The Next Hiroshima?

deathMy Comments: As a financial planner, my job is to identify existential financial threats faced by a client and attempt to remedy the potential problem before it becomes a real problem. For the record, an existential threat is something bad that might happen. The idea is to take steps to keep them far in the background so the negative consequences don’t surface. Some we can deal with and some we can’t.

In real life, these existential threats range from an asteroid hitting the earth to understanding that on the day you get married, you are now exposed to a divorce proceeding. These comments by Richard Haass appear in the context of the Iran agreement that is opposed by almost everyone in the GOP.

The threat posed by a nuclear armed Iran may not be so existential. We need to better understand the dynamics involved before resorting to a knee jerk response, conditioned by the last 7 years of visceral objection to the person sitting in the White House.

Richard Haass, August 6, 2015

The 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has understandably garnered reflection and more than a little debate. Much of the looking back has underestimated the case for the American use of nuclear weapons (to avoid what would have been a prolonged and costly invasion of Japan to end the second world war) and overlooked the subsequent utility of nuclear weapons in helping to keep the cold war cold.

Less commented on, though, is a question not of history but of the future: is the world likely to go another 70 years without nuclear weapons being used? The short and troubling answer is no. Even worse, the potential for such use has increased in recent years and seems likely to rise further. The potential for use is least among those that maintain the largest inventories of nuclear weapons and have possessed them the longest. The chance of the five formal nuclear weapon states — the US, Russia, China, Britain and France — deliberately using such weapons is minuscule.

The fact that they have robust arsenals capable of surviving a first strike by someone else and still delivering a devastating response makes the possibility of any such initial use remote.

These countries also possess intelligence capabilities that give each of them a good picture of what the others are doing, reducing the chance of miscalculation leading to catastrophe. Diplomacy and arms control arrangements further buttress stability.

Russia is the one country that gives one some pause, in part because President Vladimir Putin operates with fewer constraints than any of his predecessors since Stalin. Still, the political differences between him and the US, however real, do not rise to the level of nuclear use. More worrying is the chance of political instability developing in Russia, and the possibility that some terrorist group could gain control of one or more devices.

The greatest potential for nuclear use, though, comes from those countries that have acquired these weapons more recently. Pakistan, with a large and growing arsenal of more than 100 weapons, is arguably the most serious concern. One can all too easily imagine a conflict with India not just breaking out but also escalating. Pakistan, the weaker of the two states in conventional military terms, might be tempted to use nuclear weapons as an equaliser.

Pakistan also represents another nuclear-related concern, one that stems from its potential internal instability and lack of firm civilian oversight. It is at once a strong state, in terms of nuclear might, and a weak one, in terms of political fragility — a bad combination when it comes to seeing that nuclear weapons are not used or acquired by terrorists.

North Korea is yet another country that might use nuclear weapons. One can imagine a crisis set off by an act of aggression on the part of Pyongyang, or by a crisis that results from some form of internal collapse. A desperate leadership might turn to nuclear weapons to survive.
“These possibilities may seem like the stuff of fiction. In fact, they are anything but”.

In addition, to stave off collapse, the cash-starved government there might also be tempted to sell nuclear weapons or critical components to other countries or organisations with few if any qualms about using such weapons.

What might be the fastest growing threat to extending the nuclear peace for another 70 years, though, comes from the Middle East.

Israel already has a substantial nuc­lear arsenal. Meanwhile, the just-negotiated agreement with Iran allows the Islamic Republic to keep most of the prerequisites of a large nuclear weapons programme, and to add to its inventory of centrifuges and supplies of enriched uranium in 10 or 15 years respectively. Other countries in the region, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt, may well follow suit.

We could witness a race to establish a nuclear identity. Several governments could see value in striking first, be it to prevent an adversary developing such a capability or, amid a crisis, from actually using it. Brittle governments could lose control of weapons or materials to groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or al-Qaeda. And terrorists could marry nuclear materials to conventional explosives and cause widespread panic and harm, even without detonating a nuclear explosion.

These and other such possibilities may seem like the stuff of fiction. In fact, they are anything but. Preventing further spread of these nuclear weapons and their use may
well turn out to be the great challenge of the 21st century. One hopes the world is up to it.

The writer is president of the Council on Foreign Relations

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