Five Global Trends in Nuclear Policy

This post was written by Sylvia Mishra, a Herbert Scoville Jr. Fellow working with NTI’s Global Nuclear Policy Program. Previously, Mishra was a visiting fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), in Monterey, Calif. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science from Hindu College, University of Delhi, a Master of Science in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a Master of Arts in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies from Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

Every year, the University of San Diego’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation hosts a Public Policy and Nuclear Threats (PPNT) boot camp, a summer workshop-in-residence that offers participants a platform to learn, understand and debate the future U.S. nuclear policy issues and features lectures and discussions by leading policy and technical experts and specialists. As a Scoville Fellow working at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), I was selected to be part of the PPNT 2018. Here are some of my key takeaways from the discussions.

Return of great power competition: The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2018 report highlighted that the intensification of nationalistic politics has impacted the world’s major power relations. Increasingly, states are becoming more assertive related to their own interests while consensus on a rules-based global order frays. There is precedent for this trend. Throughout history, nations have clashed for power, influence and dominance. Sometimes these struggles, as historian Hal Brands pointed out, have taken either the form of cold war, such as the US-Soviet competition, or resulted in hot conflicts, from the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta to the world wars of the 20th century. In the immediate post-Cold War era, the United States enjoyed a ‘unipolar moment’ and was the unchallenged superpower. However, almost two decades later, the re-emergence of Russia and China as leading foreign policy actors willing and ready to shape geopolitical balances has brought great power rivalry back to the fore. US security planners, as the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy states, believe that the central challenge to US prosperity and security is the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition. Similarly, the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review notes that the United States must recognize the reality of a return to great power competition and posture itself accordingly.

Nuclear weapons are coming back into sharper focus: Nuclear weapons primarily have had a deterrent role preventing armed conflict. In the post-Cold War era, however, the principal nuclear threat emanated from concerns of “loose-nukes” falling into the hands of non-state actors. In the last couple of years, nuclear weapons-possessing states have begun developing new weapons and modernizing their delivery systems. A nationalistic regime in North Korea is developing and enhancing its nuclear and missile capabilities. Both Russia and the United States are undertaking long-term programs to replace and modernize their nuclear warheads, missile and aircraft delivery systems. A new SIPRI report indicates that in Southern Asia, China, India and Pakistan are expanding their nuclear warheads and enhancing delivery platforms. Several countries’ development of tactical nuclear weapons also has lowered the nuclear threshold. While there is a strong taboo on nuclear use post-1945, expanding nuclear weapons inventories only increases the likelihood of nuclear war. Simultaneously it also increases the chances of miscalculation, accidental use and inadvertent escalation. 

Threat of nuclear terrorism continues: Analysts across the globe agree that the threat of nuclear terrorism is one of the biggest challenges facing the world today and countries should pay greater attention to this problem. There are several reported incidents of breaches of secured stockpiles of weapons-usable uranium and plutonium across the globe. The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies reports that between January 2013 and June 2018, 870 incidents of nuclear or other radioactive materials outside of regulatory control occurred in 51 countries. It is imperative that in the absence of the Nuclear Security Summits (NSS), countries take a leadership role to secure these materials from terrorist groups and other non-state actors.

Former Summit Sherpa Laura S.H. Holgate, now NTI’s vice president for Material Risk Management, at the HEU Symposium in Norway highlighted that though considerable progress has been made in strengthening security of nuclear facilities around the world, several challenges still persist.

For instance, countries still lack comprehensive global inventories of civil HEU and there still are no binding international standards for nuclear security. Owing to some of these challenges, and the absence of an ongoing NSS process, greater attention needs to be devoted to the careful and responsible management and stewardship of weapons-usable nuclear materials.

Growing divide between deterrence and disarmament camps: While deterrence doctrines are re-evaluated, there is demonstrably strong support for the disarmament agenda. This growing dissonance between the proponents of deterrence and the disarmament camp has led to the negotiation of a treaty banning nuclear weapons. There is a strong polarization and hardening of positions between the non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) and nuclear weapon states (NWS). There is an inherent frustration among the NNWS due to the sluggish pace of disarmament efforts and lack of significant progress on the Article VI commitment by the NWS. Given the failure of the state parties of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to agree on a consensus Final Document at the 2015 NPT Review Conference, it is important to build bridges between the two groups before the Review Conference in 2020. There is clearly a need to convene dialoguesbetween the key stakeholders of the divided groupings to deconstruct the deeply engrained assumptions about nuclear weapons possession and the role of nuclear weapons in security doctrines. 

Emerging technologies and cyber weapons: The advent of new technologies continues to foment social change, offering unprecedented new possibilities. Major technological shifts in the military realm have the power to transform the way wars are fought. Development and innovations in artificial intelligence (AI), cyber, robotics, autonomous weapons, 3D printing, and biotech among others have the potential to augment changes to mobilization and application of force. Several of these technologies can have applications in strategic missions and could act as force-multipliers. As AI and other emerging technologies mature, legacy platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter would continue to play a role and shape the way information is being disseminated. Against this backdrop, disinformation warfare is increasingly becoming a reality. A Foreign Policy report highlights how following the March nerve agent attack in the UK, stories from RT and Sputnik (the major media arm of the Russian government) would appear on the first page of Google search. It is essential to monitor these trends in the field of emerging tech and cyber as the future of political warfare increasingly involves new disruptive technologies.

The themes identified above were major sources of discussion at PPNT, and it was noted by nearly every speaker there that the themes cut across the need for diversity and including more women and young professionals working on these issues. Dr. Bethany Goldblum, the program director for PPNT boot camp, specifically works on projects which give opportunities to women and young professionals from STEM and policy field to work on these cutting-edge issues.