Heading over the nuclear cliff

Learning a lesson from the man who saved the world

Ramesh Thakur

International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

31 October 2017

The answer to growing regional uncertainty isn’t to build up nuclear arsenals, Ramesh Thakur writes.

Two news items caught my attention over the final October weekend.

First, on 27 October a newly-formed organisation, the Future of Life Institute, gave its inaugural ‘Future of Life’ prize, posthumously, to one Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov. If you have never heard of the NGO, the prize or the laureate, not to worry: you are in good company. Yet there is a good chance neither you nor I would have been around today to read and write this were it not for Arkhipov’s courage, wisdom and calmness under pressure.

For 27 October marked the 55th anniversary of a critical incident on which the fate of the world turned during the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962.

On that day, Arkhipov was a submariner on duty near Cuba in the Soviet submarine B-59. Unknown to the Americans, whose entire quarantine strategy and enforcement of the blockade was motivated by the determination to prevent Soviet nuclear weapons from being brought into and stationed in the region, there were already more than 160 Soviet nuclear warheads present in the area and commanders had been given the authority to use them in the event of hostilities.

US forces began to drop non-lethal depth charges just to let the Soviet crews know that the Americans were aware of their presence. But of course, the Soviets had no way of knowing that the American intentions were peaceful and, not unreasonably, they concluded they were witness to the start of World War III.

More on this: North Korea is the litmus test for a nuclear weapons ban

The captain of B-59, Valentin Savitsky and another senior officer voted to launch a 10kt nuclear-tipped missile. Savitsky said, “We’re gonna blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not become the shame of the fleet,” according to files in the US National Security Archive.

Unfortunately for Savitsky but fortunately for us, the protocol required the decision to launch to be unanimous and Arkhipov vetoed the idea, thereby proving that not all Soviet vetoes are bad. The rest is history that wouldn’t have been otherwise.

That’s how close we came to Armageddon in the missile crisis of 1962.

The incident was debated at a conference in 2002 when Thomas Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at Georgetown University, told the Boston Globe that “The lesson from this is that a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.”

The Future of Life prize is awarded for an act of heroism of great benefit to humanity, undertaken at personal risk without expectation of personal gain. One cannot think of a more worthy inaugural recipient.

On 28 October, covering a very different geographical theatre, The New York Times reported that North Korea’s neighbours are re-thinking their self-imposed nuclear abstinence to which they are bound by the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT).

On the one hand, North Korea pulled out of the NPT in 2003 and has raced ahead in its nuclear and missile delivery programs since then to acquire a credible weaponised intercontinental nuclear capability.

On the other hand, doubts are settling in about the reliability of the US nuclear guarantee under the Trump administration. The question posed by Charles de Gaulle suddenly is resonating across South Korea and Japan: Can the United States be trusted to sacrifice San Francisco and Los Angeles for Seoul and Tokyo? If not, should South Korea and Japan get their own bomb as insurance?

Even in distant Australia, my ANU colleague Paul Dibb argued in The Australian last Tuesday that, owing to growing strategic uncertainty, we must invest in capabilities that would reduce the lead time to get the bomb in order to expand our options for and as a hedge against the future.

More on this: Beware the Guns of August in North Korea

Two comments and then one final thought. First, the Cuban missile crisis predates the NPT and stimulated Latin America to declare the continent a nuclear-weapon-free zone in 1967 with no exception for anyone. Unlike the NPT one year later, it did not create a world of nuclear haves and have-nots among members. But the North Korean crisis is the result entirely of the NPT paradigm. The crisis really intensified in 2003 and has become ever more acute since then. In no way can the UN nuclear ban treaty, adopted on 7 July this year, be blamed for that.

Second, many of us advocating for a carefully but urgently managed nuclear-weapon-free world have argued for decades that the only choice in the real world is between substantial continuing nuclear cutbacks leading to disarmament, or a cascade of proliferation that would hugely multiply all nuclear risks and threats.

The status quo of just five nuclear powers who get to keep their bombs indefinitely but no one else ever gets any was not a realistic option. Those who are serious about non-proliferation must be equally active in pursuing disarmament: each is a necessary condition of the other. We have always been derided as naïve idealists, Don Quixotes tilting at nuclear windmills.

So just who are the fantasists and romantic dreamers, and who are the realists?

Had I but the skill, I’d have liked to have drawn the following cartoon. A bus with ‘NPT’ emblazoned in big red letters on the side is hurtling towards a steep cliff. Five people, from the five NPT nuclear powers who are also the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, are joint drivers. The forty-odd lemming-like passengers are the NATO and Pacific allies, including Australia. No one is looking at what lies ahead. Instead, they are all pointing sideways to and laughing at another bus that has pulled over and is stationary. This one has the sign ‘Nuclear Ban Treaty’. Over a hundred people are milling about while some technically skilled people replace the steering wheel that stopped working some distance back on this road.

When you come to a fork in the road, said Yogi Berra, take it. That pretty much sums up the policy confusion of the nuclear-armed states with regard to the fork in the road between the NPT and the ban treaty.

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