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  • Andrea Thordarson

Global Nuclear Security: The High-Stakes Game of Individuals

Andrea is a second-year ISPS student at UCL. Originally from Iceland, she has lived in both Sweden and the UK. She has a passion for all things diplomacy, developed through her study of international relations and Japanese.

The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL's Diplomacy Society, Diplomacy Review nor The Diplomat.

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Since July 16, 1945, the landscape of global security has changed drastically. What began with two states rapidly trying to proliferate has turned into 9 nuclear states. Russia, China, North Korea, France, UK, USA, Pakistan, India and Israel (unofficially for now) all, to differing extents, possess the capability to set off nuclear winter. Currently, 90% of the globe’s warheads still lie in the hands of the US and Russia, but due to recent geopolitical events, the number of both warheads and states possessing nuclear weapons is shifting.

The problem is that proliferation is contagious. If Iran gains nuclear capabilities, it spooks Turkey and Saudi Arabia. If nuclear states begin to threaten non-nuclear states, it spooks South Korea and Japan. Nuclear weapons rely on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), and as such nuclear proliferation is almost always met with further nuclear proliferation. What’s worrying about the situation today is that this nuclear danger is on the rise. But before we get

into that we need to look at what global nuclear defence is, who has what bombs, and how do they use them?

Nuclear weapons can broadly be categorised into the triad: earth, sea, and air. Further to that, there is a huge distinction between their explosive power – from portable devices to Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). The importance of this diversification of nuclear power is essentially to uphold deterrence. The US adheres to this nuclear triad because if North Korea was to launch an attack, it would have no hope of striking every American nuclear power base, and as such could never attack and wipe out the prospect of retaliation.

Deterrence is also upheld on a smaller scale with the UK’s trident programme. This consists of four nuclear submarines, one of which is always active and in an undisclosed location. It has no way of contacting London to ensure that there is no traceable signal.

This method of deterrence forms a sort of hesitant sense of security, but it overlooks who has control over these defence systems. Nuclear power is largely a game of individuals. The closest the world has come to nuclear winter has been down to the choices of only a few men (and yes, it has always been men). In 1962, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, a Russian nuclear submarine was cornered and under a perceived attack from US boats. The Submarine did not need permission from Moscow to launch the warhead, and the Captain Valentin Savitsky needed only the other two men on the submarine to agree. The first agreed, but, luckily for the world, the second, Vasily Arkhipov, refused and the situation was avoided. This only became public knowledge in 2002.

Because of the nature of nuclear war, there are virtually no checks on the power of individuals to launch a warhead. In the US the president has complete autonomy over the use of nuclear weapons (a system put in place due to the need for a quick response to a Soviet sneak attack). The UK has the letters of last resort, in which each Prime Minster at the beginning of their term is asked to write a plan in response to a hypothetical nuclear attack that destroyed the whole of the UK’s government. The letter sits in a safe inside a safe on the nuclear submarines, the contents only known by the individual who wrote it. So yes, for three months we had a nuclear response plan crafted solely by Liz Truss.

What is also important to note is the fact that nuclear war is more likely to break out due to a misfire rather than any calculated attack. The incentives to launch an attack are

incredibly low due to MAD. But no state wants to look weak; if an attack is launched, they have to respond and now, with 9 nuclear states and a complex geopolitical landscape, the stakes have only gotten higher.

We often mistake the threat of nuclear war to be a Cold War relic. The horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are fading from collective memory and the gravity of the current nuclear situation is being put to the side. But the reality is, after the recent invasion of Ukraine and now the war in Gaza, we are returning to a time of nuclear sabre-rattling, and in turn an increasing risk of an accidental misfire. Putin’s initial threat to take the War in Ukraine nuclear was enough to upset the nuclear order. It sent a message to non-nuclear states that they were not free from the threat of nuclear power. Even though Putin reverted his stance on the use of nuclear power in Ukraine, the rhetoric is becoming more aggressive and more unhinged. North Korea has seemingly abandoned its plans for international allies, and as a Financial Times journalist wrote, “has emerged into the warm embrace of Moscow and Beijing”. Russia and China are helping revitalise the North Korean economy, and in turn Kim Jong Un will likely bolster nuclear efforts. In the Middle-East states are increasingly viewing the war in Gaza as a regional issue. Each side has a threshold which if passed, would necessitate their involvement, but no one knows where each country’s threshold actually lies.

If Putin’s threats are anything to go by, we are entering a new era of, at least rhetorically, heightened nuclear threat. No one wants a nuclear winter, nor is it on the horizon, but we are too quickly disregarding the threat. With the rising tensions, we have to hope the world has enough Arkhipovs.


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