There has been a string of sweaty headlines from almost every continent on earth over the past month that might seem, at first, to be unconnected.
In Syria, a mysterious series of explosions in the desert turn out to have been an Israeli military strike which it claims was designed to take out the early stages of a nuclear weapons programme. In Iran, the chief nuclear negotiator with the West has quit because he doesn't agree with the hardline stance of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In Washington, the Bush administration funnels cash into developing "more useable" battlefield "mini-nukes." In Russia, Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia's fleet of strategic nuclear bombers to resume round-the-clock patrols for the first time since the fall of Soviet tyranny.
In India, the government has fissured and almost collapsed over the question of whether the country should enter into a nuclear deal with the US. In North Korea, dictator Kim Jong Il appears to be – perhaps – taking baby-steps towards giving up his nukes after a lot of bribes. And somewhere in the distance, Diana Ross should be singing, "I'm in the middle of a chain reaction."
These scattered stories are all fever-symptoms of the second nuclear age. In the first nuclear age, the Cold War, two power blocks faced each other, eyeball-to-eyeball, with a doctrine, however hellish, regulating their use of nukes: mutually assured destruction. You fire, we'll fire, and then we'll all die. Today, that world – with its mad MAD doctrine – is gone, and the odds of a nuclear weapon being used are swelling.
In the second nuclear age, we have mini-cold wars spreading across the world's hot-spots. India vs Pakistan. Israel vs (soon) Iran. North Korea vs the US (over Japan). And – back from the dead – the US vs Russia. Yet this time there are no hot-lines, no agreements not to fire first, and barely any plans to defuse the stand-offs, just 27,000 nuclear weapons, each one 70 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Some scientists suggest it would take less than 5 per cent of this arsenal to trigger a global nuclear winter.
Before he was assassinated, president John Kennedy foresaw the world we are now living in. He said: "I ask you to stop and think for a moment what it would mean to have nuclear weapons in so many hands, in the hands of countries large and small, stable and unstable, responsible and irresponsible, scattered throughout the world. There would be no rest for anyone then, no stability, no real security. There would be only the increased chance of [nuclear] war."
So how do we get out of this radioactive cul-de-sac? Kennedy had an idea. He ran in 1960 as a nuclear hawk, baiting Republican president Dwight Eisenhower from the right by falsely claiming he had allowed a "missile gap" to develop between the Soviet Union and the US. Then – in the Cuban missile crisis – he came within inches of overseeing a nuclear holocaust. After that, he declared: "The weapons of [nuclear] war must be abolished, before they abolish us."
He proposed a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) based on a simple bargain. The countries that already had nuclear weapons would agree to slowly disarm in lockstep, and in return the countries without weapons would agree not to tool up. The treaty was eventually signed, after his death, in 1968.
It is still the best route out of our current nuclear crises – yet the NPT is being used as toilet-paper by the world's leaders. The Bush administration, for example, has ignored both parts of the bargain: it has buffed up its own arsenal instead of reducing it, and it has recognised and rewarded other countries for proliferation.
That's what the current row in India is about. The US is proposing to reward India for becoming a nuclear power, offering it nuclear materials and other goodies. The Communist members in the Indian coalition are refusing, and are prepared to bring down the government.
The UN High Level Panel on Threats recently warned about where we're headed: "We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation." Most of us have been inert in response. The old mass movements for upholding the NPT have largely melted away.
Yet – for the first time in a long time – there has been an almost-unnoticed flash of hope on this issue from the US. Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was recently attacked for making a "gaffe" after he said he wouldn't, as president, use nuclear weapons against civilians. (Ah, such "political immaturity"). But instead of backing down, he raised the stakes, announcing: "Here's what I'll say as president: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons."
He pledged to "strengthen the NPT", take US missiles off hair-trigger alert, and multilaterally make mighty cuts in the US nuclear arsenal "to stop giving countries like Iran and North Korea an excuse".
In other words, Obama wants the bargain Kennedy proposed to be brought back to life. The developments in North Korea suggest his preferred strategy – diplomacy – might work. A fortnight ago, Kim Jong Il agreed to disable his main nuclear complex at Yongbyon and declare all his nuclear activities by the end of the year. He has been dragged to this point by a combination of sanctions and bribes by all the world's major powers, who are unusually united. It's hard to be totally optimistic: Kim made deals in the past, only to see them break down. But it suggests that sustained anathemetising of proliferation may bear results.
Many of the people who oppose the Cheney-Giuliani plans to bomb Iran think this is simply a matter of waiting for the internal Iranian opposition to depose the Holocaust-denying thug Ahmadinejad. But this ignores a simple fact: most Iranians want nuclear weapons, according to every opinion poll. It's desirable for the Iranian people to ditch Ahmadinejad for lots of reasons – but it isn't a non-proliferation strategy, unless he is replaced by somebody even more dictatorial.
No; the only long-term way to drag Iran away from the nuclear path is to change the minds of the Iranian people themselves. In a Bushian world where all the major powers, including Britain, wave their own nuclear weapons as virility symbols, that is impossible. In an Obaman world where the existing nuclear powers were dismantling much of their arsenals, it could – just – be done.
And if the sanctions and threats and carrots all still failed? If Kim and Ahmadinejad's successors insisted, after all, on tooling up? A denuclearising world could – as an absolutely last resort – justify taking military action to prevent other countries going nuclear. But today, to go to war to uphold the NPT would be a sick joke, when the world's leaders are all blatantly burning it themselves – and ramping up the risks of the second nuclear age.