The following is a chapter from "Revitalizing Nuclear Arms Control and Non-proliferation," published by the International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe.

There is something  that we call a “nuclear order.” It has evolved since 1945 to shape and regulate how sensitive nuclear materials and technologies are managed, and how states and their leaders are expected to behave. Experts from different countries or political perspectives will inevitably and reasonably (?) argue about particular elements of this order and the relationships and dependencies among them. Which principles and obligations are more or less important than others? What factors best explain how the order has evolved? But the basic logic of the order runs something like this:

• Nuclear weapons are uniquely destructive.
• International well-beingeconomic development, security, peacedepends on preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons.
• This requires avoidance of major conflict that could stimulate use of nuclear weapons.
• To the extent that deterrence is an important means of avoiding • conflict, it must be carefully managed (which is easier to do with fewer nuclear-armed actors).
• The materials and activities that can produce nuclear weapons • must be managed and controlled with extraordinary care.
• Proliferation of nuclear weapons can be exceptionally dangerous, especially if it occurs quickly and outpaces political processes to adapt to it.
• Civilian applications of nuclear capabilitiesfor energy, agriculture, medicinecan be invaluable for development.
• Thus, international security requires a nonproliferation regime to prevent or at least slow the potential spread of nuclear weapons, and to provide incentives for states and industrial enterprises to manage dual-use (civilian and military) capabilities transparently and according to rules.
• A rule-based system for managing nuclear capabilities will augment beneficial civilian applications because it will allay concerns about weapons proliferation.
• Over time, to maintain the motivation of nearly 200 states to preserve this order, the few that possess nuclear weapons must demonstrate a willingness to respect a global desire for equity and eliminate these weapons.

George Perkovich
Perkovich works primarily on nuclear strategy and nonproliferation issues; cyberconflict; and new approaches to international public-private management of strategic technologies.
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Again, each of these propositions and their relationships to each other can be debated in various ways. But, something like this logic has informed international politics and the construction of nuclear order since 1945. As William Walker has aptly summarized, “restraint” is the fundamental requirement of this order: “Restraint in states’ resort to war and in the usage and spread of nuclear weapons.”

To motivate the wide variety of states to pursue or accept restraint, bargains are necessary. The two nuclear superpowers had to bargain with each other and the rest of the world to build the nuclear nonproliferation regime and to stabilize nuclear competition. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 reflects most or all of the propositions listed above and frames them as a set of implicit or explicit bargains. All but the five states that tested nuclear weapons before January 1, 1967 are to forego acquisition of nuclear weapons. In return, the most technically capable states are to facilitate peaceful nuclear cooperation with states that agree not to acquire nuclear weapons. States that are legally permitted to possess nuclear weapons agree not to threaten others with use of nuclear weapons, and to come to their assistance if they are so threatened. All states are to work in “good faith” toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. (The last of these propositions is most contested, of course).

Today’s multi-polar (or non-polar) world requires more bargaining than the bi-polar world did. Regional dynamics define the main challenges facing the nuclear order unlike thirty and fifty years ago. For these and other reasons, many observers today worry that this order has become embrittled and that neither the leaders of the old powers nor of the emerging powers are willing and able to restore or reinvent an effective nuclear order. The NPT-based order was predicated on the existence of five recognized nuclear-weapon states. Now, nine states are known to be nuclear-armed, with the addition of Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea outside of the NPT. The additions complicate the security dynamics of the international system and are difficult to fit within the institutions and rules of the NPT-based nonproliferation regime. Meanwhile, the attractiveness and economics of nuclear energy production appear less compelling to all but a few countries than was the case in 1950 or even in 2010. The industrial enterprises and governments that established the norms and rules of nuclear energy development and safeguards from the 1950s through the 1990s are being supplanted by new players, as discussed below.

Similarly, the characteristics of security threats and major power confrontations have changed significantly from 1968 when the NPT was negotiated, and 1995 when it was extended indefinitely. In 2001 terrorism emerged as a global threat. In 2003 the US invaded Iraq to remove a regime that it said was threatening to use “WMD”, but did so on mistaken intelligence (in more than one sense). The subsequent violence and shifting balance of power and advantage amongst Sunni and Shia groups in Iraq and other Gulf countries continues to be destabilizing. In 2006 North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon, becoming the only state (so far) that has joined the NPT and then violated it and acquired nuclear weapons. As discussed below, major powers are involved in confrontations and territorial disputes along the periphery of Russia and China that alarm many observers in unprecedented ways. The relevance and management of nuclear deterrence are not the same today as they were two or ten or thirty years ago. Rather than a central nuclear standoff between two superpowers, today’s challenges feature regional confrontations involving multiple players with asymmetric interests, capabilities, and modus operandi. With regard to nuclear disarmament, the five recognized nuclear-weapon states are losing control of the agenda. No one can force them to reduce or relinquish their nuclear weapons, but a large number of non-nuclear weapon states are now mobilizing to morally and politically isolate and shame them. The movement to negotiate a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons reflects this phenomenon.

This paper sketches some of the developments that may be weakening the longstanding nuclear order and analyzes whether and how they may require serious, sustained efforts by key governments to refurbish it. The paper then suggests steps that governments and independent experts could pursue to restore confidence in international society’s capability to continue deriving benefits from nuclear technology while minimizing risks that it may pose. All of this will necessarily be brief and simplistic. The aim is to encourage further work and debate.

The growing sense of insecurity

If restraint is the central motif of the nuclear order, cooperation amongst major powers is a necessary condition for the preservation and improvement of this order.3 Major powersi.e., the US, Russia, China, the U.K., France, (NATO as a collective), India, Pakistan, and Iranare most able and sometimes willing to project power against 2 each other and into other states’ territories. Thus, their policies and actions most directly shape the possibilities of nuclear conflict and the potential attractiveness and roles of nuclear weapons. These dynamics in turn affect other actors’ motivations to acquire nuclear weapons, to cooperate in strengthening barriers to proliferation, and to pursue nuclear disarmament.

Cooperation amongst major powers has become increasingly problematic in recent years, as discussed immediately below. Moreover, the world now experiences the emergence of violent non-state actors whose scope and scale are quite significant, and the use by states of non-conventional means to project power outside their borders. Al-Qaeda and ISIS are the most dramatic examples of new violent actors with international influence. Irregular or hybrid warfare involving militias and proxies with difficult-to-attribute relationships to states exemplify challenging new modes of power projection and confrontation. These new actors and modes of action – including cyber power projectionsdo not directly implicate nuclear weapons or justify changes in the roles and postures of nuclear forces, but they do create an environment that complicates pursuit of major power cooperation on which nuclear order depends.

The following examples of recent threats to international security are particularly salient in affecting the perceived value of and threats posed by nuclear weapons. These threats affect the politics of strengthening the nuclear order, including the possible devaluation and reduction of nuclear weapons.

ISIS. The so-called Islamic State spreads large-scale violence through Iraq, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and, by terrorist attacks, Europe. These conflicts also stimulate massive refugee movements into Europe that alarms societies and destabilizes politics there. The violent chaos in the Middle East then draws outside powersRussia, Iran, the USinto direct or indirect conflict. These conflicts also exacerbate broader, often violent, confrontation between Sunni and Shia communities and the states that back one group or the other. These trends affect the nuclear order by exacerbating US-Russian tensions, by creating opportunities for crises that could impede implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran (the JCPOA), and relatedly by increasing perceptions that one or more Sunni Arab states and Turkey may hedge their commitments to nuclear nonproliferation.

Ukraine. When protests against the Ukrainian government erupted in late 2013 and led to the ouster of the Viktor Yanukovych government in February 2014, Russia perceived these events as Westernbacked coup in Russia’s sphere of influence. Russia subsequently annexed Crimea and facilitated armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Many Ukrainians, and all European governments and the US saw Russia’s actions as “illegal and illegitimate.”3 The role of cyber operations information warfarein the Ukraine contest added to international alarm over the nature and drift of contestation between Russia and the West. Paired with Russia’s alleged violation of the INF Treaty, and Russia’s allegations regarding the implications and legality of US-NATO missile defense deployments, the events in Ukraine raised alarms in Europe and Russia over the prospect of military crises. If such crises were to escalate, they could assume nuclear dimensions. At the very least, this set of developments has severely complicated the prospects of nuclear arms control and restraint in the modernization of nuclear forces and the deployment non-nuclear weapons that could affect nuclear requirements and doctrines.

DPRK. North Korea’s ongoing development and testing of nuclear weapons and missile-delivery systems pose direct threats to South Korea, Japan, and the United States. This in turn alarms China and complicates China’s relations with the US, South Korea and Japan. (These relationships are further challenged by the arrival of Donald Trump as president of the United States, who is perceived to be erratic and uninformed). Russia has direct interests in the Korean and in efforts to manage the North Korean problem. US responses to threatening developments in the DPRKespecially deployments of new ballistic missile defense systems, and military exercises with the ROKalarm China directly and probably Russia. In total, then, DPRK actions and other states’ responses to them increase the numbers of nuclear weapons in the world, heighten risks of military conflict that could escalate, increase the challenges of maintaining South Korea and Japan as non-nuclear-weapon states, and exacerbate concerns over offense-defense arms racing. None of this strengthens motivations of the involved states to pursue further nuclear reductions and to diminish the role of nuclear weapons for deterrence.

South and East China Seas. The disputed status of numerous small islands and outcroppings in the South China and East China Seas, combined with China’s growing capabilities to project power, unsettles relations among China, Japan, ASEAN states, and the United States. These relatively new dynamics add to the longstanding challenge of avoiding conflict between China and Taiwan, where the US also plays a deterrent role. As China’s power projection and assertiveness grow, US military and civilian officials and those of countries that depend on US security assurances are inclined not to diminish perceptions that these countries have the capability and resolve to prevent China from unilaterally taking disputed territories. Deterrence is certainly preferred over armed conflict. All wish to avoid steps that could lead to escalatory warfare. This situation makes reductions in the salience of nuclear deterrence and force postures increasingly difficult for politicians to pursue. If anything, pressure is felt in the opposite direction. South Asia. Relations between India and Pakistan continue to be conflictual. Diplomatic efforts to reduce tensions remain halfhearted and frequently frustrated by new outbreaks of cross-border terrorism, artillery shelling across the Line of Control in Kashmir, and violent unrest in Jammu and Kashmir. Afghanistan is the locus of proxy violence by actors affiliated with Pakistan, India and others. India and Pakistan steadily increase their nuclear weapon and delivery capabilities. India searches for ways to effectively punish Pakistan in the event of future terrorist attacks in the Indian heartland. Pakistan seeks to demonstrate the capability and resolve to use nuclear weapons first if Indian forces intervene in Pakistan in ways that the Pakistani military cannot defeat by conventional means. Moreover, advances in US military capabilities of all kinds, including missile defenses and cyber, help drive increases in countervailing Chinese capabilities. This in turn affects India’s perceived strategic requirements. India also sees China’s longstanding military support of Pakistan, including in the nuclear and missile spheres, as a threat. For their part, Pakistan and China see the United States’ increasing military and technological cooperation with India as a threat. All of this increases the salience and growth of nuclear forces and concern over the possibility of conflict that could escalate to the use of nuclear weapons. None of this enhances prospects of Pakistani and Indian cooperation in ending the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, joining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or undertaking nuclear arms control.

Taken together, the developments summarized above preoccupy leaders of major powers and their most informed citizens. It is very difficult to argue plausibly that more nuclear weapons and more threatening nuclear doctrines offer solutions to these challenging developments. As Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann have demonstrated in their new study, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy, nuclear weapons historically have not enabled states to compel others to heed their demands.4 Rather, the value of nuclear weapons has been to help deter major overt military aggression. States and non-state actors seem to have adapted to these realities by pursuing other forms of coercionrapid, limited territorial expansion, proxy conflict, terrorism, hybrid operations, cyber interference and sabotage. Nuclear weapons are illsuited to deter such actions or to compel their reversal. Nevertheless, these developments create a political-security environment that is inhospitable to efforts to reduce nuclear forces and diminish reliance on them in national and alliance policies. In calmer and more stable times, it was easier for political leaders (and their domestic competitors) to display restraint, which is central to strengthening the nuclear order. In unsettled times like these, with new forms of confrontation and conflict that existing doctrines and instruments are ill-suited to deter or defeat, restraint does not appear to be the most important attribute to display.

These tendencies are reflected in the nuclear modernization activities underway in Russia, China, the US, the UK (perhaps), India, Pakistan, and North Korea. They are reflected in the absence of progress in beginning negotiations on a fissile material production cut-off and the entry into force of the CTBT. The prospects of further nuclear force reductions by the US and Russia and, subsequently, through multilateral negotiations with other nuclear-armed states appear distant. This is due also to the increasing inter-relations among nuclear forces, potential new hypersonic strategic conventional weaponry, ballistic missile defenses, and offensive cyber capabilities. Competing states will seek to balance overall military capabilities. Limiting or reducing nuclear weapons alone will not redress insecurities that these other military capabilities may pose. Yet, no one has even conceptualized how to weigh trade-offs among these various categories of weaponry, let alone how to negotiate limits on them that could be verified satisfactorily. In this sense, the challenge of updating the systemic restraint that was central to the old nuclear order is much more difficult than the challenge of creating the original order was.


All is not discouraging. The threat of nuclear weapons proliferation could be much more manageable now than it appeared to be five or fifteen years ago. In 2002, proliferation appeared to be a grave threat from North Korea, Iraq, Iran, and Libya, with additional concerns that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Turkey could become sources of acute worry. Five years ago, only Iraq and Libya had been removed from this list. Today, aside from North Korea, the proliferation threat picture is much more positive. Much depends on the successful implementation of the JCPOA in and with Iran. This paper is not the place to analyze the future of the JCPOA. Many developments could jeopardize it. Yet, the situation created by the agreement is much more positive than many analysts would have predicted five years ago. If the JCPOA holds, it is quite possible to motivate and prevent Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Turkey from seeking and acquiring nuclear weapons. And if that is the case, then the other potential locales of state proliferation would most likely be South Korea and/or Japan. Here, too, there is reason to believe that these two countries and the US and Chinathe two most influential outside powerscan develop and pursue policies to demonstrate that South Korea’s and Japan’s interests will be better served by eschewing acquisition of nuclear weapons. Part of this process of reassuring South Korea and Japan will require reaffirming the extended deterrence that the US provides to them. While this complicates (somewhat) all three countries’ relations with China, Beijing no doubt prefers something like the status quo over the prospect that South Korea or Japan would themselves become nuclear-armed. If reaffirmation of extended deterrence impedes for now further reduction of the number and role of nuclear weapons in the world, this is a perhaps unfortunate trade off that overall international stability may require. While the scenario described here is uncertain, the state-proliferation picture is more positive than it has ever been. If additional states can be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, the challenges of preventing terrorists from acquiring fissile materials and nuclear weapons also become more manageable. The international community, led in many ways by the Obama administration with the cooperation of the other nuclear-armed states (except North Korea), has agreed upon and largely pursued actions necessary to account for and secure fissile materials and strengthen export controls. Intelligence agencies cooperate in identifying and disrupting the most dangerous terrorist groups’ efforts to acquire nuclear materials. More always can be done, and what is being done can always be done better. But, major powers can continue to cooperate in preventing nuclear terrorism even in otherwise discordant times.

The importance of progress that has been made in the nuclear nonproliferation regime should not be lost. This is a fundamental element of the nuclear ordersome would say the fundamental element. The frustrations and inadequacies of the NPT Review Process, and the understandable complaints of non-nuclear-weapon states that now are negotiating a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, should not diminish appreciation for how much has been accomplished in preventing proliferation. Much needs to be done to preserve and improve upon this success, but, again, the major powers generally continue to share interests in doing so.

The uncertain future of nuclear energy

Nonproliferation has always been intimately related to the expansion of peaceful uses of nuclear technology, particularly for electricity production. A central bargain of the NPT was eschewal of nuclear weapons in return for facilitation of peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Special care was required to control and monitor the spread of fuel-cycle capabilities which could be used both to power reactors for peaceful purposes and to produce fissile materials for weapons. The proliferation challenges arising from the expansion of nuclear programs within countries and their spread to new countries are particularly acute. The larger and more comprehensive a state’s nuclear program is, the more human and technical and material resources that state might possess to divert for weapons purposes. The larger the program, the easier it is to hide weapons-related activities under the cover of peaceful ones. The more states that undertake nuclear programs, the wider the challenge of monitoring the total global activity in the nuclear domain. Each state that newly pursues nuclear energy programs may have neighbors that fear that this activity could portend efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. These neighbors then may develop an interest to hedge their risks by beginning nuclear programs, too. Thus, there has always been a tension between the spread of nuclear energy programs for peaceful purposes and the perceived risk of proliferation. The nonproliferation regime and particularly the IAEA safeguards system (and its Argentina-Brazil analogue) were designed to manage this tension.

Ten years ago the world was abuzz with talk about a “nuclear renaissance.” More and more countries, particularly in Asia, were planning to get into the nuclear energy business. This was welcome in many ways to the major powers and others that had long produced nuclear energy. Nuclear power plant vendors in the US, France, Japan, Russia, Canada, China, and South Korea saw an exciting future of high-value exports to new nuclear players. Concerns also grew that some of the new or reinvigorated seekers of nuclear energy could be interested, at least latently, in gaining hedging capabilities to someday acquire nuclear weapons. Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and Vietnam appeared on lists of potential proliferators. Several of these states were at the same time particularly vocal in resisting efforts to strengthen safeguards through the IAEA Additional Protocol and to tighten Nuclear Suppliers Group export controls. In short, the nuclear renaissance looked likely to increase and complicate the nonproliferation challenge.

The situation is much different today. The discovery and exploitation of fracking and other techniques to extract natural gas dramatically reduced the cost of producing electricity. Meanwhile, several projects to build new nuclear power plantsparticularly in Finland and Franceexperienced large cost overruns and delays. The lower cost of electricity from natural gas and the high costs and construction uncertainties of building safe new nuclear plants combined to make nuclear much less attractive. Then, in 2011, came the Fukushima accident in Japan. Once again, as after the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, questions arose whether nuclear power is safe enough to withstand the combination of unexpected manmade or natural disasters and human error.

Today, outside of China, South Korea, and perhaps Russia, the nuclear power industry is in dire financial condition. Westinghouse in the United States recently declared bankruptcy. The other major American vendor, GE, has not built a new power plant in decade and does not have a licensed design for a new reactor. GE’s fortunes are linked with industrial partners in Japan whose nuclear futures were suddenly made precarious by Fukushima. Areva, the French nuclear giant, lost EUR 17.4 billion from 2014 through 2016. Canada’s nuclear vendor industry is likewise struggling; its last nuclear power plant order in Canada was three decades ago, its last foreign order two decades ago. In June 2017, the new government of South Korea announced that no new nuclear power reactors would be built in the country.

India in May 2017 announced plans to build ten indigenously designed pressurized heavy water reactors (PHWR). However, the Indian nuclear establishment has announced such plans ritualistically every decade, only to fall dramatically short of realizing them. When the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008 exempted India from restrictions on importing foreign nuclear technology, vendors from the US, France, and Russia joined Indian officials in proclaiming that at least eight new power reactors would be built cooperatively. Nearly ten years later, none of these reactors is under construction and a number of impediments remain to international cooperation. The Indian establishment would prefer to build its own reactors, as reflected in the May announcement. But the Indian government sought the NSG exemption in 2008 precisely because it had little confidence that the indigenous program would deliver on its promises. India’s May announcement included no construction timetables. While nuclear energy production will continue to incrementally grow in India, whether through indigenous or imported means, the pace and extent of this growth will be modest at best.

Russia’s nuclear vendors claim to have export orders for 34 plants in 13 countries, on paper worth more than $300 billion. These deals are driven significantly by Russia’s offer to finance, build, own and operate power plants. But the likelihood of many of these projects actually being completed is dubious for many reasons. There is tension between the business side of Russian vendor company Rosatom that wants to make money, and the political side in the Kremlin that wants to make nuclear deals for foreign policy reasons. The Russian nuclear client list includes countries short of money, infrastructure, and oversight. Russia’s flagship foreign project, in Turkey, has been beset by uncertainties and delays.

China is the one country where significant new construction of nuclear power plants is likely to occur.5 It connected eight new reactors to the grid in 2015, and five in 2016. More than 20 additional reactors are under construction.6 Building on this domestic success, China seeks to enter the export market by bundling its state-owned companies to overwhelm competitors with cheap financing and reactors, beginning in Pakistan and Argentina.

The decline and uncertain future of nuclear energy outside of China has numerous implications for the overall nuclear order, although such implications cannot be specified precisely. For example, in the West it is already difficult to attract the most talented scientists, engineers, business managers, and specialized construction craftsmen to nuclear industry and to related governmental bodies. The most talented and ambitious engineers and managers want to be involved in new, cutting-edge technologies and businesses which are both more exciting and lucrative. Yet, 440 nuclear power reactors are still being operated around the world, and numerous waste repository and treatment facilities must be designed and proficiently managed for hundreds of years to come. Will companies, taxpayers and governments remain determined and able to commit the necessary financial and human resources to safely manage nuclear industry if it is stagnant or declining? (Similarly, if nuclear disarmament is revived and involves more than the four countries that have substantially reduced and dismantled nuclear weapons – the US, Russia, the UK and Francewill the world’s nuclear establishments retain sufficiently excellent cadres to ensure that disarmament is done safely, securely, and with satisfactorily precise verification?)

Another potential implication of nuclear energy’s decline may be posed as a question too: if hopes of developing significant nuclear energy programs motivated non-nuclear-weapon states to accept and support the safeguards and export controls of the nonproliferation regime, will diminished interest in nuclear energy leave such countries less willing to support and strengthen this regime? The risks of proliferation may diminish if few states newly undertake nuclear energy programs. Yet, the challenge of gathering intelligence on and blocking transnational nuclear proliferation networks requires cooperation from all states, not only those with significant nuclear programs. Many states could be trans-shipment points for illicit nuclear commerce or hosts of terrorist cells interested in acquiring nuclear material and technologies. If nuclear energy is not widely attractive, what will motivate the international community to dedicate governmental resources to perform the myriad functions required for a strong nonproliferation regime? The problem is not that non-nuclear states will welcome weapons proliferation; there is no reason to think this. Rather, the problem is that such states naturally will have higher indigenous priorities and will be inclined to see nonproliferation as something that nuclear-armed states and major producers of nuclear energy should take care of. There is little evidence today that the world’s leading nuclear powersmilitary and/or civilianare thinking creatively about the kinds of incentives that could be needed to motivate non-nuclear states to invest government attention and resources to maintaining or strengthening the global nonproliferation regime.

China’s growing prominence in the nuclear energy field also has implications for the nuclear order.7 The US and other Western countries (and Japan) were willing and able to exert leadership in shaping the nuclear order because they developed and deployed the technologies that others relied upon. As leaders in the market they naturally could shape the rules or norms under which the nuclear field operated. Yet, as the traditional suppliers of nuclear technology and makers of rules lose relative importance and China becomes a bigger and most dynamic player, Chinese authorities will naturally seek greater say in shaping the terms of nuclear commerce and rule-making. What this means for the future of the nuclear order is impossible to say now. Few people around the world are even thinking about it.

Lastly (for this discussion), beyond the nine states that now possess nuclear weapons there are another twelve that have dedicated significant resources and personnel to develop nuclear energy programs. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Sweden (?), Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, and perhaps Egypt are the most salient among such countries. If the future of nuclear energy production becomes less promising the nuclear establishments in some number of these countries could be tempted to look for other applications of their knowledge and capabilities in order to retain funding, jobs, and status. Is it possible that in a few of these cases nuclear establishment leaders could be inclined to find government patrons that would support development of nuclear weapon options? This is a delicate question to raise. As noted above, if the JCPOA can be fully implemented in Iran and North Korea can be managed, incentives to proliferate should be manageable. Still, if the prospects of nuclear energy’s global distribution decline, the maintenance and strengthening of the nuclear order will require more attention to be paid to these questions.


Many regard the NPT as the foundation stone of the nuclear order. Yet, the NPT contains a fissurein text and politics. The treaty legally allows for the possession of nuclear weapons by the five states that had tested a nuclear explosive before January 1, 1967, while obligating all other signatories not to acquire nuclear weapons. At the same time, Article VI of the treaty obligates each party “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”8 This reflected the political and moral need to link the vast majority of states’ eschewal of nuclear weapons to the small minority’s willingness to eventually eliminate their nuclear weapons. The proposed prohibition treaty makes this link more explicit than it ever has been.

Of course, Article VI has long been a contentious issuea fissure. Some states and experts have argued that the NPT only obligates “good faith” pursuit of negotiations on nuclear disarmament, but cannot and does not require a particular outcomethat is, an agreement. Moreover, Article VI envisions such negotiations in the context of “a treaty on general and complete disarmament.”9 These perceived disarmament requirements are much less precise than the treaty’s clauses related to nonproliferation, which, the argument goes, affirms that the treaty’s central operative purpose is nonproliferation.10

Yet, while lawyers may endlessly debate the legal meaning and implications of Article VI, the matter was settled politically in 1995 when the treaty was due to expire unless the parties decided to extend it at a Review and Extension Conference. At the conference, the nuclearweapon states persuaded the parties to extend the NPT indefinitely. The resolution extending the treaty also included an agreement entitled “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament.” In this document, “nuclear-weapon States reaffirm their commitment, as stated in article VI, to pursue in good faith negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.” The document also declared that fulfillment of Article VI required “the determined pursuit by the nuclear-weapon States of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons, and by all States of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”11

The political obligation to pursue nuclear disarmament was affirmed and detailed in Review Conferences in 2000 and 2010. At the 2000 conference, thirteen steps related to nuclear disarmament were specifically called for. An action plan was agreed upon at the 2010 conference, enumerating twenty-two actions to be taken under the heading of disarmament.12 Since the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)itself a modest achievement in disarmament termsno new agreements have been reached to reduce nuclear arms, curtail nuclear arsenal modernization, or end production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Various countries and organizations have produced scorecards to evaluate fulfillment of the disarmament-related measures called for in the 1995, 2000, and 2010 NPT Review Conferences. According to a well-researched assessment by the nongovernment organization Reaching Critical Will, as of 2015, clear “forward movement” has been made on only five of the twenty-two actions called for in 2010, while “limited progress” has been made on six others.13 Worse, arguably, Russia violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, which remains the most far-reaching nuclear arms reduction treaty ever negotiated. Meanwhile, all of the nucleararmed states have undertaken programs to modernize, and in some casesChina, India, North Korea, and Pakistanexpand, their nuclear arsenals.

Against this background, in March 2017 negotiations began on a legally binding convention to prohibit nuclear weapons, “leading to their total elimination.” Proponents of a prospective prohibition treaty argue that dramatic action is needed to speed up achievement of the ultimate goal of global nuclear disarmament. They argue that “there has been little perceptible progress on the multilateral nuclear disarmament pillar under the NPT,”14 and that “outlawing nuclear weapons is a moral and humanitarian imperative.”15 Further, they posit a legal requirement for nuclear disarmament based on their reading of Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 1996 International Court of Justice advisory opinion on the “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons.” Proponents believe that a prohibition treaty ultimately will engender international pressure that will compel nuclear-armed states and others that rely on nuclear deterrence to “conform to the new global norm.”16

Yet opponents and skeptics fear that the dynamics surrounding the prohibition treaty will distract attention and effort from the nonproliferation regime that has helped prevent nuclear war since 1945, and that has prevented – beyond early expectationsthe proliferation of nuclear weapons to more states and to terrorist organizations. In boycotting the negotiations, the French, United Kingdom (UK), and US governments noted that the “proposed ban fails to take into account the requisite security considerations and . . . will not eliminate nuclear weapons.”17 Japan worries that “efforts to make such a treaty without the involvement of nuclear-weapon states will only deepen the schism and division not only between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclearweapon states, but also among non-nuclear-weapon states.”18

 The effort to negotiate a prohibition treaty represents a politicallegal reaction to the nuclear-weapon states’ failure to fulfill these political commitments to genuinely seek nuclear disarmament. If the vagueness of Article VI’s language reflects the preferences of the two disproportionately powerful states that drove the negotiation of the NPTthe United States and the Soviet Unionthen the prohibition treaty reflects the preferences of a majority of states in the nonpolar or multipolar twenty-first century. These states know they cannot force the nuclear-armed states to give up their nuclear arsenals, but they can create political and moral pressures to delegitimize these weapons. More materially, the majority can frustrate the nuclear-armed states’ desires and interests in strengthening the global nonproliferation regime. If the nuclear-weapon states persist in denying or obfuscating a legal obligation to pursue disarmament, the others can politically undermine the enhancement of legal obligations to make proliferation more difficult.

Proponents of a prohibition treaty have sought to refocus attention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The humanitarian argument highlights studies that suggest that even what might be termed a limited exchange of nuclear weapons, involving one hundred fission devices, would or could alter climatic conditions sufficiently to cause a global famine affecting more than 1 billion people. Such use of nuclear weaponslet alone larger attacks involving more destructive deviceswould harm people and the environment in ways that, depending on the circumstances, could violate the basic principles of international humanitarian law. These principles require discrimination of military from civilian targets, proportionality, and avoidance of unnecessary suffering.

Of course, it can be argued plausibly that not all uses of nuclear weapons would cause a humanitarian disaster. For example, a state in a conflict could for demonstration purposes detonate a nuclear weapon underground or at sea, or against a naval convoy or a desert air base far removed from civilians. It is not impossible that such use would succeed and de-escalate a conflict without a series of nuclear exchanges. Nevertheless, the focus on humanitarian consequences has put the burden on defenders of nuclear weapons to demonstrate whether and how any use of nuclear weapons would stay limited and would not escalate. The nuclear-armed states have not engaged in such discussions or debate.

Apart from humanitarian grounds, concerns about fairness or equity also bolster arguments for prohibition. In terms of political and moral equity, the distinction between one nuclear weapon and zero is all that matters. States that have one are in a fundamentally different positionfor good or illthan those that have zero. It is fine and correct for the United States and Russia to say that they collectively used to deploy 10,000 strategic nuclear weapons, and now they only deploy approximately 3,200. But for most of the world’s states, this is not a winning argument. It is a bit like a slaveholder saying that he used to have one hundred slaves, but now only has thirty-two. If slavery is bad, any number greater than zero is wrong. The same goes for nuclear weapons in the thinking of much of the world.

The perceived character of leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and the United States’ Donald Trump (among others) add urgency to the campaign to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. Many citizens and states find it unacceptable that these men have their fingers on the nuclear button and hold the fate of the world in their minds and hands. Only nuclear weapons give a few leaders of a few countries the capacity to immediately destroy the lives of so many innocent people and states and cause lasting environmental damage. Because other states cannot determine the judgment of such individuals and cannot control the extent and effects of a nuclear war these men might conduct, the only way to escape being hostage to them is to ban and, hopefully, abolish nuclear weapons.

Prohibitionand more broadly, eliminationof nuclear weapons also gains urgency from the basic sense that these weapons cannot be retained forever without being used someday. As the distinguished British strategist Lawrence Freedman wrote eight years ago, “The case for abolition . . . is that it is hard to believe that the past 60 years of selfrestraint can continue for the next 60 years.”19 Deterrence optimiststhose who believe in the effectiveness of the nuclear taboocould retort that, as the period of nonuse of nuclear weapons lengthens, the probability of nuclear war in the future declines. Yet most analysts agree that if and as the number of actors possessing nuclear weapons grows, and the combinations of states in confrontational relationships increase, the risk of deterrence failure does too. A strong nonproliferation regime, among other things, is necessary to contain this risk. Yet, non-nuclear-weapon states are now reluctant to further strengthen the nonproliferation regime unless their demands for nuclear disarmament are met.

In short, there are understandable, often excellent reasons to seek the elimination of nuclear weapons. The dismissive, disrespectful attitudes and behaviors of the nuclear-armed states toward proponents of nuclear disarmament add fuel and passion to the prohibition cause.

Unfortunately, the good rationales and understandable motives that animate the prohibition movement do not necessarily add up to sound or effective action. However laudable the intentions behind the prohibition movement, the treaty it appears likely to produce will be inadequate to accomplish important objectives and may even undermine the prospects of nuclear disarmament.

Proponents acknowledge that the prohibition treaty will not cause a single weapon to be dismantled. “A nuclear-weapons prohibition will not magically make nucleararmed and nuclear-alliance states give up the bombbut it will make it a less attractive weapon to maintain or pursue, and provide states with more incentives for elimination.”20 Proponents hope that the weight of more than 120 states’ demand for prohibition will morally and politically inhibit anyone from using nuclear weapons. North Korea was the only nuclear-armed state that voted in favor of negotiating a prohibition treaty. Yet, as most advocates of prohibition would acknowledge, it is extremely difficult to imagine that Kim Jong-un, faced with the loss of his regime and perhaps control over his country, would decide not to use nuclear weapons because there is a treaty prohibiting them. So, too, if in response to Russian aggression in, say, Estonia, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) conventional forces were to bomb air force and army installations in Russia and drive Russian forces back, President Putin might or might not use tactical nuclear weapons to de-escalate the conflict, so to speak. Either way, it is difficult to imagine that a prohibition treaty that Russia and other nuclear-armed states did not sign would figure significantly in his decision. Similarly, if Indian armored forces moved into Pakistan following a major terrorist attack on an Indian city, and were inflicting severe damage and humiliation on the Pakistan Army, Rawalpindi’s leadership has said it would use nuclear weapons to stop the Indian advance. This might or might not be what the Pakistan Army would actually do, but it is difficult to say how a prohibition treaty would really affect the decision.

Nevertheless, it could be argued that a prohibition treaty would do no harmwith one possible exception. If genuine democracies felt more obliged to uphold the treaty than nondemocratic governments, then the balance of resolve in crisis or conflict could tilt to the states less sensitive to norms. It is difficult now to assess this possibility across a range of potential regional or global confrontations. Still, the Western nuclear-weapon states and their allies in Europe and Asia worry that a prohibition treaty could cause or inflame political dissent within their states and between them. This weakening of solidarity among democratic allies, ironically and dangerously, could in turn embolden less affected adversaries such as China, North Korea, and Russia.

This concern can be seen from another angle: the prohibition movement has not engaged intensively with the nuclear-armed states that are most resistant to this agenda and that prohibit or tightly control public debate over nuclear issues. Much of the argumentation regarding humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons and prohibition seems directed at the United States, the United Kingdom (UK), and their allies, where civil society organizations are free and officials have been more or less willing to engage with them. China, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and to some extent France have walled themselves off from these debates internationally and nationally. Yet these states are more determined to retain nuclear weapons and are more resistant to joining in nuclear-weapon reduction processes than the United States and the UK have been. (France has undertaken significant nuclear force reductions and eliminated its nuclear-weapon testing facilities, even as its resistance to complete nuclear disarmament is clear.) 

Whether or not a prohibition treaty will weaken the defensive resolve of democracies, it will not remove the most ominous threats that trouble the nations currently relying on nuclear deterrence (including via alliances). Few knowledgeable people believe that nuclear-armed adversaries would launch nuclear weapons out of the blue. Rather, the primary concern is that some form of non-nuclear aggression could be initiated, particularly against a weaker state, and that for the defenders nuclear weapons could, in extreme circumstances, be the only way to defeat such aggression. The existence of a prohibition treaty could undermine the credibility of nuclear deterrence of such aggression. (Of course, the threat to use nuclear weapons in defense raises the risks of escalation to all-out nuclear war, which would leave everyone worse off and likely cause humanitarian disaster. This is the horrible paradox of nuclear deterrence.)

Prohibiting the possession and use of nuclear weapons without redressing the circumstances that make states retain these weapons could be emblematic of two things. First, as proponents intend, it could symbolize rejection of the potentially murderous hostage relationship that the few nuclear-armed states impose on a large number of others. Second, it could affirm the realist view that treaties are not worth the paper they are written on if adequate power is not available and determined to verify and enforce them.

To put the second point a different way, states and experts who believe that nuclear weapons help deter major acts of aggression and inspire states not to escalate conflicts argue with some reason that prohibition puts the cart before the horse. If use of nuclear weapons is likely to precede such aggression involving conventional forces or a biological attack, then it would make sense to focus first on nuclear prohibition. But if nuclear weapons would most likely be used after an act of major aggression is under way and there is no other viable means to stop it, then it makes more sense to focus first on finding alternative ways to deter or defeat such aggression.

If circumstances can be envisioned wherein a state or alliance cannot defeat an act of aggression by non-nuclear means, then do proponents of nuclear prohibition essentially require states in such circumstances to accept defeat, possibly tantamount to suicide? Is this legally and politically plausible (insofar as states that choose not to join such a treaty are not bound by it)? One could counter that the international community collectively ought to be willing and able to rally to a threatened state’s defense and thereby defeat an instance of major aggression. Yet the current international system’s dependence on the UN Security Council to authorize such action is highly problematic. Most of the states capable of mounting overwhelming conventional aggression retain the power to veto Security Council resolutions.

Insofar as a prohibition treaty is meant to lead to the elimination of all nuclear weapons, the treaty’s proponents have failed to give any guidance regarding how such disarmament would actually be defined, conducted, verified and enforced. Yes, all nuclear weapons would have to be dismantled. But what would then be done with the fissile materials taken from them? Warhead disassembly has never been verified (aside from the unique case of South Africa). Inherent uncertainties surround inventories of fissile materials. Given these uncertainties, by what means would the world be reassured that a state was not secretly retaining weaponsusable stockpiles? Would states be allowed to retain ballistic missiles? If so, under what conditions? What would be done with nuclear-weapon research and development facilities, capabilities, and trained personnel? Would researchers and facilities adept at nuclear-weapon design and experimentation be monitoredincluding in universitiesand if so, how? How would the management and safeguarding of civilian fuelcycle facilities and activities need to be revised in order to bolster confidence that no one would cheat on a global disarmament regime?

Without offering guidance on these genuine challenges in designing and effecting nuclear disarmament, authors of a prohibition treaty may actually cloud the prospects of future disarmament. What would happen if and when nuclear-armed states seriously took up the challenge and developed what they judged to be a viable disarmament regime, but this regime required much more extensive and intrusive global monitoring of nuclear-related facilities and personnel than exists today? Would the hundred-plus supporters of the prohibition treaty subscribe to these requirements and share in the costs? What if viable disarmament required centralization of all civilian nuclear fuel-cycle activities under the control of a handful of formerly nuclear-armed states? Would today’s non-nuclear-armed states with civilian nuclear aspirations accept this? Without some sense of how major disputes over the design of a world without nuclear weapons would be resolved, many states will be reluctant to pursue this agenda. Unfortunately, these kinds of issues have not been addressed in negotiations of the prohibition treaty.

What could be done?

The foregoing description and analysis of the nuclear order that has evolved over the past seventy years will no doubt invite some debate. This is welcome. If this analysis survives debate at least largely intact, it will lead us to explore what should be done? How should the challenges suggested here be addressed by officials, experts, and civil societies of the states whose cooperation will be needed to preserve and improve the global nuclear order?

Space here allows only brief and rather general suggestions whose purpose is to invite further consideration and debate by others.

Stability and improvement of the nuclear order require first and foremost enhanced cooperation among the US, Russia and China. This is necessary in order to diminish risks of escalatory conflict along the periphery of Russia and China, to reverse the recent increased salience of nuclear weapons in major power relations, and to reopen possibilities of arms control (nuclear and other). U.S-Russian relations also influence events in the Middle East. US-China relations heavily affect dynamics on the Korean Peninsula, the South and East China Seas, and in South Asia. 

This is not the place to rehearse various steps that Washington, Moscow and Beijing could take in order to identify and create shared interests in cooperating to stabilize and enhance regional dynamics. Policy-makers and analysts in these governments, and think tanks in these and other countries, regularly offer suggestions regarding how governments should or could seek to improve outcomes in the regions that concern them. It is necessary here only to clarify and emphasize that the risks of the current drift in US-Russian and US-Chinese relations extend to the global nuclear order. This is often overlooked. Reminding officials and media commentators that the stakes in the confrontations around Ukraine, Syria, and the periphery of China extend beyond the local issues is important. Perhaps greater awareness that the future of the global nuclear order will be affected by the major powers’ capacity to stabilize these regions could enhance their leaders’ willingness to cooperate in doing so. Sometimes it is helpful to broaden a problem in order to solve it.

The DPRK’s continued qualitative and quantitative enhancement of its nuclear weapon and missile capabilities threatens regional security and the global nuclear order, as summarized above. There is no reason to think that the DPRK leadership will eliminate its nuclear weapon capabilities, which it sees as a vital deterrent. Deweaponization must remain a stated goal for regional political reasons, but, for the practical future, de-escalation of crisis must be the priority. This requires the DPRK to be motivated to pause its threatening nuclear weapons-related activitiesfissile material production, weapons research, development and testing, delivery-system testing, and military induction and operation of nuclear forces.

To motivate the DPRK to undertake such a pause, the US and China must agree on and cooperate in combining positive inducements and pressure. The Trump administration seems to think it has a “strategy” to do this. It aims to persuade and push China to increase pressure on the DPRK to alter its behavior, with the promise of negotiations if and when the DPRK demonstrates restraint. At the same time, Washington emphasizes that Pyongyang’s acquisition and testing of an ICBM is unacceptable, with the implication that the US is willing to use force to prevent this. Unfortunately, this “strategy” may be less coherent and more problematic than its authors recognize. China welcomes the notion that the US would be prepared to negotiate with the DPRK, but Beijing wants to know what the US is realistically prepared to accept in such negotiations. If Washington insists on DPRK agreement to denuclearize, then Beijing will find this unrealistic and is not likely to press the DPRK on this basis. Yet, US officials have not discussed with Chinese counterparts what Washington is prepared to accept in a negotiationfor example, whether the US is willing first to negotiate a freeze on certain DPRK activities in the nuclear and missile domains. Furthermore, the timeline for pressuring the DPRK and undertaking negotiations with it may be longer than the timeline of the DPRK’s program to develop and test an ICBM. If the DPRK appears to cross the US red line before the pressure-and-negotiate scheme is realized, the US could be confronted with a decision to use force before negotiations have been tried. This could put Washington in a very awkward place in relations to China, Russia, and much of world opinion.

Before events lead to this dire scenario, if Beijing and Washington were aligned, the two governments could then seek to build cooperation with South Korea, Japan, and Russia in a shared approach to Pyongyang. Again, all of this is easier said than done. The point is merely to clarify the broad requirements and stakes in major power cooperation here.

More broadly, establishing a minimally sufficient level of cooperation between the US and Russia and the US and China requires some way of easing the fundamental (and perennial) tension between Beijing’s and Moscow’s perceptions that the US seeks to undermine their governments and foster democratization, on the one hand, and the United States’ traditional concerns about state repression of political and human rights. Russia’s interference in the US, French, and German election campaignsrelated to Moscow’s perceptions of US interference in Russian affairsfurther exacerbates these longstanding tensions. The question arises, as it did in the 1970s, whether leaders in the three countries will be willing and able to relax their political confrontations enough to pursue cooperation in preserving or strengthening the nuclear order.

The ongoing confrontation between India and Pakistan produces the world’s most acute nuclear arms race and perhaps the greatest risk of violent conflict that could escalate to nuclear war. Again, plenty has been written on all of this, including my recent book with Toby Dalton, Not War, Not Peace? The US and China are implicated directly and indirectly in the nuclear dimensions of the South Asian confrontation. And the nuclear competition between Russia and the US, and relatedly the US and China produce strategic forces that India then takes into account in determining what types and numbers of nuclear systems it needs. This in turn affects Pakistan’s perceived requirements. Thus, while India and Pakistan alone can stabilize their relations and reduce risks of escalatory conflict, Russia, the US, and China will need to limit and reverse their competition in strategic weaponry if the two South Asian antagonists are to stop and eventually reverse their nuclear arms race.

Arms control/disarmament

It is reasonable to expect that the states negotiating a convention to prohibit nuclear weapons will agree and a convention will be created. Nuclear-weapon states – particularly, Russia, France and the USwill be tempted to express their displeasure. One way they may do this is to say, “if this is how non-nuclear-weapon states want to treat the disarmament issues, that is their prerogative. But then we have little more to say or do regarding disarmament, since our approach has been rejected.” In other words, rather than reaching out magnanimously after the negotiation of an unwanted prohibition treaty, leading nuclearweapon states could act petulantly.

Petulance regarding further nuclear disarmament could be a mistake, much as it is in polarized periods of domestic politics. It inflames hostility and confrontation and further polarizes. This would be especially challenging to democratic middle powers in Europe and East Asia. Russia and China might welcome such development, but whatever nearterm gains could result could be offset by longer-term implications. For, the global nuclear order has helped prevent countries such as Germany, Japan and South Korea from acquiring their own nuclear weapons. If these states perceive their security environment to be weakening and the nuclear order crumbling, some elements within them may increase calls for revisiting their own nuclear policies. Indeed, this is already happening in Germany, Japan and South Korea.

The most obvious thing that nuclear-armed states and others who continue to rely on extended nuclear deterrence could do to heal the rifts created by the prohibition treaty would be to devote more serious thought and action to nuclear disarmament. The 2000 and 2010 NPT Review Conferences specified well-known incremental steps that would manifest progress toward nuclear disarmament. States know how to take these steps, whether the number is thirteen or twenty-two; what they have lacked is political will.

Russia and the United States face an immediate challenge in this area. Each now alleges that the other has violated the INF Treaty. If that important treaty cannot be saved and fulfilled then further incremental nuclear arms reductions will not be possible.

Beyond the taking of well-marked incremental steps, nuclear-armed states will not credibly meet their disarmament obligations unless and until they seriously define what a feasible, comprehensive, verifiable, and enforceable nuclear disarmament regime would entail. Chris Ford, now a senior official in the Trump administration, has made the most trenchant conservative arguments that the legal requirement for disarmament is quite narrow. Yet he acknowledges that there is a requirement to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race . . . and to nuclear disarmament.”21 It is difficult to see how the nuclear-weapon states, individually or collectively, have met or could meet this requirement if they have not developed models of what nuclear disarmament should entail.

Designing a model nuclear disarmament regime does not require promises in advance to accede to and implement it. States commonly design futuristic weapons systems without deciding in advance to actually develop, procure, and deploy them. Why cannot they do the same regarding nuclear disarmament? States could do this individually, bilaterally, and/or multilaterally. They could do it at classified levels and in the open, solely with officials or in collaboration with nongovernmental experts. (Indeed, the Carnegie Endowment has done this in a project to model a “firewall” that distinguishes purely peaceful nuclear programs from military ones, and provides insights on how to manage and monitor dual-use activities.22) The core questions to be answered are: How should nuclear disarmament be defined? What capabilities, facilities, materials, and activities should it prohibit and allow? How could potentially dual-use capabilities, facilities, materials, and activities be verified and monitored? Finally, how would such a regime be enforced? It seems illegitimate for states to argue that they are even intending to pursue negotiations toward nuclear disarmament in good faith if they are not seriously addressing such questions.

To date, no nuclear-armed state has publicly undertaken such a project.23 This betrays these states’ lack of seriousness about nuclear disarmament. It is difficult to see how these states will gain credibility in the wider world if they refuse even to offer blueprints for a nuclear disarmament regime that others can then discuss and debate. These states cannot be forced to sign and implement a prohibition treaty, and they certainly cannot be forced to implement a hypothetical disarmament regime. But reluctance to even take up the design challenge can only be seen as evidence of bad faith.

Whether or not they design prototype disarmament regimes, states that say nuclear deterrence remains necessary for security reasons should more explicitly articulate whether and how their policies and actions to redress security challenges can open the way for progress toward nuclear disarmament. Many governments are trying to resolve or prevent conflicts on the European periphery, in the Middle East, on the Korean Peninsula, in Northeast Asia, and in South Asia. Yet, with few exceptions, leaders do not articulate how the immediate actions they are taking can and should create conditions for reducing reliance on nuclear weapons and reducing their numbers toward zero. It is quite possible that the actions and outcomes one side seeks will not make adversaries feel they can reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. But clarifying this aspect of relations can still be useful in educating the rest of the world about the challenges of actually achieving the aspirations reflected in the ban treaty.

Special attention should be drawn to the problems of enforcing international norms and laws today and in the future. The proposed prohibition treaty will not have enforcement provisions. But the nuclear disarmament treaty that the prohibition treaty will call for must be enforceable or else nuclear-armed states will not agree to it. It is difficult to imagine how a body other than the UN Security Council would be entrusted with enforcing nuclear disarmament. Yet, each of the five recognized nuclear-weapon states retains veto power in the Security Council. If one (or more) were to violate, or be accused of violating, a disarmament treaty, they could veto enforcement measures. This is clearly problematic for many reasons. One such reason is that India, Israel and Pakistan presumably would want the same veto rights in return for agreeing to their own nuclear disarmament in parallel with the five NPT nuclear-weapon states. This problem could be surmounted by designing a disarmament enforcement regime that excluded the veto. Yet, it is nearly impossible to imagine all five of the current vetowielding nuclear-weapon states agreeing to this. Would it be harmful to explore even academically how this problem might be addressed?

Finally, a realistic design of a nuclear disarmament regime will need to address how states could redress concerns over non-nuclear military technologies that they feel require nuclear weapons to counter. These include hypersonic conventionally armed delivery systems, ballistic missile defenses, cyber weapons, and perhaps increasingly in the future synthetic bioweapons. No one has yet persuasively modelled how such asymmetric arms control could be designed, negotiated, and verified sufficiently to inspire confidence that violations would be detectable and therefore deterrable. Official and unofficial experts in the most advanced military states should be encouraged and funded to address these challenges seriously. This should and could be done at national and multinational levels. Indeed, such work will be increasingly important whether or not it is related to modeling overall nuclear disarmament.


The nuclear prohibition treaty and the general malaise of the NPT Review Process highlight the need to reinvigorate non-nuclear-weapon states’ interests in upholding and, hopefully, strengthening the nonproliferation regime. The steps urged upon nuclear-armed states in the previous section could help. More will probably need to be done if the prospect of cooperation in developing peaceful nuclear energy will be less attractive than it was before 2011. Some other positive incentives will be necessary. Might it be worthwhile and effective to explore a 21st century variant of “atoms for peace,” this time offering “climate-friendly energy for peace”? (Nuclear energy may be climate-friendly, but if it is comparatively unattractive for other reasons, then less capital-intensive, safer, and more politically welcome energy technologies may be needed). China, the US, and Germany would be vital in developing and implementing a new “energy for peace” model, as they are leaders in renewable technology and have capital available to facilitate its deployment in developing countries. (Russia could resist this approach for these same reasons). Here, again, the idea is to urge more ambitious thinking and diplomacy, analogous to what was done in shaping the nuclear order in the 1950s and 60s. Creative diplomacy also will be necessary to deal with the challenge of integrating the three non-NPT statesIndia, Pakistan, and Israelinto the Nuclear Suppliers Group. The NSG is an important “institution” of the nonproliferation regime. The US, Russia and France worked hard between 2005 and 2008 to persuade NSG members to exempt India from restrictions on nuclear trade. India has sought to gain membership in the NSG, too, and the US has led efforts to make this happen. However, Chinaencouraged by Pakistanhas resisted, as have other members and many non-nuclear-weapon states. Opponents argue that moves to favor India undermine the NPT. Some, including China, Pakistan, and Israel, argue that membership in the NSG should be based on criteria, rather than on a one-country exemption. The dispute over NSG membership reflects broader tensions in the nonproliferation regime. If this regime is to be sustained, it seems that the US, Russia, France and perhaps others driven by commercial nuclear interests and bilateral considerations should think harder about how the evolution of the NSG should be managed to serve broader nonproliferation objectives.

                                                                    *   *   *

The nuclear order has served international security remarkably well. Major powers have not engaged in warfare directly against each other since 1945. They have engaged in proxy conflicts that killed large numbers of people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Angola, Central America and elsewhere, but these conflicts did not escalate horizontally. It is impossible to prove whether and how nuclear deterrence explains this history, but the fact is that nuclear weapons have not been detonated in conflict since 1945. The nonproliferation regime has worked better than most observers imagined it would in the 1960s. Only one countryNorth Koreahas signed the NPT, cheated, and acquired nuclear weapons. Many others have abandoned nuclear weapons or nascent nuclear weapon programs. Fissile materials have not been transferred to non-nuclear-weapon states or terrorist groups.

These achievements were built through cooperation between the two superpowers in a bi-polar structure, and after 1990 through wider cooperation. This required bargaining at many levels. In 1995 the NPT was extended indefinitely, with new political commitments regarding nuclear cooperation and disarmament. The diplomatic resolution of the Iran challenge, culminating in the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also reflected remarkable international cooperation.

It is not obvious whether and how the nuclear order will be sustained in the new environment visible today. No single country or pair of countries has the power to impose nuclear order. Instead power and influence are becoming more diffuse. Regional disputes involving declining and rising powers in various combinations now embroil the Middle East, the Russian periphery, South Asia, and East Asia. Meanwhile, the non-nuclear majority of states are increasingly frustrated that the original promises of the nuclear orderpeaceful nuclear cooperation and disarmamentare not being realized. New technologies and forms of competition and conflict challenge strategists and policy makers around the world. The future of nuclear weapons and proliferation may or may not be affected directly by new forms of competition, but these dynamics affect the environment in which nuclear policies will be made.

The broad conclusion that these observations suggest is that sustaining the nuclear order requires more cooperation among the United States, China, and Russia than exists today. These states’ cooperation may not be sufficient to redress all of the challenges discussed here. But it is necessary.

This chapter was originally published in Revitalizing Nuclear Arms Control and Nonproliferation

1. Walker W. A Perpetual Menace. New York, 2012. P. 175.
2. Ibid. P. 187.
3. Statement by the NATO Secretary General following a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. December 19, 2016. Available at: natohq/opinions_139569.htm (accessed 24 June 2017).
4. Sescher T.S., Fuhrmann M. Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy. Cambridge University Press, 2017. 
5. For an outstanding description and analysis of China’s nuclear energy program, see Hibbs M. [title forthcoming].
6. Plans for New Reactors Worldwide. World Nuclear Association. February 2017. Available at: (accessed 24 June 2017).
7. For a superb treatment of China’s nuclear energy future and its implications, see Hibbs M. [title forthcoming].
8.  The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). UN Department of Disarmament Affairs. Available at: (accessed 24 June 2017).
9 Ibid.
10. For outstanding examples of these arguments, see Ford Ch.A. Debating Disarmament: Interpreting Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Nonproliferation Review 14, No. 3. November 2007. Available at: npr/143ford.pdf (accessed 24 June 2017); and Ford Ch.A. Misinterpreting the NPT. New Paradigms Forum. September 30, 2011, published October 24, 2011. Available at: http://www. (accessed 24 June 2017).
11. Decisions and Resolution Adopted at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 2002. Available at: pdf?_=1316545320 (accessed 24 June 2017).
12. 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Final Document Volume I. United Nations, 2010. Available at: doc.asp?symbol=NPT/CONF.2010/50%20(VOL.I) (accessed 24 June 2017).
13. Acheson R. It’s Time to Draw Conclusions. In The NPT Action Plan Monitoring Report March 2015, ed. R. Acheson. Geneva, 2015. Available at: documents/Publications/2010-Action-Plan/NPTAP_2015_Analysis.pdf (accessed 24 June 2017). This report details the organization’s basis for evaluating fulfillment of each of the 2010 Review Conference’s sixty-four recommended actions in the domains of disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear energy. See also, Philipp E., Davenport K. Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament: Updated Report Card 2013-2016. Arms Control Association. July 2016. Available at: (accessed 24 June 2017)
14. Statement by Ambassador Patricia O’Brien, Permanent Representative of Ireland to the United Nations and other international organizations at Geneva, at the United Nations Conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading toward their total elimination. New York, March 27-31, 2017. Available at: images/documents/Disarmament-fora/nuclear-weapon-ban/statements/27March_Ireland.pdf (accessed 24 June 2017).
15. Beenes M. Institutional Arrangements. ICAN statements to the negotiating conference. New York, March 31, 2017. Available at: (accessed 24 June 2017).
16. Ibid.
17. On behalf of France, the UK, and the United States, France delivered an explanation of their vote against UN Resolution L.41. See France, United Kingdom & United States, Explanation of vote. New York, October 27, 2016. Available at: France-UK-and-US-EOV.pdf (accessed 24 June 2017).
18. Statement by H.E. Mr. Nobushige Takamizawa, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of Japan to the Conference on Disarmament at the High-level Segment of the United Nations conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination. New York, March 27, 2017. Available at: http:// (accessed 24 June 2017).
19. Freedman L. Nuclear Disarmament: From a Popular Movement to an Elite Project, and Back Again? In Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, ed. by G. Perkovich, J. M. Acton. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2009. P. 145. Available at: nuclear_weapons_debate.pdf (accessed 24 June 2017).
20. Fihn B. The Logic of Banning Nuclear Weapons. Survival 59, No. 1. January 21, 2017. Pp. 43-50. Available at: needAccess=true (accessed 24 June 2017).
21. Ford Ch.A. Debating Disarmament: Interpreting Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons…
22. See Dalton T. et al. Toward a Nuclear Firewall: Bridging the NPT’s Three Pillars. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. March 20, 2017. Available at: toward-nuclear-firewall-bridging-npt-s-three-pillars-pub-68300 (accessed 24 June 2017).
23. For a nongovernmental example of such an undertaking, see Perkovich G., Acton J.M. Abolishing Nuclear Weapons. Adelphi Paper no. 396. International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2008. Available at: (accessed 24 June 2017).