In the course of the past year, it has seemed that the apparent global peace and stability of the post-1989 period has died a death. The shocks of the election of Donald Trump, the implications of Brexit, the rise of right wing populism across the Western world and the continued political confrontation between Russia and NATO, have all made 2017 seem not only depressingly bleak but almost on a knife edge of global catastrophe. And it seems that it isn’t only Cold War obsessives, such as this author, who think so. The long running and well informed chronometer of nuclear paranoia, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientist’s ‘Doomsday Clock’, was this January raised to a nigh unprecedented time of two and a half minutes to midnight, the highest it has been since 1953 and the bleak days of the early Cold War, when the USA and USSR tested and developed their first thermonuclear weapons within months of each other. Add to this the threat of global warming, now more than ever an observable and dangerous phenomenon that is still being explained away by politicians in the highest corridors of power as a ‘Chinese hoax’, and you have a global picture that has even been described by some as a return to instability of the 1930s, simply because no historical analogy exists.
Particularly when speaking of nuclear weapons, many are following the lead of the Bulletin and appraising the present as in fact even more dangerous than the MAD doctrines of the Cold War decades, where the risk of nuclear war was not only a cultural and political touchstone but one very seriously and extensively prepared for by governments across the world. Former Cold War Warriors such as Henry Kissinger, Robert Gates and even the key statesmen of Perestroika, Michael Gorbachev have warned of a return to the animosity of the Cold War years fueled by a mutual distrust. There are even some, such as a former chief of MI6 John Sawyers, who have described the situation, with its lack of apparent bipolar stability, as of greater danger than the Cold War itself. But is it really wise to project the experiences of the Cold War onto the present?
At the turn of the 1990s, as many as 70,000 nuclear weapons were in arsenals around the world. Today, and despite a vast shrinkage in nuclear stockpiles, the global count of weapons remains at 15,000, mostly in the hands of either the United States or the Russian Federation. Under the 2010 New START Treaty, these nations should both have around only around 1500 warheads mounted on 800 strategic launchers on short term alert. As a result, and disregarding the uneven strategic balance of the Cold War until the 1970s, deployed nuclear weapons are, in 2017, at their lowest number since the late 1950s*. Disregarding the realities of nuclear strategy, this is however, a number still sufficient to distribute a warhead to every city in the world with a population of over 300,000, if you distribute them according to the number of urban areas of that size listed by the UN in 2016. Needless to say, it was only during Donald Trump’s first official call with Vladimir Putin, in February 2017, that the current US president, a man with the authority to launch over half of the nuclear weapons in the world today, was apparently made aware of this most recent and important nuclear disarmament treaty.
Seen at face value, the world of today is still far less concerned with the dangers of world war than it was in any decade of the Cold War, and, almost reassuringly, the problem is still talked of as a future possibility and not as an inevitability, as it was seen in the 1930s. Yet no one could deny that the tension, and uncertainty of such thinking is being revived, and on a scale unseen since the end of the Cold War order in the late 1980s.Perhaps the problem is not that the dangers of nuclear weapons have suddenly seen a resurgence, but that they never went away in the first place. The 1990s, a decade thought of by many as one of post-Cold War optimism and global co-operation, was in reality little different, in many ways, from the Cold war decades that preceded it with regard to international crises. Although vastly on the decrease, nuclear weapons stockpiles in the US and Russian Federation were several times greater than today, and deployed weapons remained in many cases presumably set in their Cold War configurations and locked onto their Cold War era targets until the symbolic US-Russian de-targeting agreements of 1994 removed this last trace of MAD war planning. The Norwegian Rocket Incident of January 1995, when the launch of an international research rocket over the North Sea was interpreted as a dangerous threat in the Kremlin for over half an hour before it was identified, or the Taiwan Straits Crisis between 1995 and 1996 both illustrate that post-Cold War incidents between nuclear armed states are not necessarily less dangerous than their Cold War equivalents. What was undeniably different about these scenarios to those of the Cold War era, however, was the absence both of an ideological mind-set, and of a move away from the strategic ideas of bipolarity to that of an undeclared Pax Americana. For now, the predominance of the United States as the world’s only superpower is still assured, but the disastrous wars of the Bush administration long ago ended the illusion that a liberal Anglo-Saxon hemisphere could be trusted to keep the peace, much less prevent new destabilisation in areas where its interests conflicted with others. Add to this a disturbing growth of nationalist populism and authoritarian realpolitik from Moscow to Washington, Hungary to Istanbul, not to mention the significant presence of anti-EU, pro-isolationist nationalism in Europe, and you have grim reality of a world increasingly uncertain of who is in control at all. The seminal British expert on the fall of the Iron Curtain, Timothy Garton-Ash, wrote in his excellent and terrifying thought piece for the Guardian in January 2017, that during Trump’s presidency the world could enter ‘an age of global confrontation’, and thus far his predictions have only been reinforced by the first half of 2017.
What has been noticeable in the past few months, is perhaps again the feeling of living in an unpredictable world, with a potential for catastrophic destruction over which the vast majority of humanity has no control. So, what can the worried individual can do about it. Joining CND is better than nothing, but it seems very unlikely to be able to affect political change towards the peripheral nuclear weapons nuclear in the climate of a western democracy such as Britain, never mind in the two countries that, strategically speaking, actually matter. The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and Global Zero, although modern and effective movements, remain disappointingly and almost counter intuitively unknown: their arguments (such as the one explained here for eradicating nuclear weapons are perfectly reasonable and sensible, and, you would imagine, be immediately supported by every nation without a permanent seat on the UN security council. However, as the recent issue of whether the British Labour party, if it were again in power, commit to renewing Trident demonstrated, the silent presence of nuclear weapons in unused arsenals to repel a hypothetical aggressor has become so ingrained and self-evident that it is now perhaps ‘common sense’ to treat any discussion of their abolition as preposterous.
What should be acknowledged, along with the immense luck that the humanity has had in the last seven decades in its dealings with nuclear weapons, is that a world where the use of such weapons is unthinkable cannot be taken for granted. The election of Donald Trump last year only brought the danger of thousands of potential Hiroshima’s into frightening clarity, for it should be remembered that even in the halcyon days of Obama’s first term, not once was there a serious international attempt to forge a treaty abolishing such weapons for good. At least half of the nations of the world would support such a deal without reservation. From Brazil to New Zealand, South Africa to Nigeria, countries peripheral to the dominant northern hemisphere have little incentive to support the maintenance of weapons of mass destruction beyond their control to preserve the status of the nuclear club. But then perhaps, in an actual debate, the argument of deterrence would be brought up. Surely the existence of nuclear weapons is itself responsible for the lack of world war since 1945? Indisputably this is true, but only if the word ‘world’ is included. For though the global order has remained stable through the post-war years, war has flourished on almost every continent, and in the decidedly one-sided way that a world dominated by the political interests of a select few would be expected to exist.
In terms of human life expectancy, and the likelihood of death due to conventional war and disease, the world of 2017 is safer than ever before. In contrast, the continued existence of nuclear weapons with very little global political effort in the direction of abolition or further reduction is literally, a ticking time-bomb, that for an entire human lifetime has been ticking. It seemed for a brief, optimistic yet misleading period, to be being overturned by a ‘goodbye to all that’ attitude to global confrontation, an infectious legend that, especially in the West, has provoked inaction. Since the annexation of Ukraine in 2014, the constant tension on the Korean peninsula and the dangerous development of the war in Syria, which increasingly resembles the Cold War proxy wars of old, the dangers of nuclear confrontation are again present in public consciousness. It seems increasingly likely that it is the relative inaction of the decades after the end of the Cold War proper, where the road paved by Reagan and Gorbachev towards total and unilateral disarmament was largely forgotten, that is responsible for the present climate. If such a process has taken place, then Putin and Trump are just its current symptoms. However, if we see a return to a reality resembling the Cold War at its most chilly, with a new arms race, and even a serious armed confrontation between nuclear powers, only then will the days of the Cold War really seem more pleasant.
*While this statement is supported by graphs such as this one, The Federation of Atomic Scientists remains the best online source of historical and current world stockpiles.