What Does the Present Era of New Weapons and Fear of Accidental Launches Bode for the Future?

In different countries all over the world, there are new and intensive efforts to strengthen (or achieve) new and better nuclear warfighting (or defensive) capabilities. This stands in striking opposition to at least the rhetoric of the first Obama administration, when the president (Potus) had declared that he was striving for a word free of nuclear weapons.

While this goal may be elusive (there is no technology so far that has been uninvented), the open and hidden efforts to achieve some access to a nuclear ‘button’ (the bigger the better) are now particularly intense. The U.S. is investing in modernization programs in the triple billion dollar range. New weapons and strategies are in the making in China and Russia. Iran and North Korea are trying to join the club, which may be followed by similar policies by Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt and Turkey, as well as possibly Indonesia. India and Pakistan, Israel, the UK and France also are members of the club (though only five of all of them are also permanent members of the Security Council).

This week’s question is: Are we seeing here a ‘normal’ additional round of a competitive arms race, or does this indicate a new quality of insecurity on a broader scale? Do new weapons and warheads narrow the classical distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons? Is the danger of accidental launch growing? Has the Doomsday Clock’s hand rightly moved closer to midnight?

– Klaus Segbers

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  1. Alexei Voskressenski 7 months ago

    There are clearly intensive efforts to strengthen nuclear arming and defensive capabilities everywhere. Two Obama's periods were marked by efforts to cut weaponry and nuclear in particularly. It was assumed that others will follow, at least partially. However, Obama the Democrat was considered (right or not, that is another story) a 'weak' president, and America generally - a country to which others must not believe because of (mostly Republican Presidents') involvements abroad and particularly in Iraq, Libya and indirectly in Central Asia. Iraqi and Libya cases were interpreted as a clear sign of American double-standard policy towards others and American and Western intentions to overthrown legal governments. North Korean policy of nuclear armament was interpreted as a policy of freedom fight against despotic America. America in a considerable part of Eurasia and also in Russia was and is portrayed as a country behind Syrian and Ukrainian crises and the NATO expansion. The new reality helped to allocate money for many including irresponsible governments to rearm themselves and 'defend' the population forever. My view that this is not a ‘normal’ additional round of a competitive arms race but a failure of all alternatives to the policies of power and force that indicates a new quality of insecurity and the danger of accidental launch growing.

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  2. Thilo Bodenstein 7 months ago

    Thomas Schelling reminded in his Nobel Lecture that the nuclear ‘taboo’ has been respected for almost 60 years. During the Cold War nuclear deterrence between the superpowers functioned. More importantly, the superpowers refrained from using nuclear weapons even in case of defeat against non-nuclear nations. The nuclear taboo is deeply rooted in the mindsets of decision makers. Will decision makers of new nuclear powers also respect the taboo? Schelling was cautiously optimistic. In the 1960s no one would have expected nuclear restraint by the Soviet Union in case of military defeat, and yet the Soviet leadership respected the taboo in Afghanistan. The newcomers will eventually also learn that nuclear weapons are not made for warfare but for gaining political influence. The downside, however, of the nuclear taboo is the buildup of conventional capabilities. Proliferation increases the risk not of nuclear war, but of a new round of the arms race.

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  3. Dmytro Sherengovsky 7 months ago

    Unfortunately, Russian aggression towards Ukraine played a tricky game with the nuclear non-proliferation agenda. The supporters of deterrence strategies may loudly applause appealing to Ukrainian case, showing that refusal of nuclear weapons under international guarantees cannot guarantee security. In such thinking, it seems to be winning strategy for a country to have an additional argument in its own nuclear potential. It is hard to imagine how to restore the 'non-proliferation world' in present more dangerous than ever conditions. First of all, even unofficial status of nuclear state could be seen as a matter of security or even survival, rather than a matter of prestige. Here, a number of international responsibilities that members of the nuclear club had to share, could not be applicable to the new nuclear states without their 'official recognition'. On the contrary, the recognition of new members in the club will definitely provoke more countries to develop their nuclear strategies. Secondly, the majority of 'nuclear revisionists' can be hardly named democratic predictable regimes, rising a risk of accidental and emotional decisions.
    Nevertheless, knowledge of recent conflicts shows that nuclear weapons are still a part of deterrence logic, while conventional weapons and economic tools are more likely to be used in the military conflicts.

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  4. Justas Paleckis 7 months ago

    Yes, the Doomsday Clock arrow has moved closer to midnight rightly.
    And answers to all other questions can be defined clearly: yes, yes, yes. Officials in the world's most powerful countries often warn of the danger of returning to the times of the Cold War. This is hypocrisy and deceit. A few years ago the world has become much more vulnerable and insecure than it used to be during the Cold War. With nostalgia you can recall the idealistic and naive very important people who have dreamed of a nuclear weapons free world just a decade ago. It's good that world leaders communicate on the phone and sometimes meet. Unfortunately, most of their discussions are on how to deal with the firefighting of local conflicts. And what they should talk more about, and very seriously, is how to stop the new arms race and how to prevent the world from slipping into global disaster.

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  5. Anastasia Wischnewskaja 7 months ago

    Apocalyptic forecasts are a great thing: they scare the wider public, they make headlines and they give desired topics for talk shows where hosts who know not much more than John Snow discuss with randomly invited experts how soon we are going to die. The doomsday clock is summit of this rather random approach to dealing with complex subjects. The nukes are a huge danger to the humanity and yes, the risk that something will go wrong is enormous. In fact, we all are well advised to accept the idea that “something” – bigger or smaller – will happen sooner or later. However it is not the risk of strike among the major powers and not even the North Korea breaking bad. A much bigger danger is posed by the sheer existence of the nukes, by how they are stored and who has access to them. The most striking example is Pakistan, where the risk of terrorists getting a bomb is so high that the nuclear warheads cannot be kept at the same spot the whole time and are randomly transported around the country. If we are serious about reducing the risks produced by the sheer existence of nuclear arms, the established nuclear states are well advised to accept assistance in storing and protecting technologies to the states which already have atomic bombs and security guarantees and agreements to those, which aspire to become one.

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  6. Mina Sumaadii 7 months ago

    Indeed, at the moment political climate is not at its best. Among the major negative factors is that the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances was breached which is a big disincentive for other countries to give up their nuclear arsenal in the nearest future. Also, while improving some technological aspects, the room for human error has not significantly decreased. Nonetheless, if we think about the Trump administration, I wouldn’t say that the room for accidental launch has increased substantially. Some of the past US presidents were much more willing to engage in real war rather than tweet storms (for example Nixon). As for Russia and North Korea, there is a lot of bluffing going on. Despite the media coverage, the leaders there are pragmatic and know they will not survive any direct confrontation. Thus, in terms of the actual level of nuclear threat, it is not considerably worse than at the height of the Cold War. In my opinion, the Doomsday Clock moved rightly due to another kind of ‘doom’ - our inability to resolve climate change. Though it is not reflected in the clock, the choice to continue to scare each other with another round of arms race is inhibiting any improvements in climate changes negotiations.

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  7. Nikoloz Tokhvadze 7 months ago

    Almost three decades after the cold war, re-emerging trend of brandishing nuclear weapons in increasingly multi-polar word, is hard to dismiss as yet another round of a competitive arms race. If anything, it is a shortcut for relatively weak, authoritarian states to compensate for international, but also domestic insecurities - triggering very dangerous security spiral. Although inspired by the cold-war deterrence game, the context of current events, I believe, is entirely different due to the sheer number of nuclear actors, vastly diverging interests and the complex logic of their interactions. Such constellation feeds insecurities and hence justifies the current stance of (rather unscientific) Doomsday Clock.

    Finding solace in ostensibly simple deterrence logic of good, old cold war era can be misleading. Not only the logic becomes exponentially more complex with increasing number of actors, but the theory itself, built on formal modeling, oversimplifies the reality (as theories tend to do) and assumes, what many Behavioral scientists might consider - too much, full and obstinate rationality of the actors.

    Even if the basic presumptions of the deterrence theory will hold, it does not account for malfunctions and miscalculations (due to incomplete information, miscommunications, etc.) that, as empirically demonstrated, has propelled world at the brink of catastrophe more often than we are comfortable to acknowledge (e.g. 1983 Stanislav Petrov's alarming case). The abundance of nuclear weapon, statistically speaking, increases the possibility of accidents. Without reversing the process, it is only matter of time for the next “incident” to happen. It could also very well be the last.

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5 Comments

  1. Keyumars Ahmadi Tabar 7 months ago

    We should search our answers in North Korea’s tests of A-bombs and United States’ reactions to it. Thanks to Trump’s foreign policy, North Korea could have extended the range of threat to U.S borders which means that now the number one target is not U.S allies such as Japan but the United States itself.
    These events transmit negative signals to U.S allies and other countries that the unipolar order, which has formed by the United States, will not have proper function in near future and U.S.A can no longer provide this global public good (Security). Therefore, it would be a rational choice for each country to strengthen its capabilities for times of need.
    It is a critical point to consider that the U.S.A started this (nuclear) arms race in order to regain its reputation. In the case of North Korea, all that observers saw was a power vacuum in global political games.
    All things considered, It is a normal tendency that all countries see their optimal condition in joining the Nuclear Club. The topics like accidental launch probably seemed scary during the Cold War epoch but they do not have use in contemporary era. All parties are well aware of the outcomes of WMD and they are all concerned about the scope of the destructions. Consequently, the driving force behind the efforts of joining the Nuclear Club is improving deterrence and gaining psychological security.

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  2. Horng Sousean 6 months ago

    I do not think that the doomsday clock's is closer to the world due to two main reasons. firstly, states has just remind how important of economic sector is after the collapse of Soviet Union which fail down in 1991. They tend to prioritize the economic. They clearly know that how all those weapons, both conventional and nuclear, destructive to their own countries. This era is a economic competition; it is about economic power not military power though they have to strengthen capacity of weapon. Here, it led to the second reason. Even though states focus on economic sector, conventional and nuclear weapon are still a significant factor in term of balancing of power. States have to balance their power to one another because it is the only mean that no other states can threat to them. According to the power theory, the powerful states would threat or enforce the weaker states. This is the nature of power. So does all those states. This is the reason that sates have to strengthen the weapons, though they might not use it. Nuclear weapon can be only just an objective for the states to threat to one another because it is too destructive to use. For instance, the Unites States and North Korea. Both states are obtaining nuclear, yet they attempt not to use in reality. On the contrary, we can see that North Korea tested its nuclear in order to show off its muscle to the United States. This is how they use weapons as a cornerstone to threat other states. To sum up, the condition that states strengthen their weapons is the way they attempt to balance their power.

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  3. KOY Rattanakborin 6 months ago

    I think this is the normal additional round of the arm race. In the world that's uncertain, anarchy and has no world government. It's a normal thing for state to do in order to protect their interest. The arm race between the superpower is not new, but the new thing is the actors. In the past there was an arm race between US and USSR while in these days we see some emerging power such as China or India is also developing its own military because they are far behind the United State. The balance of power between those actors in the world politic by arm racing actually ensure peace because when one has the same capacity as the other, it's hard for them to go to war with each other because they will face destruction. Regarding with nuclear weapon it's unlikely that those countries will use it although they are able to has it because the this kin dog weapon is not created to be use but instead it was created to deter each other like in the case of Cuban's Missile Crisis. The world is not in danger but things that there are many actors that are involve now which make thing become more complicated.

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  4. David Häfner 3 months ago

    The issue of modernisation and technological advances in warfare and weapon technology raises some more interesting aspects worth debating here: the question of ethics and responsibility. When we look at current developments, e.g. gloves that can turn semi-automatic guns into fully automatic weapons which are available on the US market or general discussions on unmanned drones or the robotisation of weapons systems, it seems to me that human beings in charge of these weapons miss out on ethics. A lot. What justifies any random person in the United States, eligible to buy and possess a weapon (for self-defence apparently - problematic in the first place!) to turn it into an automatic one? What other purpose than butchering people can this possibly serve? Equally, if we consider the increasing number of unmanned drones or development of robots that can potentially be used to conduct warfare - we make these systems prone to be hijacked by people otherwise not authorised to use them and vulnerable to causing a great deal of harm to humankind. We not only give up the possibility of tracing who is responsible for ending human lives (e.g. who takes the decision? Who programmes the systems and what happens if errors occur? How are targets being selected?), we also lower the threshold of seeing 'targets' no longer as human beings. I suggest every human life is equally worth being preserved and argue strongly against new developments of war technology and weapons systems.

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  5. Deng Nongsiyu 2 months ago

    From my perspective, the current nuclear non-proliferation system is confronted with serious threats mainly posed by the United States. In the future, the danger of the spread of mass destruction weapons will rise. Firstly, United States broke the balance with China and Russia. Bush Administration withdrew from ABM. The deployment of THAAD deteriorated the security situation on the Korean peninsula. Because this anti-missile system is capable of monitoring the trajectory of missile in north China. These actions destabilize the security situation. In addition, the Nuclear Posture Review of Trump Administration planned to strengthen U.S. nuclear superiority over China and Russia. All in all, U.S. actions have undermined the foundation of global nuclear balance system. In the year of 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met with president of United States Donald Trump. We can look through the official joint statement of Kim-Trump summit. The statement says: President Trump committed to provide security guarantees to the DPRK, and Chairman Kim Jong Un reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But that North Korea will abandon nuclear weapons is different from the denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.US is not willing to cancel its nuclear strike forces on the peninsula. North Korea conducted several unclear tests but now US agrees to provide North Korea with security guarantees. How about Iran? Iran followed the US but now president Trump renounces the multilateral agreement on Iranian nuclear issue. We will see that many countries would recover their nuclear plans due to US swing policy. With the advancement of new weapons, great power can easily launch a war with lower cost. For instance, US can use drones to kill innocent people in remote Afghanistan. On the contrary, small powers hardly have the ability to defend themselves. Meanwhile, terrorists and religious extremists may acquire these technologies and use them to attack targets. The global system will face ascending uncertainties.

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