Five years ago, President Barack Obama was preparing to deliver a speech in Prague calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Nongovernmental organizations, including the Stimson Center, helped with blueprints for getting to zero, and distinguished “formers” were lending their names to the cause. Now these initiatives seem like headlines from a bygone era. The pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons remains an essential complement to nuclear non-proliferation, but this quest cannot be divorced from international relations. President Obama continues to try to reduce nuclear dangers at Nuclear Security Summits and in negotiations with Iran, but progress comes grudgingly. The need of the hour is to prevent further backsliding, not to promote sweeping plans.
Aspirations matter, but nuclear arms reduction will occur only as quickly as conditions permit. The numerical top line of force deployments set in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty are in excess of the Pentagon’s needs. They are also in excess of Russian needs, but Vladimir Putin is building up to treaty limits and remains wedded to weapons that have symbolic significance instead of military utility. In all likelihood, US-Russian relations have yet to hit bottom, and it will take time before stabilization occurs and another treaty might be pursued.
The second tier of nuclear-armed states isn’t facilitating a global process of arms reductions. What remains of the nuclear forces of Great Britain and France seem divorced from contemporary international relations and immune from the deep cuts that have decimated their conventional power projection capabilities. China and India have been extraordinarily relaxed about strategic modernization programs. (Think of the ramifications if they acted otherwise.) But Beijing and New Delhi are standoffish toward multilateral accords to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons and in no hurry to improve bilateral relations. Their relatively lethargic pace of strategic modernization could be shaken by events in Pakistan, the East China Sea, or elsewhere.
The nuclear enclave within Pakistan has competed successfully with India and shows no evidence of reconsidering this pursuit. Its growing stockpiles of nuclear weapons and fissile material provide no help against extremist groups that reject the writ of the state. If Pakistan’s “foolproof” nuclear security breaks down in a crisis or limited war with India, or during a long-promised but frequently delayed counter-terrorism campaign, religious zealots could hold the state up for ransom. Then, with the benefit of hindsight, Pakistanis will view their nation’s embrace of easily portable, tactical nuclear warheads and their seven year-long opposition to a treaty cutting off fissile material production as the height of folly.
There are bottom-up impediments to nuclear arms reductions, as well. States are hedging their bets against outliers like North Korea and Iran, a Russian Federation that flexes its muscles and a rising China. The usual precincts on Capitol Hill will call for hurrying up strategic modernization programs, inviting repeat performances like the B-1 and the Ground-Based Interceptor. Instead, Washington is now obliged to counter concerns about retrenchment by sloughing off its obsession with deficit reduction and spending more money for defense programs that have actual military and diplomatic utility. Retarding onward proliferation also means reaffirming the nuclear umbrella held above friends and allies, as well as proceeding with sensibly configured, forward-based missile defense programs.
After the first US war against Saddam Hussein, the architect of India’s nuclear deterrent, General K. Sundarji, famously remarked that nuclear weapons offered the best defense against the designs of a major power. This observation gained credence in the air campaign against Muammar Qaddafi and now with Moscow’s annexation of Crimea after repossessing the nuclear weapons it left behind when the Soviet Union dissolved. Moscow’s pledge to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity lasted all of two decades.
Putin’s land grab is the latest beating that the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty has taken after it was indefinitely extended in 1995. Since then, the United States opted out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and waged a preemptive war against Iraq to prevent it from using weapons of mass destruction it did not possess. India, Pakistan and North Korea tested nuclear weapons, and Iran has flaunted a series of Security Council resolutions over its nuclear program. The Nuclear Suppliers Group has not recovered after Washington made an exception to global rules of nuclear commerce for India’s benefit, with Russia and China then opting to do their own deals. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has not entered into force. Negotiations on a treaty banning fissile material production for nuclear weapons have yet to begin. The George W. Bush administration figures prominently in this litany.
Three of the load-bearing walls of nuclear order – the NPT, a treaty-based process of strategic arms reduction, and the pursuit of abolition – are in need of repair. Nuclear Security Summits to set global norms for the responsible handling of dangerous material have been essential: If these stocks are not battened down, there is no basis for nuclear security. But larger gains are needed, and hard to envision anytime soon. Five short years after the Prague speech, the nuclear order has become wobbly.