We're Winning the War on Nukes

The threat of proliferation is at an all-time low. 

Countless world leaders have gathered in the Netherlands for the third Nuclear Security Summit. U.S. president Barack Obama convened the first summit back in 2010 in an effort to rein in the supposed growing threat posed by the spread of nuclear weapons and materials. If the level of participation in these summits is any indication, this perception is broadly shared across the international community.

It is also wrong. By nearly any objective measurement, the world is winning the war against nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons have spread far more slowly than anyone predicted, and today the threat of nuclear proliferation is at an all-time low. Moreover, the trend lines are all positive.

There are at least five reasons for nuclear optimism.

1) The Great Nuclear (Dis)Arms Race

During the Cold War, the U.S. and Soviet Union engaged in a rapid and utterly pointless nuclear arms race. In 1950, the superpowers maintained just 304 nuclear weapons between them; by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, they possessed nearly 29,000 of them, a 9,439 percent increase. By 1986, the size of the superpowers’ combined arsenals had more than doubled to 68,000 warheads.

Although this history is well known, the nearly as rapid de-nuclear arms race is usually noted only to reference its supposed shortcomings. But the U.S. and Russia have reduced their nuclear arsenals nearly as quickly as they built them up. By 2013, Moscow and Washington had less than 4,000 deployed nuclear weapons, a 94 percent decrease from 1986. By 2018, this number will further drop to just 3,000 nuclear weapons under the terms of the New START Treaty. This is less than 74 percent of what was allowed under the first START Treaty, and President Obama has called for further cuts.

Although the superpowers denuclearization is most pronounced, they are by no means alone. Great Britain has more than halved the size of its nuclear arsenal since 1981, and France has cut its nuclear stockpile by 44 percent since 1992. Moreover, since 1989, four nuclear-armed powers—South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus—have voluntarily disarmed completely. At most two nations—Pakistan and North Korea—have acquired them during this time.

And while some of the other nuclear-weapon states are increasing the size of their arsenals, they are doing so by tens of warheads. The days when states maintained thousands of nuclear weapons are nearing their end.

2) Nuclear Apathy

If actual nuclear arsenals are declining, the greater nuclear proliferation threat must come from countries and groups that have yet to acquire them. Indeed, the U.S. has elevated the threat posed by the spread of nuclear weapons in recent years. The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which outlines U.S. nuclear policies, stated that “changes in the nuclear threat environment have altered the hierarchy of our nuclear concerns and strategic objectives. In coming years, we must give top priority to discouraging additional countries from acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities and stopping terrorist groups from acquiring the materials to build nuclear bombs.”

In fact, the threat posed by the spread of nuclear weapons is drastically declining, and it is now possible to talk about a “great proliferation slowdown.” Two causes undergird this slowdown.

The first is the growing number of states who are uninterested in acquiring nuclear weapons. This is well documented by Harald Muller and Andreas Schmidt’s comprehensive study of nuclear-weapons programs between 1945 and 2005, which found that “states with nuclear weapons activities were always a minority, and today they are the smallest minority since 1945.” Specifically, in 2005 they identified ten states as having nuclear-weapons activities (including those with nuclear weapons), less than six percent of UN members. Notably, the states with the greatest ability to acquire nuclear weapons—such as Germany, Brazil, Japan and South Africa—are also among the least interested in them.

3) Nuclear Failures