Is the main­tain­ing of a nu­clear peace hu­mankind’s most dan­ger­ous bluff?


In the ner­vous af­ter­math of the Hiroshima bomb­ing 70 years ago, cit­i­zens spent decades on alert for a nu­clear war that would wipe out bil­lions in a ra­dioac­tive firestorm and ren­der Earth un­in­hab­it­able. Yet the apoca­lypse never came. In­stead an un­prece­dented pe­riod of peace took hold be­tween nu­cle­ar­armed global pow­ers aware that a wrong move could wipe out the hu­man race.

Nukes could never stop smaller wars and proxy con­flicts — and look in­creas­ingly im­po­tent against mod­ern non-state threats such as ji­hadist groups or cy­ber­at­tacks — but “they are still a nec­es­sary tool,” said Mark Fitz­patrick, a nu­clear se­cu­rity ex­pert at the Lon­don-based In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies.

“It is pretty clear that mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion has con­trib­uted to the ab­sence of global war for the last 70 years,” he said.

Nonethe­less, as the atomic gen­er­a­tion gives way to one that did not grow up build­ing fall­out shel­ters, some ex­perts say nu­clear weapons are no longer the ul­ti­mate guar­an­tor of global peace.

Grow­ing in­sta­bil­ity around the world — the re­newed rift be­tween Rus­sia and the West, sim­mer­ing ten­sions be­tween nu­clear-armed In­dia and Pak­istan, a drive by China to mod­ern­ize its nu­clear forces and an ever-more bel­li­cose North Korea — have un­der­mined ef­forts to re­duce the global stock­pile of nu­clear weapons and keep dooms­day at bay.

Nu­clear Win­ter

With ties be­tween Moscow and the West at Cold War lows, Rus­sia has fallen back on its nu­clear threat, boost­ing its ar­se­nal and in­creas­ing flights by strate­gic bombers, in what NATO has de­scribed as “dan­ger­ous nu­clear saber-rat­tling.”

Nu­clear weapons are seen in Moscow as “ul­ti­mate proof that Rus­sia is a great power” de­spite its strug­gling econ­omy and poor in­ter­na­tional im­age, said Pavel Baev, a Rus­sian mil­i­tary ex­pert at the Peace Re­search In­sti­tute Oslo.

He warned that Putin and his top brass had not “gone to the school of nu­clear deter­rence” and did not un­der­stand the “ex­traor­di­nar­ily dan­ger­ous game” they were play­ing.

Bruno Ter­trais, an ex­pert at the Paris-based Foun­da­tion for Strate­gic Re­search, said the fear of mu­tual dev­as­ta­tion still made “large-scale mil­i­tary con­flict be­tween Rus­sia and NATO un­think­able.”

But as weapons spread to more volatile parts of the world, the threat of nu­clear war grows.

Nine na­tions — the United States, Rus­sia, Bri­tain, France, China, In­dia, Pak­istan, Is­rael and North Korea — pos­sess some 16,300 nu­clear weapons be­tween them, ac­cord­ing to the Stock­holm In­ter­na­tional Peace Re­search In­sti­tute.

Fitz­patrick said “it is quite think­able that there would be a small­er­scale nu­clear war in­volv­ing some of the other coun­tries that are nu­clear armed.”

He said the most likely con­fronta­tion would be be­tween long­stand­ing foes In­dia and Pak­istan, which could be enough to cre­ate a so-called nu­clear win­ter. In such a sce­nario, the sun would be blocked out by smoke, caus­ing a dev­as­tat­ing cool­ing of the Earth.

If there were another at­tack like those in Mum­bai in 2008 when Pak­istan-based ter­ror­ists went on a four­day killing spree in the city, In­dia’s gov­ern­ment “may not turn the other cheek,” he said.

The risk is all the greater as weapons be­come more pow­er­ful.

“A sin­gle bal­lis­tic mis­sile car­ries al­most three times more nu­clear ex­plo­sive power” than both the bombs dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Na­gasaki to­gether, said Steven Starr of the Nu­clear Age Peace Foun­da­tion.

Other risks for nu­clear con­flict are the ac­ci­den­tal re­leas­ing of a bomb, or the “sig­nif­i­cant pos­si­bil­ity” that “a group of six ter­ror­ists with the right knowl­edge could put a bomb to­gether,” said Fitz­patrick.

Ward Wil­son of the Re­think­ing Nu­clear Weapons Pro­ject said the prob­lem with nu­clear deter­rence was its re­liance on in­di­vid­u­als re­main­ing ra­tio­nal.

“If hu­man be­ings are fal­li­ble, and hu­man be­ings are in­volved in nu­clear deter­rence, then nu­clear deter­rence is in­her­ently flawed and will one day fail cat­a­stroph­i­cally.”

He also warned that “if you wait long enough then a mad­man will pop up in one of the nine nu­clear states.”

Such fears have com­pelled lead­ers to call for a nu­clear-free world.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama made it an early fo­cus of his for­eign pol­icy, warn­ing in a his­toric 2009 speech in Prague that “as more peo­ple and na­tions break the rules, we could reach the point where the cen­ter can­not hold.”

But de­spite go­ing on to seal a new treaty with Moscow to re­duce de­ployed nu­clear weapons, his progress has stalled and the U.S. is spend­ing bil­lions up­grad­ing its nu­clear ar­se­nal.

“He hasn’t had good part­ners in Rus­sia, in Pak­istan, the Se­nate — there are rea­sons why he hasn’t been able to make progress,” said Fitz­patrick.

Other coun­tries such as France be­lieve nu­clear deter­rence is more rel­e­vant than ever.

“The in­ter­na­tional con­text does not al­low for any weak­ness ... the era of nu­clear deter­rence is there­fore not over,” Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande said in Fe­bru­ary.

Iran’s For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif wrote in The Guardian last week that the con­cept of mu­tu­ally as­sured de­struc­tion was “in­sane” and called for ne­go­ti­a­tions on a weapons elim­i­na­tion treaty.

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