The Biden administration’s January 26 joint agreement with Russian president Vladimir Putin to sign ‘New START’, a five year extension to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, was greeted with some relief.
After the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, START was the only remaining international agreement limiting the number of nuclear weapons Russia and the US have, in this case to 1,550 each.
The much wider Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), originally signed in 1968, is fundamentally an agreement not to acquire nuclear weapons. However, India, Israel and Pakistan never joined the NPT, while North Korea withdrew in 2003, and all have nuclear weapons. Today other countries, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, reportedly could produce weapons quickly. Saudi Arabia, having apparently financed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme, is assumed to be able to acquire such weapons quickly from Islamabad, especially if Iran was able to produce its own nuclear armoury.
But any joy at START’s extension was tempered by the understanding that international rivalries and tensions are growing, especially as the US’s ascendancy is challenged by China’s rise. Alongside frictions in the seas around China, recent months saw clashes between Chinese and Indian forces. Any immediate use of nuclear weapons between these two powers is not likely. The old 1960s assumption of MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) – the idea that a nuclear attack by one superpower would be met with an overwhelming nuclear counterattack leaving both annihilated – still acts as a brake on the use of nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless the MAD military doctrine does not mean that their use, especially in regional conflicts, is completely ruled out. Almost simultaneously with the formal ratification of New START an analysis of the international situation by US Admiral Charles Richard, head of the US Strategic Command, was published by the US Naval Institute.
Looking at the modernisation of Russia’s military and the expansion of Chinese capabilities the Admiral argued that “there is a real possibility that a regional crisis with Russia or China could escalate quickly to a conflict involving nuclear weapons, if they perceived a conventional loss would threaten the regime or state”. This meant that the USA’s “principal assumption” must “shift… to ‘nuclear employment is a very real possibility’, and act to meet and deter that reality”. In other words the US should not rule out the use of nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict with China or Russia.
Richard himself was vague as regards the actual practical conclusions and probably at this stage was sabre-rattling. But it was, nevertheless, indirectly saying that the US would be prepared to use nuclear weapons. Clearly he did not want to openly spell out the consequences or repeat the language of Robert McNamara, then the Democratic US Defence Secretary, who argued in 1965 that the MAD tactic meant that the US military needed to be able “to destroy over one-third of the population and one-half of industry” of the then Soviet Union in order to prevent an attack on the US. But rivalries and clashes of interests will continue to develop. Already we see elements of de-globalisation and shortening of economic supply lines as national capitalist classes seek to defend and extend their own interests.
However it is a long way before any threat of world war materialised. A key factor would be the need for the ruling classes to overcome massive popular opposition to a war that would threaten humanity’s and the planet’s future. After the horrors of the first world war it was only the defeats of the workers’ movement in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly the crushing Nazi victory in Germany, that prepared the way for world war two. Today a perceived imminent threat of nuclear annihilation would provoke mighty protests.
However, as Admiral Richard argued, the use of nuclear weapons in regional conflicts cannot be ruled out, although probably a more immediate threat would be their use by one of the weaker nuclear armed countries. But whatever the exact circumstances the repercussions would be profound and threaten greater retaliation.
Sometimes ruling classes take actions that damage some of their interests but which are seen as a price ‘worth paying’ to maintain their broader position or in a contest with a strategic rival. A small current example is that the rollout of 5G services has been delayed in the US, Britain and elsewhere by bans on Huawei’s involvement. On a much bigger scale in the second world war the British ruling class’s only alternative to surrendering to Nazi Germany was to depend on the US and finally, reluctantly, accept that it was no longer the leading world power.
The world is in a period of increasing instability with, especially in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, regional conflicts, proxy wars, ‘failed states’ and state break-ups. These continents, along with central and southern America, see mass migrations due to war, hunger, persecution and climate change which also have an impact on both the US and Europe.
Alongside this there has been a marked increase in military spending, which reached a worldwide total of $1,917 billion in 2019 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). This was an increase of 3.6% over 2018, the largest annual rise since 2010. The five largest spenders in 2019, accounting for 62% of expenditure, were the US, China, India, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
The ‘modernisation’ of nuclear armouries has been underway for some time. Under Trump the US began the development of new nuclear weapons, North Korea now boasts of intercontinental missiles capable of hitting the US, while Russia is developing underwater nuclear armed drones.
It is against this background that military leaders are starting to discuss again the possible use of nuclear weapons. They may say that this planning is ‘only’ meant to be a deterrent, but in a future crisis the use of nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. The development of technology also has an effect, both in nuclear weaponry and the possibilities for the large powers to be threatened by asymmetric warfare.
But the use of even a single nuclear weapon would have an almost universal impact around the world. The mass protests seen in the run-up to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq would almost pale into insignificance to the mobilisations that would then occur. At the same time within the combatant countries there would be a polarisation between those supporting the attack or retaliation and those horrified that nuclear weapons had been used again.
Richard did not address the question of what would be the consequences, both military and political, of even a ‘limited’ nuclear “employment”, a very polite euphemism for using weapons of mass destruction. Nor did he say anything on what would follow such an ‘employment’. He was more signalling a turn in US military thinking towards the possible implications of growing tension between the US and China, and also a more militarily assertive Russia.
Against this background what can be done to prevent further catastrophes? There will no doubt be a continuation of campaigns against nuclear weapons, although the conflicts in this century have caused huge damage with both old and modern weaponry as the impact of new technologies and, increasingly, cyber warfare begins to be seen.
To fight against imperialist and reactionary wars means struggling against the system that causes wars in this epoch, that is capitalism. Capitalism is itself rooted in competition between rival capitalists both in the market place and between competing ruling classes. The early workers’ movement before 1914 foresaw and analysed the impending world war and discussed what to do about it. However the large protests in some countries against that war starting did not develop into a movement capable of stopping it and then, as it started, the overwhelming majority of socialist party leaders in the combatant countries supported their ‘own’ capitalist classes in the conflict.
At the time many lessons were drawn, particularly by revolutionaries such as Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, which form part of the basis of the socialist movement today. The essential point is that the removal of the threat of war, particularly nuclear war, is linked to the struggle to replace capitalism, a system which breeds war. This does not mean giving up protests against individual wars or armament programmes, but linking them to the need to build a socialist movement that can remove capitalism.
The crises in different countries and regions, the increase in international tensions, the renewed armament drive, and the opening of a new debate about the possible use of nuclear weapons, all point to the urgency of building the forces that can carry through a socialist transformation. The alternative is not attractive.