Sleepwalking Toward the Nuclear Precipice

Sleepwalking Toward the Nuclear Precipice

The World Needs a Wake-Up Call

One of the best accounts of the lead-up to World War I, by the historian Christopher Clark, details how a group of European leaders led their nations into a conflict that none of them wanted. Gripped by nationalism and ensnared by competing interests, mutual mistrust, and unwieldy alliances, “the Sleepwalkers,” as Clark dubs them, made a series of tragic miscalculations that resulted in 40 million casualties.

Around the world today, leaders face similar risks of miscalculation—except heightened by the presence of nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia together possess more than 90 percent of the world’s atomic arsenal, but they share the stage with seven other nuclear powers, several of which are engaged in volatile rivalries. Whereas a century ago millions died over four years of trench warfare, now the same number could be killed in a matter of minutes.

President-elect Joseph Biden, Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris, and their incoming national security team must confront the sobering fact that the potential for nuclear weapons use shadows more of the world’s conflicts than ever before. A single accident or blunder could lead to Armageddon. As a result, Biden will need to chart a new path on nuclear policy and arms control—one that creates new safeguards against accidental or ill-considered use of nuclear weapons and shores up international mechanisms that have long helped to keep the peace.