The first nuclear age began 69 years ago this week, with mushroom clouds over Japan. The dawn of the next, equally dangerous nuclear age can be seen through the haze of this summer’s violent conflagrations and political dust-ups. Washington, though peripheral to the conflicts, remains at ground zero of the revived nuclear dilemma.
The little-noted underside of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza is the pressure it adds toward a broader proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. That concern has been necessarily centered on Iran. Despite the Gaza war, Qatar’s Hamas-promoting mischief, the ongoing collapse of Syria, and new chaos in Libya, negotiations with Tehran about its nuclear program are still set to resume next month — a process Secretary of State John Kerry calls “a path forward,” but which an embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu derided last week as a “joke.” There is nothing funny, though, about the prospect of failed talks with Iran, and the unleashed nuclear arms race that would surely follow in that contentious region.
Not long ago, Iran seemed the cutting edge of the world’s nuclear peril, but that was before Ukraine. Now leaders of that beleaguered nation express open regret at their country’s 1994 decision to forgo its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal — then the third largest on the planet. Vladimir Putin’s appetite for aggression would certainly have been dulled by a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent — a lesson not lost on other nations, especially in Asia, where the nuclear issue remains lively. As the Iran negotiations resume in September, India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, will meet with President Obama in Washington, and Modi’s nuclear purposes, too, will be on the agenda. When it comes to the super-weapon, a chain reaction ties India to China and Pakistan, which remains hellbent on adding to its arsenal.
But the world’s precarious nuclear balance is threatened above all by the new belligerence of Russia’s Putin. Openly second-guessing Mikhail Gorbachev’s historic steps back from the abyss, he has resuscitated a Cold War conviction that nukes are essential to Moscow’s global and regional sway. Last week, the US State Department formally denounced Russia for violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the pillar of the arms reduction regime that ended the US-Soviet stand-off, and defined a reimagined international order for a generation.
Meanwhile, Russian aggressiveness is generating counter-moves in Washington, where those — in the Pentagon and in Congress — who have long distrusted President Obama’s emphasis on de-nuclearization are ascendant. Not long ago, mutual Russian-American reductions by 2018 to levels of about 1,000 warheads, from current levels of more than 7,000, seemed possible. For America, that would have meant elimination of most, if not all, land-based ICBMs, a cutback on nuclear-armed submarines, and a restricted bomber force — a long overdue right-sizing of US strategic power and military spending.
Such reductions would have kept alive the hope of avoiding wholly reinvented nuclear arsenals on both sides, but the reinvention is in gear now, and Obama’s goal of moving from an orgasmic overkill capacity to one of minimal deterrence seems trumped by events over which he has no control. And count on it: if the United States and Russia resume their nuclear competition, the race will be joined by every nation capable of running. In that context, the Iran negotiations represent an immediate opportunity to build a last-ditch firewall, which is why the Obama administration has refused to give up on reaching a deal.
For all of its dangers, the first nuclear age was organized around a precious international consensus, embodied in the 1968 Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, that the demonic weapon must be corralled. The fact that there are only nine nuclear-armed nations today — and not 15, or 20, or 50 — represents the Cold War’s one clear legacy of hope. But that communal restraint presumes an ongoing and universal commitment to disarm, even if in stages, over time. Obama’s vision of a nuke-free world, articulated so passionately in Prague in 2009, was not a fanciful dream, but a hard-headed description of the one and only acceptable future that lies ahead of the human species.
Here, coming from multiple fronts, is this summer’s warning: One way or another, the next nuclear age will be the last.James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.