The Erosion of the Global Nuclear Order

Starting early in the atomic age, states developed international arrangements intended to reduce the danger of nuclear war. In a recent article, Jeffrey W. Knopf describes the international nuclear order, identifies signs of erosion in that order, and proposes some short-term measures to help arrest these adverse trends.

The global nuclear order developed organically. It was not planned. And with some exceptions, most notably the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), major aspects of the nuclear order were not formally negotiated. Instead, they involve tacit understandings that are shared, to varying degrees, by elites in key countries.

The nuclear order rests upon three major strands: strategic stability, the nuclear taboo, and nonproliferation. The current order does not give similar priority to nuclear disarmament. Although nuclear abolition receives occasional rhetorical support and is listed as a goal in Article VI of the NPT, the governments of nuclear-armed states and their allies do not support pursuing global zero as a near-term objective. This is because these states still see value in the continued possession of nuclear arsenals. Hence, the purpose of the global nuclear order is to minimize the chances, while nuclear arms continue to exist, that they are ever used in ways that would kill people — and specially to ensure there is never a large-scale nuclear war.

Strategic stability, the nuclear taboo and nonproliferation

All three strands contribute to this goal. Strategic stability refers to efforts to minimize incentives for any state to feel pressure to be the first to launch a nuclear attack. Strategic stability can be enhanced by arms control, confidence-building measures, strategic dialogues, and anything else that contributes to restraint in policies and actions related to nuclear weapons. The nuclear taboo involves normative inhibitions against threatening or using nuclear weapons.

There is reason to question whether a genuine taboo exists or the current situation is better described as a tradition of non-use. Either way, however, there is a sense that any state that uses nuclear weapons would be crossing a major threshold. Finally, nonproliferation comprises a variety of measures intended to prevent the spread of nuclear arms to additional states. In the last two decades, nonproliferation has been supplemented by the goal of nuclear security, which aims to ensure that bomb-making materials do not fall into the hands of a non-state, terrorist actor.

The strategic stability and taboo strands of the nuclear order peaked in the early 1990s and have eroded since then. In contrast, the nonproliferation strand continued to get stronger into the early 2010s, but in the last decade positive trends in the nonproliferation regime have also started to unravel.

Erosion and unraveling

Strategic stability has suffered notable erosion. The end of the Cold War enabled remarkable progress in nuclear arms reductions by the United States and Russia. Now, only one nuclear arms control agreement, the New START treaty, remains in effect. And the prospects for a follow-on agreement appear daunting. Traditional approaches to stability also took a blow when the United States withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. All of the nuclear-armed powers are now engaged in nuclear modernization efforts involving new weapon systems that could further undermine stability. More broadly, U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations have both deteriorated, adding to the chances of inadvertent escalation. In addition, India and Pakistan openly joined the nuclear club following nuclear tests in 1998. The two countries have since experienced multiple crises, adding a new source of instability to the global nuclear order.

Both the rhetoric and nuclear postures of nuclear-armed states suggest declining respect for the taboo as well. The United States has never been willing to embrace a no-first-use posture, and in 1993 Russia abandoned a no-first-use posture that had been adopted earlier by the Soviet Union. Successive U.S. Nuclear Posture Reviews (NPRs) have envisioned roles and missions for U.S. nuclear weapons that extend beyond deterring nuclear attacks. These include, in the Trump NPR, hints that the United States would consider nuclear retaliation to deter a large-scale cyber-attack. In 2017, an escalating war of words – and tweets – between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un suggested neither felt any normative inhibition against nuclear saber-rattling. And, in 2018, Russia’s President Putin gave a national address in which he unveiled several proposed new nuclear weapon systems. The speech was accompanied by a video simulation that showed a Russian nuclear warhead on a course to strike what appeared to be President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

Until recently, despite occasional setbacks, nonproliferation could be seen as an area of dynamism and innovation. In the 1980s and 1990s, several key countries joined the NPT and renounced nuclear weapons. In 1995, a review conference made the treaty permanent. Just as important, the NPT is now part of a multifaceted nonproliferation regime. Other elements of the regime include several regional nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZs), multilateral export control regimes, cooperative threat reduction (CTR) programs developed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a variety of measures meant to strengthen nuclear security.

In the past several years, however, forward momentum has halted. The 2015 NPT Review Conference collapsed amid unprecedented acrimony among states parties. The 2020 conference was postponed until 2022 due to Covid, but none of the frictions that doomed the 2015 conference have been resolved. In addition, the Trump administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, and despite the desire of the Biden administration to restore the deal, prospects for rescuing it do not appear good. Hopes for adding new NWFZs are even less promising, as a long-sought zone in the Middle East appears dead in the water.

Some ideas to halt erosion

What can be done? Getting the nuclear weapon states to recommit to the goal of nuclear disarmament would help. As a reflection of frustration over the slow progress on this goal, in 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This “ban treaty” has been opposed by all of the nuclear weapon states and their allies, so it appears unlikely to provide a vehicle that in the short term could generate new progress toward nuclear abolition. Efforts outside of (or perhaps alongside of) the ban treaty to persuade the nuclear weapon states of the importance of reinvigorating movement toward nuclear disarmament would be helpful.

Given that nuclear disarmament remains a long-term endeavor at best, however, we also need short-term steps to shore up the existing nuclear order. One approach would be to focus on the cognitive foundations of nuclear peace. It is important for national leaders and their advisors to have a deep understanding of the consequences of any use of nuclear weapons and a belief that nuclear dangers require states to act with caution. Several steps could help reinvigorate an appreciation of nuclear dangers.

First, new works of popular culture could draw attention to ongoing risks. In the Cold War, books and movies like “On the Beach” and “Dr. Strangelove” helped educate the public. Today, there are interesting efforts to utilize social media to alert people to nuclear dangers. So far, however, none have achieved extensive reach. Public awareness could be raised further if there was a breakthrough novel, movie, or TV show like the 1983 TV movie “The Day After.”

Second, it would help to have a policy proposal around which to mobilize people. An effort is already underway to multilateralize the 1985 Reagan-Gorbachev statement that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” Russia and the United States recently reaffirmed this statement, and there have been multiple calls for the other nuclear-armed countries to endorse it. A broad campaign to support this goal could provide a vehicle for reminding the world about how catastrophic a nuclear exchange could be.

Third, it is time to reboot the Humanitarian Initiative. This effort, launched at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, sought to educate diplomats about the consequences of nuclear weapons use. The initiative was primarily used to build support for negotiating the ban treaty. Now that the TPNW is in place, a Humanitarian Initiative 2.0 could be used to educate a broader audience of political and military leaders and the world public.

At a time when all the strands of the global nuclear order are getting weaker and the prospects for new treaties or major initiatives are not good, it is vital to halt further erosion of the existing order. Efforts to remind the world of the danger of nuclear war and encourage cautious behavior by states would be one place to start.

Jeffrey W. Knopf is a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (MIIS). He is the author of “Not by NPT alone: The future of the global nuclear order”, Contemporary Security Policy, forthcoming, which can be accessed here. This post first appeared on the Global Governance forum.

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