Opinion | Is Nuclear Arms Control Just a Fantasy?

Opinion | Is Nuclear Arms Control Just a Fantasy?

Yet even the sharply reduced Russian and American nuclear arsenals are still enough to wipe out much of the world, China is pushing hard to become the third nuclear superpower, and at least six other countries, including the uber-dictatorship North Korea, have nuclear weapons (the others: Britain, France, Israel, India and Pakistan).

Perversely, the complexity of today’s world has even generated something akin to nostalgia for a time when there were only two superpowers to deal with and stability depended on mutually assured destruction. But it is hard to be nostalgic about a time when President John Kennedy urged all Americans to prepare nuclear shelters (“The time to start is now”) and nuclear nightmares were the stuff of popular movies like “On the Beach,” “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

True, there were fears when the Soviet Union collapsed that a terrible “second nuclear age” of unchecked proliferation and nuclear terrorism would follow. In fact, since the end of the Cold War only North Korea got its own bomb, and its nuclear program began long before the Soviet Union ended. On the opposite side of the ledger, South Africa abandoned its nuclear program in 1989, and three new states that inherited some Soviet nuclear weapons — Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan — surrendered them (perhaps now to their regret).

Whether Americans are justified in no longer worrying so much about the bomb is another question. Jon Wolfsthal, a senior adviser to Global Zero, a group that advocates the abolition of nuclear weapons, and a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, thinks not. “A lot of this is subjective,” he said. “In the ’60s and ’70s we believed that Russians would launch unless we were on our guard. They were sure that we would launch.” As that fear receded, he said, so did awareness of the ever-present threat. “Before, all senators had to know the language of throw-weight” — the payload of a nuclear missile. “Today, there’s not five senators who understand the issue.”

Yet nuclear arms controls are as needed today as they ever were, and not only with Moscow. Mr. Putin obliquely acknowledged that when, after saying on Feb. 21 that Russia would suspend participation in New START, Russia quickly added that the country would continue to respect the treaty’s limits on nuclear warheads and delivery systems. The alternative, he knew, could be a new arms race in which Russia was no match for America’s economic and technological abilities. In effect, Mr. Putin’s announcement extended a suspension of on-site inspections that began during the pandemic.

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