As a child, in the 1960s and ’70s, in the midst of the Cold War, David Welch would lie awake in bed at night and worry about a nuclear holocaust.
The thought that the next day might bring mushrooms clouds, radiation fallout, soot blocking out the sun, a nuclear winter, crop failures, famines and millions of deaths terrified him.
He was not alone in that fear.
An entire generation woke up each morning to a low-key existential crisis and went to bed each night with a nuclear sword of Damocles dangling over their heads. But, by and large, with the end of the Cold War, those fears abated and then receded, and a new generation of children went to bed instead worrying about terrorists and then climate change.
As it turns out, those nuclear fears may have been forgotten, but they are not gone.
This week, at the UN conference to review the 50-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) — aimed at preventing the spread, and eventually achieving the global elimination, of nuclear weapons — Secretary-General António Guterres sounded the alarm.
“Humanity,” he said ominously, “is just one misunderstanding, one miscalculation away from nuclear annihilation.”
That warning was echoed by a slew of delegates on the opening day of the conference, prompted largely by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sabre-rattling and thinly veiled nuclear threats during his invasion of Ukraine, but also provoked by North Korea’s imminent nuclear testing and Iran’s refusal to return to the 2015 agreement aimed at reining in that country’s nuclear weapons development.
The grown-up Welch, now a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, is still worried. The nuclear boogeyman under the bed never went away, he says, we just let him slip our minds.
“We’ve largely lost our horror of nuclear war,” says Welch. “At the end of the Cold War, people just thought, ‘OK, problem solved. We don’t have to worry about nuclear war now.’
“But the arsenals are still there. The real problem is some leader somewhere deciding that these are usable weapons.”
Some of the key signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty signed in 1968 have not been living up to their commitments, says Welch. Although the big nuclear powers reduced their arsenals in the wake of the Cold War, there’s been little progress toward a non-nuclear world since then, former U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 vision of a world without nuclear weapons nothwithstanding.
Worse, more countries — India, Pakistan and North Korea — have joined the nuclear club, and Iran has been knocking on the door.
At this point, there are 12,705 working nuclear warheads on the planet, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). That’s a far sight less than during the Cold War, when, at its peak, the Soviet Union and the U.S. alone combined for more than 60,000.
But it’s still more than enough to cause a global catastrophe, and the cracks in the veneer of the global nuclear stalemate are beginning to show.
“It’s been a slow kind of creeping reality that nuclear weapons are not only still with us, but that tensions that could lead to nuclear confrontation are also increasing,” says University of British Columbia political science professor Allen Sens.
“And then the Russian invasion of Ukraine was the threat that jumped out of the bushes, as it were. It became the immediate catalyst for a much more clear and present danger.”
The countries that comprise those clear and present dangers can be divided into several blocs, loosely based on the size of their nuclear stockpiles.
Here’s how they stack up.
U.S. and Russia:
At the top of the nuclear weapons food chain stand the two countries that faced off — though it was the Soviet Union then — during the Cold War.
They have, by far, the largest arsenals — 5,428 and 5,977 warheads, respectively, more than 90 per cent of the global total — and those arsenals have global reach.
A nuclear conflict between the two superpowers is the absolute worst-case scenario, said Welch. It would have devastating global consequences, potentially a mass-extinction event for humanity.
“It could destroy civilization as we know it,” he said. “It could induce a nuclear winter, which would cause catastrophic global cooling, failure of agriculture, breakdown of food systems, wholesale disruption of all distribution networks.
“And then people start dying off by the by the tens of millions, hundreds of millions.”
Britain, France and China
The nuclear arsenals of Britain, France and China pale in comparison to Russia and the U.S., numbering in the low hundreds, rather than the thousands.
To Welch’s mind, Britain and France have no business stockpiling the weapons, other than what he calls “prestige and a sense of anachronistic great power-ness.”
China, however, has tense relations with much of the Western world. Those tensions were on full display this week amid U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.
“The Chinese regime is, generally, pretty risk averse, so that’s a good thing,” says Welch. But the priority there is maintaining power and control.
“If they became convinced, for whatever reason, that a conflict with the United States was inevitable, they might very strongly feel tempted to use their nuclear weapons before they lost them.”
Israel has never confirmed it has nuclear weapons. It’s what Welch calls the “worst-kept secret in the world.” SPRI estimates the country’s stockpile at 90 weapons.
But Israel benefits from its “nuclear ambiguity policy,” reaping the deterrent benefits of nuclear weapons at the same time as dodging criticisms for having them.
India and Pakistan
India and Pakistan, at 160 and 165 warheads, respectively, are less of a concern to most global observers. While they’re not on the immediate radar as nuclear threat, any time there’s a flare up between the two countries, conversations turn inevitably toward their possible use of their weapons.
That being said, the strong likelihood is that those weapons would be used on each other, causing a local, rather than global, catastrophe.
There is not a lot of detail available on the North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. It’s clear it has nuclear weapons — SIPRI estimates 20 — but it’s not clear how powerful they are, or that it has the capability to deliver those weapons over long distances.
That still means that it has the potential to devastate the Korean Peninsula and possibly Japan, says Welch.
“It’s a weird place, with a weird ideology, and pretty clearly a family dynasty,” he says. “Most people would say, for the Kim family, it’s survival and power above all else. And if that means using nuclear weapons, no problem.”
The missile-defence issue
All of these countries have significant nuclear weapon stockpiles, which is worrisome, but even more so is the advent of new technology — delivery systems for warheads and missile defence systems, for example — that can disrupt the delicate balance that has kept the nuclear nations in check, says UBC’s Sens.
“The last thing you want is any country thinking it can get away with a first strike using nuclear weapons. You want both sides to be absolutely confident that they’re going to be utterly destroyed — mutually assured destruction.”
That means new delivery systems, such as hypersonic cruise missiles — those that travel many times the speed of sound — have the potential to disrupt the status quo. They are reportedly being developed by the U.S., Russia and China.
With a superior delivery system, Country A could entertain the possibility that it could get away with a first strike on Country B, without fear of retaliation.
Country B, knowing that Country A has that capability, might be tempted into a pre-emptive first strike.
The same logic applies to missile defence systems such as Israel’s famed Iron Dome, a system that detects incoming missiles, determines their trajectory and launches interceptor missiles to destroy them.
In a hypothetical situation in which Iran developed nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them, Israel would likely be concerned that its missile defence system would be able to stop some, but not all, of the weapons heading its way.
But if Israel were to strike first, it could possibly degrade Iran’s arsenal to the point that its Iron Dome could deal with the degraded retaliatory strike that comes next.
From Iran’s perspective, it might be considered foolhardy to give Israel a chance to fire first and degrade their capabilities. Its hypothetical response could well be to beat Israel to the punch by firing all its weapons first, knowing that some would make it through the Iron Dome.
“This is a horrible situation because now both countries … have an incentive to strike first,” says Sens. And the scenario applies to any nuclear powers facing a nuclear conflict.
That nuclear sword of Damocles — that threat of mutually assured destruction — is actually a good thing, observers say, the thing that, on an ongoing basis, keeps missiles from flying.
“The development of new delivery (and defence) systems promises to destabilize deterrence,” says Sens.
“It upsets the logic of mutual assured destruction. It creates a danger that one side or the other might actually think that it can get away with launching a nuclear strike and maybe even winning a nuclear war.”
The heightened political tension, the entrance of newer nuclear players, the advent of technology that threatens to destabilize the principles of deterrence, paired with the overall ineffectiveness of arms-control treaties all combine to paint a sombre picture.
But Sens says it’s important to note that despite the stakes, despite flaring tensions in multiple spots on the globe, the prospects of a nuclear war are still quite remote.
“I think we’ve got to respect the fact that although the possible outcome, of course, could be catastrophic, the probability and the likelihood remains low.”
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