Growing up at the end of the Cold War in the United States, I remember a constant low-level hum of fear about a potential war with Russia and quite possibly a nuclear war.
Russians were the villains in our movies. Mushroom clouds haunted our dreams.
Now, for many of us and maybe you, a new version of those anxieties is emerging.
Security analysts and officials have told me they believe the risk of a nuclear weapon being used somewhere — while still small — has increased to a level not seen in decades. North Korea now claims to have developed nuclear warheads that it can mount on its various missiles. Russia’s menacing war in Ukraine continues. At the same time, China is expanding its nuclear arsenal, leading experts to suggest we may be heading into another era of brinkmanship, like the one that marked the early rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union, as giant powers with cataclysmic weapons poke and prod for weakness.
As Chris Buckley, our chief China correspondent, wrote in a recent article, China’s military strategists are now “looking to nuclear weapons not only as a defensive shield, but as a potential sword — to intimidate and subjugate adversaries.”
China aims to have 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035, up from a few hundred now, while the United States is modernizing and bolstering its own nuclear capabilities.
Many countries in the Asia-Pacific region are trying to figure out what to do about all of this. Some officials in Seoul have floated the idea of South Korea developing its own nuclear weapons, an idea the United States opposes. Washington’s allies have also been pressing it for information about nuclear protocols in the event of a standoff, the sort of thing that European allies already have through NATO.
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