Blog No. 200: Part III : The growing Peril.
Recently, a former NZ Minister of Defence wrote in the NZ International Review, a journal with a defence establishment, diplomatic and academic readership interested in foreign affairs, “Nuclear war and the fears it gave rise to are now much less likely.”
It is alarming that someone so well connected and having every opportunity to be well-informed, should err in such an egregious fashion. Such comments are pernicious and liable to lull political leaders into a sense of unjustified complacency. The reality, of which the NZ public remains blissfully unaware, is that the risk of nuclear war has never been greater.
Currently three major risks face human society, a future, as yet unspecified pandemic, more lethal than Covid-19, climate change and nuclear war. A future pandemic could wipe out say 50% of the human population. Unaddressed, climate change might, over several centuries, wipe out 100%. A fully-escalated and by its nature, irreversible, nuclear war could achieve that degree of mortality in just a few months.
Even a miscalculation, or accident that fell much short of a full nuclear exchange, could immediately change the climate and cause more deaths than the worst imaginable pandemic. Even were the Honourable ex-Minister correct in his optimistic estimation and such an event were indeed extremely unlikely, the probable consequences would be so dire that the precautionary principle would demand New Zealand’s immediate, full and urgent effort to avoid such an event.
The present iteration of a relatively low-mortality and low-morbidity pandemic has demonstrated the knock-on potential of such disruptions to instigate conflict. If a ‘mild dose of flu’ can so set the wheels of a putative war between the USA and China whirring, what will be the effect of climate change when it starts to make major inroads on the economies of nuclear powers?
Nuclear war, given that a nuclear mistake could happen next week, is the most urgent of the three threats facing humanity. It is also, the one that happens to be the lowermost in the public mind. A recent blog explains my growing anxiety. Dinosaurs
I am not alone in my estimation of the extent of the risk: the Doomsday Clock was initiated at seven minutes to midnight in 1947 by the scientists responsible for the first nuclear weapons. According to Wikipedia, “the clock was set at two minutes to midnight in January 2018, and left unchanged in 2019 due to the twin threats of nuclear weapons and the increasing effects of global warming. On 23 January 2020, it was moved forward to 100 seconds (1 minute 40 seconds) before midnight, based on the increased threats to global stability posed by “a nuclear blunder”, exacerbated by the rate of climate change.”
Nuclear Strategy A well-respected, American academic, Michael Klare, writing just before Trump’s election, warned of the follies of recent Russian and American revisions of the doctrine that nuclear weapons were solely of deterrent value. Superpower weapon development programmes have now resulted in a highly unstable situation in which the nuclear threshold is significantly lowered. Each, is now expecting the other to use nuclear armed cruise missiles at a lower threshold than inter-continental conflict.
There are additional risk factors for consideration. Firstly, we are entering a period in which the theory of the Thucydides Trap has gained dominance in the US defence community. This argument, based on historical precedent, claims that conflict between the hegemonic power (the USA) and the incoming, wannabe power (China) is almost inevitable. It could well prove to be a self-fulfilling prophesy. In such time of rapidly rising international instability, the likelihood of nuclear accident or strategic misjudgment is heightened. Thucydides
Secondly, obsessed (as, self-interestedly, well it might be) with containing China’s growing superiority across all competitive fields (technology, economy, currency, education, social system, etc.) the USA seems determined to retrofit China into the former global arms-control architecture that was erected with containment of the Russian nuclear armoury in mind. In its attempt to achieve this, the USA, while talking of resuming nuclear testing and boosting its expenditure on upgrading its already vast nuclear arsenal, seems to have embarked on the unilateral dismantling of all existing arms control agreements. It appears that the aim is to so frighten China that it will feel forced to enter a new tripartite agreement with the USA and Russia, in which China will be placed at a permanent strategic disadvantage.
China’s position is that it won’t discuss such a deal until the USA and Russia have reduced their nuclear armouries to the same level as China’s relatively modest arsenal. It seems inevitable that there will now be an interim, just as the capacity to wage nuclear war is being expanded, during which nuclear controls and confidence building machinery will be much reduced. It is hard to argue that under these circumstances, nuclear war is less likely.
Thirdly, as the elephants fight, smaller powers feel less secure about the outcome and the chances of nuclear proliferation increase. North Korea, Israel, India and Pakistan have already gone there. Japan, Australia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are actively debating the possibility. The more fingers on nuclear buttons, the greater the danger of a nuclear weapon being detonated accidently or intentionally.
Fourthly, under pressure of climate change, of pandemics, and of the USA’s regime change efforts and its abuse of the global monetary system to enforce sanctions and reduce the life prospects of around 40% of the global population, increasing numbers will resort to terrorism, or millenarianism. Looking at some of the unscientific belief systems held by some senior officials in the US government, there is no guarantee that personnel, high in the US defence establishment, will not see it as their duty to bring forward the rapture!
In an article published this month, Michael Klare reviewed the situation as he had described it four years earlier. His findings should be cause for alarm. He describes how his earlier fears have come to pass. The Trump administration is trying to use its new, air – launched cruise missiles not as a defensive deterrent, but as an aggressive cudgel to bludgeon concessions out of its opponents. Nuclear Chicken
I recently watched the Danish documentary ‘The man who saved the world.’ Petrov This film records what was by no means the only nuclear close shave. It just happens that the Soviet Union is now defunct and the film-maker’s access to personnel and formerly classified archives is that much easier. It records how one Russian officer, towards the end of the ideological Cold War, was faced with a situation in which his technical systems were telling him that the USA had launched a first strike nuclear attack on his homeland. His instructions were quite clear; to launch the Soviet riposte before it was too late and its retaliatory missiles were destroyed in their silos.
Knowing that this decision would mean the end of human civilization, Stanislav Petrov decided to risk his career and wait – just in case he was the victim of the technical mal-function that, as it turned out, he was. Humanity was fortunate that a morally courageous, humanist found himself in the hot seat. Had that seat instead been occupied by an officer of less moral courage, or a maverick in the grips of one of the Armageddonist enthusiasms that are all too common in the USA, you would not be reading this blog: indeed, you would not be.