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The deteriorating nuclear order

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Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly podcast “World Review with Ivo Daalder.”

“A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

So said the leaders of China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States for the very first time, just five months ago. Today, however, the prospect of nuclear weapons use is perhaps greater than any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

Just weeks after co-signing the joint statement on preventing nuclear war, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a war of aggression against a neighbor that had given up its nuclear weapons in return for Russia’s explicit assurance “to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine [and] refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of Ukraine.”

At the onset of war, Putin made an explicit threat to “those who stand in our way,” saying that the “consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” And just three days later, he said he’d raise the alert level of its nuclear forces — though there are no indications that he did.

Russia has sought to enhance the threat of using nuclear weapons for years now. 

Realizing its conventional capabilities were no longer a match for the U.S. and NATO, some time ago, Moscow adopted a military doctrine in which its use of so-called tactical weapons might persuade an adversary to back down. And with progress in its war against Ukraine stymied by determined Ukrainian forces backed with sophisticated Western weapons, the possibility that Putin might decide to “escalate to deescalate” has become especially alarming.

But it’s not just Russian behavior and threats that are lowering the nuclear threshold. There are an increasing number of other worrying developments on the nuclear front, starting with actions taken by other established nuclear powers.

For one, the U.S. is in the midst of a massive nuclear modernization program, costing upward of $1 trillion and including new land-based missiles, a new strategic bomber and new missile-carrying nuclear submarines. It’s also deployed low-yield nuclear warheads to give Washington the capability to respond to any limited nuclear use by Russia — though few believe a nuclear exchange is or can remain limited.

China’s also modernizing and expanding its nuclear forces at a fast clip. It’s been digging new missile silos in the Gobi Desert, and the Pentagon estimates that it will deploy 1,000 nuclear warheads by the end of the decade — effectively ending its long-standing policy of relying on a minimal deterrent.

Britain, too, has announced that it’s increasing its nuclear capabilities, boosting its possible future sea-launched warhead numbers by 40 percent. And France has embarked on a major new modernization program of nuclear missiles and submarines.

But it’s not only the established nuclear powers that are expanding capabilities — newer and aspirant powers are as well.

Test craters at the Enewetak Atoll, in the Marshall Islands | Copernicus Sentinel Data via Getty Images

Pakistan and India have growing nuclear arsenals that, in a few years, may equal those of France or Britain. North Korea not only has resumed nuclear material production but has also expanded the mission of its growing nuclear forces from deterring attack to advancing its national interests. And Iran now possesses enough material for a nuclear bomb as prospects of returning to the nuclear deal restraining it have all but vanished.

This increasing nuclearization around the world is putting new pressure on the nonproliferation regime.

The more countries look to the nuclear option to ensure security, the more the incentive for other countries to follow. For example, Iran’s emergence as a nuclear threshold state increases the pressure on countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to reconsider their non-nuclear status.

At the same time, Russia’s war against Ukraine serves as a reminder that foregoing or giving up nuclear weapons may no longer provide the security once seen as likely. There’s growing debate about whether to revisit a long-ago decision to forego or abandon the nuclear option, even among some of America’s allies that have long enjoyed the security of living under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. The more nuclearized global politics becomes, the more likely it is that countries able to produce nuclear weapons decide to do so.

This isn’t a new danger. At the time of the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. intelligence community expected a dozen or more countries to have nuclear weapons within a decade. But that didn’t happen, in part because the U.S. strengthened its security commitment to allies and in part because Washington and Moscow — having stood on the brink of nuclear catastrophe — decided to regulate their competition to reduce the prospect of nuclear confrontation.

The result was decades of arms control negotiations and agreements that constrained nuclear arsenals — from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to the Strategic Arms Limitation and Reduction treaties and the Anti-Ballistic Missile and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaties — each with stringent verification and inspection provisions.

Unfortunately, the nuclear regulatory framework that guided U.S. relations with the Soviet Union and Russia has steadily eroded over the years, and currently, just one nuclear agreement remains, which is set to expire in four years. Nuclear stability talks between Moscow and Washington have been suspended; and Beijing, Paris and London have given no indication they want to enter new talks aimed at stabilizing the global nuclear order.

And, yet, for all the difficulties confronting a resumption of nuclear negotiations, the need to do so is real.

The last major nuclear confrontation that occurred 60 years ago taught U.S. and Soviet leaders the singular lesson that their security lies in a commitment to sit across the table from one another — and to find ways to ensure “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

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