State of the State in a Nuclear Age

Author’s Note

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gobrachev, 1987. (RIA Novosti archive, image #850809 / Vladimir Vyatkin / CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

This month’s ‘War & Peace’ column is dedicated to the memory of Mikhail Gorbachev (1931-2022), the last leader of the Soviet Union, who grasped—as he told the United Nations in 1988—that in the nuclear age, “disarmament” is “the most important thing of all, without which no other issue of the forthcoming age can be solved;”

Raymond Briggs

Raymond Briggs, 1983. (Photo by Rob Croes for Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons)

and to the memory of Raymond Briggs (1934-2022), the British author, illustrator and anti-war activist whose 1982 comic book When the Wind Blows harrowingly exposed the cruel delusion of ‘civil defense,’ the persistent pretense that citizens can take sensible steps  to survive a nuclear attack.




In the debut episode  of the brand new Star Trek series, Strange New Worlds, Captain Christopher Pike shows inhabitants of Kiley 279, a planet on the verge of self-destruction, graphic footage of a nuclear holocaust on Earth, killing 30% of the human population and extinguishing 600 million lifeforms. Duly chastened, the planet’s leaders refuse to pass the point of no return, and the Enterprise flies off (photon torpedoes and all) on its mission of peace.

The episode is set in the year 2259, just 233 years after World War 3 (in 2026): a cataclysm from which humanity rebounded at astonishing, warp speed, becoming a founding member of the United Federation of Planets in 2161! While just one nuclear weapon can ruin your day, it appears one nuclear apocalypse is not enough to ruin your planet.

Star Trek Strange New Worlds posterThe daunting task of dispelling such unscientific fictions falls primarily to scientists, medical professionals and other experts who comprehend the true scale of a disaster from which—while it would certainly have its ashes—no human phoenix could hope to arise. “Unlike conventional weapons or other weapons of mass destruction,” the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) recently stressed:

…nuclear weapons can instantaneously wipe out entire populations, level cities, and devastate the environment. They produce radioactive contamination that remains active for millennia, causing cancers and other illnesses that can persist across generations. Moreover, the environmental consequences of nuclear war, including severe climate disruption, can lead to global famine and, in the most extreme case, human extinction.

While this ‘most extreme case’—nuclear winter following a full Russia-NATO war—would doom “Earth’s fundamental ecosystems, on which all life depends,” far lesser exchanges would wreak havoc “without remedy.” “A limited regional nuclear conflict” between India and Pakistan, for example, “involving only 100 Hiroshima-size [15-kiloton] nuclear weapons” (less than one half of one percent of the global nuclear stockpile) “would severely disrupt the global climate and agriculture for more than 25 years,” with “apocalyptic” results. In a full India-Pakistan exchange, involving five hundred 100-kiloton weapons, 74 trillion grams (TG) of soot from irradiated cities would cause 6.5 degrees of global cooling. By grim “comparison, the last Ice Age around 20,000 years ago, when our ancestors contended with woolly mammoths and saber tooth tigers, at its coldest was between 3º and 8º cooler than pre-industrial temperatures.”

The IPPNW paper—‘The Catastrophic Consequences of Nuclear Weapons and War: Summary of the Evidence and New Research Findings’—was submitted to the recent (June 21-23) First Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in Vienna. In my June column, I noted with regret that a historic, Congressionally-mandated study by the US National Academies of Sciences (NAS) on the ‘Potential Environmental Effects of Nuclear War’—mandated to examine “the non-fallout atmospheric effects of plausible scenarios for nuclear war, ranging from low-quantity regional exchanges to large-scale exchanges between major powers”—was due to be published just days after the TPNW meeting. Incredibly, however while the study was required—by law—to be released by July 1, it had by then barely begun!

Drs Alan Robock, Brian Toon and Frank von Hippel

Drs Alan Robock, Brian Toon and Frank von Hippel

I learnt this shocking news—which the Spectator, I believe, is the first to break—by contacting three pre-eminent American experts: nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel, co-founder of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, and environmental scientists Alan Robock and Brian Toon. (Robock and Toon both contributed to two major new studies on nuclear war effects, ‘A New Ocean State After Nuclear War’ and ‘Global Food Insecurity and Famine from Reduced Crop, Marine Fishery and Livestock Production Due to Climate Disruption from Nuclear War Soot Injection.’ In late June, Professor Robock learnt from a NAS staffer that “they finally got their funding to do the study and are just now starting.  So I expect it will be 6 months or more before it is finished. Better later than never, I guess.”

But that ‘better’ is hardly good enough. “Yes,” von Hippel wrote to me, “what the bureaucracy did in dragging its feet on this is a disgrace.” “It would be useful,” he added, “if there were a press investigation to understand what happened and whether this was just the bureaucracy or whether there were signals from political appointees to go slow.”


Something else that has ‘gone slow’ is the declassification of the Biden administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). We do know, from a March 28 Pentagon ‘Fact Sheet,’ that the Review squandered a golden opportunity to embrace policy shifts Biden himself has long espoused, most significantly declaring that the ‘sole purpose’ of nuclear use would be to prevent or respond to nuclear attack. The Review reportedly remains under wraps pending the release, delayed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, of the administration’s National Security Strategy—which means we still don’t know if its authors responded to a request from 22 Democratic members of Congress to boldly go where no NPR has gone before, and “model the climatic, environmental, and humanitarian effects of the US target list” for a “range of nuclear war-fighting scenarios.”

President Kennedy visited SAC’s Headquarters with Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay and Commanders-in-Chief of The Strategic Air Command General Thomas S. Power, 7 March 1962. (The U.S. Air Force Archives, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

It is, I fear, almost certain the request was ignored. The Pentagon, after all, seems currently consumed with what is known, among its legions of nuclear war-gamers, as the ‘three body problem’: the monstrous theoretical and practical uncertainties generated by a new age of ‘great power’ competition with Russia and China. On August 11, Admiral Charles Richard, head of US Strategic Command, told the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, that his best and brightest were “furiously…rewriting deterrence theory” to account for an “unprecedented” situation:

We have never faced two peer nuclear capable opponents at the same time, who have to be deterred differently and the theory just doesn’t account for that very well. … So, maintaining stability, particularly in crisis, will be much more challenging than in a bipolar world. I like saying this, particularly in this space heavy crowd [?]: I’m not sure what strategic stability looks like in a three-party world…

Fear not, trembling reader: the solution, as Admiral Richard loves saying, is “integrated deterrence,” a magic mesh of destructive capacities “across functions, theaters, domains and the spectrum of conflict”: a Grim Reaper war machine deliberately blurring the nuclear line. And if the worst comes to the worst? Well, then you’re left with another ‘three body problem,’ the one identified by General Thomas Power, US Strategic Commander during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The tale is told by historian Martin Sherwin in Gambling with Armageddon, a hair-raising study of “nuclear roulette” from 1945-62:

“Why are you so concerned with saving their lives?” he [Power] famously responded at a Rand Corporation briefing…on nuclear-targeting strategy. “The whole idea is to kill the bastards,” and added: “Look, at the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.” To which the briefer responded: “Well, you’d better make sure that they’re a man and a woman.”


What kind of endurable ‘world order’ could possibly emerge from such a hellish convulsion? The appalling question begs another: what kind of world order is capable of producing one? Speaking at the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW) on June 20, Princeton University physicist Zia Mian argued that “our fundamental problem in the nuclear age is the problem of the state”:

States make wars. Wars make monsters of people. No state has ever yet asked its people if it wants to be defended by mass murder. Public opinion seeks a world free of nuclear weapons even in the nuclear-armed states. Thus, nuclear weapons are a problem of the structure of power and lack of accountability.

UN Vote on Nuclear Ban Treaty

UN Vote on BAN Treaty.

It is true that only nine states (so far) have the Bomb, only 34 others (so far) claim the inhuman ‘right’ to be ‘protected’ by it, and that, just five years ago, roughly two-thirds of UN members—122 of 193—adopted the TPNW, the ‘Ban Treaty’ which in its Preamble acknowledges “the ethical imperatives for nuclear disarmament and the urgency of achieving and maintaining a nuclear-weapon-free-world, which is a global public good of the highest order.”

The ‘fundamental’ issue, then, is not that ‘states’ are inherently or generally pro-nuclear, but rather the radically unequal distribution of power, influence and violence—up to and including nuclear violence—in a correspondingly dysfunctional international ‘community,’ a rigged global structure in which the interests and priorities of most states are ignored and disrespected. So that there are two radical disconnects at play: the chronic ‘lack of accountability’ on nuclear issues within pro-Bomb states, and the chasm between pro- and anti-Bomb states, a Great Divide reflecting the epic inequities (mis)governing relations between the world’s ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’

George Orwell

George Orwell (Photo by Cassowary Colorizations, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

As George Orwell foresaw as early as October 1945, the fundamental political paradox of the atomic age is that while the Bomb rendered ‘national security’ anachronistic, an explosively obvious contradiction in terms, it imbued its possessors with unprecedented ‘superpowers’ not just to destroy but dominate. “We have before us,” Orwell wrote, “the prospect of two or three monstrous superstates, each possessed of a weapon by which millions of people can be wiped out in a few seconds, dividing the world between them.” This means either, he argued, “bigger and bloodier wars, and perhaps an actual end to the machine civilization,” or, “and really this is the likeliest development,” a “cold war” in which “the surviving great nations make a tacit agreement never to use the atomic bomb against one another.” “Suppose,” he pondered:

…they only use it, or the threat of it, against people who are unable to retaliate? In that case we are back where we were before, the only difference being that power is concentrated in still fewer hands and that the outlook for subject peoples and oppressed classes is still more hopeless.

“Had the atomic bomb,” Orwell concluded, “turned out to be something as cheap and easily manufactured as a bicycle or alarm clock, it might well have plunged us back into barbarism, but it might, on the other hand, have meant the end of national sovereignty and of the highly-centralized police state.” But if “it is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship, it is likelier to put an end to large-scale wars at the cost of prolonging indefinitely a ‘peace that is no peace’”—an allusion, I presume, to the famous verdict passed by a British army officer, Archibald Wavell, on the 1919 Versailles treaties ‘ending’ World War One:

After “the war to end war” they seem to have been pretty successful at making a “Peace to end Peace.”


Orwell’s ‘peace that is no peace’ remains the best description of the ‘indefinite,’ interminable era of ‘deterrence,’ a reign of nuclear terror prolonged now for three decades after the US-Soviet Cold War. “The only thing deterrence deters,” anti-nuclear campaigner and Hiroshima-survivor Setsuko Thurlow likes to quip, “is disarmament”: but it also deters democracy, cooperation, common security—and the evolution of the world order rendered imperative by the Bomb itself.

“The qualitative change in the potential for destruction that thermonuclear weapons wrought,” political theorist Shampa Biswas wrote in Nuclear Desire: Power and the Postcolonial Nuclear Order (2014), raised “serious questions about the ability of the state to secure its citizens,” suggesting “a possibly different organization of world politics that was not centered on states as the agents of security.” The cult and culture of ‘deterrence,’ however, “provides the state a mechanism to contain the threat that nuclear weapons poses to its own existence as a state. In that sense, deterrence may have well have helped evacuate”—deter!—“this possible radical restructuring of world politics.”

The circular ‘logic’ is vicious indeed: by “wielding this most lethal power in the name of security,” the nuclear-armed “authoritarian national-security state…asks citizens to consent to its unaccountable authority, deflecting from the dangers that nuclear pursuits pose to those the state can no longer protect.” And even if, miraculously, ‘deterrence’ were always and everywhere to work, “the fetishization of nuclear weapons helps sustain a deeply unequal and violent world.” The “desire for nuclear weapons,” Biswas writes, “is deeply entrenched within those inequities, and their elimination will need to take account of that.”

Biswas’ study focuses on the ironic role played by the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in entrenching the privileged position of the world’s nuclear elite and their allies and accomplices. Despite its name, the Treaty sets at its central goal not the non-proliferation but the elimination of nuclear weapons, the removal of the ‘fetish’ at the (ticking) heart of our ‘unequal and violent world’. Yet for over half a century the NPT’s five nuclear powers (China, France, Russia, UK, US) have not only dishonored their own, legally-binding pledge to disarm—while paying obligatory lip-service to the ‘eventual’ goal of Global Zero—but have willfully misinterpreted the treaty as bestowing legitimacy, even kudos, on them as “responsible custodians of nuclear weapons.” The bizarre quote is from a joint statement by France, the UK and US, entitled ‘Principles and Responsible Practices for Nuclear Weapon States,’ submitted to the tenth NPT Review Conference in New York (August 1-26). Addressing the Conference on August 1, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared:

There is no place in our world—no place in our world—for nuclear deterrence based on coercion, intimidation, or blackmail.

Blinken is here swiping at Russia’s recent—and, indeed, nauseating—nuclear saber-rattling following its illegal invasion of Ukraine: a classic example (he failed to add) of how nuclear possession emboldens conventional aggression. For Blinken, representative of a ‘good’ nuclear-weapon state—Uncle Sam’s safe hands—Russia’s ‘evil’ threats are a dereliction of nuclear duty. But for most of his audience, the notion of reasonable versus reckless deterrence is, well, Orwellian, the kind of thermonuclear hutzpah that finally sparked, in the second decade of this century, the dramatic uprising of the NPT’s non-nuclear majority and their defiant negotiation of the TPNW. As a joint statement delivered by Ban Treaty states to the NPT Review Conference insisted:

…far from preserving peace and security, nuclear weapons are used as instruments of policy, linked to coercion, intimidation and heightening of tensions. This highlights now more than ever the fallacy of nuclear deterrence doctrines, which are based on and rely on the threat of the actual use of nuclear weapons and, hence, the risks of destruction of countless lives, of societies, of nations, and of inflicting global catastrophic consequences.

(The few highs and many lows of the Review Conference—which ended in predictably abysmal failure—will be considered next month.)

ICAN facts

Source: ICAN

What does the remarkable Ban Treaty ‘moment’ tell us about ‘the state of the state’ in the nuclear age? While the Treaty was, of course, demanded, negotiated, adopted—and is being steadily signed and ratified—by states, they themselves gladly acknowledge the vital, decisive role played by civil society, coordinated around the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN): NGOs; survivors of nuclear use and testing; Indigenous groups; youth organizations; and many other non-state actors. And both the spirit and letter of the treaty decisively place people, not their governments, at the heart of the issue. Is it possible that, viewed in conjunction with an upsurge of interest in Citizens’ Assemblies and other experiments in participatory, deliberative democracy, the conceptual Copernican revolution of the TPNW reflects a deeper, broader, tectonic shift from state-centrism: a shift not just in the balance of global power but in ‘common sense’ understandings of what power means, and must become, for humanity to live long and prosper?

There is a nuclear core to the modern state system. And preventing it from exploding will take more than just removing the core, while leaving the system intact. For as much as nuclear weapons have deformed world affairs, nuclear disarmament must begin to transform them.

Before the sky falls.

Featured image: Anti-nuclear arms protesters display a banner during the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance (OREPA) rally at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, USA, 2011 by Brian Stansberry, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.