Trump Ascent Raises Nuclear War Fears: yet a nuclear accident remains far more terrifying

The possibility of nuclear war is a persistent concern of the human race. It seems to be the only way in which we can destroy ourselves in one fell swoop. Perhaps Donald Trump’s ascent to the US presidency will exacerbate these fears; perhaps his isolationist tendencies will alleviate them. Either way, the fear of nuclear destruction remains a constant, even if such a likelihood is in reality remote.

Some fear that a Trump presidency will lead to nuclear proliferation and perhaps war

Whether it is rogue states possessing nuclear weapons (North Korea, Iran), deranged leaders with their fingers on the red button (Kim Jong-un, Trump?), the potential for swift nuclear proliferation (the Middle East, Asia-Pacific) or the acquisition of nuclear devices by terrorist organisations, the worst-case scenario of nuclear war never fails to unsettle world leaders.

In part it is a hangover from the Cold War when mutually assured nuclear destruction did at times seem imminent, no more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, as Dr Strangelove magnificently parodied, it would have taken major misunderstandings and maniacal decision-making for such an eventuality to have materialised.

A more plausible scenario for nuclear annihilation is an accident. We have seen in recent years the devastating radioactive fallout caused by the Chernobyl disaster – whose crumbling reactor is soon to be encased by a giant shield – and the Japanese tsunami of 2011 which caused major damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986
Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986

Such terrifying incidents have raised major questions over civilian nuclear power generation, not to mention further strengthening the case for nuclear non-proliferation.

Just as alarming as these unfortunate, if potentially avoidable, disasters are the ‘near-miss’ operational incidents involving nuclear weapons, most of which remain shrouded in secrecy.

The possible discovery by a diver last week of a missing Mark IV nuclear bomb off the coast of British Columbia brought such eventualities back into the spotlight. In 1950, a US Air Force B-36 aircraft began to experience engine trouble during a flight between Alaska and Texas. The device now thought to have been uncovered off the Canadian coast was jettisoned before the crew ejected, allowing the plane to continue on autopilot until it crashed into a mountain range. This was the first recorded loss of a nuclear weapon in history.

Although some aviation experts have dismissed the possibility of the device being the missing Mark IV, either way it is not nuclear-ready; i.e. it is has a lead, uranium and TNT filling but not the plutonium necessary for a nuclear detonation.

Other past operational incidents have further demonstrated the precariousness of ‘routine’ nuclear weapons deployment.

For instance, on the 27th July 1956 a B-47 bomber crashed into a storage igloo at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, within which three Mark VI nuclear bombs sat silently. As with the B-36 incident, the bombs did not contain any fissile material yet they had a considerable amount of high explosive content and a detonation could have proved catastrophic.

More controversially, on the 21st January 1968 a B-52 bomber crashed near Thule Air Base in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs on board during a ‘Chrome Dome’ alert mission at the height of the Cold War.

The nuclear payload of the four devices ruptured and dispersed across the sea ice as the conventional explosives in the aircraft detonated. More worryingly, despite an extensive clean-up operation by the American and Danish authorities, it has since been revealed that a secondary stage of one of the weapons was never accounted for. The Danes had kept the American nuclear presence on Greenlandic soil a secret from their own people, leading to a major political scandal almost three decades later.

Blackened ice at the Thule crash site
Blackened ice at the Thule crash site

There have been further military-related nuclear incidents, several associated with the meltdown of reactors in Soviet submarines. It is likely that others have yet to be disclosed and perhaps never will be without a whistleblower breaking the radio silence.

It seems that the apocalyptic consequences of a military-nuclear disaster resonate with us and our leaders in a more poignant way than ongoing crises such as climate change, rising sea levels and mass population displacement, all of which will ultimately have dire consequences if left unresolved.

Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire - possibly caused with a collision with a US sub - in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered
Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire – possibly caused with a collision with a US sub – in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered

Whilst efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology at a state level remain critical, putting further safeguards in place to avert an accidental nuclear catastrophe are even more important, for such a scenario is considerably more likely than nuclear war.

As Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control has demonstrated, there is an ‘illusion of safety’ when it comes to nuclear weapons, regardless of the perceived responsibility of those powers controlling them.

In the absence of a nuclear-free world – now an unattainable goal – it is hoped that military leaders, and their counterparts in the civilian world, take note of the near misses of the past to try and securitise the future as best they can.


Presidential Election Highlights Decline of the Duopoly: American Politics Needs a Third Way

In this day and age it is difficult for any politician to escape scandal, although even by modern standards US presidential hopefuls Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump have courted it in large measure.

Trump and Clinton go head-to-head in St Louis
Trump and Clinton go head-to-head in St Louis

The various controversies surrounding the two candidates for US President have so far dominated the race to the White House and once more surfaced in the recent debate in St Louis. In a particularly hostile exchange, both Clinton and Trump had their shortcomings brutally exposed on national television.

Trump seized on Clinton’s supposedly untrustworthy nature, particularly with relation to her use of a private email server whilst Secretary of State, during and after which time she deleted thousands of potentially pertinent emails. She was further castigated for her alleged disregard of a child rape victim (the alleged attacker of which she had got acquitted during her legal days), and for intimidating the women who accused her husband Bill of sexual assault.

Clinton was fortunate to escape with a warning for her use of a private email server whilst in office
Clinton was fortunate to escape with a warning for her use of a private email server whilst in office

Trump, on the other hand, has far more openly made a rod for his own back. A 2005 video, in which he can be heard making obscene remarks about how celebrities such as himself could grope women, was unsurprisingly a hot topic. Clinton followed this by listing her opponent’s many supposed prejudices, including against Muslims, immigrants and ethnic minorities. There was also a recurring accusation that Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns meant that he was basically paying none anyway.

Of course under the scrutiny of the modern media it is difficult to be a pristine politician…indeed you’d have to be pretty boring to be anything but. Consequently, such unsavoury debate is to an extent unsurprising. Yet the clouds hanging over the heads of the two candidates are of such severity that it raises questions about their suitability to be President. Might this have been the year for a serious Independent challenger? A white knight stepping out of the shadows?

The last meaningful performance by an Independent candidate for President was Ross Perot in the 1990s. In 1992, the wealthy industrialist took over 19.5 million votes from the public and yet still ended up empty-handed in the Electoral College. Running under the Reform banner in 1996 he managed 8 million votes.

Perot's economic nationalism and personal appeal garnered an upswell of support in 1992
Perot’s economic nationalism and personal appeal garnered an upswell of support in 1992

Such an effort – admittedly backed like Trump by huge personal wealth – is not to be sniffed at. The only other Independent to have gained a measure of acknowledgement was John B. Anderson who won 5.7 million votes in the 1980 election, although it should be noted that he had initially failed in a challenge for the Republican nomination.

Neither Independents nor Third Party contenders have stood a winning chance to compete for the Presidency since the pre-Civil War days, when the Democratic and Republican parties were tearing themselves apart on major issues such as slavery. The 1912 election was an exception, with four parties fighting on an almost equal platform. But again this was more to do with factional splits within the major parties than a genuine outsider straining for glory.

Woodrow Wilson comfortably won in 1912
Woodrow Wilson comfortably won in 1912

This year’s Independent hopeful is former CIA operations officer Evan McMullin, currently polling between 1 and 2%, although he is making a real push in his native Utah. From the Third Party hopefuls, the Libertarians and Greens are polling in the 5-7% region.

Such statistics are hardly a precursor to an historic anomaly and yet it could be argued that Clinton and (particularly) Trump are themselves Independents, their policy positions changing at a whim and not always reflective of large elements of their party. Trump is particularly guilty on this count, for instance dismissing the view of his own running mate on how to tackle the war in Syria.

A recent piece in Foreign Affairs suggested that the corrupt debacle that is modern Brazilian politics can partially be explained by the ease with which politicians can change parties and policy position. This has ensured that there has never been a consistent party platform for any single political grouping, hence the Brazilian electorate’s susceptibility to elect charismatic but dubious populists like Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff.

Lula and Rousseff - now both embroiled in corruption scandals - embody the populist bent that is becoming typical of most democracies
Lula and Rousseff – now both embroiled in corruption scandals – embody the populist bent that is becoming typical of most democracies

The reality in the world’s larger and more established democracies is actually not too dissimilar. Whilst party allegiance is undoubtedly stronger and more fixed, changes on policy position and personal preference makes it difficult for the electorate to decipher many of the differences and similarities between the major parties.

In our era of intense scrutiny and keyboard warriors, it is apparently too tempting to try and please everyone. Politicians as a whole have become less principled and ideological. Policy ceases to exist in their minds or rhetoric; the vast majority cannot be told apart.

This year’s Presidential election is about as populist a showdown as could be seen. There is still very little inkling about what either of the candidates would do if they actually won power.

This is not to clamour for an Independent President, for such a political shock would surely prove disastrous, passing legislation a continual headache. What we miss, though, is a greater degree of diversity, clear policy platforms to inform an undereducated electorate, and a challenge to the Democratic-Republican duopoly. A fairer chance for the outsiders is essential for the political future of the United States.
Clinton will almost certainly win and at this stage she must be considered the lesser of two evils. Yet the American political system has been humiliated by the ease with which two huge but deeply flawed personalities have taken control of respective parties with minimal challenge, aided by a shedload of money.
Trump has never held political office and appears to lack even basic knowledge of policy and international affairs
Trump has never held political office and appears to lack even basic knowledge of policy and international affairs
Having been elevated to ascendacy by the people in the primaries they must pander to them now. It must be hoped that Trump continues to self-destruct so that Clinton does not have to allow her rhetoric and political stance to veer towards fence-sitters who might otherwise have followed ‘The Donald’s’ lead.

Beijing Stands by Selective History and Rejects South China Sea Ruling

Tensions in the South China Sea continue their inexorable rise after the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled Tuesday that China had violated the sovereign rights of the Philippines by building artificial islands around Scarborough Shoal. The Chinese have responded with typical defiance, reiterating their ‘legitimate’ claims to this entire swath of the Pacific Ocean, whilst also stating their right to create an air defence zone over the region should they so wish.


Of course, the South China Sea dispute does not merely revolve around China and the Philippines. Indeed, it is one of the critical security dilemmas confronting the Asia-Pacific today. Taiwan, Vietnam, the Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia also claim various atolls and islets in the Sea, the most notable being the Paracel and Spratly Islands. The West, and in particular the USA, also has more than a passing interest in the issue and has tentatively tested China’s resolve in recent months with freedom of navigation exercises in the immediate vicinity of Beijing’s man-made islands.

With increasingly frequent confrontations, naval stand-offs and nationalist pandering over sovereignty, it is perfectly conceivable that the dispute, if mismanaged, could one day lead to multilateral conflict in the region.

Because the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) allows for overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, complainant states have sought other avenues by which to justify their claims. China’s assertion of sovereignty over the entire sea rests heavily on historical legitimacy. Namely, the government asserts that Chinese sailors, including the famed Zheng He and his historic ‘star fleets’, first discovered the plethora of small islands and cays during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Vietnamese similarly rely on the Emperor Gia Long’s 1816 claim of sovereignty over the Paracel Islands as proof that the territory was theirs first.

The voyages of Ming Dynasty navigator Zheng He are revered in China
The voyages of Ming Dynasty navigator Zheng He are revered in China

These overlapping historical and legal claims are worrying enough. However, the situation could be even worse. Until well into the twentieth century other great powers had trained their eyes on the strategically-important, and potentially resource-rich, islands and waterways of the South China Sea.

In the early 20th century the French, then colonial overlords in Indo-China, laid claim to “all islands, islets and reefs” situated between the 7th and 12th degrees of north latitude in the Sea. Their initial design was on the rich guano and potash extracts to be found on several of the islands. By 1933, French troops occupied Spratly Island, Amboyna Cay, Itu Aba and various other rocky outposts as they looked to flex their imperialist muscle.

Despite rumours to the contrary, the French did not relinquish their claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea islands to Vietnam in 1956. Despite the eviction of the last French nationals on the islands by the invading Japanese in 1939, Rene Coty’s government still held out hopes of regaining the territories as an overseas possession, such as Reunion and Guadeloupe are today.

Japan may well have persisted with its own claim over the South China Sea, having annexed many of its islands during WWII. However, the Allied-imposed San Francisco Peace Treaty of 1951 renounced Japan’s claims over the territory. This is not to say that, under renewed conservative LDP leadership, Japan will not revive this claim in the near future. With frustration mounting over China’s opposition to their sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, the Japanese may strike a retaliatory posture in the South, particularly with the Abe government now in a position to amend the constitution.

Earlier this year, Japan sent a Hyuga-class destroyer to take part in naval exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea
Earlier this year, Japan sent a Hyuga-class destroyer to take part in naval exercises with the Philippines in the South China Sea

A former claimant state less likely to renew its interest in the region is Great Britain. A Law Office report in 1932 stated that “His Majesty’s claim to sovereignty over Spratly Island and Amboyna Cay in April 1930 was of so doubtful a nature that it could only be laid before the Permanent Court of International Justice with a faint prospect of success”. Despite Beijing’s rhetoric in recent months, this sentiment must have been similar to that experienced by Xi Jinping and his ruling cabal when the Philippines lodged its complaint with The Hague.

Despite the Law Office warning, the British government proceeded with its claim over the two islands despite having little justification to do so. With hopes of building a plane refuelling station, the British vehemently opposed the Japanese annexation of WWII. Their reasoning? “Most of the territory covered by the claim consists of rocks the majority of which are to our knowledge incapable of effective occupation and therefore, according to our view of international law, not annexable”. What this statement said about the logic of the British claim is difficult to fathom but it is an argument that has frequently been repeated in recent years. Are the splattering of outcrops in the South China Sea definable as islands? If not, then claims to surrounding territory on the grounds of an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) are bogus, which is why China has sought to artificially increase the land mass and habitability of many islets.

China has been brazen in its artificial extension of the South China Sea islets, including thestationing there of sophisticated military hardware
China has been brazen in its artificial extension of the South China Sea islets, including thestationing there of sophisticated military hardware

British Commonwealth officials maintained their belligerent if futile posture on the issue into the 1950s. Only the competing French interest prevented a more forceful riposte from London when unable to achieve its ambitions.

One interesting thing to note about territorial claims in general is that, once they have been made, they can be resurrected at any moment. Additionally, new historical justification for such claims can always be found. Whilst the possibility of Britain, France or any other far-flung power having contemporary designs over the South China Sea may seem preposterous, there are many examples of overseas territorial disputes persisting into the post-colonial era. The Falkland Islands is just one example, and Britain’s unyielding sovereignty still infuriates the Argentinians to this day.

Should China ever overreach itself in the South China Sea, what is to stop the Americans and their allies from wheeling out old territorial claims to put a halt on Beijing’s aggressive expansion? Unlikely, perhaps, but always a possibility. Indeed, for a time in the 1930s, the USA subsumed the Filipino claim for sovereignty over the South China Sea during the period in which it dictated Manila’s foreign policy.

We should perhaps be thankful, therefore, that with frequent eruptions of disquiet amongst the Asian contestants over the ownership of the islands in the South China Sea, the former Western colonial powers have refrained from resurrecting their dubious claims to this most delicate stretch of water.

Competing claimant governments have nationalised the South China Sea dispute for political gain
Competing claimant governments have nationalised the South China Sea dispute for political gain

What the USA will make of China’s continuing challenge to its domination of the Pacific Ocean will be a question for the near future…perhaps one to be resolved as soon as new footsteps cross the threshold of the White House.


British Foreign & Commonwealth Office papers from the National Archives