Proliferation in the Age of Uncertainty
Quote of the week:
“It is clear that the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground which gives a human being a certain individuality and dignity, even if he happens to be a resident in an enemy country.”
— Enrico Fermi and I.I. Rabi, addendum to the Report of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1949.
Almost every important indicator of geopolitical power is in flux, except for economic indicators. U.S.-Russia relations are unmoored. The direction of U.S.-China relations is uncertain. America’s relations with allies are sliding downhill. The global nuclear order is only one mushroom cloud away from near complete unraveling. Even Sino-Indian relations – the two Asian masters of kicking the can down the road – have some notable, unfamiliar aspects as they head toward the possibility of more intense incidents in peripheral areas and at sea.
U.S. politics are also in flux, as is incontrovertibly clear with the election of Donald Trump. Even before his inescapable presence, America’s geopolitical standing was badly weakened. U.S. power projection capabilities remain very strong – even after being grotesquely misapplied in Afghanistan and Iraq. The ramifications of the odd juxtaposition of U.S. domestic political incoherence and enduring military strength have yet to play out. The aggressive use of force and diminishment of diplomacy — two hallmarks of the post 9/11 U.S. mindset — could result in even greater tragedy.
Factors contributing to regional stability in southern Asia are also in flux. New Delhi has buddied up to Washington, and vice versa, while China has placed steep economic bets on Pakistan – but not too steep. If Pakistan cannot meet its interest payments, China gains equity stakes. At the same time, Pakistan has gone from being a major non-NATO ally of the United States to being denied foreign military financing credits by the U.S. Congress. This progression was long delayed but inevitable as long as Rawalpindi placed a higher priority on desired outcomes in Kabul than in Washington.
The global nuclear order is wobbly. The nuclear safety net, thickly woven out of treaties to reduce nuclear dangers and proliferation prevention, as well as decreased U.S. and Russian force levels, is unraveling. The great, but largely unheralded achievements of the Cold War and the chaotic period immediately following it have either been forgotten or taken for granted. The non-governing wing of the Republican Party is busy cutting additional strands of this safety net, rather than repairing them.
This process of unraveling isn’t happening from the bottom up, as most strategic analysts assumed back when so much creativity and diplomatic effort went into the creation of the Nonproliferation Treaty and its attendant reinforcements. Instead, the problem of proliferation is now primarily a top-down and middle-up problem rather than the “Nth country” problem, as proliferation mavens have long presumed.
At present, there are no new seekers of nuclear weapons – at least not yet. The primary challenges to the nonproliferation “regime” are now vertical instead of horizontal. This can change: headaches can grow on both the vertical and horizontal axis, depending on whether the North Korean problem is botched or the Iran nuclear deal is screwed up. These decisions lie primarily in the hands of Donald Trump, the most cost-effective investment the Kremlin has ever made to diminish America’s stature and influence.
The North Korean and Iranian challenges are familiar. The Obama administration negotiated a verifiable ten-year hiatus on the Iranian challenge, a surprising result for those assuming that states hell bent on obtaining the Bomb do not take extended time outs. This pause is deemed insufficient by the tough minded, whose leverage on Tehran would diminish in direct proportion to their success in unraveling the deal while making it look like Tehran’s fault. It would be pure folly for Trump to nullify this deal when other nuclear-armed relationships are so unsteady, but this remains quite possible.
The North Korean challenge has been a slow-motion crisis punctuated by useful, but temporary diplomatic interventions. It has now picked up surprising speed and appears inescapably immediate. I use the term “appears” advisedly because the immediacy of this challenge presumes that a long game buttressed by diplomacy and containment will fail with respect to North Korea, even when it has succeeded in preventing mushroom clouds in dealings with the Soviet Union and China.
The vertical proliferation problem has several dimensions. At the top tier, the United States and the Russian Federation are not increasing force structure; instead they are recapitalizing it, with new bells and whistles that their nuclear enclaves cannot resist.
There is also significant dynamism evident in states that already have three-digit-sized arsenals. Arsenals of this size allow them to move from counter value to counterforce targeting. China, India and Pakistan are on the cusp of this transition as they build out their Triads. Beijing and New Delhi might still mostly resist this impulse, even though MIRVs are clearly within their grasp. Pakistan, where such decisions rest in military hands, has already defined counterforce requirements for its shortest- and longest-range missiles.
The challenges posed by uncertainties in U.S. relations with Russia and China is compounded by their military competition in space. Beijing is new to this competition; Washington and Moscow are not. And then there is cyber warfare, a relatively new phenomenon for which there are no tacit, let alone formal rules of competition.
This is where we are. How we extricate ourselves from this mess won’t be by calling for “arms control,” “nonproliferation,” “deterrence stability,” “arms race stability” or abolition. Nor will we extricate ourselves from this mess by force of arms or “tougher” sanctions. “Strengthened” deterrence doesn’t reduce nuclear dangers; it locks them in place. The way to reduce the nuclear dangers we now face is the same way as in the past – by sensible diplomatic engagement backed up by the usual instruments of power that are demonstrable but not employed.
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on September 10, 2017.