil servants, leaders of intergovernmental organizations, or by ordinary citizens. I have seen many examples of such leadership in dealing with nuclear weapons issues. The persistent and enlightened efforts of the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for global nuclear disarmament deserve special recognition: few can speak with greater moral authority of the devastating effects of nuclear weapons than the people who live in the cities that were attacked by such weapons. These mayors have spearheaded the “Mayors for Peace” initiative, which has now gained the support of leaders from more than 2,700 cities in 134 countries – a demonstration of moral leadership of the highest order.2

I have seen moral leadership among our own member states, not just in articulate statements and resolutions, but also in the formation of broad-based coalitions of states that share the common desire to free this world from nuclear threats. Indeed, moral leadership is limited neither geographically nor by a country’s wealth, which helps account for the dedicated efforts of developing countries over several decades to seek the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The difficulty of achieving a world without nuclear weapons goes without question. Yet by far the greater challenge is the attempt to explain how the continued – indeed indefinite – possession of such weapons by some countries will guarantee against the use of such weapons in the future. Such possession will surely not guarantee against either the future spread of such weapons or against the improvement or expansion of existing arsenals. It didn’t do so yesterday and won’t tomorrow.

I do believe that disarmament – with its safe-guards and guarantees – does offer a brighter future for humanity than the perpetuation of a world whose security is based on the threat of mutual destruction. 

Waiting for Gandhi?

Disarmament, however, will not spontaneously appear in this world without hard work. Quite the contrary: it will occur only as a result of willful action by national leaders and their respective citizens. I do not believe disarmament must await the achievement of world peace, or the halt of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, or the elimination of all conventional weapons, or the perfection of missile defenses, or a fundamental change of human nature, or the inauguration of world government.

It can instead be achieved as a result of leadership that rests on the pursuit of a legitimate goal – disarmament as a common good, by legitimate means – a process that allows for universal participation. This type of leadership is as much moral as it is utilitarian: it serves both the ideals and interests of humanity. As I said, disarmament is the right thing to do, and it works.

Such leadership is quite rare, though I doubt it will take the appearance of a new Gandhi. No one can predict who will rise to this leadership challenge, or when, but it is useful to consider the sort of environment that may be conducive to the rise of such leaders and the success of their work.

Nuclear disarmament will certainly require considerable leadership from inside the group of states that possess nuclear weapons, especially those with the largest stockpiles – the United States and the Russian Federation. Yet it will also require under- standing, support, and leadership by and within all other countries. I believe the foundation for moral leadership lies in a political culture that has its roots in the family and schools, for they play an invaluable role in helping us all see and understand our world. Spiritual and religious convictions can powerfully reinforce the foundations for such leadership. This is one reason why supporters of disarmament among UN member states and the UN secretariat itself have been so interested in promoting disarmament and non-proliferation education in recent years. And this is also why we in the secretariat have actively reached out to religious groups for their support in this great cause.

Moral leadership in eliminating nuclear weapons requires a troubled conscience, a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a profound sense of repugnance for these weapons of mass slaughter – but it also requires the hopeful vision of a better world, an awareness of the concrete and spiritual benefits of achieving a world free of such weapons, and an appreciation that we will together leave for future generations a world that is safer and more peaceful than the imperfect one we share today. This a solid foundation indeed upon which to build.

Brazilian-born Sergio Duarte spent nearly 50 years in Brazil’s foreign service before he was appointed High Representative for Disarmament Affairs for the United Nations in 2007. Long involved in disarmament issues, Duarte chaired the board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1999- 2000 and was president of the 2005 conference of the states that are parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.


  1. 1  The full text is available at http://www. Commitment%20to%20Global%20Peace.pdf.

  2. 2  For further details, see http://www.mayorsforpeace. org/english/index.html.