2010-2020: Decadal Trends

Global Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Ten Years of Rising Dangers

09 Feb, 2021    ·   5755

Dr Manpreet Sethi charts the steady upward tick in global threat perceptions of nuclear use and non-proliferation

Manpreet Sethi
Manpreet Sethi
Distinguished Fellow at CAPS

Early 2010s: A Mood of Optimism

The decade of the 2010s dawned with much nuclear hope and optimism, basking in the glow of President Obama’s Prague speech of April 2009. The NPT RevCon in May 2010 reflected and added to this sentiment as a final document was consensually achieved and an ambitious Action Plan identified 46 steps for the promotion of non-proliferation and disarmament.      

The mood of the times was also captured by the renowned nuclear strategist, Thomas Schelling, who wrote in an article in Daedalus, “There is no sign that any kind of nuclear arms race is in the offing—not, anyway, among the current nuclear powers…That should contribute to nuclear quiescence... Except for some ‘rogue’ threats, there is little that could disturb the quiet nuclear relations among the recognized nuclear nations.”

Indeed, the nuclear superpowers appeared to have arrived at a stable modus vivendi that minimised the possibility of nuclear use. President Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) recommended limiting the use of nuclear weapons to “extreme circumstances,” thereby at least notionally moving the ‘use’ spectrum to a narrow range of contingencies. On non-proliferation, too, there was a sense of well-being about the NPT, with it having achieved a universality with only four outliers. The two nuclear taboos—against nuclear use and nuclear proliferation—were perceived to be strong. 

In 2010, President Obama also convened the first Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in Washington, DC. The US was joined by 47 other states to call attention to securing nuclear material as a way of countering the threat of nuclear terrorism. In 2012 and 2014, when the two next Summits were held, the number of participating states grew to 53, and several joint statements, ‘house gifts’, and ‘gift baskets’ were announced. By the time of the last Summit in 2016, however, Russia and the US had fallen out, which not only led to Moscow opting out of the event, but also impacted other aspects of their nuclear relationship.

Mid-Decade: An Altered Nuclear Landscape

The souring of US-Russia relations began with the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and eventually began reflecting in their nuclear policies as well. For instance, further arms control between US and Russia stalled, and mutual accusations of nuclear build-up in violation of existing treaties, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, began to be made. It was  around this time that emerging Chinese belligerence also began to alter other inter-state equations. As political relations became stressed among the major nuclear powers, hedging strategies became visible in military capability build-up, including  ‘nuclear modernisation’.      

Meanwhile, fissures between the nuclear weapon (NWS) and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) erupted at the 2015 NPT RevCon, which was unable to achieve a consensus final document. NNWS refused to accept more non-proliferation obligations, such as denial of enrichment and reprocessing technologies or acceptance of the Additional Protocol as mandatory for nuclear cooperation. Instead, they urged NWS to move towards disarmament. It may also be recalled that before the RevCon, two Humanitarian Initiative conferences were held in 2013 and 2014, which drew attention to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear use and hence the need for their delegitimisation. This initiative gathered momentum with several NNWS pressing for negotiations for a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons. In response to an UNGA resolution, a UN conference to negotiate a legally binding instrument was convened in 2017. None of the nuclear-armed states, however, participated in these negotiations. Nevertheless, riding on the support of some enthusiastic NNWS, the effort led to the adoption of the Treaty on Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) in June 2017.

While the Ban treaty was being negotiated, much doctrinal churning and capability build-up were underway in the nuclear-armed states. President Trump’s entry in 2017 heralded a casualness in US’ nuclear approach, which became evident in a display of nuclear brinkmanship. His ‘tweeterrances’ (deterrence through tweets) with North Korea are ample illustration of this phenomenon. The 2018 NPR expanded the role of nuclear weapons to include large-scale conventional, cyber, and space attacks. It identified Russia and China as significant nuclear challenges, deterring whom required a range of capabilities, including low-yield nuclear weapons for regional contingencies. Efforts were initiated to build submarine-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missiles to add to the already formidable American deterrent.

Meanwhile, Russia was already fortifying its nuclear deterrence through building ‘invincible’ weapons that no defences could defeat. Underwater nuclear-armed drones and hypersonic missiles were among the new weapon systems introduced to meet the challenges posed by the US pursuit of ballistic missile defence (BMD) and Prompt Global Strike (PGS). Russia also emphasised its tactical nuclear weapons to give credence to a strategy of ‘escalate to de-escalate’ in case of US/NATO conventional attacks.

While a distant third in terms of nuclear numbers, China, too, became more open about its nuclear modernisation efforts in this period. 2018-2020 saw Beijing reflecting far greater confidence in its nuclear missiles in terms of their survivability, penetrability, and accuracy.

A Decade Ends: Risks of Nuclear Use and Proliferation Rise

As a result of these and other related developments, the decade ended with a higher sense of the risk of nuclear use, especially as a result of accidental use due to miscalculation or misperception exacerbated by the fog of war. Strained inter-state relations, unregulated modernisation of nuclear arsenals, emergence of new technologies, and breakdown of the arms control architecture were some of the factors aggravating nuclear risks.

The possibility of nuclear proliferation, too, re-emerged. On the one hand, North Korea’s nuclear and missile advancements continued to haunt South Korea and Japan. Both countries saw the emergence of debates on developing their own nuclear capability to establish credible deterrence. Meanwhile, in West Asia, the threat of nuclear proliferation accelerated after the 2018 US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. The 2015 agreement had actually marked a high point for non-proliferation since it was meant to arrest Iran from enriching uranium beyond 3.67 per cent, and keeping the stockpile below 300 kg. Several other restrictions were also put in place while allowing Iran to pursue the full fuel cycle for its peaceful nuclear programme, albeit under IAEA safeguards. The stalling of the JCPOA resulted in Iran also taking ‘remedial measures’ of its own, including enriching uranium up to 20 per cent. By the end of 2020, it had accumulated close to 17 kg of such uranium. While this is far from weapons capability, threat perceptions in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE are on the rise.

Doomsday (Clock) Reflections

Over the years, the Doomsday Clock maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947 has become a good indicator of the state of global nuclear (and climate) concerns. In 2010, the minute hand of this clock stood at 6 minutes to midnight. In fact, the time was adjusted from previous year’s 5 to 6 minutes. President Obama’s problem-solving approach to nuclear issues with Russia, Iran, and loose nuclear material were all seen as contributors to a ‘hopeful state of affairs’. However, in 2012, the minute hand was once again back at 5 minutes owing to a lack of action on nuclear arms reductions or disarmament.

The rest of the decade saw the world’s steady progression closer and closer to midnight. In 2015, the time reduced to three minutes; in 2017, it moved up by another thirty seconds; in 2018, by another thirty seconds; and, in 2019, by twenty more seconds. Consequently, the year 2020 ended with the dubious distinction of the world being at 100 seconds to midnight—the closest ever to Armageddon. Ironically, this happened in the same year that the world commemorated the 75th year of the atomic bombings, and NPT’s 50th year. The TPNW attained its 50th ratification, enabling it to enter into force in January 2021, also in 2020. While this last development is noteworthy at least on a normative scale, it does not lead to a world free of nuclear weapons. Nuclear-armed states remain entrenched in deterrence beliefs and capability build-up despite the unprecedented healthcare emergency that mauled their economies through 2020.

As the world steps into 2021, hope has been pinned on the change in American leadership. Given the power of this one country to steer global nuclear developments, and given that President Biden has indicated a wise and stabilising approach to many nuclear issues, optimism for a change of nuclear direction is widespread. While none believe that a world without nuclear weapons will suddenly and miraculously become possible, perhaps it will be possible to inch towards a safer nuclear perch from where such a world at least becomes visible.

Dr Manpreet Sethi is Distinguished Fellow, CAPS, New Delhi, & an IPCS columnist.