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 and economic well-being, it won’t be an existential threat – unless there’s a civilisational collapse. As for nuclear weapons, they really can wipe out the planet and much of humanity.

Silly though the comparison may sound, 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 during the coronavirus crisis, hardly any attention is being paid to the looming expiration of New START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

World loses limits

New START, signed in 2010 to replace START 1991, is the last treaty constraining the world’s largest nuclear arsenals. It will end on 5 February 2021 and, unless renewed or replaced, the world loses limits on America and Russia’s long-range nuclear weapons programmes, which are verified by means of regular inspections.

Mushroom cloud from the explosion of the 1954 American nuclear test series codenamed Castle Ro…

Russia, which had previously sought renegotiation, is now calling for New START to be extended. However, the US is seeking a whole new deal and wants it to cover and constrain China.

The problem, Rose Gottemoeller, lead US negotiator on New START, said recently, is China sees no particular reason to sign on to START 3.0. And, even though China is expanding its nuclear capabilities and should technically be brought into the arms control framework, there isn’t enough time between now and 5 February to negotiate a whole new deal.

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

The Trump administration doesn’t seem to care about the impending end of New START, but the rest of us should.

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

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