As any college basketball team can attest, particularly one that built a double-digit lead in a recent game only to lose in the final seconds, never take success for granted. What is true for basketball is true for nuclear strategy. Over 180 nations have decided that they are better off without nuclear weapons, including most recently, the former poster-child for outlaw states, Libya. Each of their decisions is important; some could be easily reversed. While we focus on the important problems of preventing new states or terrorist groups from getting nuclear weapons, we must also take decisive action to lock in these past successes.

Here's why. A large number of countries that have the technical and financial capabilities to produce nuclear weapons have rejected or abandoned nuclear weapons programs, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Germany, Japan, Kazakhstan, South Africa, South Korea, Sweden, Taiwan, Turkey, and Ukraine. Preventing these states from undertaking nuclear programs is pivotal to the success of nonproliferation. If they choose not to comply with nonproliferation norms and rules, and not to cooperate in enforcement of these rules in tough cases, these states could create a global security crisis.

More pertinently, these states must advocate, or at least not resist, new rules to stop the spread of nuclear weapon production capabilities and strengthen the nuclear safeguards mandate of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Their support gives the UN Security Council greater resolve to prevent or reverse proliferation challenges. The states that could have been possessors of nuclear weapons bring special credibility to the political process of strengthening the global nonproliferation regime.

In sum, as former U.S. government officials Robert Einhorn and Kurt Campbell have observed, we want to reinforce the wisdom of states that have gone without nuclear weapons by shaping a world in which "existing nuclear arsenals are being reduced, parties are not pursuing clandestine nuclear programs, nuclear testing has been stopped, the taboo against the use of nuclear weapons is being strengthened, and in general, the salience of nuclear weapons in international affairs is diminishing."

Great. So, how do we do this? Washington’s first maxim should be Hippocratic: "Do no harm" to states that could readily produce nuclear weapons but have chosen not to. U.S. policy and rhetoric should never be dictatorial or arrogant in ways that would make officials in countries such as Japan, South Korea, or Turkey—to pick random examples—conclude that Washington would be more respectful of their interests if they had their own nuclear weapons.

On the contrary, the United States should reassure these countries and others, such as Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa, that do not have alliance security guarantees, that the United States recognizes a special duty to prevent threats that could make them reasonably feel the need for nuclear weapons. In Southwest and Northeast Asia, where Iranian and North Korean proliferation could tempt Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Japan, and South Korea to reconsider their nuclear status, the United States should engage in preventive high-level diplomacy and defense cooperation to reassure these states that their strategic interests can be met without nuclear weapons.

The United States (and other nuclear weapon states) should focus on rewarding states that actively strengthen the nonproliferation regime. Decisions on expanding the permanent membership of the UN Security Council should take into special consideration candidates’ contributions to nonproliferation. Decisions on where to conduct state visits and which countries should host major international conclaves should reward states that contribute heavily to stopping nuclear proliferation.

It is also important to deglamorize nuclear technology as a symbol of modernity. Even as we work on the design of new generations of safer, proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors, more work needs to be done to develop cutting-edge, environmentally friendly energy technologies such as hydrogen fuel cells and solar power.

Finally, the United States and other nuclear weapon states must devalue the security and political status associated with nuclear weapons so that political actors in other societies do not conclude that they will gain international leverage by seeking these weapons. A key step towards such devaluation is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security doctrine. For example, our nation should reject, not embrace, the development of new nuclear weapons.


We cannot take the non-nuclear status of even our close allies for granted. The decisions we make over the next few years will determine whether they and other industrial and developing nations will stay the course. This is not a game we can afford to lose.

Joseph Cirincione is the Director for Non-Proliferation and Jane Vaynman is a Project Assistant at the Carnegie Endowment .This article is adapted from Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security, Chapter Five, by Jessica Mathews, George Perkovich, Rose Gottemoeller, Joseph Cirincione and Jon B. Wolfsthal.

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