On September 30, 1971 the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Accidents Measures Agreement in Washington that both recognized, and sought to curtail, the possibility of an accidental nuclear war. The agreement read, in part, that
The very existence of nuclear-weapon systems, even under the most sophisticated command-and-control procedures, obviously is a source of constant concern. Despite the most elaborate precautions, it is conceivable that technical malfunction or human failure, a misinterpreted incident or unauthorized action, could trigger a nuclear disaster or nuclear war.
Did these dangers disappear when the Cold War ended a quarter of a century ago?
On Tuesday, members of the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists were joined by former secretary of state George Shultz, former secretary of defense William Perry, California Governor Jerry Brown and former UN ambassador Thomas Pickering to announce that the hands of the iconic Doomsday Clock remain set at three minutes to midnight.
The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by the Bulletin, in order to help convey to the public the civilizational dangers posed by nuclear weapons. In its 68 years of existence the clock, which was originally set at seven minutes to midnight, has only been adjusted 21 times. Last year, the clock was moved forward to three minutes to midnight, reflecting concerns over the precipitous decline in US-Russian relations and uncertainties related to the then-ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran. And while a nuclear deal with Iran was indeed achieved in the ensuing year, “on balance,” according to Ambassador Pickering, “tensions are even higher today than they were in 2015.”
The fraught geopolitical environment is certainly not helped by the fact that, as Bulletin board member Sharon Squassoni pointed out, “the machinery of disarmament is getting rusty.” Unlike the robust Cold War–era disarmament dialogue that produced such landmarks as the SALT (1972), ABM (1972), SALT II (1979), INF (1987) and START (1991) treaties, the US-Russia arms control process has seemingly ground to a halt in the years since New START was signed between presidents Obama and Medvedev in 2010. Still worse, there are serious disputes between the two counties over the alleged violations of the INF Treaty, in which both countries pledged to forgo the use of ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km. More recently, Russia has signaled its unwillingness to enter into negotiations over its tactical nuclear-weapons arsenal. Underscoring the current challenges to nuclear non-proliferation, Squassoni noted that China, Pakistan, India, and North Korea have all added to their nuclear weapons stockpiles, while the United States and Russia are spending a combined $350 billion on modernizing their own nuclear arsenals.