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Flirting with catastrophe: Fear of nuclear weapons has world on edge

  • 6 min to read
Flirting with catastrophe: Fear of nuclear weapons have world on edge
Sitting ducks

Anti-nuclear weapons group Global Zero projected an image opposing nuclear weapons on the United Nations building in New York in 2015.

Courtesy photo

In 1947, two years after the first atomic bomb lit up the pre-dawn skies over Southern New Mexico and well before the Soviets exploded their first bomb, a group of U.S. scientists, concerned over the growing hostility between the Soviet Union and the West, devised the Doomsday Clock, a symbolic clock face representing a countdown to possible global catastrophe.

It has been maintained since then by members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago, providing a sobering metaphor for the victories and failures of 70 years of atomic diplomacy. The closer they set the Doomsday Clock to midnight, the closer the scientists believe the world is to global disaster.

The closest it came to midnight was in 1953, when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union tested thermonuclear (hydrogen) weapons, and the clock moved to two minutes to midnight; the farthest was in 1991, with the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union.

Today, nearly a quarter-century since the end of the Cold War, the digits stand at 23:57 on the 24-hour clock — as close to midnight as all but one other point in the clock’s existence.

The perilous reading reflects, in part, concerns about worsening climate change, which the scientists have included in their calculation of doom since 2007. But the more pressing concern stems from the world’s failure to reduce nuclear weapons. And in the current age of terrorism and suitcase-sized “dirty bombs,” the new fear — and it is real — is not the threat of a nuclear strike from a hostile foreign power, but of smaller nuclear bombs exploded in major Western cities by suicide bombers, acting either alone or at the behest of some angry jihadist or nationalist group.

“In the 20th century, nuclear weapons fundamentally changed warfare between great powers,” said Rachel Bronson, executive director and publisher of The Bulletin. “The challenge of the 21st century is to keep the spread of nuclear weapons contained. Non-nuclear states and non-state actors understand the power of these weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty must continue to be updated to deal with the changing nuclear landscape. The Nuclear Security Summit that will take place in the U.S. in 2016 will focus on the risks of nuclear terrorism. It remains a very dangerous world.”

This, too, is a legacy of the Trinity Site test.

The rise of atomic diplomacy

Atomic diplomacy refers to attempts to use the threat of nuclear warfare to achieve diplomatic and strategic goals. Initially, only the U.S. and the USSR were players. But the United Kingdom acquired the bomb in 1952, lighting up the Australian desert as the U.S. had done in New Mexico. France followed suit in 1960, and China in 1964. These five countries are considered to be the original nuclear powers, not including those who have developed nuclear reactors for civilian use.

Later came Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Waiting in the wings is Iran. Other countries with nuclear potential have held back. Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and Sweden initiated nuclear weapons programs, but for a variety of reasons shut them down. The fact is, any modern country with an industrial base can develop an atomic weapon if it wants to spend the time and money — and suffer worldwide opprobrium.

In the first 20 years of the Cold War, there were a number of occasions when atomic diplomacy was used by both sides. During the Korean War, President Harry Truman deployed B-29s, one of which had dropped the first atomic bomb over Japan, to the region to demonstrate U.S. resolve to end the war. In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower considered, and then rejected, the use of nuclear force to reach a cease-fire that would end the Korean War.

France urged the U.S. in 1954 to drop an atomic bomb on Dien Bien Phu in Indochina to prevent France from losing the first Indochina war. Eisenhower, of course, said no.

But the most dangerous episode of the Cold War was the deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba by the Soviet Union in 1963 to force concessions from the U.S. over Europe. Never before or since have the U.S. and the Soviet Union (now Russia) come as close to a nuclear catastrophe as they did in 1963. The Soviets blinked and withdrew their missiles, but unknown to the American public at the time, the U.S. secretly agreed to withdraw its missiles from Turkey, a key Soviet objective.

Nuclear proliferation remains the greatest threat to world peace and stability, and is reckoned to be so by most of the world. The anti-proliferation group Global Zero estimates there are more than 16,000 nuclear weapons in nine countries, mostly in the U.S. and Russia. Another 59 nations possess nuclear materials and the capability to create their own nuclear weapons programs, according to the group.

Despite increasing hostility between Russia, the U.S. and other Western countries, including the fighting in Ukraine, nuclear cooperation between the U.S. and Russia remains largely intact.

U.S-Russia cooperation key

The fear of nuclear proliferation was present even before the first bomb was exploded near Alamogordo. It has been at the heart of American foreign policy since 1945, and in 1946 the U.S. presented to the United Nations a sweeping nuclear agreement, the “Baruch Plan,” proposing an Atomic Development Authority and international control of all weapons and fissile materials, including those of the U.S. Nevertheless, the proposal was rejected by the Soviet Union.

Despite its bellicose foreign policy, however, Moscow too has been wary of proliferation, though perhaps for different reasons. So has most of the rest of the world, which has signed on to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970, the world’s core nonproliferation agreement. Only India, Pakistan and Israel have declined to sign. North Korea originally signed, but then withdrew.

But in the age of al-Qaida, the Islamic State and other radical groups, there is virtually no defense against smaller nuclear bombs falling in the hands of terrorists except the careful protection of nuclear weapons everywhere in the world.

This is what makes U.S.-Russian cooperation so important. Perhaps the most worrying factor is the current standoff between India and Pakistan, in which the protection of nuclear weapons in Pakistan is constantly threatened by jihadist and radical Muslim groups that have made Pakistan one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

By the mid-1960s, the U.S. and the USSR had achieved nuclear parity, making use of the bomb for national purposes virtually impossible.

Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution and former deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton, told The New Mexican: “The great irony about the Nuclear Age, which outdid itself in terms of destructive power, is that it neutralized the utility of going to war between the two great antagonists,” the U.S. and the USSR.

Mutual security was then based on the principle of mutually assured destruction, a principle still in play. No nuclear weapons have been used in any conflict since the end of World War II.

Says Talbott: “The U.S. and the Soviet Union could go to war by proxy, as in Cuba, but not against each other. The ultimate weapon became unusable. The good news is it continues to keep the peace. But now there is a great danger that deterrence will not work. North Korea is a problem but not one of mano a mano. The greater danger lies in a confrontation between India and Pakistan.”

A step toward nonproliferation

In addition, there is Iran, with what the world believes is its nuclear weapons program. The Iranian government denies this and is riven by hard-liners and moderates, as is the U.S. government.

This week, however, Iran struck an historic agreement with the U.S. and five other countries — France, the U.K., Germany, Russia and China. Essentially, the deal is intended to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions. The highly controversial agreement aims at averting the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran and another U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.

”The deal offers an opportunity to move forward,” said President Barack Obama in remarks that were carried live on Iranian television. “We should seize it.”

In Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said “a new chapter” had begun between Iran and the rest of the world, and Iranians were celebrating in the streets.

Flirting with catastrophe: Fear of nuclear weapons have world on edge

Jubilant Iranians sing and wave Iranian flags during street celebrations Tehran, Iran, on Tuesday after world powers reached a landmark nuclear deal aimed at averting the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Ebrahim Noroozi/The Associated Press

But not everybody agreed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, long an opponent of any deal with Iran other than Iran’s abject surrender, said the agreement was a “bad mistake of historic proportions. … The world is less safe today than it was yesterday.” In the U.S., Speaker of the House John Boehner also denounced the deal, threatening to do all he could to block it, as did other leading Republicans, especially those running for president.

Nevertheless, the momentous agreement was seen elsewhere as a major step forward in the struggle to strengthen nonproliferation. Closer to home, Cheryl Rofer, a retired scientist from Los Alamos and a recognized expert on nonproliferation, said “the Iran deal moves the nonproliferation agenda forward. Making the deal work will depend on technical capabilities developed by Los Alamos. The future looks positive for keeping nuclear weapons under control.”

In the meantime, the Doomsday Clock now stands at three minutes to midnight, and its ticking gets louder and louder. Iran deal or no Iran deal, somebody out there wants to get the bomb.