Will we wake from our nuclear coma?

There is a stronger chance of a nuclear bomb being used now than at almost any point in the Cold War
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The Independent Online

Dig out your old nuclear holocaust movies. Dust down your ancient CND banners. Get ready for the return of the mushroom-cloud nightmares you consigned to your subconscious back when the Berlin Wall fell - 2005 is going to be the year nuclear weapons come back.

Dig out your old nuclear holocaust movies. Dust down your ancient CND banners. Get ready for the return of the mushroom-cloud nightmares you consigned to your subconscious back when the Berlin Wall fell - 2005 is going to be the year nuclear weapons come back.

Let's take a tour of all the people who are about to force nukes back onto the political agenda - and into your dreams. Iran's mullahs are about to get a nuclear bomb. This isn't a scaremongering Saddam-will-get-you-in-45-minutes piece of nonsense. Everybody - from France to Germany to the Arab countries - agrees. Iran has been noisily testing its shiny new Shahab ballistic missile, and simultaneously enriching uranium.

Israel is preparing for a pre-emptive strike, but doesn't know how to judge the timing. What if they misjudge and attack after the Iranians have a weapon ready for use? In the next year, there will be a pre-emptive war, a nuclear stand-off or even a nuclear exchange in the most volatile region of the world.

Back at the ranch, the United States is building a "new generation" of nukes. They are smaller, quicker and - as the US right describes them - "more useable". Margaret Thatcher, on the basis of her impeccable links to the Bush administration, predicts they will be used as battlefield weapons within the next 20 years. Ah, but don't worry, the Bushies say: the US will be safe from retaliation because of the National Missile Defence shield they are building. Remember that? It's Ronald Reagan's baby, the Star Wars system that will somehow shoot any incoming nukes off into space.

Here's where Britain comes in. This nuclear shield would need a smattering of interceptor missiles across the world. Tony Blair has already privately agreed to allow RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire to be used as one of the bases. Britain will be essential to the US defence shield, but not covered by it - making us the first target for any attempt to blast a hole in US defences. And as if all that isn't enough, the next Parliament will have to decide whether to replace Trident, the British nuclear submarine carrying 48 nuclear warheads, each eight times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast.

Does all that sound complicated - and terrifying - enough? We're not through yet. India and Pakistan are still in a nuclear stand-off over Kashmir. They've already had two Cuban Missile Crises in the past decade. (Remember when Britain strongly advised its citizens to leave both countries two summers ago because they might be about to be evaporated?) There is still no hotline between the two countries' leaders, even though they threatened nuclear strikes against each other 13 times in 1999 alone. Pakistan's leadership is making peaceful noises at last - but it is very vulnerable to an Islamic fundamentalist coup.

And we're still not through. Now that North Korea's psychopathic regime has nukes, countries across Asia are considering acquiring a nuclear arsenal of their own, with South Korea and Japan at the front of the queue. More stand-offs. More risk. And did I mention the hundreds of "loose nukes" still barely protected in the former Soviet Union?

The truth emerging from this scattered picture of nuclear proliferation is simple: there is a stronger chance of a nuclear bomb being used now than at almost any point in the Cold War. No, the old fears won't come back. A nuclear attack on London is phenomenally unlikely (for now). But there is no such thing as a regional nuclear war. An exchange between India and Pakistan, or between Israel and Iran, would - quite apart from killing millions of people - risk irreparable ecological damage to the planet. Today, along with man-made climate change, nuclear weapons are the biggest threat to human life as we know it. So why is hardly anybody talking about it?

Partly, it's because nobody seems to have any good answers. We all know that during the Cold War, nuclear weapons were regulated by a simple doctrine: Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). If you used a nuke, you were guaranteed to be nuked in return. What doctrine now regulates the use of these weapons?

Some people believe that MAD is still a working principle. The conservative commentator Matthew Parris, for example, speaks for many on the right when he says that India and Pakistan are more stable because of nuclear weapons. "If India and Pakistan did not have nuclear weapons, they would have gone to war in 2002 ... the threat alone defused the situation. No lives were lost. This was the classic case for nuclear weapons, and it was demonstrated [there]." So MAD got us through the Cold War; it will get smaller powers through their own conflicts with less bloodshed. Proliferation is a good thing.

This argument is flawed for several reasons. Even when MAD was practised by two relatively stable super- power blocs for just 40 years, it nearly broke down and led to "rational suicide" on several occasions. Does anybody really think that if this is replicated across the world - in the most tense, dangerous and often fanatical regions - it will not break down sooner or later? Just one lapse, just one crazy leader testing the doctrine, condemns tens of millions of people to death. It requires delirious, wild optimism to believe MADness on every continent will keep us safe indefinitely.

But more importantly, all over the world, even the strained logic of MAD is evaporating. The US government believes it will, within a generation, be safe from retaliation because of its missile shield, so MAD will no longer apply to them. Many ultra-nationalists in the Indian government in 2002 seemed to have a worrying lack of knowledge about the effects of a nuclear war, claiming that it would have "a limited effect" and "we could take it". MAD doesn't work if people don't understand the consequences. And Islamic fundamentalists who believe that death can be more glorious than life, who welcome "martyrdom", are obviously not going to be put off by retaliation. So, against our biggest security threat - al-Qa'ida - MAD is useless.

I can only think of one long-term answer to the danger: phased, tightly monitored multilateral disarmament, reducing all the world's nuclear arsenals one step at a time. Right now, this is so far off the political map it sounds crazy. But what is the alternative?

There is Parris-style faith in MAD. Or there is the neoconservative solution, which is to keep thousands of nukes ourselves but deny them to everybody else through raw force. This is not a tenable long-term solution. Perhaps an Israeli bombing raid on Iran's reactors will work this year - but can proliferation be dealt with that way indefinitely? How can we sustain such hypocrisy without making more countries eager to get nukes to spite us?

Multilateral disarmament is deeply flawed, but the alternatives - endless proliferation or a neoconservative resort to force against any potential nuclear powers - are more dangerous still. Even if slow, careful nuclear disarmament didn't seem the best option to you at the height of the Cold War, it should now. Yet the people who should be making this case - groups like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - have gone off on a Trotskyite tangent, campaigning on causes that have nothing to do with nukes. (Their current crusade is to put Tony Blair on trial.)

The business of building a long, slow campaign for global disarmament should begin again in 2005 - but I don't think it will. The citizens of democratic countries will, I fear, have to wait for a nuclear blast somewhere - in Delhi or Seoul or Karachi - before we wake from our nuclear coma. By then, it will be too late for millions of people - and perhaps for us.