Will 2022 Be the Year of Nuclear Proliferation?

July 10th, 2022 - by Daniel Larison / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Weapons reduction is really just a pipe dream as abolition treaties are abandoned

Daniel Larison / The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

(July 8, 2022) — The war in Ukraine and the faltering negotiations to revive the nuclear deal with Iran have reminded the world how important arms control and nonproliferation are for international peace and security. They have also underscored how difficult it will be to negotiate any lasting arms control and nonproliferation agreements for the foreseeable future.

The Russian government said last week that it was open to new talks on strategic stability and nonproliferation, but Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has all but destroyed the Western political support for arms control negotiations when those negotiations are needed most. The mutual benefits of a restored nuclear deal are obvious to almost everyone, but the politics of Iran policy in the United States make the long-term survival of any agreement with Iran unlikely at best.

The future of arms control and nonproliferation seems dim right now, but this is why the US and its allies must recommit themselves to both, and reject the easy temptations of more military buildups and unnecessary wars.

While the taboo against nuclear use has not yet been broken, the danger of escalation in Ukraine has created legitimate fear that the Russian government might resort to using nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, the emphasis on “great power competition” in the US and the willingness in some quarters to contemplate direct conflict with nuclear-armed states are bringing the US closer to the brink of nuclear war than it has been for decades.

The US is now on the verge of new and ruinous arms races with both Russia and China at the same time, and they promise to be just as wasteful and dangerous as the Cold War arms race was. That makes working for disarmament that much more important.

The fortunes of arms control have risen or fallen depending on US support for these agreements. The US built the arms control architecture that first limited and then reduced the American and Soviet nuclear arsenals, and it played a leading role in establishing the norm against nuclear proliferation through the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). In recent decades, the US has also taken a sledgehammer to many of the major accomplishments of that earlier era by pulling out and thereby killing the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, and the Treaty on Open Skies.

New START was only days away from extinction when President Biden renewed it last year, and it is the last surviving arms control treaty with no replacement agreement in the works. The US and the world are already less secure than they were before these treaties were killed, and if the US does not work on a new treaty to replace New START it will be even more dangerous for all of us.

No arms control agreement is going to succeed if the US cannot be counted on to adhere to it over the long haul. No other state is going to go to the trouble of negotiating and ratifying new treaties if it is likely that the US will just tear them up in a few years. Unless we rebuild a broad consensus that arms control is important and necessary for US security, any new treaty would probably never be ratified.

That would be quite difficult now, considering the hardened, knee-jerk, ideological hostility to any and all arms control agreements among Republican hawks.

The current status of the nuclear deal with Iran is not very encouraging, either. While the agreement technically survives because most of the parties to it have not repudiated it, the nuclear deal is on life support. It is doubtful that it will make it past this year, and if it does it will be a shell of its former self unless something changes soon.

A revival of the agreement would be welcome news, but that will not settle things for very long. Even if the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is restored and all parties return to full compliance, it is more likely than not that a future US administration will renege on it again. If the nuclear deal collapses even sooner, it will be a blow to the cause of nonproliferation. If Iran were to withdraw from the NPT in response to a second US withdrawal, it would be a much more serious setback.

The good news is that almost all states, including Iran, still adhere to the NPT and do not seek to build or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons. Compared to the Cold War era, there are hardly any cases of potential proliferators, and there are not many states that want to court the risks of international isolation that pursuing these weapons still carries with it.

In the decades after the NPT was created, many states explored nuclear weapons development and some actively pursued it, but in almost every case their governments concluded that the costs of building their own arsenals far outweighed any security benefits they might get from them. However, that calculation may begin to change if the main nuclear weapons states do not restrain themselves.

An essential part of the bargain contained in the NPT was that the five recognized nuclear weapons states would work towards disarmament, but over the last decade the US, Russia, Britain, and China have been moving in the opposite direction by building up larger and more sophisticated arsenals. A new report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute warned that the global nuclear stockpile would increase over the next decade for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

Insofar as the nonproliferation regime is getting weaker, it is the fault of the recognized nuclear weapons states that have neglected or abandoned their obligations under the treaty to pursue disarmament.

As the architecture of arms control has broken down and the major nuclear weapons states have started adding new weapons to their arsenals, this has also undermined the cause of nonproliferation. There aren’t many would-be proliferators today, but if things continue on their current path there could be a few in another decade or two.

There is a clear need for renewed strategic stability talks and an arms control treaty to build on New START, which is set to expire in 2026, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has made the idea of negotiating with Moscow politically radioactive in Washington.

This is an understandable reaction, but it is because US-Russian relations are so terrible and the risks of escalation are so high that there need to be safeguards in the form of restrictions on the size and deployment of our most destructive weapons. Things are already bad enough while we still have an arms control treaty in place, and they will get worse without one.

We need to remember how much more dangerous the world was before we had arms control treaties that created some degree of stability and predictability between the top two nuclear weapons states. We do not want to go back to living in that world, especially when there are now many more states with nuclear weapons than there were sixty years ago.

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