Nuke Street

A Global Nuclear Order in Crisis

22 Jan, 2018    ·   5422

Amb (Retd) Sheel Kant Sharma considers the reasons for the severe damage caused to the tentative global rules for managing the nuclear age and avoidance of nuclear war

The year 2017 saw the iconic clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists slide to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight. It is set closer than ever to the brink except in 1952 when US-Soviet hydrogen bomb tests within six months of each other had pushed it to two minutes to midnight. In fact, the furthest it came from midnight was 17 minutes in 1991 after the end of the Cold War with a raft of nuclear arms control measures agreed by Washington and Moscow. In the past 26 years, that reassuring distance from doomsday has again diminished steadily as deterioration rather than improvements have been the hall mark of great power relations. Besides, since 2007, the danger of a climate change catastrophe has combined with nuclear peril in the analysis of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

The last hopeful moment for this clock was in 2009 when the  Nobel Prize for peace was awarded to President Obama. That was an investment in hope aroused by Obama’s pitch on abolition of nuclear weapons and his inclination to drafting a Nuclear Posture Review much less prone to resort to nuclear weapons (all he could eventually muster in 2010 was narrowing the definition of the country facing an “extreme circumstance”). In contrast, last year’s Nobel to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for its determined campaign for the Ban Treaty had a marked sense of despair. In just eight years, hope has given way to rising unease and hopelessness.

As things stand today, even tentative global rules – written and unwritten – for managing the nuclear age and avoidance of nuclear war have suffered severe damage. The damage appears to have been to the core. These rules as one understood them comprised a seven decades-old informal taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, a tacit assurance among nuclear weapon states about not crossing red lines regarding respective security sensitivities, and observance of the international as well as bilateral treaties and understanding. All that compendium is severely undermined today by a number of threatening developments. A fervent urgency to respond with finality to North Korea’s provocations and North Korean actions in continued defiance are on one end of the spectrum. The weak response to the Ban Treaty by the nuclear weapon states while dismissing its clarion call figures somewhere in the middle. The inherent logic of the Ban Treaty’s prohibition is not challenged by those rejecting it. Among the argumentation adduced for their rejection are the familiar deterrence stability theories and security architecture based on nuclear weapons and also fears about the adverse impact of the Ban Treaty on the long-standing NPT.

A breakdown in communication between Moscow and Washington about the path-breaking treaties of late last century seems to be almost complete with openly voiced intentions on their part to outstrip the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing new medium range missiles. The entente among the P5 about managing a world with nuclear weapons is at its weakest. Politics among nations seem to override today the almost century old wisdom of commonly pursuing agreed restraints on weapons; restraints which commenced with the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and progressively gained heft in the half century after World War II. The chimera still burns of a miracle breakthrough in technology that would trounce one’s adversary by beating all technologies of weapons, both offensive and defensive. Outlaws like North Korea meanwhile resolutely pursue the trodden path to acquire and test old-fashioned nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The past year saw a harrowing spectacle of it in North Korea’s tests of hydrogen bomb and long range missile capable of hitting mainland US; capped by the threat of a demonstrative atmospheric nuclear test. Were that to happen the comity of nations would backtrack to 1980 when China had last conducted its nuclear test in the atmosphere.

 There is no realistic chance in this setting of nuclear 'haves' agreeing to move further on reductions or even accept declaratory constraints on use of nuclear weapons. India and China maintain No First Use (NFU) doctrines although given the miasma that prevails, such exceptions are likely drowned in uncertainty.

The roots of this uncertainty stem from widening divergence and lack of trust among Russia, China and the US on security, growing gaps in their approaches to global tensions, including in Ukraine, North East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, and flaring up of dangerous psychoses in West and South Asia against Iran, Syria and in Afghanistan. One captious ground against the ‘deterrence-only’ role of nuclear weapons has been extended deterrence, which seems to be challenged when South Korean president shows his pronounced unease about the dangerous nuclear war rhetoric. South Korean preference for dialogue and sanctions is reminiscent of Helmut Kohl’s Cold War Oestpolitik and the panic of many in Germany as potential victims of deterrence failure rather than beneficiaries of European missile deployment. 

The passionate advocacy of the Ban Treaty falls short of carrying conviction with those toward whom it is directed. Only a minority among the nine nuclear-armed states values the merit of the campaign which highlights that the world is just "a tantrum away" from doomsday, to quote from the Nobel ceremony. The latest news reports indicate that a draft US Nuclear Posture Review in US visualises a devastating cyber attack as an "extreme circumstance” for resorting to use of nuclear weapons. A host of questions arise about likely pre-emption or retaliation targets and a repeat of post 9/11 arguments about terror attacks justifying nuclear weapons’ use. On the other hand, reports about Russian possession of an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-driven intercontinental nuclear torpedo portend a new spiral of escalation.

There is, for an optimist, a faint trickle of light that shines on North Korea’s upcoming participation in the Winter Olympics in South Korea and prospect of dialogue or positive turn of events there, Iran deal’s surviving yet another killer deadline and unconfirmed informal contacts between US State Department officials and counterparts in Moscow on these issues. The enlightened appeal of the Ban Treaty in these trying times, however, is for doing much more than clutching at straws in the wind.