Some 25 years ago, during my first years in Washington DC as a foreign correspondent, I would hear relentless commentary about how the edgy dynamic between India and Pakistan was a “nuclear flashpoint.” The term became even more potent after the two countries went overtly nuclear with tests in 1998. No India-Pakistan story from the western media went without the mandatory mention of “two nuclear-armed nations,” with religion thrown in, particularly when it referred to the Kashmir issue.
Sometime after the nuclear tests, particularly after incidents such as Pakistan’s terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, and later after its terror strike in Mumbai on 26/11, American commentators began to go ballistic about prospects of a nuclear war between the two countries. It was as if they were willing it. The slightest movement of troops — usually after a Pakistani terror strike — would fuel alarm in the west.
Their fear was amplified by vivid analyses and tropes from think-tanks and journals like the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which diligently kept track of the number of nuclear weapons both sides had (usually around a 100). This was mostly guess work no one could or would authenticate. And then there was the Doomsday Clock.
Conceived and maintained since 1947 by members of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Doomsday Clock is a symbol that represents the likelihood of a man-made global catastrophe — most prominently a nuclear war, and more recently climate change and global warming. Set at seven minutes to midnight (midnight being the hour of Armageddon), the clock has moved 24 times since then, depending on members’ perception of an annihilating event.
When India and Pakistan tested their nuclear devices in 1998, the Doomsday Clock was set back by five minutes, advancing from 23:46 to nine minutes to midnight, the single largest move forward in the clock’s history. The only other time it went forward by five minutes was in 1968, and it required three events in preceding three years to push it forward — the Indo-Pak war of 1965, the intensification of the Vietnam War, and the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.
Through all this, then and after, one heard little discussion about the potential for nuclear war or armageddon between the United States and its NATO allies on one side, and their adversaries, rising China and soon to be resurgent Russia, on the other. At the turn of the 90s when the US and USSR signed arms REDUCTION treaties, the Doomsday Clock was set back by a whopping ten minutes, even though both sides retained THOUSANDS of nuclear weapons.
But the worst-case nuclear war scenarios were meant only for India-Pakistan (not even India-China). Or it would be unleashed by some rogue actors like Saddam Hussain, Kim Some-One, or one of the crazy mullahs in Iran. US, UK, France, or even Russia unfurling their nuclear weapons? Never!
You get the picture…or the color? The underlying assumption was — and remains — western “civilisation” and Caucasian Christian people could be trusted to behave rationally and handle nuclear weapons responsibly. But all bets are off with people of other race, religion, and color. Never mind that the white folks (to put it plainly and bluntly) had thousands of nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert, had escaped nuclear catastrophe by accident several times, and starkly provided the only instance of use of nuclear weapons by humankind. It was the non-white folk who were the biggest threat.
One was reminded of this narrative last week when Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made what must be the starkest nuclear threat in recent times. Speaking at a press conference after talks with French President Emmanuel Macron, Putin described a hypothetical future in which Ukraine had joined NATO and then attempted to invade Russian-occupied Crimea, to invoke threat of a nuclear response by Moscow.
According to the Putin narrative, NATO countries could find themselves drawn into a conflict with Russia against their will, because they will be obliged to fulfill Article 5 of the NATO charter “in a heartbeat, even before you know it.” Article 5 enjoins a collective defense for NATO, saying any attack on a member is an attack on all members. “Do you realize that if Ukraine joins NATO and decides to take Crimea back through military means, the European countries will automatically get drawn into a military conflict with Russia?” Putin asked rhetorically. “Of course, NATO’s united potential and that of Russia are incomparable.” he continued drily, before unleashing a verbal nuclear missile. Russia, he warned, “is one of the world’s leading nuclear powers and is superior to many of those countries in terms of the number of modern nuclear force components.”
It was a chilling statement, met by an equally heated response by President Biden on Tuesday, when he pushed back against Putin, saying, “the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power.” The full force of American power. No need to read between the lines there.
But don’t expect the Doomsday Clock to jump forward much. The last time the US and Russia tore up a nuclear arms reduction treaty and began upgrading their nukes, the clock ticked forward by a grand 30 seconds. When Donald Trump threatened to eviscerate Kim and NoKo, another 30 seconds. Sabre-rattling by Pakistan and India? Five minutes!
All this is not to say for a moment that the threat of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan or India and China is any less. Human idiocy, irrationality, and their ability to embark down slippery slopes, knows no race or color; there is no evidence that one country or alliance is more or less rational than the other. At the end of the day, the buck stops at one man or woman who has to make the call (even when there are pledges of collective decision making).
But given the enormous arsenal US and Russia have at this time (even after divesting themselves of thousands), I would say they remain not just the world’s biggest nuclear threats.