For those of you that subscribe to the method of evolution as the origin of our species, there are many types of “arms races” between species as they developed over time. For example, if you have cheetahs and gazelles then the cheetahs will likely kill off all the gazelles with the genetic predispositions that make them slow, resulting in a faster race of gazelles. The gazelles then outrun the slower cheetahs, starving out all the cheetahs with the genetic predispositions that also make them slow. The result is the back and forth swing of the pendulum, in favor of the cheetah and the gazelle. The two species “raced” for superiority, lopping off undesirable traits to make for a more effective and survivable animal, one trait at a time.
However, in evolution there was no intent or direction, not like in our current nuclear arms races between world powers. In the light of the recent developments with North Korea’s ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) capabilities, the world is seeing another nation struggle to try to find its place among the nuclear powers of the earth. While many lay people laugh at the struggles of a country developing their poor nuclear capabilities, major powers around the world are watching closely as the nation’s leadership isn’t exactly a bastion of stability. No one is expecting another form of cheetah in the mix, but that doesn’t mean that these rising nuclear powers come without danger.
The U.S. first built nuclear bombs in WWII, detonating two of them in Japan. For a while, they held all the cards when it came to nuclear firepower. It was an interesting weapon, as it soon became the only weapon in the nation’s arsenal that was just as much of a political weapon as it was a tool of war, and so it was taken out of the hands of generals and military officials, and placed under the control of the sitting president.
It wasn’t until 1949 that the Soviets successfully detonated their own nuclear weapon, and what was once a monopoly would soon become an arms race. Like the lopping off of slow gazelles and cheetahs, necessity forced the nations to stay one step ahead of their nemesis, and developments in tech shot upward. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were developed in the 1950s, and with that came the development of all sorts of countermeasures to keep them at bay. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) would come into play, adding another element of stealth and surprise as the launch platforms are now mobile and deep under the cover of the ocean’s waters.
Most generations of the world today have lived under the constant threat of nuclear destruction, which culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis, almost resulting in the first nuclear war in human history. The blanket of safety comes in the form of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), which basically means that if one nuclear power fires upon another, they do it at their own risk—it is likely that they too will get annihilated. SLBMs have solidified MAD between countries like the U.S. and Russia. Not a very comforting deterrent, but a deterrent nonetheless.
However, now we are seeing the rise of smaller, less stable countries acquiring nuclear weapons. France, China and the U.K. have nuclear capabilities, but so do North Korea, India and Pakistan. There have been multiple times when Pakistan and India have been on the brink of nuclear war whilst fighting over Kashmir—notably in 1999, when I was personally living in Kashmir and had to be evacuated from the country with my family.
“But why are the powers in the West concerned with this? Surely they can knock out any incoming missiles with relative ease, and who cares if two random countries blow each other up?”
This is true, though allowing a child to wave a gun around is not always a good idea just because you’re behind cover. If we’re talking stable governments, we’re talking powers like China, the U.S. or Russia, and people would even dispute claims regarding their stability any day. It is difficult to predict what a largely “unstable” country will do with nuclear power if provoked. The U.S. had plenty of opportunities to drop nuclear bombs in the Korean War which would have saved countless American troops, but they refrained. Would you rely on the restraint of other countries in a similar situation?
Still, while that does not necessarily directly affect a country like the U.S., it is shortsighted not to think of the international implications of any detonation of a nuclear device strategically on anyone’s soil. WWI was started by a single bullet in the neck of an Austrian Archduke. One event led to another and a month later the world was at war. The United States was not able to sit out of a seemingly unrelated event on foreign soil, and well over 116,000 Americans perished.
The international community is complex and interwoven, and it always seems to live on some kind of precipice. A nuclear detonation on a civilian or even military population could blow several countries off that precipice and quickly devolve into another significant problem that involves every major power in the world.
“Stable” countries have struggled with keeping nuclear war at bay in the past, how much more of a struggle will that be for emerging nuclear powers?
All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons