Revisiting the ‘Nuclear War’ question

One can neither comprehend nor estimate the scale and magnitude of destruction a nuclear war can bring about. It’s time that world leaders recognize the significance and relevance of Prime Minister Modi’s message – “This is not an era of war”.

  • Although a paradigm shift in the world order towards international de-stability is underway, the costs and consequences of a nuclear war need to be reassessed.
  • In recent years, nuclear diplomacy has focused on addressing the growing threat posed by non-state actors and terrorist groups seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.
  • Nuclear war represents one of the most serious threats to human civilization and raises profound questions about international morality.

The epoch of the cold war, from the end of World War two till the disintegration of the Soviet Union, was daunted by a singular question, “will there be a nuclear war between the two power blocks”? And if there is one, the scale and magnitude of the war would become a perpetually destructive trail, which meant that almost half of the human population would be wiped out.  It would have devastating geopolitical consequences, with significant implications for global security, stability, and economic prosperity.

In contemporary times, nuclear disarmament and the idealist objectives of international peace and cooperation by giving up nuclear arms, have almost become a distant dream. In light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, which is reaching the stage of a strategic stalemate, the danger of heading towards a real-time nuclear confrontation has almost become certain. This would definitely lead to the destruction of Europe as we know it today. International law and rules-based order, international morality and the quest for a stable world order with consistent dialogue are becoming shriller day by day. Although a paradigm shift in the world order towards international de-stability is underway, the costs and consequences of a nuclear war need to be reassessed.

Nuclear war can have devastating effects on both humans and the environment

Immediate effects: The immediate effects of a nuclear explosion are blasts, heat, and radiation. The blast can destroy buildings and infrastructure, while the heat can cause fires and burn injuries. Radiation can cause acute symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, and hair loss. The severity of these effects depends on the size of the explosion and the distance from the epicentre.

Long-term effects: The long-term effects of nuclear war can include cancer, genetic mutations, and birth defects. Exposure to radiation can damage DNA and increase the risk of developing cancer. It can also affect the reproductive system and cause genetic mutations that can be passed on to future generations. The Japanese experience in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to date happens to be the darkest chapter of the nuclear disaster, which unleashed the evil effects of radiation on its people for the next three generations after the attack.   

Environmental effects: Nuclear war can also have severe environmental consequences. It can release large amounts of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, soil, and water, contaminating food supplies and making large areas uninhabitable. This contamination can last for decades or even centuries, making it difficult for plants and animals to survive. It is estimated that almost 3/4th of the biodiversity would be irreparably destroyed for several generations, and would lead to the total destruction of the ecosystem.

Economic effects: Nuclear war can cause significant economic damage, including the destruction of infrastructure, loss of productivity, and long-term healthcare costs. It can lead to a worldwide economic downturn with disruption to global trade, supply chains, and financial markets. Given how the world is interconnected due to globalization, a nuclear attack on one country can have a domino effect on the whole continent and it would intern affect large parts of the world. The second and third-order effects on the economic performance of the world would certainly happen in a decade following the nuclear attack. The cost of rebuilding and recovery would be enormous and could take decades to fully address.  

Global instability: A nuclear war would cause massive destruction and loss of life, and could trigger a global humanitarian crisis. This would likely lead to widespread instability, as governments struggle to respond to the aftermath of the war.

Arms race: A nuclear war could lead to an increase in global tensions, with countries seeking to develop and deploy nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence. This could trigger an arms race, as countries seek to acquire more advanced and powerful weapons. One of the key factors for a sudden surge in the global arms race happens to be the international military-industrial complex, in which the USA is playing a major role.

Political realignment: A nuclear war could lead to significant political realignment, as countries seek to form alliances and protect their interests in the aftermath of the war. This could lead to the emergence of new global powers, and the decline of existing ones. The expectation amongst the nuclear and strategic pundits across the world happens to be the decline of China in the course of time, and the weakening of the USA to just being a minor power, which would lead the world towards an anarchist multilateral as well as a multipolar world, which means that an overarching international power or even a working international organization cannot cease to exist, which would virtually put all the countries on a “self-help” mode. This scenario brings the exact predictions of hard-core realists, into a practical working proposition in the world.

The Nuclear diplomacy in action – a flailing saga

Nuclear diplomacy refers to the diplomatic efforts aimed at managing and resolving issues related to nuclear weapons, including disarmament, nonproliferation, and arms control. These efforts typically involve negotiations, agreements, and other forms of cooperation between countries that possess nuclear weapons, as well as those seeking to acquire or develop them. The primary goal of nuclear diplomacy is to reduce the risk of nuclear war or other catastrophic events caused by the use or proliferation of nuclear weapons. This often involves establishing mechanisms to limit the spread of nuclear weapons, such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and promote disarmament.

Nuclear diplomacy also involves efforts to build trust and confidence between countries with nuclear capabilities, such as through confidence-building measures, joint military exercises, and cooperative research and development programs. These measures can help reduce tensions and promote stability in regions where there is a risk of nuclear conflict. In recent years, nuclear diplomacy has focused on addressing the growing threat posed by non-state actors and terrorist groups seeking to acquire nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. This has led to increased cooperation between countries in efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism and secure nuclear materials.

Shortcomings of Nuclear Diplomacy

Lack of trust: Nuclear diplomacy involves negotiations and agreements between countries with vastly different histories, cultures, and interests. In order for these negotiations to be successful, there needs to be a foundation of trust between the negotiating parties. However, given the history of conflict and mistrust between many countries, it can be difficult to establish such a foundation.

Domestic politics and turbulence in the leadership: Domestic politics can also play a significant role in the success or failure of nuclear diplomacy. Leaders may face opposition from their own political parties or interest groups within their countries, which can make it difficult for them to make concessions or compromises in negotiations. Changes in leadership or unstable regimes can also disrupt nuclear diplomacy. Negotiations that may have been underway under one administration may be abandoned or renegotiated under a new administration, which can lead to delays and setbacks.

Strategic considerations: Nuclear diplomacy often involves discussions around disarmament, non-proliferation, and deterrence. Countries may have different strategic considerations and goals that are difficult to reconcile. For example, some countries may view nuclear weapons as a necessary deterrent, while others may see them as a threat to global security.

Technical challenges: There are also technical challenges involved in nuclear diplomacy. For example, countries may disagree on the verification methods used to ensure compliance with agreements. Additionally, the complex technical nature of nuclear weapons and the associated infrastructure can make negotiations difficult.

Role of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA):

The IAEA is an international organization that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear energy and monitors compliance with nuclear treaties. It plays a crucial role in verifying that countries are using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and not for the development of nuclear weapons. The activities of the IAEA fall under four main areas:

  1. The establishment of health and safety standards in the nuclear domain.
  2. Administration of a safeguards programme to ensure that atomic minerals are not diverted from peaceful to military uses.
  3. Technical assistance in dealing with nuclear technology.
  4. Aid in nuclear research and development.

Although the IAEA, has an international mandate as a specialized UN agency, to ensure global nuclear safety and security, it has fallen back on its goals as a result of the US intervention and the high degree of western pressure being exerted on it. In the Russia-Ukraine war last year, when the nuclear power plants were attacked, the shambolic conduct of IAEA authorities came under heavy criticism from the global press; as they had failed to address the risk of nuclear spillover and took the issue of radioactive particles being spread in a reckless manner, which had compromised the lives of thousands of people staying within the vicinities of the nuclear plants.

Two important treaties dealing with the nuclear question

Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): The NPT is an international treaty aimed at preventing the spread of nuclear weapons and promoting disarmament. It has been in force since 1970 and has been signed by most countries in the world. The treaty requires nuclear-armed states to work towards disarmament, while non-nuclear states agree not to acquire nuclear weapons. The NPT has three important pillars, 1) Non-Proliferation: which doesn’t allow the recognized nuclear weapons states, who happen to be the P5 countries in the UN security council, to export nuclear weapons or technology directly and indirectly to other non-nuclear states. 2)  Disarmament: This principle persuades the nuclear weapons state to indulge in the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to pursue the goal of nuclear disarmament and a treaty on general and total disarmament under strict and effective international control. 3) Peaceful use of nuclear energy: The treaty allows for cooperation in the field of peaceful use of nuclear technology. Here, all parties have equal access to nuclear technology.

Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT): Negotiation on a comprehensive (nuclear) test ban treaty began in January 1994. These were based on the framework of the conference on disarmament. After two years of intensive negotiations, Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which forbids all nuclear explosions in all environments for military or civilian purposes, was accepted by UN General Assembly on 8th September 1996. Until now, 153 states have ratified the CTBT, and another 29 states have signed but not yet ratified it. Therefore, the treaty has not been implemented yet. For sure, China, the USA and Russia would never agree to sign this treaty as it restricts their strategic hegemonic ambitions of controlling the world through exerting their hard power.

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW): The TPNW is a recent treaty, adopted in 2017, that prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, use, or threat of use of nuclear weapons. It has been signed by 86 countries and ratified by 54. But even this treaty has failed to prevent the major powers like Russia, China and the USA from neither achieving nuclear containment nor issuing threats to minor powers in the blatant use of nuclear weapons, in the presence of nuclear deterrence. 

These treaties and conventions are important tools for promoting global nuclear disarmament and reducing the risk of nuclear war. It is important for countries to continue to work towards disarmament and the elimination of nuclear weapons, while also promoting peaceful uses of nuclear technology. But the progress in the global agenda of nuclear disarmament has become painfully slow and perhaps would lead to reversing the process as the contemporary conflict situation in the world is that of a new great power game, with China and the USA, becoming the new superpowers of confrontation, along with the rising clout of the global military-industrial complex.

Nuclear War and International Morality

Nuclear war represents one of the most serious threats to human civilization and raises profound questions about international morality. Here are some key considerations related to international morality and nuclear war:

The principle of just war: The concept of just war is a moral framework that seeks to balance the need to use military force with the moral imperative to avoid unnecessary harm. Many scholars argue that the use of nuclear weapons would violate the principles of just war, as the harm caused would be disproportionate to any military objective that could be achieved.

The principle of non-combatant immunity: The principle of non-combatant immunity holds that civilians should not be intentionally targeted in war. The use of nuclear weapons would inevitably result in the deaths of many civilians, and would therefore violate this principle.

The principle of proportionality: The principle of proportionality holds that the harm caused by military action should be proportionate to the military objective being pursued. Given the indiscriminate and devastating nature of nuclear weapons, it is difficult to see how their use could ever be proportional to any military objective.

The responsibility to protect: The responsibility to protect is a principle of international law that holds that the international community has a responsibility to protect civilians from mass atrocities. The use of nuclear weapons would clearly constitute a mass atrocity, and would therefore represent a failure of the international community to uphold this responsibility.

The use of nuclear weapons would represent a serious violation of international morality and would have profound and long-lasting consequences for human civilization. It is essential that nations work towards disarmament and preventing the use of nuclear weapons, in order to uphold the principles of international morality and protect the future of humanity. But given the cacophonic and hyper-realist situations in the international politics of our contemporary times, the mundane questions of global humanist morals, ethics and pacifist consciousness have become bleak. There is no doubt that if this same trend continues, the entire human race may head towards a dark future, where we might reach a point of no return.

The USA is estimated to possess about 5428 nuclear weapons, while Russia has around 5977 nuclear weapons in its arsenal, making it the country with the highest number of nuclear weapons. It is said that the most powerful nuclear weapon that exists today, which is Russia’s “Tzar Bomba” possesses 3800 times more explosive capacity than the Hiroshima bomb “Fat Man” which was dropped in Japan towards the fag end of WW2. So we can certainly say that if this Russian bomb detonates, it can destroy a sizeable European country. Overall, there are around 13000 nuclear warheads, which is sufficient to completely destroy two earths! One can neither comprehend nor estimate the scale and magnitude of destruction a nuclear war can bring about. It’s time that world leaders recognize the significance and relevance of Prime Minister Modi’s message – “This is not an era of war”.

(The author has an MA in International Relations. Opinions expressed are the author’s own)

References:

  1. Blechman, B., Bollfrass, A., & Heeley, L. (2015). REDUCING THE RISK OF NUCLEAR WAR in the Nordic/Baltic Region. Stimson Center. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep10865
  2. Sagan, C. (1983). Nuclear War and Climatic Catastrophe: Some Policy Implications. Foreign Affairs, 62(2), 257–292. https://doi.org/10.2307/20041818
  3. N. D. Jayaprakash. (2003). Nuclear War Plan: Dangerous Portents. Economic and Political Weekly, 38(4), 265–269. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4413118
  4. Blank, S. (2000). Undeterred: The Return of Nuclear War. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, 1(2), 55–63. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43133407
  5. Cutter, S. L. (1988). Geographers and Nuclear War: Why We Lack Influence on Public Policy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 78(1), 132–143. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2563444
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2 Comments

  • Dr.Srikanta Rao K S

    The survival of human race on this planet depends entirely on the delicately balanced nation to nation relationships, the accumulated weapons of nuclear megapowers can erase the human race, wipe out the countries and not only that it can convert the planet into flames and dust within minutes!!
    The nuclear power race at the global level seems to be alarming and uncontrolled.
    We are extremely lucky to have global leader Modi ,his words ” this is not the era for war ” is greatly appreciated all over the world.

    Immensely thanking Vishwapramod for a nice article..

  • Venkatesh Prasad

    Rightly pointed out the Nuclear war has serious consequences. It’s mentioned that the quantum of nuclear weapons World has today is enough to destroy the world 100 times. In case of a new World War then the earth would be destroyed. In case the war is between two countries or few of them then those countries and neighbors would have the radiation and other impact. Now the question is how to stop Nuclear war. The current UNO is of no effect. They are not able to stop conventional war between two Nations. Further the countries are aware of the consequences of any type of war, but still go to War. Ofcourse for various reasons which they think are valid. They are some countries which provoke their neighbors into War. For example China, which provokes India on several times. Eg., 1. Giving new names to places in India’s Arunachal Pradesh 2. Sending spy ships near Andaman islands 3. Sending battle ships to Srilanka for spying 4. Encroaching India’s territory. 5. Using their chinese companies to spy on India 6. Occupying Aksaichen knowing well that’s India’s territory is illegally being occupied. With above and many more reasons India may be forced to declare war against China. Similarly Russia has war against Ukarine, since former felt there would be a security threat to Russia. So each country perception differs and they exercise their right to ensure security. UN has failed and so other organisations. Will there be end to wars?

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