Some sixty years ago, American psychologist Abraham Maslow formulated a five tier hierarchy of needs. First, food and shelter followed by safety and so on, not that each need had to be satisfied fully to move to the next.
It might explain why thousands marched in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1950s when bellicose threats by leaders were not uncommon. Among the more notorious was Khruschev’s, ‘We’ll bury you,’ in 1956 during the Suez adventure by Britain, France and Israel. They seized the Canal after the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the controlling Suez Canal Company. Receiving no support from President Eisenhower, they somewhat shamefacedly retreated.
If one presumes all of those tensions were over with detente, then political and economic rivalries compounded by spheres of influence and their expansion have been overlooked. Thus to Ukraine with President Vladimir Putin unable to retreat further when NATO attempted to plant a dagger in the heart of Russia.
Well, some of the tensions have returned, and while an all-out nuclear war is still unthinkable, it can happen by miscalculation. For example, when one side deploys tactical weapons that a commander in an asymmetric war is unable to resist using against a large grouping of elusive combatants.
If fewer nuclear weapons are more desirable, the question remains, how few? Hence the START treaty signed by George Bush (Senior) and Mikhail Gorbachev although proposed originally by Ronald Reagan. It removed 80 percent of their nuclear weapons. So how many nuclear weapons are there in the world thirty years later, and how safe are we?
According to the latest count, Russia possesses 6,257 nuclear weapons of which 4587 are operational. In numerous ICBM silos and 11 nuclear submarines that can patrol close to U.S. shores, it is a formidable arsenal.
Of course the world has changed and Russia has removed all of its nuclear weapons from Ukraine. At the same time, it is developing new weapons and new delivery methods. This includes the very serious threat of a nuclear-propelled cruise missile with unlimited range. A very serious threat because cruise missiles can fly close to the ground under the radar. There is also Sarmat, a new ballistic missile capable of carrying up to 15 nuclear warheads, each with its own target. Thus a single missile could destroy just about all US major cities.
So what has the US been up to? It has 5600 nuclear weapons of which 3700 are operational. ICBMs based both in the US and the territory of its NATO allies place some of these next door to Russia. The very limited warning time requires a hair trigger response and should give us pause. Let’s hope Putin is not enjoying a sauna at the time and some general frightened with a use-it or lose-it scenario decides to let loose and save his motherland.
Then there are the other countries: UK (200 nuclear weapons), France (300), China (350), India (160), Pakistan (165), Israel (90), and last but now least North Korea (45). With all of this, how safe does one feel? An exchange between any of them — India and Pakistan come to mind — would cause a nuclear winter and mass starvation.
The real problem is that a small country with a large more powerful neighbor — again Pakistan and India — achieves a measure of equality or perhaps a stalemate through nuclear weapons, and thus security. It would be very difficult to persuade Pakistan (or for that matter Israel) to relinquish its nuclear arsenal. Perhaps the best safety lies in an inclusive non-threatening world.