The Nuclear Illusion

GENEVA – As delegates from 189 countries gather to prepare for the next Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, due in 2015, I am reminded of my first official briefing, as a young Australian minister back in the early 1980’s, on United States nuclear strategy. It was given to me, in the bowels of the Pentagon, by a man with a white dust jacket and a pointer who looked uncannily like Woody Allen.

He did not have much to say about the countless real human beings who would be vaporized, crushed, baked, boiled, or irradiated to death if a nuclear war ever erupted. The language was disengaged and technical – all about throw-weights, survivability, counterforce, and countervalue targets. But it was a dazzling account of the logic of nuclear deterrence and the mechanics of mutually assured destruction, which both the US and Soviet Union applied throughout the Cold War.

Thirty years later, our world is not one in which the governments in Moscow or Washington are likely to hurl swarms of nuclear missiles at each other (if it ever was). Nor is it a world in which China or the US would conceivably ever intentionally start a nuclear war against the other.

Even for India and Pakistan, the risk of misjudgment or miscalculation is much greater than that of deliberate nuclear warmongering. And, for North Korea – or Iran, should it ever build nuclear weapons – the risk of the regime initiating a nuclear attack is negligible, given that doing so would result in its certain (non-nuclear) incineration.