This Nuclear Arms Race Is Worse Than the Last One
(Bloomberg Opinion) - As long as the pandemic rages, the world's leaders are understandably concerned with the risk of disease. But there are other dangers to humanity that require attention. One of the most scary is the nuclear war. Unfortunately, the risk of this continues to increase.
The headings are misleading. Yes, the global supply of nuclear warheads has declined slightly last year, according to the latest report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. However, this is only because the United States and Russia, the two countries that still account for more than 90% of the world's nuclear inventory, have mined some of their obsolete warheads.
All nine countries are now modernizing their other warheads and delivery systems with nuclear weapons. In a test just last week, France successfully fired a nuclear missile with a submarine that can fly between continents at 20 times the speed of sound. Other countries, particularly China, are expanding their nuclear stocks as quickly as possible.
What is even more worrying is that states are reviewing their strategies for using these weapons. Gone is the amoral but logical stability of the Cold War, when two superpowers kept themselves and the world at bay with a credible threat from Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).
Russia, for example, sees increasingly smaller "tactical" warheads as a possible way to compensate for weaknesses in its other armed forces. It is conceivable that a conflict that starts with hybrid wars - from disinformation campaigns to soldiers in unmarked uniforms - can escalate to conventional war and limited nuclear strikes and lead to a counter strike, etc.
There is also speculation that India could weaken its 1998 policy to never be the first to use a nuclear weapon. Such thought experiments are no small thing for a country with two hostile and nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan and China. Just this week, India and China clashed again over their controversial Himalayan border. Everyone can guess what North Korea could do in a crisis that it provokes.
In the meantime, all efforts to limit or reduce nuclear weapons have come to a standstill. A U.S.-Soviet treaty that eliminated short-range and medium-range land-based missiles broke down last year after the US accused Russia of fraud.
And the two old enemies aren't even close to renewing their only remaining arms control agreement called New START, which expires in February. One reason for this failure was America's insistence that the third and emerging superpower should participate in the negotiations. But China, which sees itself as just catching up to the two nuclear weapons, is reluctant to accept any borders.
Progress in updating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has stalled exactly 50 years after its entry into force. It wanted to prevent other countries from making bombs by encouraging them to use fissile material (uranium or plutonium) only for civilian purposes, such as generating electricity. But five countries have become nuclear since it was signed. Even worse, game theory suggests that following other states is rational. Iran could be the next.
The only international treaty that bans these evil weapons altogether, the Nuclear Prohibition Treaty, passed by the United Nations in 2017, has the same chance as a snowball at a split event. No member of the nuclear club intends to ratify it, and neither do many other countries.
As if all of this wasn't bad enough, doubts creep into the transatlantic alliance, undermining its credibility and the deterrence that is so important for preventing war. The Germans, in particular, are appalled at their treatment by US President Donald Trump, who chastised them as "criminal" allies this week and confirmed that he would withdraw about one in four American troops from Germany.
In May, several leaders of the German Social Democrats, a party with a tradition of anti-Americanism, even proposed to withdraw from NATO's "nuclear sharing" policy, with some allies such as Germany refraining from building their own nuclear weapons, but leaving the aircraft at home Make available US bombs if necessary. This policy is designed to make common deterrence more credible. But for the German left, distrust of Trump is reason enough to question its logic. Fortunately, Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly overruled her.
The prospects are bleak between naivety in Germany, willingness to fight in Russia, ambition in China, madness in Trumpist America and brinkmanship in North Korea. Egomaniacs or villains could be tempted to test the limits in their enemy's deterrent plans, and human error could exacerbate folly.
In addition, the climate in international relations does not exactly promote solutions. The world's leading politicians are so preoccupied with "trade wars" and "vaccination nationalism" that they can hardly imagine sitting at a table with people they detest but should speak to, an activity that used to be diplomacy was known.
But they have to rise above themselves. If they can't, the rest of us, from voters to the military, should force them. Only patient multilateralism, as unsexy as this multi-syllable Latin word may sound for alpha men, can save us in the long run. To use a Cold War metaphor, the nations of the world stand in a room flooded with gasoline, with everyone counting who has how many matches until one is lit.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and author of The Economist. He is the author of "Hannibal and Me".
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