As the world remembers Hiroshima, we face a new nuclear arms race

World View: Risk of nuclear weapons being used is higher now than during the cold war

A virtual lantern show marks the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing,  in Hiroshima, Japan. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

A virtual lantern show marks the 75th anniversary of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, in Hiroshima, Japan. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

 

In August 2010, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki marked the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bombs, the movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons seemed to be on the cusp of a historic breakthrough. That year, US president Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev met in Prague to sign an arms control agreement, New START, which capped the number of deployed strategic warheads on each side. A month later, the quinquennial review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – the landmark deal signed by 191 states, including nuclear powers, in 1970 – resulted in a new plan to reinforce its three key principles: that all states can share in the non-military benefits of nuclear technology, that the nuclear haves commit to pursuing disarmament, and that the have-nots shall not become weapons states.

Underlying those diplomatic advances was a wider shift in opinion. An idea that had long been seen as a utopian dream – that the world would get rid of nuclear arms – was embraced by think tanks, academics and even nuclear-armed states themselves. In a speech in Prague a year before his meeting with Medvedev, Obama declared that worldwide renunciation of nuclear weapons was attainable within a generation.

“Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” he said. Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that year, in part for his embrace of the vision of a nuclear weapons-free world. Medvedev himself endorsed the aims of Global Zero, a pressure group set up to campaign for complete nuclear disarmament. Seldom had the world seemed more ready to act on the lessons of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Distant memory

Ten years on, as Japan marks the 75th anniversary of those cities’ destruction, that sense of hope is a distant memory. Donald Trump has repudiated the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and European efforts to salvage the wreckage have stalled. One after another, arms control treaties are falling. The Trump administration has withdrawn from the INF treaty banning land-based, medium-range weapons, as well as the 2002 Open Skies Treaty, which is designed to boost confidence by permitting unarmed aerial surveillance flights over dozens of participating countries.

Nuclear arms are in the hands of states with weak institutions and despots

Critically, the New START deal on strategically offensive weapons is due to expire in February and no successor agreement is on the table. That accord limits the size of the US and Russian arsenals, which together account for 93 per cent of all nuclear warheads on Earth. If it lapses, the starting gun will be fired on a new arms race between the cold war’s protagonists.

That race is arguably already under way. Notwithstanding treaties that limited warhead numbers, both Russia and the US continued to modernise their arsenals. The Americans developed the first nuclear “smart bomb”, which can hit targets with pinpoint accuracy. Two years ago, Vladimir Putin presented computer-animated videos of new weapons in development, including a nuclear-armed cruise missile with unlimited range and the Poseidon nuclear torpedo, which can purportedly render coastal cities uninhabitable by generating powerful tsunamis offshore. Trump has reportedly considered conducting new nuclear tests in Nevada, and many of Russia’s big military exercises since Putin came to power in 2000 have featured simulations of limited nuclear strikes.

Higher danger

There are far fewer nuclear weapons in the world today than at the height of the cold war, but the danger of them being used is higher. That makes more countries more eager to acquire their own, which in turn increases the danger. China remains outside of the protocols developed by the US and Russia to minimise the risks of confrontation, and has been cagey about sharing information about its arsenal. Iran has responded to Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal by ending its compliance with parts of it, and this week the New York Times reported that US intelligence agencies suspect Saudi Arabia could be planning to develop a weapons programme of its own. Israel does not even acknowledge its nuclear capability.

Today, nuclear arms are in the hands of states with weak institutions, including Pakistan, which shares a disputed border with nuclear-armed India, as well as despots, such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, whose tolerance for risk is hard to assess. It’s little wonder many states look at North Korea, whose dictator is feted by Trump and coddled by China, and conclude that nuclear weapons have an evening-up effect.

There are glimmers of hope. The Republic this week became the 43rd state to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was approved by 122 votes to one at the UN in 2017. But no country with nuclear weapons has signed up to it. Nor have any states that shelter under the US nuclear umbrella. Its proponents rightly persist, however. As they are aware, at some point, whether by accident or design, a nuclear weapon is likely to be used again. Postponing that terrible day is one of the world’s most urgent tasks.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.