Nonproliferation Trends. What’s News, What’s True?

It should be possible for the United States and Russia to reiterate in one fashion or another the basic tenet that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. If they are unable to lend their support to this fundamental principle, any comments they might make about the enduring value of the NPT at the next Review Conference will have a hollow ring, writes William C. Potter, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS).


Forecasting nuclear proliferation has a long but very poor record. Since the first nuclear weapons detonation 75 years ago, journalists, government officials, and scholars have incorrectly predicted innumerable instances of nuclear weapons spread, often employing rhetorical flourishes about nuclear chain reactions, cascades, waves, dominoes, and tipping points.  Today, prognoses of proliferation doom and gloom are again in fashion. This essay briefly takes stock of the current proliferation scene and explores what of significance has changed that might alter the balance of proliferation incentives and disincentives.  It also examines the challenges facing the delayed Tenth Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference. It concludes by proposing several steps that might help to restore a modicum of US-Russian nonproliferation cooperation in the interests of retarding the further spread of nuclear weapons. 

What’s News, What’s True?

Many of the early pessimistic forecasts about nuclear proliferation, including those by the U.S. intelligence community, falsely assumed that the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons was tantamount to a decision to exercise that capability.  In fact, almost every country that in the past pursued civilian applications of nuclear energy, also conducted activities consistent with a military program, although most abandoned those activities long before they yielded a weapon.   Possession of the technical capacity to “go nuclear,” therefore, is a poor predictor of nuclear proliferation.

The prevailing view among both international relations scholars and government practitioners is that external security threats are the principal drivers of national decisions to acquire nuclear weapons. This “realist” perspective leads some analysts to hypothesize an action-reaction process in which proliferation begets more proliferation. While international security considerations certainly have played a significant role in some countries’ nuclear weapons calculations, they fail to explain why countries facing similar external threats have responded very differently to these challenges  or why some states that previously possessed nuclear weapons subsequently chose to forego them in favor of joining the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states.

One explanation for these counterintuitive actions—from a realist perspective—is the possible mitigation of the security dilemma by securing guarantees from other nuclear weapons possessors and/or legal and political assurances regarding the intentions of regional rivals. Such assurances have taken the form of international treaties such as the NPT, regional treaties in the form of Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones, and the introduction of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.
Meeting with Rafael Grossi, a Candidate for the Post of IAEA Director General

Some analysts also acknowledge the positive impact on nonproliferation of normative restraints related to the non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945 and the development of related norms regarding international humanitarian law. In addition, other scholars attribute the diminished interest in nuclear weapons on the part of some countries due to the perceived costs associated with their development and the political economic burdens they impose for states seeking greater integration into the global economy. 

Finally, one should acknowledge the view, albeit a minority one, that the most interesting aspect of the nonproliferation puzzle is not the relatively small number of nuclear weapons possessors, but the fact that nine states have actually acquired nuclear arms. This view, most closely associated with the scholar Jacques Hymans, suggests that a particular “national identity conception” is associated with a small set of leaders who undertake the quest for nuclear weapons. These leaders possess what he refers to as an “oppositional nationalist” identity, characterized by a deep fear of an external enemy along with extreme nationalism. 

A quick review of the current scene suggests that while major underlying proliferation disincentives remain powerful, some have eroded, and others may be in jeopardy. 
Conflict and Leadership
A Year Without the INF Treaty: You Need an Umbrella During Rainy Season
Andrey Kortunov
The approximate design of an umbrella for the nuclear powers is not too complicated. It includes expanding the channels of communication between the military at all levels, exchanging information about their nuclear missile forces, strategic doctrines and modernisation plans, concurrent measures to reduce the level of a missile systems’ combat readiness, the beginning of meaningful consultations on the most dangerous military technologies, and joint actions against the threat of nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation, writes Andrey Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC).


1. The International Security Environment.  

There is little doubt that the international security scene is rife with new and continuing threats.  They include recurrent nuclear brinkmanship by the DPRK and Iran, nuclear arms racing on the Indian subcontinent, and heightened tensions, including border skirmishes, between the two most populous nuclear-armed states—India and China. While exceptionally dangerous, the Indian-Pakistani and Sino-Indian nuclear rivalries are unlikely in themselves to affect directly the scope or pace of nuclear weapons spread. In contrast, the unraveling of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the collapse of any near-term prospects for normalizing relations between the DPRK and the United States and the Republic of Korea provides a boost to domestic advocates for nuclear weapons in several countries in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia) and Northeast Asia (Japan and South Korea). 

Notwithstanding these proliferation pressures, the most influential international security factor that has negatively altered the proliferation equation in recent years has been the precipitous decline in the credibility of US security commitments to its formal allies and traditional partners. Repeated ill-conceived, often careless, and frequently uncoordinated policy pronouncements by the US president have rekindled interest in alternatives to US extended deterrence promises for countries such as Japan and Germany, reinforced the domestic position of an already sizable faction of advocates  for an indigenous nuclear weapons program in South Korea, and given cover to authoritarian leaders in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who were already suspicious of US readiness to come to their assistance should regional conflicts escalate. While this form of self-inflicted punishment is most clearly disadvantageous to US national security interests, it also carries major risks for the larger international nonproliferation community—including the Russia and China—if it stokes proliferation tendencies, which to date largely have been held in check.

2. The Demise of Arms Control and Multilateralism
It is now common knowledge that the world is in a state of disarray, beset by rising forces of nationalism and populism and a corresponding denigration of multilateral mechanisms and international institutions.  Not surprisingly, this broad malaise extends to the sphere of arms control and nonproliferation. The bilateral and multilateral arms control architecture that served the world very well for the past half century is crumbling and is on the verge of total collapse, something that almost certainly will transpire should nuclear testing resume as some would have it. Yet the international community seems at a loss about how to take corrective action. 

A gravely weakened nuclear arms control architecture looms over the next NPT review conference, and there is every indication that the current US administration will continue to hammer away at any remaining remnants of that edifice. John Bolton has left, but his legacy of opposing any accord that limits U.S. flexibility—even if it serves U.S. national security interests—persists. This internally consistent philosophy underlies U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty, notification of U.S. intent to withdraw from the Open Skies Treaty, Washington’s delay in extending the New START Treaty, and its expression of interest in resuming nuclear weapons testing. To date, the only exception to this general philosophy is continued expression of support for the NPT, but it remains uncertain how much longer that treaty—now in force for half a century—can persist as a meaningful normative and political restraint on the spread of nuclear weapons, if a growing number of states question its efficacy and its relevance to their national security.

Regrettably, diminished confidence in the NPT is not only a function of the loss of faith by many NPT parties in US nonproliferation leadership, but the more general “cherry-picking” approach to prior NPT commitments adopted by all nuclear weapons states (and some non-nuclear weapons states as well). Underlying this approach is the view that because international circumstances have changed, states can selectively choose which past agreements remain relevant and which can be ignored—a recipe almost certain to discourage future multilateral nonproliferation accords. 
Kazakhstan – Once More a Testing Ground?
Ulrich Kühn
Being a staunch supporter of international nuclear disarmament efforts since many years, a very recent and little noticed decision by the Kazakh parliament to approve the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons could test the seriousness of nuclear disarmament supporters.

3. The Diminished Appeal of Globalism. 

One might have expected the global pandemic to have fostered a greater sense of international community and shared values and interests, including the pursuit of “human” and “cooperative” security as opposed to narrow self- interest and national security.  Instead, it appears to have fanned the flames of nationalism, undercut support for many forms of economic globalism, and encouraged more autarchic approaches to economic development.  From a political economic perspective, one might expect these inward-looking trends, coinciding with the growth of relatively unconstrained authoritarian leadership in many regions of the world, to increase the risk of proliferation.  

4. The Impact of new destabilizing technologies.

Technological innovation is neither inherently good nor bad for arms control and nonproliferation, just as there are neither “good atoms for peace” and “bad atoms for war.”  Advances in satellite imagery, for example, have greatly enhanced the ability for national (and non-governmental) means to monitor and verify state compliance with international accords. Many emerging technologies, however, also have the potential to be destabilizing, and may reduce the technological and economic barriers to the production of weapons-usable fissile material, undermine crisis stability, and facilitate the ability of both state and non-state actors to precipitate nuclear weapons use. Among the disruptive technologies of greatest concern are those involving cyber, hypersonic, additive manufacturing, nano, and autonomous weapons features.

Although many experts recognize the potential proliferation impact of these new technologies, to date there has been little appetite among NPT diplomats to focus on these issues, at least in the context of the review process.  This reticence is due in part to the highly technical nature of the topic and also because the subject is not one that previously has been on the NPT agenda. Indeed, on the relatively few occasions when the subject has been broached—including 2018 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting when the Chair specifically asked delegates to comment on the issue—there has been a deafening silence.

5. The Erosion of US-Russian Cooperation for Nonproliferation. 

One of the hallmarks of US-Soviet relations during the last fifteen years of the Cold War was the unusual degree of parallelism and collaboration on matters related to nuclear nonproliferation. This cooperation extended over both Democratic and Republican administrations and was evident in many different fora, including but not limited to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the IAEA Board of Governors, the NPT review process, and open-ended bi-annual meetings of high-level U.S. and Soviet policy makers. Cooperation on nonproliferation even extended to sharing sensitive intelligence information—most notably involving what were perceived to be nuclear test preparations by the apartheid South African regime in 1977. 

Today, the situation could not be more different.  There no longer are routine consultations about shared proliferation concerns, the positions of the two parties tend to diverge consistently in almost every international forum—a rare exception being their mutual disdain of the widely endorsed Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—and even the pretense of civil discourse increasingly often is abandoned in favor of vitriolic exchanges such as those evident during the exercise of “right of replies” at the 2018 and 2019 NPT Preparatory Committee meetings. Rather than pursuing what objectively might be regarded as shared concerns about the proliferation dangers posed by non-state actors, the risks of inadvertent or accidental nuclear use, and the adoption of the Additional Protocol as the global standard for nuclear safeguards, the two parties invariably find themselves on opposite sides of most issues, including those of both a petty and more substantial nature. As such, one may be forgiven for not recalling that two of the most ardent proponents of the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 were the Russian Federation and the United States.

Whither the Tenth NPT Review Conference? 

It has been observed that Covid-19 has given the postponed 10th NPT Review Conference a reprieve, but it remains to be seen if member states will have the necessary will and inclination to exploit the postponement to secure a successful Review Conference outcome.  The indications to date are not encouraging.

Reference already has been made to the dire state of nuclear arms control and disarmament, and that situation is unlikely to improve before the start of the delayed Review Conference, especially if it takes place in January 2021 as tentatively scheduled. Although much of the recent damage done to the nonproliferation regime by the impetuous policies of the current US administration may be remedied over time if a new president is elected in November, it will not be simple to reverse some of the recent missteps or restore confidence in U.S. nonproliferation leadership, which has been badly damaged.  It also is important to appreciate that many of the underlying problems that beset the international nonproliferation regime were apparent well before the present U.S. administration. Among others, they are attributable to the behavior of a variety of countries, which have acted in a fashion inconsistent with their NPT obligations. They also reflect a deep and growing divide between nuclear and non-nuclear weapons states, as well as skepticism on the part of many NPT parties about the security and peaceful use benefits they derive from the treaty, particularly when they observe the favorable treatment given to India—a non-party to the NPT.  Why, many non-nuclear weapons states ask, should they forego nuclear weapons when they are denied economic benefits granted to a nuclear weapons possessor in direct contradiction to formal decisions undertaken at prior NPT review conference meetings? 

In addition to these underlying problems, the forthcoming NPT Review Conference will find it difficult to deal with the aftermath of the nearly defunct JCPOA (including its potential to spur pursuit of a Saudi nuclear weapons capability), the collapse of negotiations with the DPRK and its impact on the nuclear ambitions or South Korea and Japan, uncertainty about how to accelerate negotiations on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East, and the need to take note of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which is approaching the number of signatures required for entry into force.

Finally, while a new U.S. administration is likely to yield numerous nonproliferation benefits, it will not inevitably lead to a revival of the kind of US-Russian nonproliferation cooperation, which historically contributed to positive NPT Review Conference outcomes. 


If this proliferation diagnosis is correct, what then, should be done?  It is, of course, much easier to identify steps that would be desirable to take than to prescribe actions that have a reasonable chance of being implemented.  These concluding remarks eschew recommendations, which if diligently pursued by the international community, would contribute significantly to the reduction of proliferation incentives and the strengthening of nonproliferation disincentives. Rather, they propose a few modest steps that the United States and Russia could and should undertake to strengthen the nonproliferation regime if they truly believe, as they once did, that the spread of nuclear weapons poses a danger to their mutual interests.

First, it is essential to revive the kind of routine consultations between senior officials responsible for nonproliferation policy that characterized US-Soviet relations during the Cold War.  Such consultations would not signify support for each other’s activities in other spheres but would simply acknowledge the utility of understanding better where it might be possible to coordinate actions on issues where each side’s interests converge.

A related exercise that could facilitate this understanding would be for the two sides to conduct comparative threat assessments to illuminate convergent and divergent perceptions of proliferation threats and priority nonproliferation objectives. Ideally, this activity would be performed in tandem by government experts. Alternatively, one might rely on the Academies of Science in both countries to undertake such a study.

Based on the historical record, it is quite possible that a comparative threat assessment would point to convergent U.S. and Russian evaluations of the need to continue stringent nuclear export control policies consistent with Nuclear Supplier Group guidelines and the IAEA Additional Protocol.  If this were the case, it might be possible for Moscow and Washington jointly to ensure that Saudi Arabia—at a minimum—adopted comprehensive safeguards on their ambitious nuclear program.  They also might collaborate in securing support from the small number of other key nuclear suppliers to impede Saudi development of its nuclear weapons potential.

Finally, it should be possible for the United States and Russia to reiterate in one fashion or another the basic tenet that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. If they are unable to lend their support to this fundamental principle, any comments they might make about the enduring value of the NPT at the next Review Conference will have a hollow ring.
Russia-US: Prospects for Strategic Arms Control
Sergey Veselovsky
Without START-3 it will be much easier for Russia to develop and put into service both the new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missiles, and nuclear-powered cruise missiles, as well as other new types of strategic weapons.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.