Nagasaki was destroyed on 9 August 1945. It was three days after the Little Boy bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Made of uranium and nicknamed Little Boy, it killed at least 80,000 people with its immediate effects of blast, fire and radioactivity. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki was named Fatman, was made of plutonium and killed some 40,000 people immediately.
Many analysts and commentators believe that, today, the risk of nuclear war is greater than it has ever been, even at the height of the Cold War. Quantifying and comparing risk is a complex business and comparisons are hard to make between different eras involving different protagonists. But nobody can deny that as long as nuclear weapons are used, there is a risk that one or more will again be used. And today’s toxic international politics make clear that the risk is significant.
In January this year, however, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA, all nuclear weapon states – jointly agreed that nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought. The statement deliberately reflected what Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, leaders of the USSR and USA, said in 1985.
Nagasaki, 9 August 1945, and Hiroshima three days earlier remain compelling reminders of why they were so right.
Western commentators on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war are frequently using the term, ‘quagmire’ – a bog, swamp or morass, from which, once you have entered, it is between hard and impossible to get out, as every move you make to free yourself sucks you deeper in. The term was widely used in the 1960s about the USA’s war in Vietnam.
As Lawrence Freedman has pointed out in one of his commentaries on the war, the term has a closely related partner – escalation, which might seem to a state stuck in a quagmire like the only way out. Both terms have a history and have considerable currency when analysing the problems and risks big states face in wars with smaller states.
But there is another metaphor from the time of the Vietnam War and all those arguments and debates, which I find even richer – the six-sided box. By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has taken his country into a box from which it is hard to see the way out. And that is bad news for everyone.
On 3 January, the leaders of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the UK and the USA, the P5) jointly stated that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. So say we all, I hope. But what does it mean for the P5 to say this, and to say it now?
Was it a response? Was it not a response? Following a missile test on 15 September, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) went two months without another one. On 20 November, President Trump formally designated the DPRK as a state that sponsors terrorism. On 28 November the DPRK carried out launched what may have been an intercontinental-range missile, reckoned by some reports to be its 20th test-firing of the year. The risk of the US-DPRK face-off leading to conflagration is still not huge but it is increasing. With such high stakes, it is urgent to find a way to cool things down. Continue reading