Today the public space is nearly fully occupied by subjects ranging from shooting wars in Europe and the Middle East to infectious diseases, migration, artificial intelligence, climate change, and others as well. What has largely disappeared is attention to the potential harm from nuclear war, and the removal of guard rails that until recently provided a modicum of confidence.
Furthermore, there are newcomers to the list of nuclear powers, while other countries are either seeking to become one, such as Iran or are contemplating their need to do so because Western commitments to protect their country seem less reliable, for example, South Korea or Japan.
As those existing with the capability increase, the degree of trust in leaders, and threats to “tactically” use nuclear weapons, heightens the dangers for everyone.
Many experts make the case, as Keith A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press put it in an article published last month in Foreign Affairs, that if in a conventional war “tactical nuclear weapons are used, it will result in a full-blown nuclear war. […]The risk of nuclear escalation during conventional war is much greater than is generally appreciated”.
Another important aspect is that those countries having nuclear capability have been investing in expansion, improvements or innovations, seemingly as a way to project greater danger to potential adversaries.
Not alone by any means but more visible are open, official discussions in the United States. The final report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, released in October 2023 suggests that, in response to Russia’s nuclear and military behavior and the anticipated growth of China’s nuclear arsenal, the U.S. arsenal “should be supplemented” to add more capability and flexibility to counter two “near-peer” nuclear adversaries.
Jake Sullivan, U.S National Security Advisor in a June 2023 statement recently put it:
…our approach to strategic stability—one that can be boiled down to two main lines of effort. First, update our deterrence capabilities and plans. And second, advance new arms control and risk reduction measures.
These are two sides of the same proverbial nuclear coin. Responsibly enhancing our deterrent capabilities allows us to negotiate arms control from a position of strength and confidence—and new arms control helps limit and shape our adversaries’ decisions on nuclear capabilities.
These expressions are not definitive in determining what the United States will do in the near future. But it is very likely reflective of similar internal thinking by others.
Leastways for those of us not inside bilateral, trilateral, or even wider international discussions, there seems much less effort to pursue possible common ground to negotiate to renew or define new ground rules.
The prevailing logic for nuclear states seems to be to improve/increase nuclear arms, then negotiate – if at all.
One possible glimmer of hope was the meeting on November 15, 2023, in San Francisco between two of the big nuclear three, namely the United States and China. We do not know if they included or extensively dealt with “nuclear” matters during their multi-hour meeting. If it wasn’t, it must be next time.
It is fair to say that there was and is a lack of vocal demands for action on the nuclear threat from public voices, nearly everywhere.
We need to no longer be a “Silent Majority” but can speak out to make it an internationally negotiated priority.
Early Warnings, Treaties, And Then Treaty Withdrawals
Impakter’s article focused on the Doomsday Clock entitled “The Apocalypse Is Just 90 Seconds Away” points out that the prospects of a nuclear disaster were first conceived of in 1945 by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists including Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Roughly fifteen years later, U.S. President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev recognized the confrontational strength of their respective nations’ nuclear arms forces. This concern resulted in the first arms control agreement of the Cold War, the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963.
Nuclear test explosions continued, garnering worldwide scrutiny, not only for what it meant for the arms race but also for what it meant for all human life.
Ongoing testing of new nuclear technologies by the United States, Soviet Union, and United Kingdom in the earth’s atmosphere, generated worldwide fears about the potential effects of radioactive fallout on people and led to the formation of activist groups and public discussion of the issue.
This first treaty was significant in demonstrating the willingness of the superpowers to engage in dialogue and cooperation to mitigate the risk of nuclear conflict.
Other agreements followed, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty that was signed in 1968 and the SALT I agreements of 1972. In 1974, the Threshold Test Ban Treaty returned to the question of nuclear testing by limiting future underground testing of bombs with a yield greater than 150 kilotons.
However well intended by its drafters, treaties did not limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons or the number of states possessing these capabilities. Nor did it stop research in what some label “Miniaturization as a Grail in the Third Nuclear Age”, and having a nuclear bomb small enough to fit in a suitcase, a delivery choice of terrorists…
Furthermore, even with formal treaty commitments by governments, compliance assurance and inspection access are not guaranteed, and any signatory could simply announce its country’s withdrawal, at any time.
Where We Are Today
Circa 2023 the geopolitical landscape has been considerably transformed.
The United States and Russia have been joined by China as among the foremost nuclear powers, and the second tier includes the United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel, each of which has nuclear weapons.
Rapid advancements in nuclear technology and the pursuit of nuclear capabilities by the nine countries have heightened concerns about the potential for increased risk of a nuclear conflict.
Paradoxically, as the number of nuclear-armed states has expanded, the focus on the threat of nuclear war has diminished in public discourse.
Instead, attention is directed at other pressing and legitimate global challenges, particularly climate change, which is regarded as one of the most significant threats to the planet’s ecological balance and human civilization. This shift in focus from nuclear war to climate change is positive in reflecting new core ideas of global security and changing priorities of international relations taking hold.
That said, the once prominent fear of a nuclear winter has been supplanted by the harm caused by environmental degradation. It has taken center stage in contemporary discourse at all levels.
Why Is This the Case?
The reasons are complex, but primarily the following:
- To this point, nuclear-armed states have largely adhered to deterrence doctrines aimed at preventing direct military confrontation, contributing to a perception of nuclear stability.
- Until recently, arms control treaties and nuclear non-proliferation initiatives provided a relative sense of minimal security regarding the use of nuclear weapons.
As mentioned, however, the number of nuclear-armed states is likely to continue to rise, with current and future leaders of varying experience and reliability at the nuclear button, so to speak. The dangers become more pronounced, including accidental nuclear escalation or non-state actors acquiring and using nuclear weapons.
Contrast this with climate change, which is visible, tangible, and costly, far more so now than it was last century. The immediate effects of global warming – rising sea levels, extreme weather events, air pollution, and biodiversity loss – have captured public attention and galvanized international efforts to address the crisis.
Needed are similar organized efforts to address the threat posed by nuclear weapons. They should focus on putting in place governance rules and systems, to the extent possible with the main goal of avoiding their potential use, whether in major superpower confrontations, regional conflicts, or terrorist activities.
In short, the dual challenge of addressing climate change and mitigating the risks associated with nuclear weapons, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, means we must deal with both “guns and butter”– “climate change” and “nuclear arms control”.
The global agenda is already crowded, but there must be room made to address the risks associated with nuclear weapons and climate change at the same time.
It is a huge “ask’ but both threats must be dealt with; we do not have a choice.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — Featured Photo: Nuclear Winter Source: Boursure, Flickr (cc)