South Korean protesters at an anti-North Korea rally, February 2016, Seoul. Getty Images/Chung Sung-Jun. All rights reserved.The closest the world came to nuclear confrontation was the Cuba missile crisis in 1962. The near-catastrophe was one of the drivers for arms-control talks in the mid-1960s, which led to the limited test-ban treaty (LTBT), the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), and other endeavours. But these were never enough to curb the nuclear-arms race.
The next opportunity was in 1985 when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, only two years after the Able Archer "war scare" of 1983. That led to the intermediate nuclear-forces treaty (INFC), which got rid of the cruise missiles (based beside Greenham Common) and a few other weapons, but not much else.
Then came the Soviet collapse in 1990-91 and yet another opportunity, which was taken only in part. There was a substantial scaling-down of the ludicrously large nuclear arsenals on both sides (over 60,000 warheads in the late 1980s), but hope of moves towards a nuclear-free world came to nothing.
Since then, there has been a slow process of proliferation focused mainly on India and Pakistan, though North Korea a source of concern and, before the nuclear deal, Iran. Meanwhile the 'original' powers – US, Russia, France, China and the UK, not forgetting Israel – have steadily modernised their forces, albeit at lower numbers than before.
The contrast between the height of the cold war and the current situation should be seen in this light. In the previous era the world peered over the abyss, amid a clear if limited risk of utter global catastrophe. Now, the danger is of a slippery slope towards a proliferating world where 'small nuclear wars in far-off places' may occur and spark escalation.
The past week has confirmed how perilous that slope is becoming. North Korea’s threat of being ready to use nuclear weapons may be bluster, at least for the moment. But for how long? The current US-South Korean military exercise includes simulated attacks on North Korean missile and nuclear facilities and special forces conducting mock 'decapitation raids' on the North Korean leadership, a process unlikely to moderate the existing paranoia.
This kind of standoff does nothing to quieten the voices of those calling for 'nuclear modernisation'. One indicator of this is the determination of Pakistan to expand its nuclear arsenal in the face of the perceived threat from India (see “Dar refuses to reduce the growth of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal”, Pakistan Today, 3 March 2016).
Senior figures in the Pakistani army have long believed that India’s ultimate aim is to run the whole of south Asia from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka. It is a view that they have long held and one that was strengthened in 1971 when India helped East Pakistan gain its independence as Bangladesh. From Islamabad the assumption in these circles is that India seeks superpower status by drawing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and even Sri Lanka into a single state that will be powerful enough to challenge China.
This analysis may seem absurd to many observers. But it is deeply embedded in the Pakistani military mind, and explains the view of finance minister Ishaq Dar: “we will not scale back our nuclear programme even if our debts swell to £100 trillion”.
Meanwhile, on the western side the USAF is now going ahead with its new strategic bomber, fully nuclear-capable as well as being ultra-stealthy. The B-21 will cost $23.5 billion to develop and each plane will cost $564 million. Given that at least a hundred will be built, that means a total expenditure of $80 billion, though all the experience of recent projects indicates massive cost increases over the coming decades.
Into the breach
Taken along with developments in the UK, France, China, Russia and Israel, does this mean prospects for any kind of serious nuclear disarmament are bleak in the extreme? Not necessarily, given that 186 of the 195 member-states of the United Nations do not have nuclear weapons, and many of them are concerned at the minimal impact they have been able to exert on global nuclear disarmament.
It is because of this frustration that another process is being developed through UN channels attempting to work towards a treaty banning nuclear weapons worldwide. This is in the context of several existing nuclear-free zones, stretching across Africa, Latin America and much of the Pacific. The current initiative, however, plans a different approach.
In 2015 the UN general assembly established an Open Ended Working Group (OEWG). Its first meeting was held in Geneva in February 2016. The evolving focus is on the idea of a worldwide ban on nuclear weapons, justified by the illegality of their humanitarian consequences. The continuing failure of other mechanisms means there is surprising support for this for this kind of approach in a number of non-nuclear countries.
Whether it will get anywhere is still open to doubt. But the very fact that there is such interest rebuts the view of the UK's pro-nuclear weapons lobby that getting rid of Britain’s nukes will have no effect whatsoever on the rest of the world. A truth rarely acknowledged, but a truth nonetheless, is that many governments around the world would welcome such a move as a sign that at least one of the world’s few nuclear-armed states was finally seeing sense.