Walking the quiet residential and commercial streets of this quaint little Scottish town you might not realise that we are currently living in one of the most dangerous moments in decades. There is no invading army, no deadly pathogen, no asteroid hurtling towards us; instead there is only the grim mathematical probability of a nuclear war between the United States and Russia.
In 1962, both nations were incredibly close to pulling the atomic trigger and ending life as we know it. It took a great amount of time and effort for both of the two superpowers to at least partially defuse the stand-off. Baby steps: a crop of successive treaties with innocuous acronyms like “SALT II” and “START” demonstrated a real effort by both parties to limit (even moderately) their vast and deadly arsenals of nuclear weapons. Thanks to these agreements the U.S. and Russia possess only about 10 per cent of their original nuclear capacity, which at their height numbered over 60,000 warheads, according to The Times.
Perhaps the most important of these agreements is the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (or “INF”) Treaty, whose purpose is to ban ground-based missiles with a range of between 310 and 3,100 miles – in other words, missiles capable of striking Europe. The INF treaty is also notable for its “unprecedented, intrusive inspection regime” which allows for far better oversight and enforcement.
The Americans have been complaining for years now that the Russians have violated the treaty. The Obama Administration claimed that Russia had built a ground-launched missile whose range was within the banned zone in 2014; Moscow, for its part, has repeatedly claimed since then that the U.S. is developing missile defence platforms and armed drones in Europe in direct contradiction to their agreement.
This tense back-and-forth might have fizzled out in time had the Trump Administration not declared its intent to officially withdraw from the treaty in 2018 if Russia did not eliminate the offending missile. The second part of this threat, delivered by the President at his annual State of the Union Address, was the promise that the United States will revamp and develop its nuclear arsenal. The Russians, for their part, quickly announced that they, too, were preparing to leave the INF treaty and that they, too, would mount a “symmetrical response” to match America’s new investment in horrific destruction.
This is insane. Nuclear disarmament is a policy carried out by every American president since Richard Nixon. You do not abandon a decades-old policy which has reduced the number of warheads by 90 per cent on a whim – but that seems to be exactly what President Trump is doing. Perhaps his toxic paranoia, his pathological worry that he is somehow being taken advantage of, is blinding him to gruesome prospect of nuclear war, or perhaps he believes that his new “Space Force” will save us.
Before you laugh off the idea that anybody would ever be stupid enough to press the big red button (link to Trump big button tweet), consider the following: The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has, for decades, maintained a metaphorical “Doomsday Clock” which they believe demonstrates the severity of the threat of nuclear war. Today it stands at two minutes to midnight – midnight being the extinction of the human race by means of atomic fire, radiation poisoning, and nuclear winter. Two minutes to midnight is not good. In fact, it is really bad. The B.A.C. goes on to call the developments of the past year a “new abnormal”, a “ pernicious and dangerous departure from the time when the United States sought a leadership role in designing and supporting global agreements that advanced a safer and healthier planet”.
The implications for Europe – the unfortunate plaything of the two hegemons on either side – are equally bad. It goes without saying that if there ever were a war between Russia and the United States, Europe would take the brunt of the damage. There are already talks at very high levels in Europe to the effect that America is an unreliable, even unstable, ally, and that Europe needs to look out for its own defence.
Whether, as French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel hope, this will look like “a real European army” or something else is yet to be seen, but it is almost certain that these events will weaken American influence in Europe and by extension weaken NATO. Both Macron and Merkel are on the record arguing that Europe cannot rely on America for its protection; both leaders clearly fear between moved about like pawns by great powers like Russia and China.
Of course, not everyone would agree with critics of the decision to leave the INF treaty. St Andrews’ own Professor Gerard DeGroot writes in the preface to his excellent biography of the atomic age The Bomb: a Life that “[the] puny efforts to bring proliferation under control were always dwarfed by the MAD giant of deterrence. Once the atomic powers decided that the best protection against the Bomb was another Bomb, any talk of arms reduction was rendered irrevocably futile”.
Perhaps talk of total disarmament is naive – barring the establishment of a world government, it will never happen. But it can hardly be bad thing to reduce, however incrementally, the amount of these world-ending weapons that the great powers possess. Either that, or godspeed to the grand European army and the United States Space Force.