A pandemic isn’t an existential threat to humanity; nuclear weapons are


The ruins left by the explosion of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, when 140.000 people were killed / AP

A philosopher on the radio the other day said a pandemic isn’t as much of an existential threat to humanity as nuclear weapons.

He’s probably right. Even if the coronavirus pandemic takes a terrible toll – in terms of lives, incomes, economic wellbeing – it won’t be an existential threat unless there is a civilizational collapse. As for nuclear weapons, they really can wipe out the planet and much of humanity.

Silly though it sounds to compare, a pandemic is better than a nuclear war.

It’s important to note this because while we’re trying to keep as many people alive as possible in the coronavirus outbreak, hardly any attention is being paid to the looming expiration of New START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

New START, signed in 2010 to replace START 1991, is the last treaty constraining the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. It will end on February 5 and unless renewed or replaced, here’s what the world loses: Limits on America and Russia’s long-range nuclear weapons programmes, which are verified by means of regular inspections.

Russia, which had previously sought renegotiation, is now calling for New START to be simply extended. But the US wants a whole new deal and it wants it to cover and constrain China. The problem, as Rose Gottemoeller, lead US negotiator on New START recently said, is that China sees no particular reason to sign on to START 3.0. And even though it is expanding its nuclear capabilities and should technically be brought into the arms control framework, there really isn’t enough time between now and February 5 to negotiate a whole new deal.

The China issue can be addressed later. It’s worth remembering that between them, the US and Russia have an estimated 91 per cent of the world’s nuclear warheads. Both countries have 20 times as many as China.

The Trump administration seems not to care particularly about the impending end of New START, but the rest of us should.

Nuclear weapons, unlike viruses, are always an existential threat.