Trump, turtles and the new nuclear threat

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Dr Strangelove and the (one-part absurdity and two-parts paranoia) exhortations to act like Bert the Turtle and 'Duck and Cover' when the bomb hits are a generation or two behind us. We no longer live in fear that 'someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away'.

Still from Bert the Turtle Duck and Cover adNevertheless, we are still, as the Kingston Trio put it, 'endowed with a mushroom shaped cloud'. At least nine nations (US, Russia, France, UK, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) have nuclear arms. They are the most devastating weapons our species possesses and can destroy the world many times over.

We also cannot pretend that it is altruism which prevents their use. We are not 'better than that'. The myth of Hiroshima as being about saving allied lives is just that, a post war artefact: Truman spoke much truer when he exulted that, 'We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city.' One only has to look at the deliberately induced famine and cholera epidemics in Yemen or the clinical flattening of Raqqa in just the last year to realise that 'goodies' and 'baddies' (as Tony Abbott once described the Syrian scene) is not an appropriate analogy for warfare.

No, the only thing which has blunted this instinct is the cold realisation that, in a world where all the great powers are nuclear armed, going in guns blazing will inevitably get you killed.

During the 2008 Georgian War, Mikhael Saakashvili pleaded for US aid against Russia in his doomed attempt to reclaim the breakaway Georgian regions with a surprise attack on Russian peacekeepers. The US understandably would not be drawn — Russia really does have weapons of mass destruction.  This is also why, for all the proxy fighting in Syria and Ukraine, neither the US nor Russia have been stupid enough to launch direct attacks on each other's troops.

The cost of this balance of fear — and the risk of accidents — has, however, been high. Ever since the narrow escape of the Cuban Missile Crisis we have been aware of how close to the brink of global annihilation these weapons bring us.

It is against this background that the major arms controls treaties should be seen. In 1972, The US and USSR agreed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to prevent either Cold War enemy from attempting to neutralise the deterrent value of the others' nuclear arms and launching a first strike.

 

"With the nuclear arms race heating up just as diplomacy is abandoned, the world has suddenly became a much more dangerous and fragile place."

 

Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev went one step further. They were visionary enough to see that, since no one would win a global nuclear confrontation, the steps which could lead to such a thing should also be dismantled. Accordingly, in 1987, they agreed the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty which banned nuclear-capable missiles of medium range. The idea was to break the link between tactical (battlefield) nuclear weapons and a strategic (intercontinental) nuclear exchange, making it that much harder for a local error of judgment to turn into a world-extinguishing event. It also limited the possibility of nuclear use in Europe, by eliminating shorter range weapons.

Finally, in 2010, and building on previous treaties, the US and Russian Federation agreed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which reduced the number of intercontinental nuclear weapons.

While nuclear weapon stockpiles have reduced massively since the 1980s, these three pillars have been gradually eroded. At the same time, and even more dangerously, the world has seen a repudiation of the diplomacy which limited the numbers of nuclear weapons and which — as with the Cuban Missile Crisis — has prevented their accidental use.

In 2002, George W. Bush withdrew the US from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In response, Russian President Putin announced in 2018 that his country has developed a suite of weapons capable of penetrating or neutralising US missile defence. On the pretexts of Russian non-compliance (allegedly demonstrated by secret evidence) and the need to curb China, President Trump has now announced the US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.  While his European allies (who gained a measure of security from the IMF) were reportedly told of the withdrawal, it does not seem that they were consulted.

Trump has also expressed scepticism about the START treaty (although from the same reports, it is not clear whether or not he knows its terms). This comes against the background of US withdrawal from a slew of other treaties covering everything from global postal arrangements to climate change to Iranian weapons control.

With the nuclear arms race heating up just as diplomacy is abandoned, the world has suddenly became a much more dangerous and fragile place. It seems that we are back with Bert the Turtle.

 

 

Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Donald Trump, nuclear weapons, Russia

 

 

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Existing comments

Surely the first thing for Americans to do to make for a safer world is to DUMP TRUMP! The mid-term elections are a chance to start this process of deposing such a dangerous man.
Grant Allen | 25 October 2018


Good to see your Eureka Street Article on the new nuclear threat. I hope it gets well shared and makes many people think.
John Capper | 25 October 2018


What does IMF stand for ? Should it be IMT ?
Maureen Thomas | 26 October 2018


Thanks for spotting that, Maureen. Should be INF (Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces) Treaty.
Justin Glyn SJ | 26 October 2018


Thank you for writing about the nuclear threat. It is an issue that can be easily forgotten in today's mainstream media with all the Trump nonsense. Nice to read article from a fellow student at St Paul's University in Ottawa. I took a few courses in theology around 2000.
Guy Morrissette | 30 October 2018


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