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You can now add nuclear weapons to the list of things to start worrying about again

We’re faced with the possibility that all three treaties that constrained the world’s dominant nuclear powers for decades will soon be in the dustbin of history. To be replaced by what, exactly?

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons conference
Delegations from China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States attending a Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons conference in Beijing, China, on January 30.
REUTERS/Thomas Peter

It’s time to start worrying about nuclear weapons again.

Sure, the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran have been major headaches for the last several U.S. presidents. But important as they might be, they’re a far cry from the pervasive Cold War-era fear that humanity was one miscalculation from annihilating itself.

Instead, Washington and Moscow slowly built some trust through arms control treaties. Then, the end of the Cold War seemingly put all that behind us. Even if they each retain more than 6,000 warheads, few people really worry that the United States and Russia might actually use them. We focus much more now on climate change as an existential threat.

But the arms control edifice is breaking down. It’s true those treaties are products of a bygone age, in need of updating and rethinking. That’s not what’s happening, however. They are being torn up, violated, or they are at risk of simply expiring. Meanwhile, China must increasingly be part of any global arms control equation. North Korea and Iran point to what might happen if nuclear weapons start spreading. New technologies might make the situation more difficult to control.

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Everything still starts with the Americans and the Russians, who according to the Arms Control Association, possess about 90 percent of the world’s estimated 15,000 nuclear warheads. Arms control is suffering from the same wretched state of affairs that brought us election interference, the Ukraine conflict and Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea.

Over decades, Washington and Moscow agreed to bilateral treaties on anti-ballistic missiles, long-range strategic and intermediate-range weapons. An international treaty signed by 190 countries aims to control nuclear proliferation — although enforcement is far from perfect. The slow demise of this architecture started with President Bush’s decision in 2001 to pull out of the Nixon-era Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM)  treaty. President Obama and Putin did manage to update the strategic weapons treaty in 2011 — but that expires in 2021, with an option to extend it for five years. Citing cheating by Russia (many European countries agree this is happening), President Trump has announced that the U.S. also is pulling out of the treaty limiting intermediate weapons, which was concluded under President Reagan in 1987.

It’s unclear whether Trump wants to extend the so-called New START treaty on strategic weapons. Reporting from Washington suggests a sharp debate inside the administration. National Security Adviser John Bolton views virtually any arms control treaty as an unwelcome limit on U.S. power. He was in a key position in the Bush administration when it pulled out of the ABM treaty; he has criticized the New START treaty as one-sided and “profoundly misguided.”

So we’re faced with the possibility that all three treaties that constrained the world’s dominant nuclear powers will soon be in the dustbin of history. To be replaced by what, exactly?

Putin claims that Russia is developing a new class of “invincible” nuclear weapons, including a cruise missile that can reach anywhere in the world, and says that Russia will develop other weapons in response to U.S. moves. The Pentagon said last week that the U.S. will begin tests on a couple of types of missiles that previously were banned. Maybe Putin is exaggerating; maybe the U.S. tests will be nothing more than that. Do you really want to take that chance?

Meanwhile, China has become a much bigger player. Since it was not party to the intermediate missile treaty, it has developed a large arsenal of such weapons — many of them with conventional warheads — to project power in the Pacific. Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that in response to U.S. and Russian actions, China is improving its own nuclear arsenal.

“Over the next decade,” he says, “the emergence of far more capable Chinese nuclear forces will be driven by the changes in U.S. and Russian forces, and fundamentally reshape the nuclear balance, arms control, and the risks of actual nuclear warfare between three competing nuclear superpowers.”

China thinks changes in U.S. policy actually are aimed at it, as much as Russia. Do you think it’s going to unilaterally stop building weapons?

Renewed conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, as well as tension over North Korea and Iran are reminders of the risk of more countries going nuclear. Japan and South Korea could easily develop nuclear weapons if they feel threatened by North Korea. Iran says it doesn’t actually want nuclear weapons — although there are plenty of doubters. Regional rival Saudi Arabia says it wants nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, and the Trump administration is willing to sell it. But the kingdom also says it will develop nuclear weapons if Iran does. Do you trust Ayatollah Khamenei or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman?

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There is one last scary possibility, a lethal mix of old and new technology. What happens if a country uses a cyberattack to disable — or even seize control of — another country’s nuclear arsenal?

The Christian Science Monitor quoted Joseph Cirincione, a longtime expert on nuclear policy, as pointing to the Stuxnet worm that damaged the centrifuges producing Iran’s fissile material. “If you think we can’t do that with nuclear weapons,” he added, “you haven’t been paying attention.”