US President Joe Biden has warned the world of a possible nuclear Armageddon. He is correct in his assessment that the world is now facing a real threat of a nuclear catastrophe.
However, it is essential to acknowledge that despite the world spending more than two trillion dollars every year on military spending, countries have failed to feel more secure than before. Nine countries possess 12,705 nuclear warheads and are spending billions of dollars to modernise these weapons and their delivery systems.
However, the presence of all these powerful nuclear weapons has miserably failed to establish global peace, security, and stability. The risk of cyberattacks on nuclear weapon command-and-control networks and the danger of access to nuclear arsenals by non-state actors have made the world more insecure.
As the national security adviser of the UK rightly points out, there is a greater risk of nuclear war now than during the Cold War. The reasons for it are manifold but foremost there is almost a complete breakdown of dialogue among competing powers and a lack of understanding of each other’s strengths, capabilities, and limits.
Those who had planned that they could gain security and status by acquiring and modernising nuclear weapons are, in reality, pushing themselves and the rest of the world into an extremely dangerous situation. Irresponsible rhetoric increases the risk of a nuclear catastrophe further as it leads to possible misunderstanding, miscalculation, or mistakes.
The world is not facing the risk of an ‘Armageddon’ for the first time. This fear has been there since the US dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan in which more than 200,000 civilians perished during the end days of World War II.
The nuclear arms race in the world started the war’s immediate aftermath. Within two decades, by 1964, all five permanent members of the UN Security Council became nuclear powers. They conducted numerous nuclear weapon tests to hone more robust designs and acquire devastating killing skills.
One month before dropping the first bomb on Hiroshima, on July 16, 1945, the US had conducted world’s first nuclear test, code-named ‘Trinity’. After that, in the next two decades, more than 2000 nuclear weapons were detonated in the atmosphere, underground, and underwater.
During that period, the US conducted most nuclear tests in its Nevada test site, but more giant bombs were tested in the Pacific. The US detonated at least 67 powerful nuclear bombs on and above the Marshall Islands. The Soviet Union conducted more than 450 nuclear tests in the Semipalatinsk region of Kazakhstan.
Severe impacts on public health
Soon there was a realisation that the nuclear tests’ may result in terrible environmental and health impacts, particularly on the people in the test areas.
As one of the Chatham House reports sums up, “Nuclear weapons tests have had severe impacts on public health and the environment, also affecting cultural heritage, food security, water security, indigenous peoples and local communities, and creating long-term problems such as land confiscation and population displacement.”
Despite clear evidence of damages caused by nuclear tests, there was an initial reluctance by two nuclear superpowers and other nuclear weapon states to ban nuclear weapon tests. But that reluctance somewhat disappeared with the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
The narrow escape from an imminent nuclear catastrophe led nuclear weapon countries to agree to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) in 1963, which brought a total global ban on nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. The PTBT had only left the possibility for the countries to carry out underground tests.
Preventing spread of nuclear weapons
In 1996, finally, countries signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban treaty (CTBT) in extending the scope of PTBT. However, the CTBT is yet to enter into force due to non-ratification by several powers. Though the CTBT is not ratified, the five permanent Security Council members have stopped their nuclear tests. In the last 26 years, only a handful of nuclear tests have taken place in South Asia and the Korean peninsula.
The post-Cuban crisis period also led to the signing of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly called as Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in 1968 to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. NPT became effective in 1970, and it includes all five members of the Security Council.
There has been a growing global voice against nuclear weapons in recent years. The Treaty on the prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), or the Weapon Ban Treaty, was adopted in 2017 and entered into force in 2021. However, none of the declared nuclear weapon countries and undeclared ones have joined this Treaty.
The kind of urgency and interest the nuclear superpowers had shown in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Crisis to find ways and means to limit the possibility of a nuclear war, either intentional or accidental, has disappeared in recent decades.
The Crisis in Ukraine provides another opportunity for the nuclear superpowers to engage in dialogue and better understand each other’s security concerns. They should stop sabre-rattling and inflammatory rhetoric as soon as possible and commit at least to no-first-use of nuclear weapons.
Hopefully, the crisis will convey a clear message to the world that possessing nuclear weapons is not a security provider but only an instrument of extortion.