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Nuclear Nonproliferation And The New Global Reality Print Nuclear Nonproliferation And The New Global Reality

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Securing nuclear materials is one of the greatest security challenges of the 21st century for the United States and the global community. Although we have fortunately avoided a “nuclear 9/11” to this point, multiple trend lines are moving in a worrying direction toward chaos, opacity, and uncertainty. Without intensified, coordinated effort, it is far from certain that we will continue to be so lucky.


The dangers spring from a distressing variety of sources. Huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons and nuclear material in the United States and Russia—vestiges of the Cold War—remain in various states of security. Countries of concern, notably Pakistan and North Korea, possess nuclear weapons. And a growing number of countries are either in possession of or actively pursuing nuclear technologies that could be used for either energy production or to create the necessary material for nuclear weapons.

A common characteristic of these threats is their connectedness with the changing global order. If it were ever the case, it is certainly true today that the United States can no longer dictate the rules of the game regarding nuclear issues. Russia is resurgent and unwilling to blithely accede to US wishes. Nuclear weapons have been introduced into regional conflicts between significant players such as in Southeast Asia, a phenomenon that threatens to spread to other regional hotspots—notably, the Middle East. And the expansion of economies and national interests in a large number of states is driving widespread reconsideration of nuclear energy as a source of electricity and also, perhaps, as a latent capability to manufacture nuclear weapon-capable material.

Global norms long established to contain nuclear proliferation—including many created or fundamentally supported by the United States—are decaying, by neglect as well as by abrogation.

An important facet of the current nuclear nonproliferation environment is that it is not enough for us to deal sufficiently with one or some of these issues: we must deal with them all simultaneously, and with the knowledge that they are interconnected, so that changes in one area will affect others. Unfortunately, our responses to these developments have so far been idiosyncratic and haphazard, oftentimes more dependent on geopolitics than global norms—characteristics that need to change if we are to remain safe in a global environment that grows more complicated by the day.

Reviewing the nuclear history of the last sixty years is instructive since the past points to potential solutions for the future, informed by the changing realities of the present. Holding out both peril and promise, nuclear know-how cannot be “unlearned.” We have so far avoided a nuclear catastrophe caused by nuclear proliferation—through a mix of scientific and technical barriers, international agreement and regulation, and luck. Of these, the scientific and technical barriers are greatly lower than they were sixty years ago (or more precisely, the overall level of scientific and technical advancement is greatly higher), and our international agreements and regulations are under great strain, with many wondering whether they will survive. That leaves only luck, and luck is not a great thing to depend upon when potentially millions of lives hang in the balance.

Let’s take each of the various threats in order.

At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union amassed more than 70,000 nuclear weapons combined and more than 2,000 tons of additional “special nuclear material” (i.e., the material needed for nuclear weapons, highly-enriched uranium and plutonium). Arms control agreements, such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, began to impose limitations on the deployment of these weapons, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union presented a new opportunity for more dramatic cuts in deployed strategic arsenals. By 2012, under the terms of the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation On Strategic Offensive Reductions (the “Moscow” Treaty), deployed strategic arsenals will be at the lowest point since the Eisenhower administration of the 1950s. This is undoubtedly a good thing, but many quantitative and, more importantly, qualitative challenges remain.

However, the strategic relationship between the United States and Russia is in poor health, and as Russia continues to assert itself more actively on the world stage (largely buoyed by its significant natural energy reserves), the strains in the relationship make progress on areas of mutual concern in nuclear matters more difficult. Bilaterally, this complicates strengthening past strategic weapons reductions—whether by extending or creating monitoring regimes, undertaking new agreements on further strategic reductions, or inventorying and reducing smaller tactical nuclear weapons.

There is also a danger that the tremendous progress made in securing and eliminating Russian residual nuclear material from our Cold War legacy could be hamstrung by the current political tensions between the two former superpower rivals. For more than fifteen years, under the umbrella heading of “comprehensive threat reduction,” the United States has been assisting Russia in a host of areas: the destruction of its excess nuclear weapons, the purchase of excess nuclear material (that now produces approximately 10 percent of US electricity), and the transformation of Russian personnel and infrastructure from military to civilian productivity. This unprecedented effort could falter if the US-Russian relationship continues to erode.

A resurgent Russia is also key to managing and resolving critical external nuclear nonproliferation challenges. Russia is a vital participant in the two most public, challenging nonproliferation situations confronting the global community today: North Korea and Iran. Russia also participates in and contributes to a host of nonproliferation efforts, from longstanding efforts such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the related efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, to newer initiatives such as the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). The level of Russia’s commitment to global nonproliferation norms as well as the immediate concerns of ensuring regional and global security are likely to be significantly informed by both its relationship with the United States and other major powers, and also its perception of its own identity in the region and on the world stage.

In a changing global environment, Russia is a major power on nuclear nonproliferation, and its resurgence will maintain its critical position for the foreseeable future.

For the entirety of the nuclear weapons era, a continuum has existed between denial and accommodation. Each country that has developed nuclear weapons and built a nuclear weapons stockpile and infrastructure has done so within the strictures of the time. For many years before the end of the Cold War, this meant that the “Great Powers” could not be denied, and so the larger system adjusted—happily or not—as Russia, Great Britain, France, and China joined the United States in the ranks of nuclear-armed states.

By the mid-1960s, however, following the arrival of China into the nuclear weapons club, a certain stasis set in across the strategic landscape, and a shared understanding arose that while the major powers could not be denied their nuclear developments, smaller powers need not necessarily be accommodated. As a result, in the late 1960s the United States led the effort to create the NPT, which entered into force in 1970 and now is the most widely accepted treaty within the international system, with every country signatory except four (Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea). As a result of this shared understanding, over the years a list of 26 smaller but ambitious states were persuaded either not to pursue or to give up their nuclear weapons programs.

But gaps in the system exist. Israel never joined the NPT and is widely believed to possess 75 to 200 nuclear weapons as a result of its special circumstances, although it maintains a policy of “strategic ambiguity” and has never declared itself a nuclear weapons state. India and Pakistan never joined the NPT, as a result of their regional rivalry and future expectations. With its position as the globe’s second most populous state on a dramatic economic developmental upswing, the larger system has accommodated India’s development of nuclear weapons outside of international norms. That left the world no choice but to also accept Pakistan—a relatively weak, small, and instable country that has experienced four military coups and multiple assassination attempts in its 52-year history—as there was little interest in external involvement in the India-Pakistan conflict.

North Korea is a separate issue warranting special attention on its own merits, but also because it may indicate the start of a disturbing trend. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, many of the explicit or de facto checks and balances across the strategic arena came to an end or at least changed in ways unsettling to global security. Constructs such as “client states” shifted, presenting the possibility of a more open and free environment, while at the same time exhibiting more chaos and loss of oversight and control. In terms of human freedom, this is surely a good thing, but when considering nuclear weapons, this has the potential to be disastrous.

A pariah state, North Korea has pursued its nuclear weapons development surreptitiously under the cover of a civilian nuclear energy program for over a decade, withdrawing from the NPT after accusations that it was pursuing a nuclear weapons program, and culminating in its test of a nuclear device in October 2006. Without coordinated political and economic pressure from its neighbors and the larger global system, the larger institutional norms, such as the NPT, were unable to contain a state determined to acquire the fissile material needed for nuclear weapons. The recent progress that has been made on disablement through the six-party talks confirms the impact that states enforcing international norms can have, but the result is still far from certain.

The North Korean case is troubling due to a conflation of phenomena: it is a tightly insular and dictatorial regime; it has threatened US allies and interests in the region; there are fears that North Korea would share its nuclear knowledge and/or material with others (perhaps states like Syria, but also including nonstate actors) for both strategic and economic reasons; and it is believed to have received critical cooperation on its nuclear efforts from the “A.Q. Khan network,” a loose network of relationships and lines of communication led by the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear programs. If North Korea could take advantage of the gaps in a jumbled strategic order, who else could? A nuclear-armed North Korea is a crisis; 20 new nuclear-armed states is an unmitigated disaster of immense proportions. We have not yet precluded that possibility, even if North Korean disablement succeeds.

The new frontier of nuclear proliferation lies in those developing states looking to build indigenous civilian nuclear programs or to expand on earlier, relatively modest or dormant programs. With significant overlap between civilian and military uses of nuclear knowledge, technology, and infrastructure—as evidenced by North Korea—there is grave concern that some of these civilian programs are little more than a fig-leaf cover for weapons development.

Regardless of the exact determination of today’s intent, future decisions in these countries could mean different outcomes, particularly when political regimes are often short-lived, while nuclear components are not. Nuclear know-how is nearly impossible to reverse, on-the-ground infrastructure will likely be in place for decades, and fissile material exists for much longer. The physical and academic barriers that have played an important role in nonproliferation for so long are fast crumbling, and the institutional nonproliferation regime is not far behind.

While prohibiting the development of nuclear weapons among the nonnuclear weapon states (NNWSs)—i.e., all but the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China—as a negotiated treaty, the NPT encouraged civilian nuclear energy development: a carrot to the nonproliferation stick. However, the NPT’s ambiguity over which components of civilian nuclear energy are encouraged to be widely dispersed has created great disagreement and consternation. The purposeful spread of advanced technology over the last forty years and the rising domestic economic and infrastructure fortunes of a multitude of developing states have allowed solid, steady development to trump vacillating and ambiguous norms.

Iran is the current case du jour of this phenomenon. As a highly (if narrowly) developed, relatively wealthy country with a strong academic base and industrial infrastructure, seeking to assert its identity and power in a turbulent region, Iran maximizes its claims to civilian nuclear energy (and to the entirety of the components) while frustrating the international community with minimal transparency at every turn. While remaining within the NPT, three rounds of sanctions from the UN Security Council indicate that the international community is distressed by Iran’s activities to date. Should Iran follow the example of North Korea and announce its withdrawal from the NPT, the critical question would be what steps would the international community take to ensure that Iran does not start producing weapons-grade nuclear material? Or is there even a possibility that the global community could move from a “denial” position to one of “accommodation”?

Already, perhaps in reaction to Iran’s activities, at least 13 other states in the Middle East have announced their intentions to pursue civilian nuclear programs. Similarly in other regions with growing economies and rising development, such as Southeast Asia and South America, civilian nuclear energy programs are undergoing a tremendous resurgence of interest. The institutional framework has not kept pace with these developments, and there has been only tepid interest shown to change this. Whether these divergent civilian energy programs will be developed along pathways that strengthen or weaken nonproliferation norms and security is an open question.

Within a 21st century rubric of strategic multipolarity, the United States can play a necessary, but not a sufficient, role in addressing this array of nuclear challenges that fundamentally require multilateral cooperation within shared regional and global norms. Drawing from these challenges, then, here are a few suggestions:

Recent years, particularly since 9/11, have arguably seen more focus on nuclear nonproliferation than anytime in history. But that effort has been idiosyncratic, haphazard, and uneven—oftentimes applying double standards to the detriment of nonproliferation norms. As a part of this, the competing goals of integrating rising powers and strengthening nonproliferation are coming into conflict, a situation exemplified in the US-India nuclear cooperation agreement. As long as these disconnects continue without a strategic vision that makes them comprehensible, global nonproliferation efforts will suffer.

As the United States navigates its relationship with a resurgent Russia, the long-depoliticized CTR effort can be a conduit and example of healthy cooperation while advancing US, Russian, and global security interests. Learning from the history of CTR can provide valuable insights into meeting challenges elsewhere.

Most developing nonnuclear weapon states (NNWSs) consider any restrictions on their civilian nuclear energy programs beyond what is spelled out in the NPT to be a violation of their inherent rights, yet the spread of nuclear enrichment and reprocessing technologies and infrastructures threatens the creation of dozens of new nuclear weapons states (NWSs) in the coming decades. While showing these states that it is not in their interest to pursue their inherent rights, good faith efforts on the part of the nuclear weapon states could provide additional leverage. To that end, the “13 steps” identified in the 2000 NPT Review Conference as confidence-building measures toward disarmament should be reconsidered and implemented in a coherent fashion. Examples of such steps include: ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), negotiations on a Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty, negative security assurances to NNWSs, and further reductions of nuclear arsenals among the five declared NWSs.

All states should have an interest in capturing illicit nuclear material and in identifying the source of nuclear material in the case of a nuclear detonation. But as in other efforts, recent activities, such as the PSI, have shown more of a “coalition of the willing” approach than an interest in seeking broad buy-in and participation. Efforts such as the Counter-Terrorism Committee and the 1540 Committee, bodies of the United Nations Security Council, move in the right direction, but still their fundamental elements are universal by decree (as Security Council actions), rather than by broad mandate. As the trade and transportation of all illicit materials, including nuclear, seek out and exploit the weak links in the chain, efforts that encourage more universal adherence to international norms are likely to be more successful in the long run.

Within the realm of civilian nuclear energy, not all activities are equally proliferation-prone, and not all activities must be undertaken in the same manner. Civilian nuclear reactors can use low-enriched uranium (LEU) for fuel, rather than high-enriched uranium (HEU), which is more suitable for use in nuclear weapons. Beyond this, certain types of civilian nuclear reactors are more suitable from a nonproliferation standpoint than others. Even looking at the nuclear material itself, significant progress has been made in identifying the source of particular nuclear materials as a way to trace illicit material back to its source.

A secure nuclear future in a 21st century will not be achieved by relying on technical barriers. This fact was initially acknowledged at the beginning of the nuclear era in the so-called Acheson-Lilienthal Report, but the rising developmental tide of the last forty years has brought its truth into sharp focus.

If, then, we wish to minimize the role of luck in achieving our secure future, we must look to enhanced political, economic, and strategic action. While a world of rising powers may be one in which the United States cannot dictate the rules, it is also one where more share a greater stake in the game, where more want to see our nonproliferation efforts succeed. We can decide to have a secure nuclear future, if we want it.

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The global order is changing. The 21st Century will be marked by many competing sources of global power. Across politics, economics, culture, military strength and more, a new group of countries have growing influence over the future of the world:



South Africa
European Union

South Korea


Other Countries

Big issues are also playing a cross-cutting role in this changing global order:


Nuclear Nonproliferation
Nonstate Actors

Global/Regional Systems

And this changing global order has implications for the United States.

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