How to start worrying and love disarmament
Nuclear warfare isn’t as popular as it used to be. There was a time when it was on everybody’s lips, from the cheery family man stocking up a bomb shelter to fresh-faced children learning to crouch under desks.
That old-fashioned pine was the best defence against hydrogen bombs was a bone of contention between engineers and education departments for years.
The Cold War was a time when the world was an uncomplicated place. Red was bad. Smoking was good.
It must be a nightmare working in a modern Defence Department, filled with the institutional nostalgia for days when security was a much simpler challenge. It was a time of first-strikes and second-strikes, of mutually-assured destruction, of balances of terror and proxy wars in banana republics.
Ah, for the heady age of realism - where a man could quote Morgenthau and Waltz and not feel (rightly) like a douchebag.
Nowadays, with the Soviet Union terrorising the same universe as Elvis and Tupac, the threat of nuclear annihilation plays second-fiddle to security challenges like terrorism, climate change, and financial liquidation.
It is easy to forget, however, that the world still teeters remarkably close to complete destruction.
There are, according to the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (ICNND), still between 23,000 and 25,000 nuclear warheads spread across the arsenals of nine states. The Commission includes North Korea in this survey and estimates the capabilities of notoriously-coy Israel. Unsurprisingly the two largest stockpilers - with nearly 95% of all weapons - are Russia and the United States.
Of their formidable arsenals, Russia and the US maintain 2,800 and 2,200 respective warheads ready to be deployed at a few minutes notice. This is in 2010.
For reference, the last Soviet President locked up the liquor cabinet in the Kremlin on December 25, 1991 - a lazy 19 years ago. So here we are nearly two decades after the end of the Cold War and both states continue to hold guns at each other’s heads.
Last week Barack Obama and his counterpart Dmitry Medvedev signed a new nuclear arms reduction treaty between the US and Russia. This treaty will lock in a 30% reduction in the number of warheads as well as limits on delivery vehicles (including reductions in bombers and other strategic systems). It is the successor to the START agreement, creatively titled “New START”, and revives a disarmament process that, like much else touched by Obama’s predecessor, was in desperate need of repair.
Make no mistake: this is an important agreement. The cynical can, and will, argue that it’s a largely academic scenario mapping the damage of 1,550 warheads (the new ceiling) as opposed to 2,800, yet it is undeniably a step in the right direction. This treaty helps promote the norms of transparency and cooperation between former enemies, laying foundations for the abolition of even larger numbers of warheads in the future.
Obama last year delivered a celebrated address in Prague where he called for a complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Tellingly he also had this to say: “As the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it.” This cuts to the heart of the disarmament debate.
While nations like Australia and Japan can, through organisations like the ICNND, stimulate discussion and apply degrees of pressure on the nuclear states, it is the US and Russia who have the clout in any movement towards a nuclear-free world.
The bombers and missiles cannot disappear overnight but there are intermediate steps that can be taken that will immediately lengthen the odds of nuclear destruction. To this end the Obama Administration should join with India and China in declaring a no-first-use policy for the American nuclear arsenal. This would be a remarkable gesture of good faith from the US and could compel other nuclear states to do the same.
There must be recognition, too, of the dimensions of today’s security environment. The threat to peace today is found mainly at the sub-state level, involving actors like terrorist organisations. There is no need to maintain ICBMs and strategic bombers on hair-trigger alert to turn the cities of a non-existent state-based enemy into glass. Remember, the Soviets don’t exist anymore and, despite the best intentions of Tom Clancy, the Chinese have not replaced them as an existential threat. It would be nice if defence planners likewise stopped taking advice from writers of military porn.
While the headlines are justifiably full of stories on health, education, and the state of the global economy, it can be easy to forget the powder-keg we are all sitting on. For homework, google “Perimetr” and discover why Dr Strangelove isn’t just a work of clever satire. The studious should also read about Stanislav Petrov and see how close the world came to auditioning as a second sun.
President Obama deserves credit for the renewed emphasis he has brought to nuclear disarmament. He acknowledged in his Prague speech the sheer amount of ground to be covered before a world free of nuclear terror can become a reality. The New START treaty is an integral step towards this goal.
Nuclear war should become, like the Cold War itself, a peculiarity of history rather than an ever-present threat. Life in the 21st Century is stressful enough without the knowledge it could be extinguished at any moment.
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