It felt like the world had reached its baggage limit on existential threats, but it seems there’s always room to stuff in one more. In a remote corner of northwestern Russia, mystery lingers around an explosion that killed seven people, caused an unexplained rise in radiation levels and most likely involved the failed test of a new type of nuclear weapon.
A nearby village was evacuated, or perhaps not. Doctors treating victims were reportedly required to sign non-disclosure agreements. And, entirely unreassuringly, Russian President Vladimir Putin waited more than a week to announce that there was nothing to see, please move on. “There’s no threat there,” and no increase in background radiation, Mr. Putin said. The dead Russians would receive posthumous medals for their contribution to national glory – possibly the least-sought-after awards in the history of the world.
What is that national interest, exactly? Well, it’s one that threatens the safety and security of the entire planet. The weapon being tested has been identified by security researchers as a cruise missile with a limitless range powered by a nuclear reactor, which the Russians call Burevestnik and NATO calls Skyfall and some researchers call a “Doomsday” machine. It’s possible that this highly impractical weapon will never be built – the United States gave up its plans for a nuclear-powered missile in the 1960s – and that it is merely a way for Russia to boast about the size of its prizes. But it’s also a reminder that the world is on the edge of a new nuclear arms race, and the brakes have ceased to work.
Those brakes existed in the past four decades in the form of arms-control treaties. This month, the United States announced it would pull out of the landmark 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, claiming that Russia had been repeatedly in violation of its rules against using or testing ground-based nuclear weapons with a range between 500 and 5,500 km. Only days after pulling out, the U.S. tested a cruise missile that would have violated the terms of the treaty.
A pact negotiated by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev’s teams in the dying days of the Cold War, designed to keep Europe safe, is now gone, and you can hardly blame Europe if it has trouble sleeping at night. “With the end of the INF treaty, Europe is losing part of its security,” said Germany’s Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas. “I am convinced that today we must again succeed in agreeing rules on disarmament and arms control in order to prevent a new nuclear arms race.”
To quote George Clooney, what we have here is a perfect storm, except in this case it’s a storm involving not an ocean wave, but the deadliest weapons ever invented. The United States, China and Russia are in a kind of absurd no-winner footrace to develop hypersonic weapons, and even more absurdly some policy-makers in the U.S. are upsetting long-time doctrine by advocating for low-yield, supposedly more “useable” missiles. North Korea continues to taunt with its ballistic missile tests. Meanwhile, the nuclear-armed states of India and Pakistan are in conflict over Kashmir, and issuing threats to each other via The New York Times. We live in a world obsessed with choking hazards, and blithely oblivious to threat of mass extinction.
Even as bilateral treaties fall apart, the world’s nuclear powers are in the process of updating their arsenals, and “the risks of the use of nuclear weapons … are higher now than at any time since World War Two,” according to Renata Dwan, the head of the UN’s Institute for Disarmament Research.
This analysis is echoed by two people who understand the situation better than most, former U.S. energy secretary Ernest Moniz and former U.S. senator Sam Nunn, who now work together at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an organization with a focus on preventing attacks and accidents. In an article for Foreign Policy this month (under the slightly alarming headline The Return of Doomsday), they write: “Not since the 1962 Cuban missile crisis has the risk of a U.S.-Russian confrontation involving the use of nuclear weapons been as high as it is today. Yet unlike during the Cold War, both sides seem wilfully blind to the peril.”
The answer, they suggest, is a return to high-level diplomatic engagement between Russia and Europe and the United States, which might help preserve current treaties (such as the threatened New START treaty, set to expire in 2021) and lay the groundwork for future arms-control agreements. But what about the rest of us? Only nine countries possess nuclear weapons, while the rest of the world is held hostage and would pay a devastating permanent price if a conflict were to erupt.
Governments of non-nuclear countries, even ones such as Canada that exist in security pacts such as NATO, can use diplomacy to advocate for treaties and push for disarmament (which, incidentally, is one of the stated goals of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Canada is a signatory.) Earlier this year, Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention sent a letter to the federal government asking it to fight publicly for the preservation of the INF treaty: “Silence is an abrogation of responsibility.” Unfortunately, silence seems to be the government’s official stance on disarmament.
Citizens all around the world are doing their best to mitigate the threat. The Nobel-award winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons is working to sign up the 50 countries needed to ratify a UN treaty passed in 2017. In the United States, politicians such as Elizabeth Warren have argued that the U.S. should codify a no-first-use policy. Others are working on legislation to place some controls on the President’s singular control over the nuclear arsenal (right now it’s pretty much just his decision; try not to let that keep you up at night.) There’s also an active divestment movement, where people request that their banks or pensions not invest in weapons manufacturers.
Everyone remembers what Ronald Reagan said in his 1984 State of the Union address – “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” – but the next bit about weapons was even more important: “Would it not be better to do away with them entirely?” It’s a lesson we seem to have forgotten.
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