Fifty years ago, during the Cuban missile crisis, a US navy vessel dropped a warning depth charge too close to a Soviet submarine, and knocked out its communications with Moscow. The captain asked his senior colleagues whether he should exercise the authority he had in such a situation to immediately unleash its nuclear weapons. We avoided World War III. But only on the two-to-one vote of three Russian naval officers.
This is just one of the dozens of stories that have now emerged about how close, and how often, the world has come to nuclear catastrophe as a result of human error, system error, misjudgement and miscalculation. What has saved the planet from nuclear destruction, during the Cold War years and since, has not been statesmanlike leadership or sophisticated control systems but sheer dumb luck.
The fragility of luck
We simply cannot assume that luck will continue. More than 22,000 weapons still exist, distributed across more states, in more unstable regions, than was the case during the Cold War. Command and control systems in a number of nuclear-armed states are very fragile indeed. Terrorist cells itch to get their hands on nuclear bombs or the makings of them. There is a higher risk than ever that nuclear weapons will be used, by accident or miscalculation if not deliberate design.
Nobody should be in doubt that any such use would be catastrophic. It’s not just the burn and blast devastation, and the generations-long radiological impact of the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented. It’s the fact that even a modest regional nuclear exchange – say between India and Pakistan – would trigger, through the debris thrown into the atmosphere, ‘nuclear winter’ effects that would have profound negative impacts on worldwide agricultural production.
Three years ago – with President Obama’s April 2009 Prague speech setting the pace– it seemed that our collective global nuclear sleep-walk was at last ending. The U.S. and Russia quickly negotiated the New START Treaty to reduce the number of deployed strategic weapons; Washington flagged a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons in its overall military posture; the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, paralysed five years earlier, agreed on a modest action plan, including the first steps toward a nuclear-weapon free Middle East; new commitments were made to bring the nuclear test ban treaty into force and to negotiate an end to the production of weapons-grade fissile material; and a nuclear summit was held pledging global action to effectively lock away nuclear weapons and material from rogue states and terrorists.
What happened to the momentum?
But now, three years after Prague, the political will for change has largely evaporated. Further US-Russia nuclear arms reductions have become hostage to interminable wrangling about conventional arms imbalances and ballistic missile defence. The Chicago NATO Summit produced nothing but tired old thinking on nuclear doctrine. China is rapidly modernizing both weapons and delivery systems, and India and Pakistan are increasing their arsenals. Iran is closer than ever to acquiring weapons capability, if not actually building them, and Middle East nuclear free zone talks are going nowhere fast. Test ban treaty ratifications and fissile material treaty negotiations have stalled, and nuclear security summits have generated more rhetoric than substance.
If we are to avoid nuclear catastrophe, there is a critical need to bring both nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation back to political centre stage. The agenda remains clear. The U.S. and Russia – holding 95 per cent of the global stockpile between them – must lead the way in weapons destruction, with a 90 per cent reduction by 2025 as the initial target. Actual deployments must be dramatically reduced, and no weapons left on insanely high alert. Policymakers, including in the US’s NATO and East Asian allies, must rethink deterrence theory and dramatically reduce their dependence on nuclear weapons. And all the key players must get serious about strengthening the non-proliferation regime, locking in the test ban, and locking down fissile material production.
It might help to regenerate political momentum if the G20 – which many would like to see broadening its global policy coordination role beyond financial crisis management – took a leadership role on at least some of these issues. But the real need is not so much for new negotiation and discussion forums as to give new life to the existing ones. And top-down leadership simply will not be sustained without relentless peer-group and bottom-up pressure, from respected former leaders, coalitions of small and middle powers and committed civil society organisations worldwide.
Some such initiatives are now under way, including leadership-focused advocacy networks in Europe, the Asia-Pacific and US; regular state-of-play reports from NGOs designed to ‘name and shame’ states into action; a growing international campaign for a comprehensive Nuclear Weapons Convention; and grassroots campaigns designed to alert publics to nuclear risks.
It is critical that these efforts continue and increase, with the crucial message being pounded into the heads of policymakers, and those who influence them, that nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament is not just another sensitive and difficult policy issue. Of all such challenges that the world confronts, there are only two where getting it wrong can destroy life on this planet as we know it. And nuclear weapons can kill us a lot faster than CO2.