The Modern Nuclear Crisis

In 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Much of the world rejoiced: the Cold War was finally over. The fears that had existed alongside this ideological struggle – fears of communist totalitarianism and nuclear war- began to fade. Unfortunately, nuclear conflict has continued to be a major concern and the risk has actually increased in recent years. There has been continued proliferation, withdrawal from international treaties, and aggressive rhetoric from nuclear weapons states. Nowhere better was this risk displayed than via social media early in 2018: President Trump threatened nuclear conflict with North Korea, bragging about his, ‘much bigger and more powerful’ nuclear ‘button’. This modern nuclear problem presents a major ongoing concern.

Nuclear proliferation has its roots in the middle of the 20th century, during the Second World War. This global conflict was ended via the dropping of two atomic bombs in 1945. The effects of this echoed throughout the rest of the century, with nuclear weapons subsequently playing a major role in the Cold War. It has been argued by some historians and political scientists that the use of nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, in some ways, meant to be an indirect threat to the Soviet Union. However, the Soviet Union at this time was also pursuing atomic weaponry, and had its first successful test in 1949. There were now two nations capable of creating, and deploying, nuclear weapons. These two nations were soon engaged in an arms race: each wanted to have the larger, more powerful stockpile. While there were some attempts by both nations to limit nuclear stockpiles, the proliferation continued. The United States reached approximately 30,000 nuclear warheads during the first half of the 1960s, while the Soviet Union surpassed this in the late 1970s and continued to increase the size of their stockpile. By 1986, the peak was reached: there were approximately 70,300 nuclear warheads in existence. Most of them were controlled by the United States, or the Soviet Union.

The end of the Cold War should have seen a lessening of the nuclear threat, and for a time, it did. By the year 2000, global nuclear weapon stockpiles were approximately 50% of the 1986 peak. This was promising, and it seemed to show that nuclear disarmament was a viable solution to the nuclear problem. However, recent years have seen this reduction slow down. Some nations are currently seeking to increase their nuclear inventories, while others are attempting to modernise theirs. As of mid-2018, there remain approximately 14,485 nuclear weapons in the world. Not all of these are designated for military use: 5,150 of these are actually waiting to be dismantled. According to the Federation of American Scientists, this leaves 9,335 of these warheads in military stockpiles. Within these stockpiles, there are approximately 1,800 nuclear warheads on ‘high alert’, meaning that they can be deployed at any time. These 1,800 warheads are thought to be deployed by 8 nations: the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, and Israel (It is not currently thought that North Korea is in a position to deploy its weapons, hence why they have been excluded from this list).

There is really only one effective solution to the current nuclear problem: complete disarmament. This will require multiple approaches, and will likely take many years. However, one of the first steps to achieving this requires a change in thinking regarding nuclear deterrence. The 2018 study ‘A National Pragmatic Safety Limit for Nuclear Weapon Quantities’ by Pearce and Denkenberger found that, for the purposes of nuclear deterrence, any nuclear weapon state need only possess 100 weapons. Any higher will place a nation’s own population at higher risk, due to the potential environmental and international effects following nuclear weapon use. If each nuclear weapon state followed this guideline, we would see a major reduction in the size of global nuclear weapon inventories. This would see the number of weapons on ‘high alert’ drastically reduced as well. As such, it would be prudent for this to be one of the first steps pursued in a disarmament-based strategy. By first changing perceptions surrounding nuclear deterrence, it would hopefully see a broader questioning of nuclear policy.

Another key step would be to ensure nuclear weapons states adhere to the terms of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Currently, none of the nuclear weapons states, nor members of NATO, are signatories to this treaty. Part of this is due to the legacies of Cold War thinking: a joint press statement from France, the United Kingdom, and the United States stated ‘‘Accession to the ban treaty is incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.” Public and international pressure could help to push these nations into accepting the terms of the treaty. If this step was pursued in conjunction with the re-evaluation of deterrence policies, it would be possible to achieve rapid change in a shorter period of time. It could even prove to be more effective than gradual disarmament.

While being the most effective solution, disarmament is not the only possibility. Instead, it could be possible to pursue the internationalisation of global nuclear weapon stockpiles. In this scenario, an international body would be given responsibility for nuclear weapons. This proposed group, multinational in nature, would then function in a role similar to the United Nations Security Council. Rather than utilising nuclear weapons based on the will of a single state, any and all use would be debated and voted on. In such a scenario, a successful vote would require a majority before nuclear weapons would be released to the nation requesting them for use. This would serve to minimise, if not outright eliminate, the unilateral deployment of nuclear weapons. Nations which refused to turn over their nuclear weapons to this organisation would face harsh sanctions. Whether the internationalisation and democratisation of nuclear weapons would work is uncertain. However, it provides an alternative path, which could be worth pursuing.

Regardless of method, any solution to the current nuclear threat requires greater engagement from the United States and Russia. These are the nations with the largest stockpiles, and the greatest potential to lessen the nuclear threat. Together, these two nations control 93% of the global nuclear weapons stockpiles. In fact, if the two committed to reduce their stockpiles to 10% of their current quantity, they would still have the largest military stockpiles in the world (Russia would have 435, the United States 380; the closest to this would be France, with a total of 300). This would already be a marked improvement, and it would likely see a significant decrease in the number of ‘high alert’ weapons currently deployed. For any long-term disarmament solution to work, it is necessary for these two nations to be fully involved. International pressure must be directed towards ensuring this.

The modern nuclear crisis will take time and effort to resolve. The solutions proposed here rely on disarmament and international cooperation. Perhaps there are other solutions, and these would be welcomed. However, one thing is certain: we cannot allow the current situation to continue. The stakes are too high.