Nuclear Threat Conference Report

May 18, 2021

In March and April 2021 Track Two held two conferences on the current state of the nuclear arms threat. Titled The Third Bomb, the first of these conferences was held online. Across three days and three 90-minute sessions, more than 130 people heard from nuclear experts who shared their opinions about the severity of the current threat of a nuclear event and what areas of the issue pose the greatest threat. Channels for non-governmental diplomacy were defined and several ideas for threat reduction raised. The follow-on conference held at Esalen in Big Sur in late April took the primary themes from the online conference and invited participants to explore more deeply the avenues for threat reduction. We invite you to watch the online conference sessions here.

We invite you to watch the online conference sessions here.

Track Two is grateful to all who participated in these gatherings including: Jonathan Alter, Alexey Arbatov, Sarah Bidgood, Valerie Bishop, Antonina Bouis, Jean Claude Bouis, Jerry Brown, Anne Gust Brown, Elena Chernenko, Jack Gallagher, Lisa Goldman, Marian Goodell, Siegfried Hecker, Jim Hirst, Joichi Ito, Kei Ito, Mary Ellen Klee, Adlan Margoev, Evelyn Messinger, Tamar Miller, Carol Miskel, Dave Morin, Dulce Murphy, Michael Murphy, Hanna Notte, Jay Ogilvy, William Potter, Xiao Qiang, Ksenia Semenova, Kim Spencer, Rose Tenyotkin, Virginia Thomson, Anna Vassilieva and Cassandra Vieten. (Read More)

Professor William Potter, Former Governor Jerry Brown, Academician Alexey Arbatov, and Professor Siegfried Hecker address Track Two members on Day One of The Third Bomb conference (March 2021).

Following are key points that arose during the Conference. Track Two's intention in presenting this information is to help others in the field of international cooperation, nuclear non-proliferation, nuclear arms control, and peace building to better understand a high-risk circumstance in international competition that poses real planetary threats for humans and for all life. We also encourage all readers to consider the extraordinary thinking of the attendees regarding a way forward that can inspire and motivate new generations to end the nuclear arms race in favor of a more peaceful world.

Greatest Threats

As the largest nuclear powers Russia and the United States pose substantive threats to the security of the planet. Their arms can easily obliterate most of civilization. In the words of leaders Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, however, there must never be a nuclear war. And yet current conditions in this key relationship are driving the risk associated with nuclear arms higher than it has ever been.

  • There is an astonishing lack of cooperation, civility and trust between leaders of the two nations today; this is echoed within the populace of both countries. Opportunities for cooperation have been squandered many times. Righteousness has led to the lack of trust but also empathy in the relationship. The danger of this lack of cooperation is a failure to act in the event of an accidental detonation, for example, that would trigger an aggressive response. Escalations involving accidents and miscalculations in an environment of no trust are the greatest threats.

  • From the US side, legislators are not interested in nuclear arms and in large part ignore them; there is a deep sense in the US that we are "right", Russia is wrong, followed by the misperception that the US is more powerful than it is! There is a serious lack of intent on arms control and very little interest in pursuing new and better practices. Complacency around peace building is palpable.

  • There is general disarray in International affairs as the US demonstrated an unwillingness to join international efforts to assure greater peace and a more optimistic future for the planet between 2016 and 2020. While this may change with the new administration, threads from the past exist and it will take time to effect change.

  • New "modernized" weapons are actually new weapons, often sporting interchangeable warheads. These make identification, counting and tracking difficult; and many are unsafe, developed under questionable procedures, making the accidental detonation threat even greater.

  • There appears to be high demand for nuclear materials from non-state as well as state players; and the mixing up of tactical, strategic and traditional nuclear weapons poses challenges for verification.

Image courtesy of the Arms Control Association

The intermediate nuclear powers also pose threats:

  • In the Middle East despite some progress towards greater cooperation represented through the Abraham Accord, the root of the security threat is ignored and the buildup of arms favored. This becomes a zero-sum game unless there is more work completed on understanding the roots of fear and need for control.

  • In China the ambiguity about nuclear arms intent is powerful and threatening and China is developing a nuclear triad that might, someday, pose more significant threats than is believed exists today. Further to China, the US poses an existential threat and there is no trust between the two nations, again escalating the risk in the event of an accidental detonation. And China is keeping a very close eye on its primary trade route, the South China Sea where tensions continue to rise between multiple players. China is now leading the US in certain arenas. Possibly the most worrisome is Artificial Intelligence.

  • Finally, India and Pakistan, in their arms competition and general hostility, are akin to the USSR-US during the Cold War. And the make-up of each country's arsenal poses great risks as tactical weapons, more random than the larger strategic weapons, are key to Pakistan's strategy in particular.