When Barack Obama was receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in late 2009, the 44th President of the United States proclaimed that: ”The world may no longer shudder at the prospect of war between two nuclear superpowers, but proliferation may increase the risk of (nuclear) catastrophe. Those who seek peace cannot stand idly by as nations arm themselves for nuclear war”. Today, less than a decade ago, we are witnessing the gradual materialization of this threat. Not only President Obama failed to deliver on a number of nuclear security-related initiatives, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, Nuclear Cut-Off Treaty, but we have not seen neither a dramatic change in US nuclear posture, nor any sizeable cut in the US nuclear stockpiles. Not to mention the questionable deliveries of President Obama´s diplomatic offensive in the name of stopping proliferation around the globe. Obviously, it would be foolish to blame the previous two US administrations for the global state of nuclear (in)security, however it is adequate to note that the past leaders of ´free world´ have been underperforming – both in terms of the expectation and likely, also in terms of actual possibilities.
With the arrival of the Trump administration, the American nuclear politics finds itself in a dilemma between a risky continuation of the Obama approach and even a riskier policy of nuclear assertiveness. To whatever extent sensational they are, nuclear (in)security matters of today mostly fly under the radar of the public attention. Obviously, the heated verbal exchange between the leaders of North Korea and America have recently brought some light on nuclear affairs, but given the scope of the challenge, this can hardly suffice if we are serious about prioritizing between serious and vital threats. Make no mistake, the threat of a nuclear exchange is both vital and present.
Continuing on the previous note: even the most attentive global observers were stunned when, in April, President Trump warned in an interview with Reuters that a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible as this was followed by fast (and a telling) affirmation from China´s highest official circles, claiming that indeed, the situation on the Korean peninsula could inadvertently slip out of control.
Suffering from the total lack of prospect of at least minimal economic progress, North Korea is now threatening the global community with another nuclear test – it would be its sixth throughout the course of the past eleven years. Despite its isolation, North Korea has been able to put its nuclear program on a continuously moving track and unless something profoundly changes in years to come, the regime could possess circa 50 nuclear warheads by the end of President Trump’s tenure. The new sanctions bill passed in the past weeks by the US Congress will have virtually zero impact in preventing the further nuclearization of North Korea. Like it or not, to date neither threats nor diplomacy has worked in getting the “Hermite Kingdom” seriously committing to disarmament. And whether the new US administration admits it or not, it wants North Korea to be at negotiating table just as much as its predecessors wanted. The relatively short history of nuclear weapons shows us that countries are very unlikely to give up their nuclear arsenal – unless there's a profound change in the inner political and societal circumstances. That was the case of South Africa giving up its arsenal simultaneously with the defeat of the apartheid. Will an analogous change happen in North Korea? Given, the mid and long-term predictivity of the regime in Pyongyang, it really could be anyone´s guess.
Even less on the radar are recent the developments between India and Pakistan. According to the thoughts of the most respected nuclear wise-men, this is still the rivalry most likely to escalate to an all-out armed conflict – potentially involving two nuclear power. It can hardly be perceived as positive sign that the Indian leadership is allegedly considering the legitimation of (pre-emptive) nuclear first strike against Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and related military infrastructure – a nuclear strategy that would clearly be more offensive in its nature than the current counter-value strategy.
Moving further in western direction on the map of nuclear challenges, we have Iran. Although President Trump may have reversed or softened his campaign rhetoric on a number of issues, on Iran, President Trump continues to question the efficacy of the nuclear agreement. While it can be hardly denied that Iran continued to support entities perceived (by the West) as terrorists, tyrants and enemies even well after the nuclear agreement went into force - but let´s admit as well that the nuclear treaty was never meant to prevent those things from happening. President Trump´s consideration of scrapping the nuclear deal would not prevent that from happening either, but it might (at minimum) divide the US from (some of) its allies and embolden the growing masses of political hard-liners in Iran. Not really a positive short-term prospect at all. Especially when recent US polls show that for some opaque reason the Iran nuclear deal is more popular in the States than ever before. You see, the notion that President Trump always blindly follows the imminent will of the public opinion has apparently just been disproved.
Completely outside the international arena and well inside the domestic politics of the US. President Donald Trump has proposed to increase federal spending on the production of nuclear weapons by committing more than $1 trillion! (throughout the course of the next three decades) while slashing or eliminating spending on more-expendable tools of statecraft as diplomacy, foreign aid, and international organizations support. If the US has ever had a President thinking seriously about a world without nuclear weapons, it is certainly not the current one. And the rest of the nuclear world will follow the American example, as it always did so far.
On a more relaxing note: while the Vatican finally made it to be among the very few destinations (alongside Saudi Arabia, Israel, Belgium and Italy) the new US president visited during his historically first foreign trip, the Vatican´s continuous call to ban all forms of nuclear weapons as a “moral obligation” will likely be collegially heard but not listened to. Neither will the diplomatic voice of more than 100 countries that met at the United Nations last month to (seriously) negotiate a global ban on nuclear weapons. Who knows where will the ignorance of those who possess nuclear weapons drive those might wish to have them one time?! In a decade or so, we might retrospectively perceive the UN’s nuclear weapon talks to be the most important thing nobody’s was paying attention to. If not, there is a number of other (closely related) issues, well under the radar, capable of playing that retrospective role.
Tomáš A. Nagy
Defence and Security Programme
GLOBSEC Policy Institute