Perhaps the gravest danger of nuclear proliferation today is the invisibility of the problem. As it stands, the United States officially has about 5800 nuclear weapons. Russia has about 6400. China has about 300. Six other states possess nuclear weapons; several others may be attempting to acquire them.
And yet the days of the Cold War are long gone. No more shelter-in-place drills, no more hiding under desks, no more fallout shelters. Culturally, the threat and fear of mass nuclear violence have largely dissipated—aside from occasional flare-ups surrounding “rogue states” like North Korea, or broad fears of nuclear terrorism. But all said, the risk of nuclear conflict is as serious as ever—perhaps the most serious it has ever been, given the lack of public awareness of the problem, modernization and proliferation of weapons, the caliber of the leaders currently in power, and the crumbling international framework for managing arms control.
To begin with the last point: a long series of nuclear arms control agreements began in the early days of the Cold War. This notably included the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and numerous others—some between the United States and USSR, and some with an international framework.
The limitations of the treaties have been clear. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was never ratified by India, Pakistan, and Israel, all of which ultimately acquired nuclear weapons. The central premise of the treaty—that non-nuclear states would not pursue development of nuclear weapons, as nuclear states pursue eventual disarmament—has not been met with any serious progress towards disarmament by the major nuclear weapons states, the United States included.
Perhaps more urgently, landmark agreements between the US/USSR (and later Russian Federation) have been allowed to expire, or have been abandoned. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which limited anti-ballistic missile capabilities between the two states, lapsed in 2002, when the Bush Administration exited the agreement. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty was abandoned by the US, then Russia, in 2019. The last remaining US-Russia nuclear weapons treaty, New START—signed in 2009—may expire in 2021, largely due to the unwillingness of the Trump Administration to renew it.
A related issue has been modernization of the nuclear arsenals. In the United States, this began as a $1 trillion plan under the Obama Administration, and includes submarine, bomber, and missile upgrades, as well as new deployments of so-called “low-yield”—and thus, theoretically more “usable”—nuclear weapons. Russia has also pursued modernizations, including hypersonic weapons.
Finally, it ought to be noted that smaller but potentially apocalyptic nuclear flash points remain, such as between India and Pakistan. Both are nuclear states with regular border clashes and aggressive—and particularly in India’s case, extremely nationalistic—governments. Other states, like Iran, do not currently have nuclear weapons, but may be on the path to acquiring them.
The United States is not the only international actor when it comes to nuclear proliferation, but it is by far the most significant. The US remains the only nation ever to have used a nuclear weapon in war. Despite ongoing American decline, its status as a superpower, and the enormity of its arsenal, necessitate American involvement in serious international efforts to reduce proliferation. Ideally, this would involve bilateral arms control agreements with Russia, a halt to American nuclear modernization plans, some sort of multilateral mediation at specific conflict sites (including a real defusing of tensions with states like North Korea), and a true move towards nuclear disarmament.
Of course, the Trump Administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it regards international diplomacy as, at best, a nuisance. Trump has personally demonstrated an erratic fascination with nuclear weapons and his administration has shown an utter lack of interest in any efforts to reduce nuclear proliferation. Indeed, its policies in Iran have significantly heightened the probability of that country developing nuclear weapons. Relatedly, there is evidence that Saudi Arabia is potentially pursuing nuclear weapons, possibly with US assent.
To address this, it must be kept in mind that American unilateralism as regards nuclear weapons has been a largely bipartisan policy with a long history. It was the Bush Administration that exited the ABM, and the Obama Administration that agreed to an enormous modernization of the nuclear arsenal. That said, much of the effectiveness of arms control in the past was also broadly bipartisan, and more importantly, instigated by mass public pressure. If the current path is to be altered, the urgency surrounding eliminating nuclear weapons must be renewed.
- https://kingsbayplowshares7.org — Members of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 are due to be sentenced for a non-violent, anti-nuclear action—dating to 4/4/2018—during which they entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base to stage an anti-nuclear protest. Read about the case and donate at the links above.
- https://www.armscontrol.org — “The Arms Control Association, founded in 1971, is a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.”
- https://thebulletin.org — “The Bulletin equips the public, policymakers, and scientists with the information needed to reduce man-made threats to our existence.”