A Wake-Up Call the World Cannot Ignore
The moving of the hands of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock to just 90 seconds to midnight, the closest they have been in the clock’s long history, is a wake-up call the world cannot ignore. There is much more anxiety than there used to be, among global policymakers and publics, about climate change, the other great threat to life on this planet which the Clock takes into account. But about the threat posed by nuclear weapons—even with Russia’s President Putin talking up the useability of nuclear weapons in language not heard since the Cold War years—the level of continuing complacency and the degree of blind faith in the utility of nuclear deterrence continues to be extraordinary.
The reality of which the Clock reminds us is that nuclear weapons are not only the most indiscriminately inhumane ever devised but the casualties that would follow any kind of significant nuclear exchange would be on an almost incalculably horrific scale. Millions would be vaporised, crushed, baked, boiled, or irradiated to death by the initial blasts, and millions more would die from the catastrophic starvation-guaranteeing nuclear-winter effect on global agriculture.
It may that, for all the posturing of Putin and others like him, these weapons will in fact never be used coldly and deliberately to wage aggressive war. The longstanding taboo against such first use may be weakening, but is still strong. But there is a very high probability that they will, sooner or later, still be used. That we have not had a nuclear weapon used in conflict for nearly eighty years is not a result of statesmanship, system integrity and infallibility, or the inherent stability of nuclear deterrence. It has been sheer dumb luck.
It is utterly wishful thinking to believe that this luck can continue in perpetuity, given what we now know about how many times the supposedly very sophisticated command-and-control systems of the Cold War years were strained by mistakes and false alarms, human error and human idiocy, given what we know about how much less sophisticated are the command-and-control systems of some of the newer nuclear-armed states, and given what we both know and can guess about how much more sophisticated and capable cyber-offence will be in overcoming cyber-defence in the years ahead.
The depressing reality as the hands of the Bulletin clock make clear is that while the risk of nuclear catastrophe is as great as it has ever been, the goal of achieving the elimination of nuclear weapons from the face of the Earth is as far from achievement as it has ever been. Longstanding major nuclear arms control agreements between the US and Russia are now dead (ABM, INF, Open Skies) or on life support (New START). There is no prospect of buy-in by any of the nuclear armed states—or their closest allies and partners—on the nuclear ban treaty (TPNW), as widely supported as this is by other states. Hopes for progress on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula and reinstating the painfully negotiated Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with Iran—torn up by the Trump administration—have completely stalled. The 2022 NPT Review Conference ended, like too many of its predecessors, with no consensus on a final statement (Russia opposing, inevitably, any reference to the nuclear risks involved in its invasion of Ukraine). There has been no progress on moderating the salience of nuclear weapons in strategic doctrines in the US or elsewhere; if anything, the reverse. And stockpiles are growing in most of the nuclear-armed states.
Despite the big reductions which occurred immediately after the end of the Cold War and the continuing retirement or scheduling for dismantlement since by Russia and the United States of many more, nearly 13,000 warheads are still in existence with a combined destructive capability of close to 100,000 Hiroshima- or Nagasaki-sized bombs. Around 6,000 nuclear weapons remain in the hands of Russia, 5,500 with the United States, and 1,300 with the other nuclear-armed states combined (China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan, Israel, and—at the margin—North Korea).
In our own Indo-Pacific region, delivery systems are being extended, weapons are being modernised, and their numbers are increasing. A large proportion of the global stockpile—nearly 4,000 weapons—remains operationally available. And, most extraordinarily of all, nearly 2,000 US and Russian weapons remain on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched on warning in the event of a perceived attack within a decision window for each president of four to eight minutes.
The Doomsday Clock reminds us that it’s time to get more serious than we ever have before about nuclear risk reduction and serious movement not only on non-proliferation but disarmament. APLN’s mission has never been more relevant.
About the Author
Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister from 1988-1996, is President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group, Founding Convenor of APLN, and Distinguished Honorary Professor and former Chancellor of the Australian National University. He has authored and edited 12 books, including Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play 2015 (co-author), Inside the Hawke-Keating Government: A Cabinet Diary (2014), and The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and for All (2008).
Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts, and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts, and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to email@example.com.
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