U.S. pre-emptive strikes against North Korea could therefore result in the appearance of mushroom clouds in warfare for the first time since 1945. The norm of non-battlefield use is not enshrined in the NPT, but it is absolutely central to the Treaty’s partnership between the nuclear haves and have-nots. If this norm is broken as a result of proactive U.S. counter-proliferation policies—following the ill-conceived war to oust Saddam Hussein based on false public justifications—then the NPT regime would be profoundly weakened. Nuclear-armed states would likely re-evaluate their deterrence requirements, and some might resume testing. States considering their nuclear options are also likely to re-evaluate and accelerate their hedging strategies. The NPT might survive these shocks, but would likely become a hollow instrument.
The Iranian and North Korean cases clarify how much the traditional calculus of proliferation optimists (a rare breed with Waltz’s passing) and pessimists has changed. Proliferation outcomes were previously presumed to result primarily from internal and regional drivers. Now an external driver has changed this calculus—Washington’s erratic behavior due to partisan divides, disinterest among Republican officials in less than ideal diplomatic outcomes, and their embrace of harder-edged instruments to counter proliferation. Covert procurement networks, regional dynamics, and leadership traits still matter greatly when it comes to proliferation outcomes, but Washington’s behavior has become a more pivotal factor.
What does this mean for the future of proliferation? When the former chief defender of the nonproliferation regime doesn’t invest in its upkeep and when it disdains diplomacy in favor of compellent strategies, proliferation could either be deterred or accelerated. In the two decades since the Sagan/Waltz book appeared, pessimists have not won this debate. So far, worst cases have been at best slow moving and have not led to proliferation cascades. Nor have proliferation optimists been proven right, as is evident by the rash of national programs to build nuclear power plants, including in oil-rich states in the Middle East. The jury is still out with respect to the future of proliferation because the path states choose will take time to manifest. In either event—whether states are deterred or accelerate their nuclear plans—hedging strategies are likely to become more pronounced.
Hedging strategies can take varied forms. States that have sworn off the bomb have many options to compensate for Washington’s partisan divisions and vacillations over nonproliferation diplomacy. Troubled U.S. allies can shore up ties with other allies and can make diplomatic overtures to major powers, while investing more in conventional military capabilities. Going for the bomb takes time, reflecting the accretion of governmental decisions and obstacles that others place in their way.
The jury has, however, reached a verdict on the state of U.S. nonproliferation diplomacy. The Senate’s rejection of the CTBT was a severe blow to U.S. leadership, which was unaffected by President Obama’s expression of fealty to a world without nuclear weapons. Obama was, after all, limited in what he could accomplish by way of nuclear force reductions and he left the CTBT in limbo. U.S. leadership on nonproliferation will take another severe hit if President Trump walks away from an accord that curtails the Iranian program for a decade or more, thanks to the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts with the help of other nuclear-armed states plus the European Union.
The consequences of a more hard-edged U.S. approach to proliferation by Republican administrations, the severe deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations, and gridlock in multilateral negotiations are unmistakably negative. The divide between states possessing the bomb and those calling for abstinence and abolition is growing. The more this divide widens—as reflected in the increased unwillingness of nuclear-armed as well as abstinent states to take steps to strengthen the NPT’s objectives and purposes—the weaker the treaty will become.
Worrisome divisions are reflected in the negotiation and creation of the Ban Treaty by states seeking abolition and by the generalized disinterest among nuclear-armed states to fulfill promises made at previous five-year NPT review conferences. It will take time to clarify what these trends portend for proliferation and whether the current period of deep uncertainty and, in some quarters, dread about the Trump administration’s choices will result in a longer list of bomb seekers. What is clear at this juncture is that the NPT is atrophying, and that partisan U.S. divides over proliferation will result in states adopting more advanced hedging strategies.
Michael Krepon is the cofounder of the Stimson Center and author of Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb.