Paul Meyer is a fellow in international security and adjunct professor of international studies at Simon Fraser University, and a director of the Canadian Pugwash Group.
One can credit the strange pairing of Vladimir Putin and Christopher Nolan for reviving our attention to nuclear weapons – the former through his blatant nuclear “sabre-rattling,” and the latter by his directorial depiction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist behind the creation of the atomic bomb, with all his attendant doubts and guilt. Their combined actions in the real world and the cinema have had the effect of waking up global society to the risks inherent in nuclear weaponry – the weapon of mass destruction par excellence.
There are approximately 12,500 nuclear weapons held today in the arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states, many with a devastating power far beyond the bombs used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August, 1945, which killed upwards of 100,000 people. The continued existence of these weapons is out of mind for most, some even thinking these nasty arms had disappeared with the end of the Cold War.
The reality, however, is that states still cling to these weapons and threaten each other with mass destruction under contingencies described as “remote” but unspecified. This policy of “nuclear deterrence” is claimed by its adherents as being effective in preventing war. Others note the number of wars initiated between non-nuclear weapon states and nuclear weapon states despite the fact that only the latter possessed these deadly arms. And what about the risks attendant upon maintaining nuclear deterrent forces in light of the probabilities of human and/or technical errors that would bring us close to the abyss?
A couple of these nuclear weapon-possessing states, namely China and India, have adopted “no first use” doctrines, which preclude the use of their nuclear weapons unless they are first attacked with weapons of mass destruction. The others have, to date, refused to embrace such policies, and retain the option to employ these weapons first in a conflict. Given that thousands of these nuclear weapons are kept at a high-alert status and states retain “launch on warning” postures, it is no wonder that Gareth Evans, Australia’s former foreign minister, has said that it is by “sheer, dumb luck” that the world has not witnessed a nuclear weapon detonation since 1945.
As nuclear-weapon complexes are shrouded in secrecy, it is not surprising that little information is ever released concerning the close calls and actual accidents that have occurred over the decades. The introduction of potent new technologies, such as cyber operations, anti-satellite weapons and AI, all can contribute to targeting nuclear weapon facilities and their early warning systems in a manner that could be horrendously destabilizing. One might wish that states would seize opportunities to apply restraints to these emerging technologies in a way that would dampen rather than fuel nuclear escalation. Regrettably, this is not the case, and we are witnessing a new upward spiral in the arms race between major nuclear powers.
The arms-control frameworks that were carefully constructed during the Cold War are being systematically dismantled as hostile rhetoric, rather than constructive dialogue, is increasingly characterizing relations between major powers. Russia and the United States, which account for 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear arsenal, bear a special responsibility for maintaining international security in the nuclear domain. Yet both sides have allowed their strategic dialogue to terminate and have engaged in a “tit for tat” suspension of the commitments they agreed to in 2010 when jointly signing on to the New START arms reduction treaty.
Despite their declared wishes to see a follow-up treaty to New START when it expires in February, 2026, there has been no actual interaction on this goal. Instead of engaging on this core issue, both parties are acting like petulant schoolboys refusing to talk to one another after a squabble.
If the effects of nuclear weapons use were only confined to the territory of the states employing them, the rest of the world might ignore these risks with a “plague on both your houses” attitude. Alas, this is not the case, as all of the world would suffer from nuclear war.
The danger of such a war erupting has prompted the editors of 100 leading medical and health journals to publish an editorial seeking urgent action to reduce this risk. The editorial calls on health professionals “to alert the public and their leaders to this major danger to public-health and essential life support systems of the planet – and urge action to prevent it.” Maybe it’s time for the world to follow this sobering medical advice.