Nuclear Weapons: A threat of the past or a danger of the future?

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It has been just over 75 years since the catastrophic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The arguments in support of or against Truman’s action aside, this flashpoint in history has become a ‘never again’ moment for many, especially the survivors of the tragedy, the hibakushas, who have dedicated their lives to ensuring nuclear weapons are never again used.

Believing that nuclear weapons have come to play a less threatening role in the socio-political landscape of the modern day comes naturally to many of us. Since one belligerent, the USSR, disintegrated, the looming threat of nuclear annihilation seems quelled.

However, recent events suggest this is a naïve point of view.

Donald Trump has become known for tearing apart the treaties and agreements of his predecessors, most famously his wish to withdraw from the 2016 Paris Agreement.

In a similar way, the President has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987. This agreement banned the use of ground missiles with a range between 500km and 5,500km.

Mr Trump also plans on quitting the 2002 Open Skies Treaty, which permits signatories to survey by air the territories of all other countries involved.

It seems the trust the superpowers once forged is beginning to crumble.

Furthermore, the New START treaty, the final agreement that limits US and Russian arsenals, is due to expire in 2021, and neither country shows much intent of renewing the measures signed in 2010.

It seems the trust the superpowers once forged is beginning to crumble.

Worryingly, other countries show similar signs. The UK is consistently refunding and redeveloping the Trident programme and, despite much effort from the US to appease the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-Un shows no signs of slowing his nuclear testing, blaming the USA’s ‘hostile policy’ towards the Korean peninsula for this.

Though there is little evidence the country is yet to develop nuclear weapons, Iran’s recent refusal to abide by the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, arguably in reaction to the assassination of Qassim Soleimani in January, also indicates a growing reliance on nuclear armament is emerging.

These actions, or inactions, signal a scary departure from the efforts made by previous heads of states to reduce the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Are we entering a new era of MAD? Or is the threat of nuclear war trifling when compared to more modern WMDs?

Covid-19 has shown us the devastation pandemics can cause, and if a hostile country were to experiment with biological weapons, and develop a highly resistant pathogen strain, unimaginable suffering could be caused.

Similarly, cyberattacks are becoming a greater possibility, attacks which can plummet a country’s economy, or expose data that leaves states vulnerable to having vital institutions undermined.

These examples are real threats that could emerge in the future and could in fact cause significantly more harm than nuclear weapons. However, it must be stressed that this is all speculation. The Cold War demonstrates that countries are often willing to use WMDs but also fear the domino effect that their action may cause, when they know their opposition has similar powers.

The best route to world nuclear disarmament lies in ensuring smaller countries, such as Iran and North Korea, do not develop significant nuclear weaponry, through dialogue rather than force.

In any case, it is difficult to predict the future on this topic, where factors contributing to fluctuating tensions are so changeable, for example if Donald Trump is beaten by Joseph Biden this coming election and the Democrats begin a policy of détente.

We are on the threshold of a new world. The future is either nuclear or non-nuclear. The best route to world nuclear disarmament lies in ensuring smaller countries, such as Iran and North Korea, do not develop significant nuclear weaponry, through dialogue rather than force. The more countries with nuclear weapons, the harder it is to regulate their use. Then the nuclear heavyweights will feel more secure in dissolving their stockpiles, and eventually the threat of nuclear war should come to a total end.

But we must also be wary of other threats looming on our doorstep. If the curtain closes on nuclear weapons, the spotlight may focus to bio- or cyber weaponry and if governments are reckless, a new cycle of ‘blink-first’ hostility may begin.

Photograph: Laura Brierley

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