Butterfly Effect: The Next Nuclear Race Is Starting - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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A nuclear free-for-all looms — ignoring the lessons of the horrific Hiroshima bombing 75 years ago.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Sectarian conflicts, civil wars, terrorism and battles over oil — the Middle East is a tinderbox that hardly needs any fresh flashpoint. Yet last weekend, the UAE began operating the Arab world’s first nuclear reactor in Abu Dhabi. And on the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is building an experimental reactor.

Both countries insist their nuclear programs are aimed only at producing electricity. But Qatar, their regional rival, has called the UAE’s reactor a “flagrant threat to regional peace,” and experts have pointed out that both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have not only some of the world’s largest oil reserves but also access to solar energy that’s cleaner and cheaper than nuclear power.

These oil-rich Gulf nations are far from alone. And make no mistake, their embrace of nuclear power is strategic — a piece with a larger global shift that’s shaking the foundations of an uneasy consensus that has kept the world safe from the use of nuclear weapons since the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima on this day 75 years ago, and the subsequent attack on Nagasaki three days later.

President Donald Trump has justified his moves to cut military cover for allies in Asia and Europe by arguing that these nations need to do more to defend themselves. Last week, the U.S. announced the withdrawal of 12,000 soldiers from Germany, a country that was the European frontier of the Cold War. “We don’t want to be the suckers anymore,” he told reporters. He has issued similar threats to Tokyo and Seoul. But it’s America’s security umbrella that has allowed allies like Germany, Japan and South Korea to not worry about developing their own nuclear weapons since World War II, despite lying within the missile range of dangerous rivals and enemies such as Russia and North Korea.

Is it surprising then that calls have been growing in Germany since 2018 for the country to develop its own nuclear weapons program? Prominent political scientist Christian Hacke has been direct in his suggestions for Berlin to build a nuclear arsenal. While the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected these demands, leaders there know that frustration with America because of Trump’s approach is growing in the country. Merkel has publicly said that Europe needs to take “our fate into our own hands.” In May, senior lawmakers from her ruling coalition partner, the SPD, asked the U.S. to pull out American nuclear weapons from Germany.

Over in South Korea, public polling has shown growing support for the country to build its own nuclear arsenal, as threats from Pyongyang linger and trust in American military support declines. And while popular opinion in Japan — the only country to have suffered the horrific consequences of nuclear warfare — remains staunchly against atomic weapons, there’s no saying what an increasingly militaristic Tokyo will feel compelled to do if there’s a race for n-tipped warheads in the region. Japan and South Korea already have highly sophisticated nuclear power industries, and supply reactors to most of the world — the Emirati reactor is of Korean design. 

Meanwhile, also in Asia, the Philippines plans to start a nuclear energy program. And in the Middle East, it’s impossible to see Qatar explore similar options in the wake of the UAE’s project. Saudi Arabia has made clear that if Iran moves toward a credible nuclear weapons program, it’ll turn its civilian energy reactors into a bomb-making machine.

The threat of nuclear escalation has hovered over the world since the sad day when the U.S. decided to unleash its bomb on Hiroshima. Once America had the bomb, the Soviet Union had to get one. As Beijing grew apart from Moscow in the 1960s, the need for a nuclear deterrent became critical in its assessment — China first tested an n-weapon in 1964. When India developed nuclear weapons in the 1970s, Pakistan felt compelled to do so.

Still, by the 1970s, the world’s biggest powers had come together to try and contain nuclear proliferation. Their efforts — including the institution of the Non-Proliferation Treaty — drew charges of hypocrisy from aspiring nuclear states: Those inside the nuclear tent were basically saying they were somehow inherently responsible, while no one else could be trusted.

It was when the world’s two biggest military powers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union, signed a landmark nuclear arms control treaty — START I — that other nations started taking nonproliferation more seriously. America and Russia updated that treaty when it was to expire in 2009.

But the New START — as the treaty is now called — is set to expire in February 2021. And while U.S. intelligence agencies have confirmed that Russia is abiding by its rules, which require both nations to limit their nuclear warheads, the Trump administration has said that it is reluctant to extend the deal unless China — never a party to the pact — also enters negotiations. Meanwhile in July, the U.S. declared plans to set up nuclear reactors on the moon, ostensibly to provide energy to lunar missions. It’s inconceivable that Russia and China will not launch similar plans. 

With the world’s biggest power disregarding rules that it set, and turning away from security guarantees it offered others for decades, expect a fresh nuclear race. In the chaos of 2020, the lessons of Hiroshima — it seems — have been forgotten. 

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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