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Edging Towards the Nuclear Abyss

In doctrine and posture, the world’s nuclear powers are making nuclear war more, not less, likely.

The long-established international taboo against the use of nuclear weapons has remained in place for nearly 80 years. For decades, the doctrines and postures of the world’s nuclear powers have remained relatively stable and predictable—with the possible exception of North Korea, the newest member of the club. 

But that era appears to be over, replaced with a new age of proliferation and nuclear confrontation. In fact, according to recent analysis, each of the world’s nine recognized nuclear states are currently increasing, modernizing, or diversifying their nuclear arsenals, and several are also escalating their nuclear rhetoric and doctrine. According to the same study, global stockpiles of nuclear weapons are likely to increase over the next decade, despite the fact that there are over a hundred times more nuclear weapons in existence today than are needed to destroy human civilization.    

Perhaps the most alarming recent development concerns the world’s largest nuclear power. On Sept. 21, Vladimir Putin issued a thinly-veiled threat of nuclear retaliation in the event of an attack on Russia’s “territorial integrity.” It’s extremely concerning because in his first national address since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin announced sham referendums in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia as part of a brazen attempt to absorb these territories (which have been forcibly occupied by Russia and fiercely contested by Ukraine) into the so-called Novorossiya. This represents a key strand of Russia’s evolving nuclear doctrine: the principle of escalate to de-escalate through intimidating adversaries with threats of overwhelming force so that they eventually back down. Except that the Ukrainians show no sign of backing down.

Next to appear on the global index of nuclear brinkmanship is China. According to NATO’s latest Strategic Concept, the PRC “is rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal and is developing increasingly sophisticated delivery systems, without increasing transparency or engaging in good faith in arms control or risk reduction.” At the same time, China is racing ahead in the development of cyber capabilities, underwater autonomous systems, hypersonic missiles and other disruptive technologies—all of which have implications for the deployability and defense of nuclear systems. New technologies and greater diversification creates added complexity, uncertainty and risk, as well as more opportunities for ultimately using nuclear weapons. 

In the same week that Putin raised the nuclear stakes in Ukraine, President Biden upped the ante with China by publicly committing U.S. forces to the defense of Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion (though other administration officials insisted that the policy of strategic ambiguity had not changed). And lest we forget, President Xi has reportedly told his generals to prepare for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027. A peer-to-peer conflict between the U.S. and China, in which both sides are capable of inflicting military damage on the other’s conventional forces, could rapidly escalate into a nuclear exchange. 

At the same time, North Korea is paving the way for a return to nuclear testing and dispensing with any notion of escalation management by recently signing into law the preemptive, automatic, and immediate use of nuclear weapons in the event that its leadership or nuclear command structure are perceived to be in danger. 

And hot on North Korea’s heels comes Iran. Progress on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has been painfully slow and risks ending in complete failure. Should Iran eventually develop the bomb—and it insists it has the technical means to do so—there could be runaway regional proliferation, with Saudi Arabia next in line to join the nuclear club.

Indeed, it’s not just the usual suspects and a who’s-who of the mad, bad, and dangerous that are modernizing and increasing their nuclear arsenals. Last year, the UK announced it would increase the ceiling on its total stockpile of nuclear warheads by 40 percent. The U.S. is due to release an unclassified version of its Nuclear Posture Review imminently. Its last iteration in 2018 heralded a seismic shift in tone and emphasis from the “comparatively benign security environment” of the earlier 2010 version. In fact, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review proposed the introduction of additional lower-yield and shorter-range nuclear options which critics argue could lower the nuclear threshold with more “usable” weapons. Of course the counter-argument is that Western powers must strengthen their own nuclear postures in direct response to increased threats. 

The Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, is the world’s only binding multilateral forum on non-proliferation and disarmament. Of the nine current nuclear powers, only five are signatories to the NPT: the ones who sit on the UN Permanent Security Council. Last month, NPT talks failed once again to achieve progress towards disarmament. In fact, not since 2010 has there been any kind of consensus in the talks, meaning that the NPT’s continued viability and relevance is questionable. And it’s not just NPT member states that are cause for concern, with non-NPT countries such as India now appearing to display a much more nuanced view when it comes to its traditional no first use policy.

If the NPT process does in fact descend into global irrelevance, it would represent not only a tragic failure of diplomacy, but another bleak milestone towards ever greater expansion, diversification, and military acceptance of nuclear weapons use. The only thing that NPT member states appear to consistently agree upon is the affirmation that a “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”—but the recent actions of several of those states belies this most fundamental of truths. 

Today there are thankfully far fewer nuclear weapons than when this declaration was first made in 1986 by Presidents Regan and Gorbachev. But the number of nuclear nations continues to rise and the probability of a tactical (or indeed strategic) nuclear attack this decade remains worryingly high, thanks to the diversification of arsenals and loosening of doctrines. Indeed, deteriorating relations between many of the world’s nuclear powers poses significantly more risks than has likely existed at any time in history, including during the height of the Cold War. 

Perhaps then the critical question for the 21st century is: who will blink first?

Joel Hickman is Deputy Director Transatlantic Defense and Security at the Center for European Policy Analysis, or CEPA. Defense One is a media partner for the 14th Annual CEPA Forum, “Meeting the Moment: Allies at a Crossroads,” a series of virtual keynotes, discussions, and debates about the transatlantic response to Russia’s war in Ukraine and its implications for security and democracy.