I flinch at the slippery and collapsible precipice on which the United States and North Korea engage in nuclear sword fencing cum mudwrestling. I avoid any discussion of the principals, which is both difficult and perilous. Then I cast my gaze at Iran and then India and China, and India and Pakistan. J Robert Oppenheimer had it right, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Many old settled worlds have crumbled, been destroyed; different paradigms are emerging as still-to-be concretized replacements. There is the ongoing dismantling of the former world of superpower nuclear supremacy, as stockpiles and range and sophistication have all been neutralized to some extent. No longer is there the comfort of either smug complacency or the luxury of chauvinist bellicosity. To borrow a Cold War phrase, there is only that all too fitting acronym MAD, as in mutually assured destruction.
Hence, there are sensible defensive stand downs at different times involving different nuclear armed adversaries. China and India, and India and Pakistan come to mind again. When that first fateful explosion occurred in the sands of New Mexico some seventy years ago, a giant cat broke free from its restraining Pandora’s Box. It is not a house kitten, but a raging monster of a beast with warheads in its eyes, and horror in its heart. There may not even be a heart, which is what is unfolding above the 38th parallel right now.
For all intents and purposes, a great arsenal has been defanged; this will continue to happen in different circumstances until a miscalculating risk-taker rolls the dice. Such is the great equalizing spread of fission and fusion that can get away from those playing at brinksmanship. The label ‘rogue nation’ does not carry the dreadful pariah stigma of before. Who cares! Just gimme the weapon… Sanctions may appear toothy, but the clamping gums and the muscular jaws of enforcement are largely ineffective for deterrence purposes.
Along the way, the planet has progressed from a nuclear-free world to a nuclear-filled one. A sober look would help. Quite a few other players are racing to get their own armoury. Then what? What to do about invisible, peripatetic stateless actors bent on destruction and contemptuous of the Geneva Convention and UN resolutions.
A pocket device, or a briefcase bomb, or a dirty bomb (this has its own language and growing vocabulary) can irreversibly shatter the world of routine and order as is now known. This is not only about the usual terror groups; it extends into the world of commerce, as in illegal pharmaceuticals and smugglers, where the captains seek the retaliatory power and the psychological lance encompassed by ownership and possession of things nuclear. The nuclear club is no longer an exclusive one; that world was blown apart when India and Pakistan crashed the club door on their own, without welcome, and without regard for the reception of the established nuclear gentry. That world fell apart there and then.
It is now a world of potential nuclear blackmail (depends on who is asked) and continual national and international hostage taking. I predict this intensifying in the future.
The race to this mushroom clouded world commenced in secrecy, and progressed with early treachery. For even back in the formative Los Alamos years, the Soviets were beneficiaries of nuclear espionage, and that was 75 years ago. Today, the know-how is public knowledge, the financing is present, and so too the necessary ready will. Sanction and blacklisting be damned. Who has the reach and capability of policing the uranium sources, wherever they can be found? Or the old USSR stockpiles, now no longer a front-burner anxiety? Or the portable underground laboratories working feverishly to fulfil apocalyptic visions?
Currently, the lavishly christened Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has taken ‒ seized ‒centre stage, as the big bad wolf, the great yellow peril. It is one that is clearly relished, whatever the calculations and objectives might be. The histrionics and postures have contributed to transforming once fire-breathing hawks elsewhere (sharp rhetoric aside) into owls of studied contemplation and restraint. For there is such a thing as reflexive action even during death spasms; it is fear inducing. That is the kind of risk exposure, risk tolerance, and risk appetite that is not accounted for in the matrix of deliberations and projections. Where does all of this leave matters?
I venture right in the position where those hapless Japanese fisherman found themselves sixty years ago when they were exposed to the Bikini Atoll tests. All are as vulnerable as those luckless fishermen. Unlike Achilles, this vulnerability is not isolated in the heel, but is a full body weakness. And that, too, is part of the new world that exploded at Trinity in 1945.