New nuclear arms race threatens global stability

Without much public attention or any eye-catching, scaremongering headlines announcing an imminent nuclear war, it was reported this month that, just as a matter of fact, the US has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which was signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev back in 1987. It might be the case that one of the legacies of the Cold War, which ended without the terrifying cataclysm of nuclear Armageddon, has made the world apathetic toward the renewal of the nuclear arms race. It might be the case that, in a fractious world with ever-increasing issues of contention, where the lines between real and fake news are becoming increasingly blurred, this is regarded as just another story of countries opting to operate unilaterally instead of through dialogue and agreement. And, in any case, what rational human beings would ever resort to this doomsday weapon and so bring an end to humanity as we know it?

This apparent apathy regarding one of the most dangerous arms race developments in recent times should be worrying in itself. The US withdrawal from the INF implies that America and Russia have freed themselves from a longstanding obligation not to develop ground-based nuclear missiles with a range of 500 to 1,000 kilometers, and the nonchalant reaction to this news represents the pessimistic times we live in. From the heyday of the fall of the Berlin Wall and world leaders fully committed to nuclear disarmament and settling disputes diplomatically, the world has now entered a dangerous phase of unilateralism, friction and provocation. Carrying such attitudes over into the sphere of nuclear strategy is plainly irresponsible.

The use of nuclear weapons by the US against Japan at the end of the Second World War, with the enormity of their cruel and destructive power, has been a constant reminder of what could happen — and far worse — should such weapons ever be used again. For a while, the US was the only country with nuclear capability but, in 1949, this changed, as the Soviet Union acquired similar capabilities. An almost unabated arms race ensued, with the superpowers gaining the ability to destroy the planet and bring humanity to an end several times over.

With the introduction of intercontinental ballistic missiles, especially those launched from submarines, which are harder to detect, the two major Cold War protagonists ironically realized that their vast arsenals of the most powerful weapons history has known had brought them to a stalemate, known as mutual assured destruction or deterrence, in which neither could use their nuclear weapons against the other without being destroyed themselves — making their use an act of sheer irrationality.

When Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty, it was in an atmosphere of optimism and hope.

Yossi Mekelberg

But, despite the well-established strategy of deterrence, the existence of many thousands of nuclear warheads has always left room for the possibility of their use, even inadvertently or through miscalculating the actions of the other side. In addition, the more weapons there are lying around, the greater the chances of an accident spreading radioactivity or of weapons falling into the wrong hands, including non-state actors. Only this month, it was reported that seven nuclear engineers and military personnel had died when an “isotope-fuel” engine blew up at Russia’s Nyonoksa test range. A few dozen kilometers away, radiation levels spiked at six times the normal level as a consequence.

A series of disarmament agreements concluded toward the end of the Cold War and during its aftermath signaled the wish of both Washington and Moscow to reduce their nuclear stockpiles and, in so doing, reduce the risk of a nuclear confrontation. This was recognition that there are no circumstances that can lead to any political gain from using these weapons. No other weapon provides an almost watertight guarantee against war but, at the same time, sets up a scenario where, should anything go wrong, it might result in an irreversible global catastrophe.

When Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF Treaty, it was in an atmosphere of optimism and hope that cooperation and dialogue would replace discord and unilateralism. For a while, relations between the two major powers headed in this direction, even though they possessed more than 90 percent of the 14,000 nuclear warheads in existence. The concentration of such weaponry in the hands of two countries makes any decision taken by either or both crucial to international stability. Intermediate-range nuclear proliferation poses a particular threat because such weapons could hit their target in a matter of minutes, with less chance of detection. As a result, this overrides the second-strike option and hence undermines deterrence.

Moreover, the INF Treaty was the only disarmament agreement ever to eliminate a whole category of nuclear weapons. And, although Russia and the US were the only signatories, it laid the foundations for a future nuclear disarmament based on complete elimination, not just that of one category of weapon. By keeping such weaponry off European soil for more than 30 years, it made the continent a safer and more stable place. However, it should be noted that Russia has in fact violated the treaty, or at least the spirit of it, by developing a land-based cruise missile, the SSC-8, which may or may not be just under the range prohibited by the treaty. And China’s development of such weaponry complicates things, as both Moscow and Washington are keeping an eye on what Beijing is up to and what strategic outlook has made it conclude that it needs such capability.

Regrettably, the insight that the leaders acquired during the Cold War — that diplomacy and negotiations could yield the desired result of averting nuclear confrontation (as well as conventional warfare) — is eluding the current crop. Trump and Putin, with their unilateralist tendencies and with the support of others, are sowing the seeds of a conventional and even nuclear arms race that can only undermine the many post-Cold War achievements in terms of stability and the advancement of democratic values.

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