The Weakness of Babylon the Great: Daniel 7

A deactivated nuclear missile at a museum.

March 13, 2023

Something Is Missing From Americans’ Greatest Fears. It’s the Bomb.

By Serge Schmemann

Mr. Schmemann is a member of the editorial board.

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The announcement last month by President Vladimir Putin of Russia that his country would suspend participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control pact with the United States set off long-dormant alarm bells. American nuclear forces went on red alert, people rushed to restock nuclear shelters, toilet paper and powdered milk vanished from grocery shelves … at least in Mr. Putin’s dreams, given his fantasy of restoring Russia to the salad days of Cold War brinkmanship.

Yet Mr. Putin’s pronouncement was widely interpreted for what it was, saber rattling to convince his cowed citizens that the war against Ukraine really is a life-or-death clash of superpowers. Most Americans appeared to take little notice of the announcement; many probably had only a vague notion of what the New START pact, more formally known as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, was about. Some may have been surprised that there were any agreements between the United States and Russia left to rip up.

Satisfying as it may be to deny Mr. Putin the pleasure of touching off panic in the West, his move was a blunt reminder that the threat of nuclear war is still present, possibly metastasizing, and should not be lightly dismissed.

More than 30 years after the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear obliteration simply doesn’t rank among Americans’ greatest fears. For a while after Sept. 11, global terrorism reigned in the public’s mind as the most pressing threat. According to a 2022 survey by the Pew Research Center, cyberattacks are now considered the major global menace, followed by false information, China, Russia, the global economy, infectious diseases and climate change. My grandson, a college student, told me his peers don’t see a global nuclear war as a real danger today.

Yet even the sharply reduced Russian and American nuclear arsenals are still enough to wipe out much of the world, China is pushing hard to become the third nuclear superpower, and at least six other countries, including the uber-dictatorship North Korea, have nuclear weapons (the others: Britain, France, Israel, India and Pakistan).

Perversely, the complexity of today’s world has even generated something akin to nostalgia for a time when there were only two superpowers to deal with and stability depended on mutually assured destruction. But it is hard to be nostalgic about a time when President John Kennedy urged all Americans to prepare nuclear shelters (“The time to start is now”) and nuclear nightmares were the stuff of popular movies like “On the Beach,” “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

True, there were fears when the Soviet Union collapsed that a terrible “second nuclear age” of unchecked proliferation and nuclear terrorism would follow. In fact, since the end of the Cold War only North Korea got its own bomb, and its nuclear program began long before the Soviet Union ended. On the opposite side of the ledger, South Africa abandoned its nuclear program in 1989, and three new states that inherited some Soviet nuclear weapons — Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan — surrendered them (perhaps now to their regret).

Whether Americans are justified in no longer worrying so much about the bomb is another question. Jon Wolfsthal, a senior adviser to Global Zero, a group that advocates the abolition of nuclear weapons, and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, thinks not. “A lot of this is subjective,” he said. “In the ’60s and ’70s we believed that Russians would launch unless we were on our guard. They were sure that we would launch.” As that fear receded, he said, so did awareness of the ever-present threat. “Before, all senators had to know the language of throw-weight” — the payload of a nuclear missile. “Today, there’s not five senators who understand the issue.”

Yet nuclear arms controls are as needed today as they ever were, and not only with Moscow. Mr. Putin obliquely acknowledged that when, after saying on Feb. 21 that Russia would suspend participation in New START, Russia quickly added that the country would continue to respect the treaty’s limits on nuclear warheads and delivery systems. The alternative, he knew, could be a new arms race in which Russia was no match for America’s economic and technological abilities. In effect, Mr. Putin’s announcement extended a suspension of on-site inspections that began during the pandemic.

That is serious. But at least the principle of limiting strategic nuclear warheads (to 1,550 each) and the missiles, submarines and heavy bombers with which to launch them survives.

Even if the Doomsday Clock doesn’t move any closer to midnight, time is still running out. New START expires in three years. It’s hard to imagine negotiations on a new treaty so long as the war in Ukraine rages on. At the same time, China is racing ahead in an apparent bid to match the U.S. and Russian arsenals by 2035. So far, Beijing has rebuffed any efforts to negotiate limits with the United States, though it joined the United States, Russia, France and Britain in January 2022 in declaring that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Even if Russia and China can be brought to the table, the parties will need a new way to define how many bombs each nation needs to deter the other two.

In the meantime, China’s growing arsenal might spur India to build up its own, which could prod Pakistan to do the same. On other fronts, Iran is said to be steadily advancing its nuclear program since former President Donald Trump’s ill-advised withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. And there are no contacts with North Korea, which demonstrated readiness in the past to negotiate constraints on its nuclear program.

With the war in Ukraine casting a pall on Washington’s relations with Russia, China, India and much of the global south, arms controls may seem a waste of time. But the era of arms controls began when relations between Washington and Moscow reached a dangerous low after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Mr. Putin’s missile-rattling may be a signal that the Ukraine war has taken us there again.

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Serge Schmemann joined The Times in 1980 and worked as the bureau chief in Moscow, Bonn and Jerusalem and at the United Nations. He was editorial page editor of The International Herald Tribune in Paris from 2003 to 2013. 

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