Johann Hari: From hot spots to Cold Wars

How many reruns of the Cuban Missile Crisis are we prepared to risk over the next century?
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The Independent Online

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (may it rest in peace) is pretty basic. It was written in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when pale and shaken world leaders were slowly realising how close they had come to committing "rational suicide" by launching a nuclear war. A consensus emerged that the number of nuclear weapons in the world needed to be drastically reduced, and that no new nuclear powers should be allowed to emerge to increase the risk even further. Almost every country in the world signed. The non-nuclear countries agreed not to tool up, in exchange for the already-nuclear countries agreeing to slowly dismantle their arsenals and to never, under any circumstances, share their nuclear technologies.

The Treaty has been in intensive care for years. Since it was signed in 1968, at least six other countries have acquired nukes, and only one country (South Africa) has disarmed. During Bush junior's presidency, the US has ramped up its arsenal of WMD, working on "mini-nukes" and "more useable" bunker-busting nuclear weapons. The North Korean tyranny has spent billions on nuclear weapons while its people starve and the Iranian mullahs are inching close behind. The recent UN meeting to discuss the future of the Treaty was a shambles, since it was plain that nobody intended to abide by its terms.

And then this week, George Bush unplugged the life support and held a pillow over the patient's face. After fêting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the White House, Bush unilaterally ended the sanctions imposed against India since it went nuclear in 1998, and privately welcomed her role as an nuclear bulwark against China. He announced a deal to begin sharing US nuclear technology with India, making a mockery of one of the key ideas of the Treaty.

It would be more honest to give the Treaty a public burial and admit that, for now, we are living in a world where nukes are proliferating across the globe with no international restraints. This might just jolt us awake. But should it? Is there really any danger of a nuclear weapon actually being used this century? Sadly, you can only dismiss nuclear weapons as 1980s nightmares if you are very short-sighted or if you have a very bad memory.

Let's look at the sub-continent Bush has just begun to share his nuclear technologies with. Twice in the past six years, India and Pakistan have stood at the brink of nuclear war. In the 1999 Kargil crisis, the countries exchanged nuclear threats 13 times - with no hot-line between the two leaders to calm them down. Just three summers ago, Britain advised her citizens to evacuate cities like Delhi and Karachi because there was a "real and imminent" risk of them being evaporated in a mushroom cloud. The Foreign Office's judgement call was right: the Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes was bragging: "India can take a nuclear hit and hit back," while Pakistan's General Mirza Aslam Beg announced: "We can make a first strike, a second strike and even a third. Look - you can die crossing the street, or you can die in a nuclear war. You've got to die some day anyway."

We are entering a world of rapidly multiplying nuclear stand-offs like this. India vs Pakistan. Iran vs Israel. America vs.China. Within decades, North Korea vs Japan and South Korea. Not one Cold War, but many - and the risk is doubled each time.

True, since the election of the Congress Party last year, India's relations with Pakistan have (very slightly) relaxed. But the construction of a nuclear bunker underneath the Prime Minister's office has continued, and nobody has forgotten that the two countries have been at war four times in the past 60 years. The bombs have now fused with the fierce nationalism of the countries, with some Indian leaders still talking proudly of the "Hindu bomb" - presumably followed by Hindu fall-out and Hindu radioactive poisoning. (There is a horrible irony in this, since Robert Oppenheimer - the father of the bomb - responded to seeing the first ever nuclear explosion by quoting the god Vishnu from Hindu scripture: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.")

It is wildly naïve to think that all these stand-offs between highly volatile countries can continue until - when? forever? - without, sooner or later, a bomb being used. Even the minimal protections of the Cold War - like hotlines between leaders - are not yet in place in most of these countries. How many reruns of the Cuban Missile Crisis should we risk over the next century?

It is not only the Usual Suspects who are warning about this. Even Margaret Thatcher - one of the most militant defenders of nuclear weapons in the world - has predicted that a "battlefield nuclear weapon will be used in the next 20 years".

So where are all the old luvvies-for-CND, now the issue has become more complex, more "foreign" and less sexy? At the height of the last India-Pakistan stand-off, I asked Martin Amis what he thought about nuclear weapons now, and he mumbled something about a "regional nuclear war" being "less frightening". This is based on a dumb and flawed premise. All nuclear bombs in existence today are 20 times more powerful than the weapons dropped on Japan, and there are currently over 9,000 of them ready to fire within 45 minutes. The danger of any of these being used against Britain is virtually nil. But if just a handful of these weapons is exploded anywhere, there will be disastrous ecological and economic consequences everywhere - including here. They will not be confined to the region where they are detonated. It is not clear how many weapons have to be exploded to trigger a nuclear winter and On the Beach-style universal death, but some scientists believe the use of India and Pakistan's joint arsenals would be sufficient.

These are ludicrous risks when there is a solution out there - even if it is pretty retro. One day we will have to disinter the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, wipe off the soil Bush just tossed on to its coffin, and try to start a process of gradual, multilateral disarmament, removing a major threat to human life one radioactive step at a time. But do we have to wait for Hiroshima Redux to actually happen before we start on this long, slow work?