Nuclear Proliferation.

            The First Nuclear Arms Race pitted the United States and Britain against Nazi Germany.  The Second Nuclear Arms Race pitted the United States against the Soviet Union.  After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States sponsored efforts to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. 

International rivalries made this non-proliferation regime a dud.  Britain, France, China, and Israel had all developed nuclear weapons before the UN-sponsored Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1970.  Subsequently, India, Pakistan, and North Korea developed their own weapons.  There the spread settled down.  The cost of developing nuclear weapons combined with a reasonably stable international order to limit the further pursuit of nuclear weapons. 

            One moment of danger appeared with the break-up of the Soviet Union.  The Clinton Administration urged the government of a newly-independent Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to surrender their mostly-notional claim on the legacy Soviet nuclear weapons on their soil.  Today Ukraine may be wishing it had struggled to hold onto those weapons. 

            A quarter of a century on, the skies are darkening once again.  Now regional conflicts are developing a nuclear component.  In the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a long-running conflict, mostly fought through proxies.  Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons unsettled, then alarmed the Saudis.  Now Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have begun the familiar process of seeking to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, like for energy when the oil runs out.[1]  Turkey may be unwilling to be the lone significant state in the Middle East without nuclear weapons, especially if Erdogan remains in power. 

In the Far East, South Korea may be considering the possibility of creating its own nuclear deterrent to fend off North Korea.  It’s hard to imagine the Japanese following the same path because that they’ve been atom-bombed before.  If non-proliferation and the American nuclear “umbrella” could prevent it happening a second time, great.  But what if those traditional defenses come into doubt? 

Among American conservatives, the Obama Administration is sometimes made the goat for the breakdown of non-proliferation.[2]  Obama’s feeble response to the Russian seizure of Ukrainian territory in 2014 and his determined support of an agreement that only slowed, but did not stop, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons taught other countries that American promises now mean little.  This seems unfair.  The hallmark of American diplomacy since Bill Clinton got the keys to the White House from George H.W. Bush has been misjudgments and empty promises.  These left the world a worse place and each succeeding administration in a deeper hole.  It’s easy to take shots at President Obama and his foolish Secretaries of State.  They aren’t the sole culprits. 

The grimmest thing is that some of leaders in these countries may not be steeped in the thinking about nuclear war that has shaped nuclear weapons policy and crisis diplomacy in “old” nuclear countries.  They may see the weapons not only as status symbols or ultimate deterrents.  Actually using the weapons may not be unthinkable for every decision-maker in every country. 

[1] The real “tell” will be clandestine contacts between Saudi Arabia (which has oil and wants nuclear technology) and North Korea or Pakistan (both of which need oil and have trafficked nuclear technology). 

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “How Obama Killed Nuclear Nonproliferation,” WSJ, 11 April 2023.