The Nuclear Threat and International Diplomacy


The Nuclear Threat and International Diplomacy

For more than 40 years, the world lived under the threat of a nuclear apocalypse. Then, 1989, the Berlin Wall tumbled down – a prelude to the fall of Soviet Communism. Before long, the super powers had agreed to stop aiming their missiles at each other. With the nuclear “Armageddon” seemingly called off, or at least postponed, the world heaved a longed awaited sign of relief. Many experts feel, however, that it is far too early to celebrate. 

In 1998 the famous doomsday clock of the bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was moved up by five minutes, to nine minutes to midnight – a clear indication that the nuclear threat had not gone away”. True, the world scene has changed. No longer are two major nuclear powers locked in a nuclear standoff.

Now several nations possess nuclear capabilities. In addition, experts fear that it is only a matter of time before some terrorist group get their hands on radioactive material and build a crude atomic bomb. Furthermore, despite dramatic reductions, the United States and Russia still retain awesome arsenals of nuclear warheads.

According to a research group called the Committee in Nuclear Policy, some 5,000 nuclear weapons are currently on hair – trigger alert. “Therefore”, their report states, “if a launch order were sent under current circumstances, 4,000 (international ballistic missile) warheads (2,000) on each side could be on their way to their targets within a few minutes and another 1,000 (submarine launched ballistic missile) warheads could be on route to targets shortly thereafter”.

The existence of the arsenals raises the possibilities of accidental or even premeditated war. A fateful accident could plunge the world into the chaos of a thermonuclear catastrophe, contrary to political leaders’ wishes,” warned prominent Russian strategist Vladimir Belous.

So while the World War may be over, the threat of a nuclear holocaust has not really gone away. But just how great is that theory? Will the earth ever be rid of nuclear weapons? At dawn on January 25, 1995, an ominous blip suddenly appeared on early-warning radar screens across northern Russian. A rocket had been launched somewhere of the coast of Norway! Radar operators alerted Moscow to the possible arrival of a nuclear bomb.

Within minutes, the Russian President was handed a suitcase containing electronic devices that would allow him to order a devastating nuclear attack. All-out nuclear war seemed to be just moments away. Fortunately, cool heads prevailed, and the trajectory of the rocket was seen to pose no threat to Russia. It was later learned that the projectile carried equipment for meteorological research.

Even so, an article in “The Washington Post” observed: “These may have some of the most dangerous moments of the nuclear age. They offer a glimpse of how the high alert nuclear launch mechanism or of the Cold War remains in place, and how it could go disastrously wrong, even though the great superpower rivalry has ended”.

For decades the nuclear posture of both the former Soviet Union and the United States was based on the deterrence concept known as mutual assured destruction (MAD). One pillar of MAD was the strategy called launch on warning. This gave each side the grim assurance that if they attacked, their enemy would launch a massive retaliation before the attacking warheads could even hit their targets.

A second pillar of MAD was the strategy called launch on attack. This referred to the capacity to unleash retaliatory strikes even after warheads had done their damage. In spite to the thawing of the Cold War, the specter of MAD still haunts mankind, Yes, U.S. and Russia nuclear stockpiles have been reduced dramatically, some say by as much as half – but thousands of nuclear warheads still exist.

There is the possibility then, that weapons could be launched by accident or without authorization. And because both nations still fear the seemingly unlikely possibility of a first-strike attack, a large number of missiles are maintained on hair-trigger alert. 

True, in 1994 the United States and Russia agreed to stop aiming their strategic missiles at each other. “This change, though a welcome gesture, has little military significance”. Notes Scientific American. “Missile commanders can reload target coordinates into guidance computers within seconds”.

In this article, you should be able to:

·   Define nuclear threat

·   Explain the meaning of Mutual Assured Destruction

·   Explain the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty

·   Discuss issues of nuclear smuggling and terrorism

·   Discuss chemical and biological weapon threat.


New Weapons on the Horizon?

Not to be overlooked is the fact that nuclear weapons research and development continues. In the United States, for example, the annual budget for such weapons is about $4.5 billion! In 1997, the Toronto Star reported” “Paradoxically, the U.S. is now spending more than it did during the Cold War on the preservation of its nuclear war machine.

And some of the money is ear-marked for ambiguous programmes that critics say carry the seeds of a new global arm race”. For example, much controversy arose over the multi-billion dollar U.S. government project called the Stockpile Stewardship and management Programme.

It is the maintenance of existing nuclear weapons; critics say that it also serves a more sinister purpose. Reports “The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”: “There are plans for alterations, modifications, updates, and replacements – not just to extend the life of the nuclear arsenal…. But of “improve” it as well”.

In 1997 a furor arose over the development of a nuclear bomb called the B61, which has the ability to penetrate the earth’s surface before detonating. It can thus destroy underground command posts, factories, and laboratories. 

While proponents claim that it is merely a repacking of an older bomb, opponents claim that it is indeed a new bomb – a gross violation of promises made by the U.S. government that it would not develop new nuclear weapons.

In any event, Ted Taylor, a nuclear physicist at Princeton University, observed: “My guess is the sort of research now going in the U.S. is also going on in Russia, France, Germany and other places, and I believe that some of our projects are leading the world into new arms race”.

Critics also claim that the research, development, and design of new weapons are being actively promoted by the weapons designers themselves. Bruised egos, dwindling prestige, the financial difficulties may be powerful motivation for these skilled scientists to push for the revival of weapons research.


New Powers on the Nuclear Scene

Then there are the changes in the world’s political lineup. Traditionally, five nations used to make up the nuclear club: Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States. However, it is generally recognized that other countries too have gone nuclear.

India and Pakistan, for example recently conducted nuclear tests that sparked fears of an intense arms race in Southeast Asia. Other nations suspected of having nuclear programmes include Algeria, Iran, Iraq and North Korea. More than 180 nations have signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, which went into effect in 1970.

But to date a number of powers widely suspected of hiding their nuclear ambitions have not signed it. Reports Asia week: “Nuclear proliferation experts still believe that the real threat comes from the growing number of countries whose leaders would like to have the nuclear capability inspite of the Non Proliferation Treaty. 

James Clapper, director the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, predicted: “By the turn of the century we could see numerous countries with the capability to make a (chemical, biological, or nuclear) warhead with an indigenously produced missile”. Nor is it like that all nations will succumb to pressure to ban nuclear testing.

When a number of nations were lobbied to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, and editorial in Asiaweek observed; “It is fine for the Americans or the Europeans to preach the gospel of test bans, since they have already detonated enough nuclear devices to be able to sit back on the information they have collected”.


Nuclear Smuggling and Terrorism

Some feel that the greatest threat is that some terrorist groups might get their hands on a nuclear weapon and decide to explode – or at least threaten to explode – the device in order to press their political agenda. There are also fears that a criminal organization could similarly use radioactive material for large-scale extortion of a government or corporation.

An article in ‘Scientific American’ explains: it would be fairly easy for a nuclear blackmailer to establish credibility by leaving a sample for analysis. Subsequent threats to pollute air or water supplies, or even detonate a small nuclear weapon, could have considerable leverage”.

Law enforcement agencies have already uncovered attempts to smuggle nuclear material. This adds weight to fears that rogue groups may in fact be trying to develop nuclear weaponry.

True, certain analysis dismissed nuclear smuggling as a minor threat. Not only has little material apparently changed hands, they say, but, with a few exceptions, most of it has not been close to weapons grade.

Scientific American, however, remind readers that “in almost all illicit markets, only the tip of the iceberg is visible, and there is no reason why the nuclear materials “black,” market should be an exception…. To believe that authorities are stopping more than 80 per cent of the trade would be foolish. Moreover, even small leakage rate could have vast consequences.

Although the exact amount is a well-kept secret, it is estimated that a nuclear bomb requires between 3 and 25 kilograms of enriched uranium or between 1 and 8 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium.

To the delight of smugglers, seven kilograms of plutonium takes up roughly the space of standard aluminum soft drink can. Some think that even reactor grade plutonium – which is more easily obtainable than weapons grade could be used to build crude, but still destructive nuclear bomb. If, as many experts claim. Stockpiles of radioactive materials are poorly protected; they may be more vulnerable to theft that most people realize.

Mikhail Kulik, a Russian official, quipped: “Even potatoes are probably much better guarded today than radioactive materials.” Clearly then, nuclear danger, like the Damoclean sword, still hangs over mankind. Is there any hope of it being removed?


Biological and Chemical Threats

Aggressive nations that are too poor to develop nuclear arsenals may turn to medium range missiles armed with poison gas or with biological weapons. These have been dubbed the poor man’s nukes.

In fact, many analysts fear that such devices may also become the weapons of choice for terrorist groups. However, biological and chemical weapons can wreak havoc even without a high-tech delivery system.

U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said in 1997: “With advanced technology and a smaller world of porous borders, the ability to unleash mass sickness, death, and destruction today has reached a far greater order of magnitude.

A lone madman or nest of fanatics with a bottle of chemical, a batch of plague including bacteria, or a crude nuclear bomb can threaten or kill tens of thousands of people in a single act of malevolence.” Such fears were proved valid when cult terrorists used Sarin, a nerve agent, to attack commuters in Tokyo subway system in March 1995.

Twelve people were killed, and 5,500 injured. “If a chemical attack is frightening, a biological weapon poses a worse nightmare,” notes Professor of political science, Leonard Cole, “Chemical agents are inanimate, but bacteria, virus and other live agents may be contagious and reproductive. If they become established in the environment, they may multiply.

Unlike any other weapon, they can become more dangerous over time.” In an effort to curb the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention have been implemented.

The Economist notes, however, that despite such good intentions, “no arms control regime is perfect. They cannot pick up every transgression”. The same source remarks: “And, of course, the real cheats are unlikely to sign up anyway”.


Conclusion on the Nuclear Threat and International Diplomacy

It is important to note that the threat of nuclear war is ever present in the minds of leaders and statesmen around the world. So far, it is only the very strict monitoring and regulation of nuclear making materials that has prevented the misuse and proliferation of nuclear weapons.

However, with the increasing poverty, global marginalization and autocracy of some of the advanced industrialized countries, it is not impossible that sooner or later, poor, threatened and disgruntled individuals or countries will lay hands on nuclear materials and resort to the use of nuclear or even biological and chemical weapons as a way of protest and/or retaliation.

However, the experience of countries that have seen the devastating impact of nuclear bombs like Japan clearly shows that the world will gain very little if nuclear bombs were deployed as a way of settling differences.

We have discussed nuclear threat and international diplomacy. We noted the presence of new weapons and the implications, the arrival of new powers and the nuclear threat, nuclear smuggling and its possible linkage to terrorism and the threat of chemical and biological weapons.

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