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Prospects of Nuclear War: MAD, China, and Al-Qaeda’s Nuclear Scientists

When one thinks about if a nuclear war could happen, it usually concerns some of the world's most prominent superpowers, like the United States of America facing off against a threat across the ocean. What threat exactly? I don’t know… maybe someplace scary and communist like North Korea or China. Or maybe the Taliban will be the next super villain constructing a nuclear arsenal on their way to enact a jihadist crusade against the west. Or maybe Russia will sneak up on us and create the USSR 2. Nuclear war exists all over popular culture, too. Off the top of my head, I think of Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War: a game that came out late last year, which helped to push the Call of Duty franchise over $3 billion in net bookings in 2020. This game had a story mode in which one of the endings literally concluded with a USSR militant group launching American nukes in every major European city. The idea of nuclear war has been somewhat romanticized, and I want to get to the bottom of it by first explaining why we haven't done it yet, why certain countries wouldn’t do it, and where serious threats may lie.

“Red Iceberg” Published by St. Paul, MN: Impact Publishing, 1960

We’ve been developing nuclear weapons for a little over half a century. Aside from the USA's attacks on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, we haven’t had a single nuclear conflict since. However, once the USSR caught wind of the damage the USA's nukes did in Japan, they were quick to make their own show of force. The USSR and the USA were the largest economies coming out of WWII. They additionally, for better or worse, had conflicting economic ideologies. In America, this is what we know as the Red Scare: the crusade against the hammer and sickle. Both superpowers began to amass arms, allies, and resources. Proxy wars were started in developing countries where each faction was backed by a respective superpower. The Korean War permanently split Korea into two, the Vietnam War was a result of Red Scare propaganda pushing America to fight a futile battle against the Viet Cong, and the US and USSR literally built a wall dividing Berlin into two distinctly different regions. This was the Cold War: a passive battle of information and conspiracy that was aestheticized as a conflict between Capitalism and Communism. On top of all of this, we had the procurement of nuclear arsenals, of which both sides had enough to destroy the planet several times over.

To put this in perspective, The ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) stated that, “A nuclear bomb detonated in a city would immediately kill tens of thousands of people, and tens of thousands more would suffer horrific injuries and later die from radiation exposure.

In addition to the immense short-term loss of life, a nuclear war could cause long-term damage to our planet. It could severely disrupt the earth's ecosystem and reduce global temperatures, resulting in food shortages around the world.” There are an estimated 12,890 nuclear warheads in the world with 3,750 of them being active. A nuclear war, put shortly, would be the end of humanity. And the end of humanity is only a few nuclear codes away from being a reality.

This is a real feel good article isn’t it?

Of course, having the capacity for harm is vastly different than being an active threat. Imagine a person running at you with a knife and another with an AR in safety. Who's more dangerous? The guy with the knife. Who can cause more harm? The guy with the AR. And the guy with the AR is kind of where we are right now. The US isn’t actively using nukes. We aren’t aiming the gun at anyone, but our finger is on the trigger, and it stays there because of something called the MAD Theory, otherwise known as Mutually Assured Destruction. Going back to the gun analogy, guns, in a perfect world, are meant to be the ultimate de-escalation of violence. The point of having one in public is to try to limit the amount of people killed through intimidation and security. Nukes work in a similar way. This is where we are: a gigantic mexican standoff between all of the world’s nuke holders. MAD Theory is what held the world in balance during the peak of the Cold War, where we had more than 70,000 active nuclear warheads. While it is assuring to know that everyone is collectively interested in human preservation, MAD Theory has one pretty big problem. With everyone at this standstill, Nuclear weapons have become an ultimatum when dealing with countries without them. You aren’t in the club unless you had some stake in the game, and not having them puts you at the mercy of larger forces. Suddenly, everyone acquires humanity-ending bombs through a phenomenon called nuclear proliferation.

Currently the countries that have nuclear weapons are the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and Israel. The US, UK, and Russia have all been reducing their arsenals, however the American Federation of Nuclear Scientists has stated that the other countries intend to continue production and maintenance as usual. Let’s start by talking about China. Simply put, a nuclear war would not be US vs. China. China has no reason to use its nuclear arsenals right now. MAD Theory definitely contributes to this, but China is also doing quite well for itself in the status quo. The Centre for Economics and Business Research stated that China is on track to overtake the United States as the world’s biggest economy by 2028. China’s economy has been predicted to have an annual growth 5.7% from 2021-25 before slowing to about 4.5% a year from 2026-30. Compare this to the predictions made for the United States whose growth slows to about 1.9% a year between 2022-24 and then 1.6% afterwards. Researchers based this data off of the impacts of the coronavirus on the respective economies stating, “The COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding economic fallout have certainly tipped this rivalry in China’s favour.” Additionally, China has been expanding its foreign aid. Chinese foreign is heavily linked Chinese investment and trade. Their foreign policy interests coincide with the profits it can make by investing in cheap labor. This isn’t China pulling a cheap trick. Many prominent nations aid developing ones in order to improve foreign relations and profit from the relationship. Through the power of domestic economic growth and increased foreign aid, China can very well overtake America without ever threatening violence. And even if we were to return to the absurd hypothetical of a China initiated war against the US, a cynical may point out that more countries would owe their allegiance to the former over the latter. China wielding that much power as an authoritarian state definitely raises concern, especially when considering that China is also trying to develop its own state surveillanced internet service. This service would directly compete with the one we currently have access to, but that is a topic for another day. Point being that China has more reason to stop nuclear conflict than to start it.

Image sourced from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) June 15th, 2020