The UN's Nuclear Weapon Talks May Be The Most Important Thing Nobody's Paying Attention To

On Monday, a quixotic and necessary conference kicked off at the United Nations.

Over protests from the U.S. and other nuclear powers, more than 120 countries began work on a treaty at the United Nations this week with the aim of banishing nuclear weapons from the face and the oceans of the earth.

In a sign of mounting nuclear anxiety around the globe, the conference timeline is extremely condensed by U.N. standards. As early as July, Conference President Elayne Whyte Gómez of Costa Rica hopes to unveil a draft text — a “rapid pace,” she explained, “reflecting the urgency Member States attach to the need to realize progress in nuclear disarmament.”

The treaty text is expected to be a historic document, a landmark in collective security and international law. As a tool to force the nuclear genie back into the bottle, it is also expected to be roughly as effective as a plate of egg salad sandwiches.

Everyone in the U.N. conference hall knows this, of course. The treaty is not a naive attempt to compel the immediate disarmament of the nuclear powers. As with other U.N. disarmament efforts, this treaty is about strengthening norms, nudging progress, and keeping the flame lit on the idea that humanity can overcome its historical cycle of mass bloodshed. The limited expectations surrounding the treaty are reflected in the language of even its most ardent supporters. Daryl G. Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, released a statement that sounded like a lukewarm book blurb. A new treaty, he said, “could be a useful and timely contribution... It is a worthy goal.”

As much as anything, the treaty talks can be seen as a collective diplomatic howl from the nuclear bleachers, over which hangs a Doomsday Clock reading two and a half minutes to midnight. Nuclear dread is cresting at levels not seen since the early 1980s, when senior figures in President Ronald Reagan’s Pentagon spoke in earnest about “winnable” nuclear war that everyone would be able to survive so long as there were “enough shovels to go around.” In an echo of that era, the new U.S. president does not understand the nuclear taboo and shares a patron with a biochemist and sheep rancher who seems to believe gamma rays are essentially a form of Vitamin D.

As in previous eras of high atomic anxiety, the U.S. and Russia are center stage. This time, however, the nuclear superpowers are grappling cliff-side without the guardrails that provided relative stability for much of the Cold War. Long gone is the cornerstone Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that banned defensive systems and brought a measure of reassurance to both sides. The U.S. is now building an open-ended, layered missile defense system near Russian borders. The system is part of a dangerous and destabilizing quest for nuclear “primacy — that is, the ability to knock out other nuclear powers with a first strike. Whether U.S. officials describe the system as such is irrelevant. This steady drive toward primacy, combined with NATO expansion, has deepened suspicions and accelerated countermeasures by Moscow, including new missile development and violations of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

This mutually reinforcing dynamic is now accelerating. It is feeding insecurity leading to reductions in the size of “decision windows” that were already terrifyingly small. Leaders now have less confidence and less time to respond to data that suggests incoming missiles, which can involve anything from Norwegian weather balloons to sunlit clouds to misplaced software.

Some combination of machine error and human panic has always been the leading candidate for triggering planetary nuclear holocaust, and that threat has never been greater. Russia currently has no satellite early warning system, relying on short-notice ground radars to provide notice of a surprise attack. The U.S. knows this, yet continues to pursue policies that only stoke Russian fears of just such an attack. That the nuclear controls are now in the hands of a man whose mental health is routinely questioned in public, and whose hot temper is taken for granted, can only heighten the paranoia of adversaries. This, in turn, heightens the odds of a globe-melting overreaction.

Our own command and control system, meanwhile, is a fraying mess of analog tech run by inexperienced and possibly coked-up airmen. At the top of the chain is a White House full of Rapture-ready hawks and spite-driven nihilists, led by a man who has wondered aloud “why do we make” nuclear weapons if we’re not going to use them.

Against this backdrop, the U.N. conference is, if nothing else, a welcome statement of resolve. It’s also an overdue return to an institutional promise made long ago. In its very first sessions, U.N. member states discussed how best to bring nuclear weapons under international control. Those efforts failed; arsenals ballooned; the nuclear club expanded. In 1970, most nuclear powers recommitted to disarmament with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Fifty years after the NPT, the U.N. is once again taking up the threat it was tasked with solving in the year of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Just as newsreels of the first bombs haunted the U.N. debate of the 1940s, the 2017 conference opens under the digitally remastered shadow of thermonuclear test footage.

The films, released by the government this month, are the stuff of a million slow-motion Cold War nightmares: multi-megaton, city-swallowing suns that make Little Boy and Fat Man look like backyard bang snaps. Our nuclear complex is not studying these old test tapes to rekindle the transatlantic disarmament movement. The project is part of a $300 billion nuclear maintenance and modernization program.

“We need to be able to validate our codes and trust that the answers that are being calculated are correct,” explained Greg Spriggs, the physicist at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory overseeing the film project. “The legacy that I’d like to leave behind is a set of benchmark data that can be used by future weapon physicists.”

The Livermore release closes with Spriggs stating his preference that “we would never have to use a nuclear weapon ever again.” But as Albert Einstein quipped the last time the U.N. debated a bomb ban, you cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.

Preparing for war isn’t all that Spriggs and his Livermore colleagues are doing. It’s more accurate to say they’re preparing for war in ways that make war more likely. The current issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists features a jaw-dropping report by several leading nuclear analysts that details how the U.S. Energy Department’s Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program has provided cover for enhancing warheads with “super-fuze” detonation technology in a way consistent with building a first-strike capability. The new warheads are most alarming from Moscow’s view, and thus most destabilizing, when fitted onto submarine-based missiles within range of Russia’s land-based silos.

“This increase in capability is astonishing,” write the authors of the Bulletin report. “It creates exactly what one would expect to see, if a nuclear-armed state were planning to have the capacity to fight and win a nuclear war by disarming enemies with a surprise first strike.”

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, one of several recent high-profile defectors from the official nuclear consensus, has described current U.S. policy as “sleepwalking into [a] new nuclear arms race... We and the Russians and others don’t understand what we are doing.”

That may have been true in the 1940s. But in the seven decades since the first U.N. debate on nuclear weapons, we’ve had time to figure some things out. The evidence now suggests a darker conclusion: We know exactly what we’re doing. Or at least some of us do.

Clarification: Language has been changed to reflect that allegations of drug abuse regarding Air Force personnel were in reference to airmen, who are not “junior officers.”

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