From the age of nuclear ‘deterrence’ to an era of first-strike posturing – a creeping escalation

Image result for pictures of nuclear detonations

“There is nothing worth having that can be obtained by nuclear war – nothing material or ideological – no tradition that it can defend. It is utterly self-defeating.” George Wald.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump are to meet in person by May, it has been announced, which is an extraordinary overture after months of mutual hostility. News of the meeting was delivered by South Korean officials after talks with Trump at the White House. They passed a verbal message from chairman Kim, saying the North Korean leader was “committed to denuclearisation”. 

Though Trump hailed this as “great progress”, he said the current sanctions would remain in place. China has welcomed the development, saying the Korean peninsula issue was “heading in the right direction” and calling for “political courage”.

However, correspondents say the North had halted missile and nuclear tests during previous talks, only to resume them when it lost patience or felt it was not getting what it demanded.

The latest announcement came days after the South Korean delegation met chairman Kim in Pyongyang. 

In a statement sent to the Washington PostNorth Korea’s UN ambassador said the “courageous decision” of chairman Kim would help secure “peace and stability in the Korean Peninsula and the East Asia region”.

There is no indication yet of where the Trump-Kim talks might take place, but the Korean border’s demilitarised zone (DMZ) and Beijing are seen as likely options.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it would take “some weeks” to arrange the talks and admitted the US had been “surprised” at Kim Jong-un’s “forward-leaning” stance.

Former officials say that the US administration has spent a lot of time preparing sanctions and contingency planning for military action, but little or no time planning a negotiating strategy for use if Pyongyang entered serious talks.

The last remaining US diplomat with experience of talking to the North Koreans, Joseph Yun, left his post on Friday, and the US currently has no ambassador in Seoul, since the White House withdrew the nomination of another experienced diplomat, Victor Cha. Furthermore, no replacement nominees have been announced.

Yun and Cha were advocates of diplomatic engagement with North Korea and were viewed with suspicion by the White House, where senior officials have argued for a military solution to the challenge posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programme.

Cha’s nomination was withdrawn because he criticised a plan to carry out a “bloody nose” punitive strike against North Korean weapons sites. Stephen Miller, a hardline Trump adviser who has previously been associated with domestic policy, is reported to have ordered the withdrawal of Cha’s nomination. Today Professor Cha warned that “this dramatic act of diplomacy … may also take us closer to war. Failed negotiations at the summit level leave all parties with no other recourse for diplomacy.” 

The South Korean delegation returned from a visit to Pyongyang on Tuesday saying that the North Korean regime was ready to discuss the dismantling of its nuclear weapons programmes with the US, in return for guarantees of its security. Pyongyang is said to have offered to suspend nuclear and missile tests while talks were under way.

These are precisely the conditions that the Trump administration had demanded before starting talks with the North Koreans – but the response so far has been non-committal.

We’re going to see. They seem to be acting positively but we’re going to see,” Trump said on Tuesday. “Hopefully it will go the proper way. The proper way is the way that everybody knows and everybody wants. But we are prepared to go either way.” He added.

The announcement is a significant milestone, potentially, and a Trump-Kim summit would certainly make the history books, but it’s far from clear that North Korea has actually committed to what South Korea has assured the United States it has committed to, or that Washington is ready for a productive diplomatic process with Pyongyang.

As the only nation on Earth to have used nuclear weapons in warfare, the United States bears a heavy responsibility to exercise proper stewardship of nuclear weapons and to lead in working with other nations to reduce global nuclear dangers. Let’s hope and pray that somehow, Trump measures up to the role.

Both the South Korea and White House statements can be read in full here.

The UN Disarmament Research Report last year

“What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening the use of nuclear weapons. And we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons. The intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves.”  Martin Amis, Introduction: Thinkability” in Einstein’s Monsters.

In April 2017, the United Nations (UN) published a major report which highlights the massive risk of both an accidental and the deliberate use of the world’s most catastrophic weapons. The “poor relations” between nuclear powers has contributed to an atmosphere that “lends itself to the onset of crisis,” the report by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research says.

The report says: “The rise in cyber warfare and hacking has left the technical vulnerabilities of deadly nuclear weapons systems exposed to risk from states and terrorist groups.” 

The authors went on: “Nuclear deterrence works – up until the time it will prove not to work. The risk is inherent and, when luck runs out, the results will be catastrophic.”

“The more arms produced, particularly in countries with unstable societies, the more potential exists for terrorist acquisition and use of nuclear weapons.”

The authors added that denuclearisation would require “visionary leadership”, but added this was “sadly rare” as many powerful states have “increasingly turn inward”. Nationalism has certainly grown on a global scale over recent years.

The report goes on to say that new technology and spending on nuclear weapons had “enhanced” the risk of a detonation. However, it acknowledged the secrecy surrounding the programmes made it difficult to accurately assess their true scope. 

Increased reliance on technology has also introduced new problems. In the past, accidental nuclear detonations have been averted by human decisions. Replacing military officers with computers could therefore rule out a potential safety check on the weapons, and open the possibility of hacking a nuclear weapon. 

The report also referenced the January 2017 decision of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Science to move the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight because of fears of a nuclear event – the most risky position it has been at since 1953.

Midnight represents Armageddon.

However, in January, a panel of scientists and policy experts moved the Doomsday Clock a further 30 seconds closer to midnight, citing President Trump’s rhetoric on nuclear weapons, environmental deterioration due to climate change and a lack of trust in political institutions more generally as the main reasons. 

The clock now stands at two minutes to midnight.

“We are very concerned with the unpredictability of the United States and how it’s thinking of its nuclear weapons,”
 said Rachel Bronson, the president and CEO of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, who created the clock. 

Bronson elaborated that nuclear issues took center stage this year for members of the Bulletin group, which was founded by researchers who helped build the first nuclear weapons during the Manhattan Project. At the top of their worries are advancements in North Korea’s nuclear weapons program as well as “huge [nuclear] investments being made by China, Russia, Pakistan and India in particular.”

Twitter post by @realDonaldTrump: North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!

Trump’s singularly aggressive ego-parading, paranoiac and unpredictable approach to conducting foreign policy – and particularly to countering North Korea’s nuclear program – has moved many to express concerns about the potential implications of such vulgar posturing and crude lack of diplomacy.  Last autumn, for example, a congressional foreign-affairs committee held the first hearing in 41 years on presidential power over nuclear weapons.

“Donald Trump can launch nuclear codes just as easily as he can use his Twitter account,” observed Democrat Ed Markey, who has introduced legislation to prevent the president from authorising the first nuclear strike in a conflict without a congressional declaration of war. “No one human being should ever have that power.” Let alone one who lacks the necessary sophistication and outward-looking ethical disposition to carry that responsibility. 

Beatrice Fihn, a campaigner to eliminate the world’s nuclear weapons, said something similar shortly before accepting last year’s Nobel Peace Prize.  She said “If you’re uncomfortable with nuclear weapons under Donald Trump, you’re probably uncomfortable with nuclear weapons, because it means you recognize that [deterrence] won’t always hold up and things can go wrong. Once you start thinking ‘this person is appropriate for this weapon but not that person,’ then maybe it’s the weapon that’s the problem.”

Democracy depends on the responsible use of political and military power, with leaders held accountable to the majority of citizens. If a democratic nation is forced to use state-sanctioned violence to defend itself, its leaders must stay within publicly recognised moral and legal limits. There is a moral burden of possessing nuclear weapons, and the enormous responsibility that accompanies stewardship of such devastating weapons, as well as the technologies and nuclear materials that go into them. Sovereignty should be reframed to emphasise state responsibility and accountability to citizens and the international community rather than state prerogatives. 

Near misses over the decades

“It’s a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided.”  Noam Chomsky

Despite a reduction in global nuclear tensions after the end of the Cold War, estimated nuclear warhead stockpiles total roughly 15,000 worldwide, with the United States and Russia holding 90% of the total.

Exact details on many nuclear close calls are difficult to access, the analysis of particular cases has highlighted the importance of a variety of factors in preventing ‘accidents’. At an international level, this includes the importance of context and outside mediation; at the national level, effectiveness in government communications, and involvement of key decision-makers, and, at the individual level, the decisive role of individuals in following logic, intuition and prudent decision-making, often in violation of protocol. Which gives us some cause for concern regarding the existing protocols in place.

In 1956, during the Suez canal crisis, the perceived nuclear threat was due to a coincidental combination of events, including a wedge of swans flying over Turkey, a fighter escort for the Syrian president returning from Moscow, a British bomber brought down by mechanical issues, and scheduled exercises of the Soviet fleet.

In 1960, radar equipment in Thule, Greenland mistakenly interpreted a moonrise over Norway as a large-scale Soviet missile launch. In 1961, Staff at the Strategic Air Command Headquarters (SAC HQ) simultaneously lost contact with the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and multiple Ballistic Missile Early Warning System sites. It was later found that the failure of a single relay station in Colorado was the sole cause of the communications problems, which had initially been interpreted as an attack.

In 1962, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet patrol submarine B-59 almost launched a nuclear-tipped torpedo while under harassment by American naval forces. 

On the same day, a US U-2 spy plane was shot down over Cuba, and another U-2 flown by United States Air Force, Captain Charles Maultsby, strayed 300 miles (480 km) into Soviet airspace. Despite orders to avoid Soviet airspace by at least 100 miles (160 km), a navigational error took the U-2 over the Chukotka Peninsula, causing Soviet interceptors to scramble and pursue the aircraft. American interceptors armed with GAR-11 Falcon nuclear air-to-air missiles (each with a 0.25 kiloton yield) were then scrambled to escort the U-2 into friendly airspace. Individual pilots were capable of arming and launching their missiles. 

In 1965, there was a massive power outage in the northeastern United States. Several nuclear bomb detectors – used to distinguish between regular power outages and power outages caused by a nuclear blast – near major US cities malfunctioned due to circuit errors, creating the illusion of a nuclear attack. 

A powerful solar flare in 1967, interfered with multiple NORAD radars over the Northern Hemisphere. This interference was initially interpreted as intentional jamming of the radars by the Soviets, thus an act of war. A nuclear bomber counter-strike was nearly launched by the US.

In the 1970s there was another NORAD computer error, that entailed notification of 2,200 incoming Soviet missiles. It was found that a training scenario was inadvertently loaded into an operational computer.

There were several more near-misses in 1970s and 80s, and in 1995, Russian President Boris Yeltsin became the first world leader to activate a nuclear briefcase after Russian radar systems detected the launch of a Norwegian research rocket being used to study the Northern Lights.

As recent as 2010, commanders at a US Air Force base in Wyoming lost most forms of command, control, and security monitoring over 50 nuclear ICBMs for approximately 45 minutes. The missiles were taken offline after a suspected hardware problem caused multiple errors with control computers. Although military officials maintain that the missiles remained under control and were not susceptible to outside attempts to gain control, former Air Force launch officer Bruce G. Blair expressed concerns that missiles in this status could be vulnerable to launch attempts by hackers or compromised missile crews

Just last year, we learned of the death of a little-known but important figure in the history of the Cold War. His name was Stanislav Petrov, and he is sometimes referred to as “the man who saved the world.”

In 1983, Petrov was a Soviet military officer on duty at a nuclear early warning center when his computers detected a barrage of incoming American nuclear missiles. He said, “I had all the data to suggest it was true”. He added, “If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it.”

He went on, “All I had to do was to reach for the phone to raise the direct line to our top commanders, but I couldn’t move. I felt like I was sitting on a frying pan.” Petrov had a hunch that the computer had made an error, and fortunately his intuition was right about a false alarm.

Instead of notifying his commanders to prepare an immediate nuclear counterattack, he  called army headquarters and reported a system malfunction.

This episode alone illustrates just how high the risk factor is with nuclear weapons, especially when decisions to use them are entrusted or could be entrusted to sometimes unreliable technologies or fallible human judgement. Perhaps those countries who want nuclear arms must ask themselves: Am I prepared to deal with this type of scenario in my own country?

Authoritarianism and the politics of posturing in the UK

“Gambling rules doesn’t work in nuclear war – everyone become loser.” Amit Ray, Peace on the Earth A Nuclear Weapons Free World.

In April 2017 the then defence secretary Michael Fallon confirmed that the UK would use nuclear weapons in a “pre-emptive initial strike” in “the most extreme circumstances.” He did not specify precisely what those circumstances may be. Nor did he say which country may be the UK’s likeliest target. 

In an extraordinary act of aggressive posturing, he added that a first strike may be launched even if Britain itself was not under threat of nuclear attack. He said that national security need not be under threat to warrant a “pre-emptive” nuclear launch. 

Asked in what circumstances the Conservatives would launch a first strike, Fallon replied: “They are better not specified or described, which would only give comfort to our enemies and make the deterrent less credible.”

Fallon clearly doesn’t understand the principle of “deterrence”, then. That is frankly terrifying. You would hope that a government responsible for the safety of citizens would only ever launch a nuclear attack as a very last resort, once all other options, such as diplomacy and negotiation, had been completely exhausted. How discomforting that Fallon sees the UK public as disposable – collateral damage. 

Why on earth would anyone trust a defence secretary who makes such an irrational comment – “even if Britain itself was not under threat of nuclear attack. He said that national security “need not be under threat to warrant a “pre-emptive” nuclear launch”. It sounds very much like the Conservatives have a specific target in mind, to me. I don’t think the changed nuclear posture – and without an open review – has come about incidentally or on a whim.

That statement doesn’t bode well for democratic accountability, nor is it particularly reassuring that the Conservatives have no central plan to prioritise the safety and protection citizen’s lives and the planet. That is surely the key strategic value of having a nuclear deterrent – that all parties in a potential conflict would be reluctant to launch a first strike because of the catastrophic consequences of a probable retaliation.

Fallon continued: “The whole point about the deterrent is that you have got to leave uncertainty in the mind of anyone who might be thinking of using weapons against this country.”

No you don’t. The point of nuclear deterrence is that it deters first strikes because a second strike is assumed. No world leader wants to initiate a sequence of terrible global events that would inevitably escalate, ultimately bringing home their own country’s destruction in the form of retaliation.

Fallon also insisted that critics of Trident – including senior military figures who have ridiculed the idea that it is an effective deterrent – were “absolutely wrong”, as if simply telling people that they are wrong means that they somehow must be. 

A report – British military attitudes to nuclear weapons and disarmament – by the Nuclear Information Service (NIS) and the Nuclear Education Trust – is a ground-breaking study into military thinking on nuclear weapons. It is rather startling to find that the military establishment is far from unanimous on the issue of Trident replacement. 

Some participants in the study, commenting on the exorbitant cost of Trident replacement, stated that “no circumstances justify the large amounts of money required by [Trident] and this money would be better spent elsewhere.” The problem is that a majority of the wider public generally support having of a nuclear deterrent.  

Many participants in the NIS survey were also unclear about many aspects of the UK’s nuclear weapons, including their costs, purpose and credibility. Many in the military think Trident is a “political” tool and little more and many would rather see the money spent on equipment which could actually be used: especially at a time when the forces have been faced with spending cuts. 

The Labour party manifesto states a clear commitment to renewing Trident under a Labour government. However, controversy in the media – directed by misleading comments from the Conservatives – has unbelievably problematised Corbyn’s perfectly reasonable caution in committing to launching a pre-emptive nuclear attack.

Personally I would much rather the prime minister put effort into finding rational and diplomatic solutions to protect the UK citizenry, rather than dancing in an unholy, manic glee at the very prospect of our assured nuclear annihilation.  

The debate, being cheer led from the right, has descended into a macabre and somewhat irrational political point-scoring exercise, using a strategy of tension in an attempt to portray the opposition leader as “weak”. This is a dangerous and absurd tactic that the Conservatives use at every single election, regardless of who is the leader of the opposition. Usually, though, they don’t show a grotesque display of eagerness to bring about Armageddon to demonstrate a “strong and stable” leadership. 

Deterrence and Mutually Assured Destruction: what that actually means

We’re capable of such beautiful dreams, and such horrible nightmares.” Carl Sagan

Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a military doctrine and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. MAD is based on the strategy of deterrence, which holds that the threat of using catastrophic weapons against an enemy prevents the enemy’s use of those same weapons. The strategy is a form of Nash equilibrium (games theory), in which, once armed, neither side has any incentive to initiate a conflict or to disarm.

The deterrence strategy further rests on assumption that neither side will dare to launch a first strike because the other side would launch on warning (also called fail-deadly) or with surviving forces (a second strike), resulting in unacceptably catastrophic losses for both parties. The strategic MAD payoff is therefore an ongoing expectation of a tense global stability and peace. 

The major flaw in a first strike approach is that it encourages the opponent to perform a massive counterforce first strike. If both sides of a conflict adopt the same stance of massive response, it may result in unlimited and globally devastating escalation (a “nuclear spasm”), each believing that the other will back down after the first round of retaliation. This said, both problems are not unique to massive retaliation, but to nuclear deterrence as a whole. 

It is for these reasons that many countries have adopted a minimum credible deterrent/second strike policy. Previously we had a policy of using nuclear weapons only as a defence. 

Many of those arguing both for and against no-first-use misunderstand it: The policy reflects the power to set the rules of war, rather than some wayward pacifist ideal to end all war. Countries that issue no-first-use pledges boast strong conventional militaries. These states want to encourage a model of war where their army meets the enemy on a conventional battlefield with clearly defined rules – the kind of war, in other words, that they usually win. Nuclear weapons upend this model, because they help weaker actors of the world, such as North Korea and Pakistan, produce extraordinary destruction, level the playing field, and cast victory into doubt.

Therefore, a no-first-use pledge could potentially reinforce a powerful state’s strategic advantage by discouraging other countries from developing nuclear arsenals, and by dissuading nuclear-armed countries from pushing the button. This would happen with the assurance that a state would not fire first – thereby keeping war safely bound and safely winnable, on the powerful state’s terms.

In an article published in the Atlantic last year, titled Refusing to Nuke First. Why rejecting nuclear preemption reflects strength, not weakness, Dominic Tierney says:

“Countries that contemplate or introduce a no-first-use policy are almost always strong states that enjoy a conventional-weapons edge. Since its first nuclear test in 1964, China has repeatedly declared that it “undertakes not to be the first to use nuclear weapons at any time or under any circumstances.” It’s no coincidence that China is the most powerful East Asian country, and would hold the advantage in any conventional war with South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, or Taiwan (assuming, of course, that the United States stayed out). The spread of nuclear weapons in East Asia would diminish China’s strategic advantage; therefore, Beijing seeks to prevent this outcome with a no-first-use policy.

India announced in 1999 that it “will not be the first to initiate a nuclear strike, but will respond with punitive retaliation should deterrence fail.” In 2003, India qualified its no-first-use pledge by stating, “in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.” Again, it’s no coincidence that India is very likely to prevail over Pakistan in a future conventional war. India has a history of winning previous contests, and currently spends about $50 billion per year on defense compared to Pakistan’s $9.5 billion. New Delhi can safely issue a no-first-use pledge in the hope of keeping the strategic terrain favorable.

In  2016, General James E. Cartwright, former head of the US Strategic Command, and Bruce G. Blair, former Minuteman launch officer, co-authored an op-ed in The New York Times in favor of a U.S. no-first-use policy. They showed, explicitly, how power undergirds the proposed doctrine. “Our nonnuclear strength, including economic and diplomatic power, our alliances, our conventional and cyber weaponry and our technological advantages, constitute a global military juggernaut unmatched in history. The United States simply does not need nuclear weapons to defend its own and its allies’ vital interests, as long as our adversaries refrain from their use.”

If a country is willing to use nuclear weapons, it’s also willing to break a promise.

By contrast, weak states don’t even think about a no-first-use policy. Indeed, threatening to push the button early in a conflict is the basis of their deterrent plan. During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had conventional superiority in Europe, the United States and its NATO allies intended to escalate to nuclear war if the Red Army launched an invasion. Similarly, today, Pakistan explicitly threatens to retaliate with nuclear weapons if it is ever attacked – even through a conventional invasion.

Viewed through a strategic – and perhaps more cynical – lens, the no-first-use doctrine also has a huge credibility problem. For the US pledge to truly matter, a president who otherwise favors a nuclear first strike would have to decide not to press the button because of this policy. But in an extreme national crisis – one involving, say, North Korean nuclear missiles – a president is unlikely to feel bound by America’s former assurance. After all, if a country is willing to use nuclear weapons, it’s also willing to break a promise.

Champions and critics of no-first-use often cast it as a principled policy and a revolutionary step, for good or for ill. But the idealistic symbolism of no-first-use betrays an underlying reality. Disavowing a first strike is a luxury afforded to the strong, and they play this card in the hope of strategic benefit. If Obama made a dramatic announcement of no-first-use, it would probably have less impact than people think because other countries wouldn’t follow suit, especially if they’re weak. And, in any case, the promise may be meaningless because no one can predict a president’s calculus when staring down a nuclear holocaust.

No-first-use is the policy of Goliath, not Gandhi.”

Former US Secretary of Defense William Perry said: “During my period as Secretary of Defense, I never confronted a situation, or could even imagine a situation, in which I would recommend that the President make a first strike with nuclear weapons  – understanding that such an action, whatever the provocation, would likely bring about the end of civilization.”

Perry’s life’s work, most of it highly classified, was nuclear weapons. He played a supporting role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which he went back to his Washington hotel room each night, fearing he had only hours left to live. He later founded his own successful defense firm, helped revolutionize the US way of high-tech war, and honed his diplomatic skills seeking common ground on security issues with the Soviets and Chinese. 

Nuclear bombs are an area of expertise for Perry, who had assumed they would be largely obsolete by now, seven decades after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a quarter of a century after the fall of the Soviet Union. Instead, once again they have become a contemporary nightmare, and an emphatically ascendant one. A Russian president has recently make bellicose boasts about his arsenal. An American president free-associates on Twitter about starting a new nuclear arms race. Decades of cooperation between the two nations on arms control is nearly at a standstill. And, unlike the original Cold War, this time there is a world of busy fanatics excited by the prospect of a planet with more bombs – people who have already demonstrated the desire to slaughter many thousands of people in an instant. 

Perry is now a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. He serves as director of the Preventive Defense Project. He is an expert in US foreign policy, national security and arms control. In 2013 he founded the William J Perry Project (, a non-profit effort to educate the public on the current dangers of nuclear weapons.

Disarmament has fallen far from the top of the policy priority list. The largest upcoming generation, the millennials, were raised in a time when the problem felt largely solved, and it’s easy for them to imagine it’s still quietly fading into history.  

Since the end of the Cold War, we no longer think about the threat of a nuclear holocaust every day. It’s not embedded in our public psyche. During the Cold War the United States relied on deterrence rather than prevention as the central principle of its security strategy. However, Trump’s recent posturing indicates a far more aggressive stance, implying a shift from a defensive to a rather more offensive approach, making him an extremely unpredictable custodian of the substantial US nuclear arsenal.

The problem is that the threat of a nuclear event and escalation is no longer retreating. Perry said in an interview in his Stanford office: “Today, the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War, and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”

A report published during the UK’s General Election period sought to reframe the nuclear debate within the UK. The report comes from the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) and the United Nations Association (UNA-UK).

Up until now, the debate has been dominated by the decision about whether to invest in a renewal of the Trident system, linked to political judgements about the responsibilities of governments to maintain strong defence capabilities. As a result, wider questions about how best to tackle global nuclear dangers have been neglected.

This matters, particularly as the crisis with North Korea unfolds, but also as relations with Russia deteriorate and states frustrated with a lack of progress on disarmament begin negotiating a treaty to ban nuclear weapons without any nuclear armed states in the room. Commitment to the bargain at the heart of the nuclear non‑proliferation regime, always a little shaky as interpretations of its priorities have been contested, could easily fray, with drastic risks to global security.

This issue sits within broader questions about the UK’s role in the world. As we move through a period of growing instability, the need for effective international mechanisms to promote security is greater than at any other time since the UN was founded. Their success depends on states’ willingness to work together. The increasingly fractious geopolitical environment, however, is impeding progress and putting further pressure on our post-war international system, already overstretched by the convergence of multiple crises.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear weapon state and one of the largest aid donors, the UK is an important player on the world stage. The international system has delivered prosperity and security for the UK as a whole. Its breakdown could have serious – and, in the context of nuclear weapons, existential – consequences for the country. Unfortunately, the UK has not been immune to the growing reluctance by states to invest in the continuing health of this system. 

Over the past decade, voices calling for a narrower outlook have grown louder in this country, as in many the world over. But the line between national and global interests is disappearing. British foreign policy must embrace this reality and prioritise strengthening collective efforts to create a more peaceful world.

The need for nuclear disarmament through multilateral diplomacy is greater now than it has been at any stage since the end of the Cold War. Trust and confidence in the existing nuclear non-proliferation regime is fraying, tensions are high, goals are misaligned, and dialogue is irregular. 

In Meaningful Multilateralism, BASIC and UNA–UK offer 30 multilateral disarmament proposals for the incoming UK Government after the General Election on June 8, themed according to three types of leadership the UK has previously shown in disarmament:

• Diplomatic leadership

• Technical leadership

• Leadership by example

The Conservatives don’t fulfil any of these criteria because of their strong authoritarian tendencies, and they certainly haven’t demonstrated a preference for diplomacy or leadership by example in particular.

Whatever one’s position on Trident, there are meaningful steps that can be taken in multilateral disarmament, and the next UK Government should actively take a leadership role.

The current growing global instability is a turn of events that has William Perry, former US defense Secretary, obsessed with one question: Why isn’t everyone as terrified as he is?

Why indeed.

There is a crisis in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, with its vision unraveling due to different views on disarmament. If the deterrence principle were to break down, the potential global humanitarian impact would be truly apocalyptic. The strategic offence doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction means just that. In such an exchange, there can’t possibly be a winner.

It wouldn’t be a simple act of genocide. A nuclear exchange may well culminate in omnicide – a small word that means the totalising enormity of the end of everything for everyone. Even a restrained tactical exchange would most probably have catastrophic bioecological and wider global impacts, and a devastating breakdown of civilisation. 

Everyone agrees that the risk of nuclear war is bad; if all else were equal, we would rather not have this risk. But all else is not equal. The probability of nuclear war is not zero. Nuclear deterrence can fail. It is a fallacy to presume that just because no nuclear war has occurred since the post-World War II advent of nuclear deterrence, therefore it will never happen. The historical record contains several near-misses in which nuclear war was narrowly avoided due in no small part to luck.  

The argument that nuclear deterrence makes the world a safer place is not particularly persuasive.

First strike posturing is considerably less so.




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