2017: Undermining the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty
© 2017 FrontLine Defence (Vol 14, No 1)

Over the past two years, then Republican nominee – now President Donald Trump – has made a series of controversial comments regarding the purpose and use of nuclear weapons. He recently asserted that the United States has to remain ‘on top of the pack’ and be willing to engage in an arms race to maintain superiority over rivals. These comments have elicited widespread concern about his views towards and impact on both vertical (nuclear-armed states augmenting their arsenals) and horizontal (more states, or possibly non-state actors, becoming nuclear-armed) proliferation prospects during his tenure.

These sound bites are not a coherent nuclear strategy or policy, but they do offer insight into the mindset of the world’s most important decision-maker regarding nuclear matters: an unconventional, super competitive character determined to ensure the United States starts ‘winning’ again in its dealings through the world – including trade, alliance obligations and international commitments – which are seen in narrow, transactional and zero sum terms.

Regardless of underlying motivations, many observers say these remarks threaten to undermine already strained relations with Russia and China, complicate ongoing regional proliferation challenges, and cast a light of uncertainty on American leadership regarding Arms Control measures and the non-proliferation regime.

Arms Control Cooperation
For almost 40 years, the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia have negotiated a series of bilateral arms control measures that have resulted in the drastic downsizing of their nuclear arsenals – from an estimated combined total of 70,000 in the 1970s to the current 14,000.

The latest agreement, Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (commonly referred to as ‘New START’), signed in 2010, places restrictions on deployed strategic warheads (1550 each) and delivery launch vehicles (800 each, including Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles [ICBMs], Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles [SLBMs], and nuclear-capable bombers). Despite success in reducing warhead inventories to the lowest levels in over half a century, the United States and Russia still account for almost 95% of all the world’s nuclear warheads.

The pace of these reductions are largely a function of maintaining numerical parity between Moscow and Washington, and, as their importance to national survival diminishes, deterrence is being rationalized as requiring fewer nuclear weapons.

Despite quantitative similarities, there are major force differences between them – such as Russia’s employment of Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicle (MIRV) warheads on mobile land-based missiles vs Washington’s single warhead, silo-based land arsenal.

Both states, however, accept mutual vulnerability at the nuclear level in which both are capable of launching a successful first strike against the other, but neither is able to prevent a retaliation strike (known as the second-strike capability) – making deterrence an enduring and durable reality between them.

President Trump’s stated goal of ensuring the U.S. remains unquestionably the most capable and powerful nuclear state, appears intended to play up the image of a strong leader to domestic constituents rather than challenging Russia, with whom he has consisted advocated for more amicable relations. However, comments that the United States has lost its nuclear superiority, and requires qualitative and quantitative augmentation of its forces, is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of deterrence and could (unintentionally) compromise one of the few areas of cooperation with Moscow.

President Trump has expressed a desire to see nuclear stockpiles between the two countries lowered significantly and has proposed linking these negotiations with non-nuclear issues and incentives, including lifting of sanctions imposed following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, which affirms that Arms Control talks should remain a distinct and separate portfolio of diplomacy, ensuring nuclear matters are not conditional upon or influenced by other, specifically divisive, aspects of their wider relationship.

Furthermore, in addition to continued quantitative reductions, specifically of deployed warheads on high alert launch status, the focus of future talks should be on minimizing modernization efforts (such as Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) and MIRV-capable missiles) designed to change the offence-defence nuclear balance.

The recent development by Moscow of a land-based cruise missile, in violation of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement, is a first test for President Trump in his nuclear dealings with Russia.

Building more nuclear warheads would be economically wasteful, and will neither secure American strategic superiority nor create additional bargaining chips in negotiations, but instead likely sour strategic relations between the world’s two most important nuclear actors.

China’s Search for a Secured Second-Strike
Ever since China became a nuclear power in 1964, they have retained a small and primitive nuclear arsenal. This force structure is informed by a very distinct nuclear philosophy as compared to Washington and Moscow in which the threshold of unacceptable damage (the criteria that deters a first strike due to the expected destruction inflicted in retaliation) is assessed as very low. The size of Beijing’s nuclear force, furthermore, is based on the concept of minimum deterrence: possessing the smallest number of weapons necessary to conduct a second strike in order to deter possible nuclear adversaries from launching a first, as in accordance with China’s long-held nuclear policy of No First Use.

Over the past two decades, however, Beijing has being slowly augmenting its nuclear arsenal, both quantitatively and qualitatively, including: dedicating a larger portion of its land-based missiles to target the United States; building a nuclear triad force structure compromised of heavy bombers, ICBMs and SLBMs; and building penetration aids and evasive systems.

Although there is no official U.S. position on this development, the Trump Administration may view such actions as undermining the United States’ nuclear deterrent when, in fact, the end state for Beijing is to achieve a secured second-strike capability of his nuclear forces, which are seen as particularly vulnerable to both conventional offensive (such as Precision Global Strike) and defence (BMD) advancements by Washington.

Beijing accepts its vulnerability to American nuclear forces, but is reconfiguring its arsenal to protect against a possible disarming first strike (i.e. camouflage, road-mobile versus silo-based missiles) and overcome BMD systems to ensure it could retaliate (i.e. MIRVs or decoys).

Any attempt by the U.S. to deny Beijing a secured second-strike capability, and not accept mutual vulnerability at the nuclear level, could unleash a possible arms race where China would seek greater offensive capabilities to offset Washington’s defensive systems: an economic wasteful and strategic ill-advised situation for both.


Allowing China to achieve a secured-second strike, critics warn, would motivate even more assertive and bellicose behaviour on the part of Beijing over contested issues such as Taiwan and the East and South China Seas, as they would feel secure against the threat of escalation to the nuclear level. However, strategies to deny China a secured second-strike would display a fundamental misunderstanding of the forces and factors shaping regional rivalry and Sino-American relations in general, and would not be a stabilizing influence.

Conventional force balances, economic interdependencies, strong American alliances and diplomatic efforts are the real influencers and counter-balances to Chinese actions rather than the risk of nuclear escalation or attack. Nuclear weapons do not play a major role in Beijing’s foreign and strategic behaviour; they have, by and large, isolated these matters from the majority of their international engagements.

The Trump Administration must continue to work with China to bring clarity in their nuclear relationship – including both sides explaining force developments, and the possible inclusion of Beijing in future Arms Control measures – and ensuring that such issues do not influence other areas of the larger relationship.

Regional Proliferation Challenges
Throughout the Asian continent, a number of ongoing proliferation issues confront the Trump Administration, creating regional security challenges as well as compromising non-proliferation efforts globally.

Pakistan and India became nuclear-armed states (despite widespread international objection) as a direct result of their ongoing security concerns regarding each other. The United States has, for the most part, accepted their entry into the nuclear club in order to provide Pakistan security and safety assistance to their arsenal, and to recognize India as an important future strategic counterweight to China. Possession of nuclear weapons appears to have influenced the reduced propensity of conflict between the two, but the Trump Administration should attempt to dissuade new capability developments, specifically short-range tactical nuclear weapons by Islamabad, and quantitative increases in their arsenals that could lead to an arms race and threaten South Asian stability.

Unlike the proliferation violators Israel, India, and Pakistan – reluctantly accepted as new nuclear-armed states by Washington – Iran is seen as a regional adversary of the United States whose possible development of nuclear weapons is interpreted as an unacceptable national security threat. A major breakthrough, though, was achieved with the signing of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in which Iran agreed to cease enrichment activities (verified by inspections) in exchange for the lifting of wide-ranging sanctions. The future of the agreement is highly uncertain, however, as President Trump has repeatedly characterized it as one of the worst deals in history and promised to terminate the Treaty.

Economic inducements had been successful in persuading Tehran to limit and cease major aspects of its nuclear program, however, terminating the deal may change the calculus. Given its tense relationship with Washington, Tehran may feel it can only guarantee its safety via a nuclear capability, possibly creating a cascading effect with worried neighbours (such as Saudi Arabia) also pondering the development of a nuclear arsenal.

What made the Iranian deal possible was its selective focus on Tehran’s nuclear technology development rather than its activities or other military developments in the region. If President Trump is serious about dismantling the deal, providing security assurances to the Iranian government will be critical to comparing the costs of weaponing their nuclear program (specifically the burdens of sanctions and diplomatic isolation) to the benefits (building a security guarantor) and thus ensuring their continued willingness to engage the international community on this matter.

Tehran’s recent testing of ballistic missiles, however, is seen by Washington as a major violation of the UN Security Council Resolution, and further degrading relations between the two.

Ballistic missiles are weapons that can be used in both conventional and nuclear arsenals. As such, Iran’s latest actions do not directly indicate a determination to build a nuclear force but does demonstrate the ability to strike out to further distances with conventional weaponry. Conditioning the survival of the nuclear deal on ameliorating the larger, antagonistic military relationship between Iran and the West is as contradictory as the goal to stop Tehran from deciding that nuclear weapons possession is necessary for regime survival.

The North Korean Wildcard
Of all the proliferation challenges facing the world today, the most intractable is North Korea. Pyongyang’s increasing fissile material production, combined with regular nuclear device and missile testing (the latest in response to annual joint military drills between the United States and South Korea, which landed 300 km from Japan’s coastline), are purportedly in support of the goal of developing a nuclear tipped ICBM capable of striking the United States – a capability President Trump has stated he will not allow.

North Korea’s willingness to absorb increasingly comprehensive sanctions and strained relations with China (its only major power economic and diplomatic partner) demonstrates that nuclear weapons are seen as absolutely necessary in the survival of the regime – the benefits of which outweigh any and all costs.

Barring internal collapse or military intervention, both unlikely prospects, the acceptance of a nuclear-armed North Korea will necessitate changes to America’s strategic goals of: denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; strengthening regional alliances; engagement with Beijing to influence Pyongyang to adopt the language of deterrence; continued sanctions to deny access and funding for missile and nuclear technologies; and to keep them an isolated and poor state to discourage others from following a similar path.

On the campaign trail in March 2016, Trump suggested that South Korea and Japan acquire their own nuclear forces, thereby easing American military commitments in terms of overseas conventional force deployments and extended deterrence guarantees. In November, he reversed that position and made personal assurances of Washington’s continued protection to both countries, including the deployment of missile defence system to South Korea despite Chinese (and Russian) objections.

Such a change of heart may be the Administration’s realization of the ramifications such a policy; calling into question Washington’s strategic engagement in the Asia-Pacific region; complicating and possibly escalating tensions between Beijing and the United States’ major Northeast Asian allies; and completely undermining the non-proliferation regime by openly encouraging proliferation to select allies.

Instead, the President has consistently blamed China for not leveraging its own influence over Pyongyang to stop its nuclear weapons and missiles programs.

Further development and testing not only raises the specter of conflict on the Korean Peninsula, but threatens to undermine Sino-American strategic relations and draws the two into direct confrontation should military forces be used either preemptively or in response to North Korean aggression.

The Future of the Non-Proliferation Regime
Enacted in 1968, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a grand bargain between the five recognized Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) – China, France, the Soviet Union/Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States – pledging to eventually disarm their nuclear arsenals completely in exchange for the other signatories, the Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS), vowing to refrain from becoming nuclear-armed but having access to nuclear technologies for energy purposes. The Treaty has near-universal membership, with four of the five outlying non-parties being nuclear-armed countries: Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

It is widely held that the NPT, along with other international agreements, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nuclear Suppliers Group, has resulted in slowing the growth of nuclear weapons states, which has increased from five to nine (counting N. Korea) since 1968.

While acknowledging contemporary horizontal proliferation challenges in Asia, there have been many non-proliferation successes over the past number of decades, demonstrating that an assortment of incentives (economic opportunities, security guarantees), deterrents (sanctions, diplomatic isolation) and norms (taboos against proliferation, nuclear testing) can, and have, successfully dissuaded states from becoming nuclear powers.

Nuclear modernization plans, underway by all five recognized NWS, however, cast doubt on the sincerity of moving to a non-nuclear world – specifically the United States’ estimated $1 trillion dollar investment over the next three decades to build new warheads and next-generation delivery vehicles.

Other vertical proliferation challenges exists (Pakistan, India and China), but U.S. leadership, specifically in conjunction with Russia via Arms Control treaties, is needed to continue nuclear armament reductions and their continued marginalization in global politics. If acted upon, President Trump’s comments about enhancing and expanding U.S. nuclear capability would break 40-plus years of nuclear quantitative reductions, raising further doubts and pessimism of the validity of the NPT.

Nuclear weapons possession among the great powers has in part been a stabilizing agent in international politics over the past half-century (though in today’s global environment, these states’ overall behaviour and relationships with one another are not predominately determined by the balance of nuclear forces). The growing congruence of interests also, between the major powers and the vast majority of the international community with respect to the non-proliferation regime, produces a stabilizing effect on the international system itself and may provide a model to manage other emergent domains with destructive military capabilities – such as cyber and space. Abdication of U.S. leadership on nuclear matters in favour of a competitive framework to ascertain nuclear superiority strategically, or to be used as bargaining chips in negotiations involving non-nuclear matters, would have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on non-proliferation efforts as well as the management of relationships with Russia and China respectively.

At the major power level, the existence of mutual vulnerability should be accepted by the Trump Administration as a reality – neither a contest to be won, nor a condition to be overcome. Additionally, selective proliferation to U.S. allies would most likely result in the complete undermining of the NPT as one of cornerstone legal regimes in the international system which enjoys nearly universal participation and support. Nuclear weapons are and will continue to be part of the international landscape as none of the nine current nuclear-armed with all cementing their existence into the foreseeable future with large-scale modernization programs. The re-introduction of nuclear weapons as a major and defining feature of international politics, however, would detrimentally complicate an already complex and evolving global system and reverse decades of concerted efforts to marginalize their relevance to deterrence only, for if the nuclear powers find themselves so concerned about their national survival that the use of nuclear weapons became a real possibility, world order would most likely have already collapsed.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic based in Halifax. He can be reached at adampmacdonald@gmail.com