Are the rules which have stopped nuclear war broken?
This week, the Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference took place in Washington DC. The general tone of the conference was depressing, with speakers indicating different ways in which the rules that stopped nuclear war in the past seem to be falling short.
Close to the end of the Cold War, US President Ronald Reagan and USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev agreed that nuclear war had to be prevented as it could have no winner, but only losers. The two countries signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which eventually reduced the number of strategic nuclear weapons in existence by about 80%. In 2010, a successor treaty called New START was signed by the US and Russia.
However, the future of New Start seems bleak, with experts viewing the possibility of the agreement being abandoned by its signatories as a real threat, especially since the US and Russia have already pulled out of the intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) treaty. In addition, the proliferation of cyber threats is changing the very nature of warfare in ways that make it far harder for governments to accurately assess threats and correctly attribute attacks.
As former US Senator and arms control activist Sam Nunn said at the conference: “In this new era, we are much more likely to have war by blunder or miscalculation – by interference from third parties – than from a deliberate premeditated attack.” Consequently, he urged the US, Russia and China to cooperate in order to prevent “a nightmare for our children and grandchildren.” Unfortunately, the odds that such cooperation will be realized in the near future seem incredibly slim.