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Pressure mounts on global efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation

Why We Wrote This

Nuclear-weapons advocates have long worked to keep their "club" exclusive. But a tough challenge is emerging: Barriers to building a weapons program are weakening, while political benefits are rising. 

A Pakistani-made Shaheen-III missile, capable of carrying nuclear warheads, is displayed during a military parade in Islamabad, Pakistan, March 23, 2018. Pakistanis celebrated their National Day with a military parade, showcasing short- and long-range missiles, tanks, jets, drones, and other hardware.
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The post-World War II “club” of nuclear-weapons states has remained remarkably exclusive. Yet the world could be entering an age of proliferation, with the added threat that nonstate groups like Al Qaeda could eventually gain access to nuclear weapons material. North Korea presents a key issue: Not only has it succeeded in going nuclear, it has reaped political benefits. Then there’s Iran: The international agreement to freeze its nuclear program is precariously balanced, following the US's withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. For many decades, nonproliferation efforts did well. By the late 1960s, only four countries in addition to the United States had developed nuclear weapons. That began to change after nonaligned India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974. By the late 1980s, Pakistan was nuclear, and technology and expertise from its clandestine program was passed on to others, including Libya, Iran, and North Korea. Now the world faces twin threats. First, the technological and scientific barriers have become easier to overcome. And short of preemptive military action, a diplomatic carrot-and-stick approach may no longer work to prevent proliferation. 

As private clubs go, few have managed to remain so exclusive for so long. And none has had a more profound effect on international politics: ensuring that the concluding horror of World War II, the atomic-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would not usher in an age of nuclear conflict around the world in the years that followed.

Yet amid all the other uncertainties surrounding the planned US summit with North Korea, it is becoming clear that the “club” of nine nuclear-weapons states – and the wider cause of nuclear nonproliferation – are facing unprecedented new pressures. In fact, it is possible that we could be entering an age of proliferation, in which more countries will move to acquire nuclear weapons. Since one prime possibility for a new nuclear arms race is the politically unstable Middle East, there is an additional danger: that nonstate groups – like Al Qaeda, its offshoots or rivals – could eventually gain access to nuclear weapons material as well.

Though the nonproliferation régime has been under growing pressure in recent years, it now faces a potentially critical challenge. This is not just because the North Koreans, despite serial international efforts to find a diplomatic way to prevent them from doing so, have succeeded in going nuclear. It is that by doing so, they have reaped palpable political benefits. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has gone from being derided as “little rocket man” to getting an invitation from the president of the United States to sit down face-to-face for summit talks.

Meanwhile, the international agreement to freeze the nuclear-weapons program of Iran is precariously balanced, following President Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the deal and his decision to impose tough new sanctions.

The key question is how, and whether, the Americans and others in the international community can succeed in halting Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon and convince or prevent other would-be nuclear states from following suit.

In some ways, it’s amazing nonproliferation has done so well for so many decades. Although the USSR broke the Americans’ atomic monopoly several years after World War II, by the late 1960s only four other countries had tested and developed nuclear weapons: Britain, France, China and Israel.

Yet things began to change dramatically after nonaligned India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1974. By the end of the 1980s, India’s neighbor and rival, Pakistan, had gone nuclear. Even more significantly, technology and expertise from Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear program was passed on to other countries, including Libya, Iran, and North Korea. North Korea, in turn, provided key help in a bid by Syria to develop a nuclear weapon in the early 2000s.

There are now twin challenges. First, the technological and scientific barriers have become easier for would-be nuclear powers to overcome or evade. And short of preemptive military action – like the Israeli air strikes which prevented first Iraq in 1981, and then Syria in 2007, from developing a nuclear weapon – it’s not clear that the mix of diplomatic carrot-and-stick that was employed in the past to limit the spread of nuclear weapons will necessarily work.

Far from paying a major price for getting over the nuclear finishing line, the most recent entries to the nuclear-weapons club – India, Pakistan, and now North Korea – have reaped strategic and political benefits. And the one example of a country that did negotiate away its nuclear-weapons program – Libya – is unlikely to act as an incentive for others to do likewise. That 2003 agreement did lead to an easing of isolation and sanctions on Libya, and to active moves by major Western states to bring Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi into the international fold. But he ultimately ended up being captured, beaten and killed in a 2011 uprising in which NATO countries sided with the rebels.

The two earliest nonproliferation challenges are likely to come in Asia and the Middle East, and the first may be easier to navigate. Among North Korea’s neighbors, both South Korea and Japan are economically advanced countries that could, if they felt it necessary, develop a nuclear weapon. But like a number of West European countries in the early years of the nuclear weapons age, they have long chosen to rely on the security umbrella of the United States. Depending on the diplomatic results of the Trump-Kim summit, that arrangement could still hold.

The Middle East situation is potentially more fraught. If Iran does resume, and succeed in, its effort to become a nuclear-weapons state, even Washington’s considerable diplomatic leverage in the region might not forestall one or more of the Iranians’ major Sunni Muslim rivals – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – from pursuing a nuclear option of their own.

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