The Nuclear Joke

Have you heard the joke about the end of the Cold War? It was supposed to reduce the likelihood of nuclear conflict – instead it has made it more likely, writes Richard Whelan.

The end of the Cold War was hailed as an important step to a more peaceful, orderly and prosperous world. No longer would Great Powers, armed to the teeth, eyeball each other across the Iron Curtain. In the event, Fate has played a cruel joke on the world and on our anti- nuclear conflict aspirations.

No longer terrified by the prospect of Cold War escalation to nuclear holocaust, the leading nuclear powers are now free to develop “real” nuclear weapons capabilities. They now emphasise nuclear warfare and the usage of nuclear weapons rather than deterrence. They plan for pre-emptive nuclear strikes and combined operations of conventional and nuclear weapons in both offensive and defensive missions.

Whether in response to this, or for their own reasons, or both, some third world nuclear weapons states and threshold regimes (those on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons) consider nuclear weapons as the only means of deterring the great powers. Such aspirations give terrorists further opportunities to gain access to nuclear weapons, the ultimate doomsday scenario. This shift has taken place quietly with only the occasional public signpost to flag to flag its progress.

The most recent took place this month (FEB 07) when Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, spoke to a gathering of mainly Western politicians at a security conference in Munich. His hardline cold war style attack on the U.S.A. and the West got all the headlines. Unfortunately his important message on arms control was overlooked. Mr Putin noted that the current Moscow Treaty reducing America’s and Russia’s deployed strategic warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 each expires in 2012 and the Bush Administration is resisting pressure to negotiate further arms control treaties.

The USA is now on the verge of nuclear primacy over Russia, helped by its development of a new generation of nuclear weapons, the technological revolution, and a number of Russian blunders in this area. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (“MAD”) is rapidly eroding, and deterrence, which provided the stability of the Cold War, is now seen as inadvertently locking the USA and Russia into nuclear and therefore military rivalry, rather than cooperation. Soon the USA could launch a first strike on Russian nuclear weapons and eliminate most of them, leaving Russia unable to inflict unacceptable damage on the US in return. In a serious crisis, both then could be tempted to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike; Russia so as not to lose most of its “exposed” missiles; the USA because it saw the logic of what Russia should do.

This is classic example of the greatest possible danger with nuclear weapons – “crisis instability”. We now face greater instability than ever before and an inability to focus coherently on current issues, such as the increasing number of nuclear states, the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and the slow but accelerating erosion of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (“NPT”) which Ireland did so much to put in place.

Many were shocked at President Chirac’s comment last year about the possible usage of nuclear weapons. His comment should have been no surprise. The 1994 French Defence White Paper which is still in force states that France may make pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The latest version of Russia’s national security strategy says that it assigns a mission of “de-escalation of aggression… through a threat of launching or actual launching of strikes of a varying scale by using conventional and/or nuclear weapons”. The United States’ 2001 Nuclear Posture Review made clear its willingness to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes.

Russian experts estimate that, despite the Cooperative Threat Reduction Programme of the 1990’s, half of their nuclear weapons grade material is still not under reliable protection and the safety and protection equipment of much centralised nuclear weapon storage areas is in need of modernisation. Dozens of Russian strategic and attack nuclear submarines await dismantling and remain “floating Chernobyls”.

In addition nuclear weapons are still held on full alert by most nuclear powers. With the primacy of US nuclear weapons over the other nuclear powers, those states, to ensure their missiles are not destroyed in a crisis, are likely to place them on a “launch on warning” footing. The combination of all these developments significantly increase “crisis instability” and could lead to a nuclear war provoked by the usage of nuclear weapons by non-state groups such as Al Qaeda or inadvertent, accidental, or unauthorised launch.

There is an urgent need to change the USA-Russian nuclear relationship from one of rivalry to one of cooperation. Only such a change will deal with the emerging threats facing the world and rekindle support for significant arms control and the NPT.

As long as the major nuclear powers hold large stocks of nuclear weaponry, convincing the rest of the world to adhere to the NPT becomes extraordinarily difficult, as was made clear by Dr Mohamed El Baradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency the UN’s nuclear watchdog, in his interview with Lara Marlowe in this newspaper last Saturday [FEBRUARY 17, 2007].

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