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Nuclear Arms Control, Disarmament and Nonproliferation Regimes in Deep Crisis

Among both states and experts, thinking about nuclear weapons is becoming highly polarized: between those who want to see the nuclear-armed states take concrete and substantial steps toward nuclear elimination, and those who do not see the urgency. The politicization of the issue is supposed to be most uncomfortable for those who favor the status quo, namely the nuclear powers and their allies. However, the latter have never given much thought to elimination. Even the Humanitarian Initiative and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, 2017) did not rouse them to action, contrary to the expectations of those behind the initiative. On the one hand, they use different cognitive mechanisms – such as denial and cognitive dissonance – in order not to come to terms with the demands of the non-nuclear-weapon states. On the other, from the point of view of the nuclear-armed states and their allies, there are more urgent demands, namely the short-term moves by their opponents in the dangerous world out there.

Get real, abolitionists

“Welcome to the real world,” abolitionists. Look how dangerous the world is, perhaps even more so today than in the past. Look at the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Powerful states take what they want from weaker states, just like in the pre-Westphalian world order. Back to the survival of the fittest. If Ukraine had kept the Soviet-era nuclear weapons on its soil, it is argued, Russia would not have invaded Crimea and the Eastern parts of Ukraine.

Russia is also introducing new strategic weapons, such as a hypersonic missile (the Avangard), a new heavy ICBM (the Sarmat), a new type of ground-launched cruise missile (“in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces [INF] Treaty”) and a nuclear-powered torpedo (Poseidon). Some even suggest that Russia is willing to use tactical nuclear weapons to de-escalate a conventional conflict with NATO (“escalate to de-escalate”).

NATO member states, especially in Eastern Europe, are nervous. States bordering Russia, especially the Baltic states, which are hard for NATO to defend, are afraid of a repeat of what happened in 2014. The NATO reassurance is based in part on NATO’s nuclear weapons, including U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. Withdraw them from the Benelux, Germany, Italy and Turkey because they are outdated and date back to the Cold War?1 “Get real, abolitionists.”

NATO has also been holding large-scale exercises near the Russian border, upgrading its conventional weapons capability, and sending more U.S. troops into Europe. In turn, these steps are copied by Russia. It looks as though we are stumbling into a new Cold War. Just like in the 1950s and 1960s, once again bombers are deployed in the air, sometimes chased away by tactical aircraft from the other side, playing a cat-and-mouse game. All this increases the risk of accidents and incidents.

Apart from the conflict between Russia and the West, there is a clash in the making between China the rising power, and the United States in relative decline. If there is one nuclear-armed state that comes closest to having a minimum nuclear deterrent, it is China. In contrast to the U.S. and Russia, China never acquired more than a couple of hundred nuclear weapons. It is also the only nuclear power that has promised never to use nuclear weapons first. Nevertheless, China’s economic growth means it has plenty of financial resources to invest in defense, including in its atomic arsenal. China is gradually building up its nuclear arsenal, in terms of both quantity and quality. Most worrying for the U.S. – and China’s neighbors – is China’s growing assertiveness in the region, especially in the South China Sea. There are border disputes with Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as well as the conflict with Taiwan.

China, for its part, resents the U.S. military presence in the region, which includes American troops in South Korea, Japan and Guam, as well as U.S. missile defense. The U.S. wants to keep playing first fiddle, including in that part of the world. Not surprisingly, this is where realists expect a future world war to start.

North Korea is the newest state to acquire nuclear weapons. The whole world was afraid of the rising tensions between Trump and Kim Jong Un in the period 2017-18. By now, the de-escalation phase is already over. North Korea is again launching ballistic missiles in order to attract the attention of the rest of the world.

Get real, nuclear hawks

But if you ask most experts which region of the world is most dangerous from a nuclear weapons point of view, the answer is (or should be) South Asia. India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons in 1998. The theory of nuclear deterrence would predict stability and security, and peace. Quod non. Barely one year later, Pakistani forces and militants attacked the Indian part of Kashmir. The resulting Kargil conflict yielded more than 1,000 deaths – in other words a war, the opposite of peace. Under pressure from President Clinton, India did not react harshly. Here are more regional examples of the so-called nuclear stability/instability paradox. A similar attack in 2001 prompted President Bush to call the Indian prime minister. Again, the Indian response was muted. In 2008, Pakistani extremists murdered more than 100 Indians in Mumbai. The nuclear arsenals of both parties did not stop border clashes in 2016, nor in any year since. Advocates of nuclear weapons will respond that these clashes did not escalate to the nuclear level “thanks to the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons”. Maybe. Maybe not.

The future does not bode well. The latest “incident” between India and Pakistan did escalate. In early 2019, Pakistani extremists again attacked Indian territory. This time, President Trump was either unwilling or unable to convince Prime Minister Modi, who was in full re-election campaign, not to react. Following its Cold Start doctrine, India sent military fighter jets to bomb Pakistan. Pakistan responded with a similar measure, one of the Indian jets was shot down, and the Indian pilot was captured (but later released). At the same time, India sent a nuclear submarine into Pakistani waters. Get real, nuclear hawks. Here, we have the first dogfight between two nuclear powers in nuclear history. Nuclear deterrence: an instrument of stability, security and peace? Yes, it did not escalate to the nuclear level. But what about next time? Will there always be a happy ending like in the Cuban Missile Crisis? Or was it luck that saved us in 1962, as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara hinted?

Get real, arms controllers

Despite this increased polarization between abolitionists and nuclear hawks, it is good to remind ourselves that the goal of both advocates and opponents of nuclear weapons is the same: security and peace. The difference is that the former believe that nuclear weapons help improve (their) security; opponents do not. Luckily, most advocates of nuclear weapons do not believe “the more nuclear weapons, the better”. They too believe that the large-scale use of nuclear weapons should be prevented, as this would mean the destruction of the biosphere. They too believe that a never-ending nuclear arms race is too costly and unnecessary to create a deterrent effect. And they too believe that it is useful to try to limit numbers of nuclear weapons by means of arms control agreements. Even at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR saw it as in their national interest to enter into legally binding agreements that limited the size of their arsenals. Not surprisingly, the first bilateral agreement was signed after the world came closest to nuclear war, namely after the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). The Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963) limited nuclear testing to underground tests. Even less surprisingly, the nuclear powers also tried to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons to other states in the form of an international legally binding treaty, namely the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT, 1968 – see below).

The first bilateral arms reduction treaty – the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement SALT I (1972) – froze the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers. It was followed by SALT II (1979), although this treaty never formally entered into force. Interestingly, the U.S. was able to convince the USSR to limit the deployment of missile defense systems – whose purpose is to defend against a nuclear attack – in the form of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty (1972).

The end of the détente period in the late 1970s meant a temporary halt to arms control, until Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987. This treaty for the first time eliminated an entire class of missiles, namely the so-called Euromissiles, and also for the first time included a far-reaching on-site inspection regime.

As one could have expected, the end of the Cold War led to a whole series of arms control agreements: the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties START I (1991) and START II (1993), as well as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996, which prohibited all nuclear tests. The latter was part of a package deal for the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995.2 In addition, many tactical (or sub-strategic) nuclear weapons were dismantled due to unilateral/reciprocal agreements (without a formal, legally binding treaty), thanks to the so-called Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in the period 1991-1992.

Unfortunately, since the mid-1990s, this success story of nuclear arms control and disarmament has come to an end. The CTBT, mentioned above, was the first victim. The Republican-led U.S. Senate refused to ratify it in 1999. As a result, China also refused to ratify, despite the UK, France, and Russia having done so in the meantime. As long as the U.S. and China (and six more states with nuclear facilities) do not ratify it, the CTBT cannot enter into force. The prospects are minimal that this will happen in the foreseeable future.

Another blow came in 2001 when the Bush administration unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty, something the Russians disliked a lot and are still unhappy with. The direct result was the Russian suspension of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty), as well as their withdrawal from START II in 2002. Apart from two limited bilateral strategic arms reduction treaties – the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) in 2002 (without any verification procedures) and New START (2010) – not one new arms control treaty has been signed in the period 1996-2020. Since 2010, there has been a complete standstill.

At the same time, existing arms control agreements started to fall by the wayside. Not only did the U.S. unilaterally withdraw from the ABM Treaty, but the Trump administration also jettisoned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear deal) in 2018, and the INF Treaty one year later, accusing Russia of having violated the treaty. It also withdraws from the Open Skies Agreement in 2020. New START – the last remaining bilateral arms control treaty – can in principle be extended for five years in January 2021, which Russia is in favor of. However, if the Trump administration maintains its refusal, the world will end up without any bilateral arms control treaty in force in 2021, something the international community has not experienced at any time over the last 50 years.

Multilateral arms control is in tatters as well. Apart from the CTBT, which is in limbo, no multilateral negotiations have been set up for a so-called Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty (FMCT) that would prohibit the production of military fissile material, despite the promise made at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference. Worse still, the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva – which is supposedly the center of multilateral arms control (and for instance led to the conclusion of the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993) – has not been able to agree on an agenda since the end of the 1990s. Most important of all, multilateral negotiations that were supposed to lead to the elimination of nuclear weapons, in accordance with article 6 of the NPT, have not been started either.

Looking to the global nuclear arms control and disarmament regime, one can only conclude that the situation is going downhill and prospects are bleak. Existing arms control agreements are not working or have been set aside, and they are not being replaced by new agreements. Not by chance, in 2020 the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was set closer than ever – 100 seconds – to midnight. Get real, arms controllers.

Get real, NPT enthusiasts

Just because some experts at the beginning of the 1960s predicted 30-40 nuclear-armed states, and today there are “only” nine, it does not mean that the non-proliferation regime can be called a success. Each additional nuclear-armed state is a failure. The NPT may have slowed further proliferation, but it did not prevent the further spread towards Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa (temporarily), and North Korea. Hardly a success.

Four out of the nine nuclear-armed states (and three out of four in Asia) are completely outside the NPT process. More NPT Review Conferences have failed than succeeded (in the sense of ending up with a consensus document). Hardly any observers believe that the 2020 Review Conference (that will be postponed due to the corona crisis) will be a success. Thus for the first time, two Review Conferences in a row could fail, while the next Review Conference was supposed to be a celebration, 50 years after the NPT entered into force.

The main reason for the failure of the Review Conferences is the lack of nuclear disarmament. Despite promises to start multilateral negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons, these negotiations have still to commence. Meanwhile there are still 14,000 nuclear weapons on earth, exactly 50 years after these promises were made. It is understandable that many non-nuclear-weapon states are frustrated and impatient. This explains the arrival of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW, or Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty).

But things could get even worse. The NPT itself is in danger. If more states follow the example of North Korea, a country that in 2003 decided to withdraw, this may be the end of the NPT. Iran may be next in line. As already mentioned, the U.S. unilaterally withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018. Iran has already threatened to leave the JCPOA and the NPT if its file is sent to the UN Security Council (again). If Iran leaves the NPT, Saudi Arabia will soon follow. In all likelihood, if both go nuclear, other states in the Middle East may follow. President Erdogan of Turkey openly criticized the discriminatory nature of the NPT – with a few “haves” versus a lot of “have nots” – at the UN General Assembly in September 2019, to much applause. Egypt for decades has been very critical of the NPT, and more particularly of the lack of meaningful negotiations for a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East (that was also promised in 1995). For that reason, Egypt once walked out of a PrepCom (Preparatory Committee) for the NPT Review Conference. In short, a nuclear arms race in the Middle East may be in the offing. That would certainly signify the end of the NPT. Note, however, that most observers are more optimistic and believe that the NPT will survive this crisis too.3

Explaining the crises of nuclear arms control, disarmament and proliferation

Various factors can account for these nuclear arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation crises. The non-proliferation crisis is easiest to explain. As the NPT can be regarded as a deal between the nuclear powers and the other states, it is abundantly clear that the others feel frustrated because most of the non-nuclear weapon states fulfill their legal obligations under the treaty (by not acquiring nuclear weapons), while the five nuclear powers do not fulfill their obligations – namely to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

This brings us to the question: how to explain the crisis in nuclear disarmament (or more widely in arms control)? The basic drivers of any arms race are those who gain from the nuclear weapons business: the defense industry, scientists (= nuclear labs), the military, politicians, in short the so-called military-industrial complex. While arms control in the past limited the size of the arsenal and even reduced the arms build-up, it did not prevent the arrival of new weapon systems. In other words, the qualitative arms race continued. Worse, the military-industrial complex, certainly in the United States, only goes along with any specific arms control agreement on condition that more money will be spent on developing other weapon systems. That tit-for-tat logic had already started in the 1970s. The latest example was the agreement by President Obama to modernize the whole gamut of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems at a cost of US$ 1.7 trillion (including inflation) over the next 30 years, in exchange for the support of enough Republicans in the Senate to ratify New START in 2010. We should therefore remind ourselves that the story is not only about beliefs, or more specifically whether one is for or against nuclear deterrence. It is as much about parochial interests, jobs, and money. It is apparently very hard for politicians to go against these local interests. It requires knowledge, good judgment, and political courage – characteristics that are unfortunately in short supply in the current generation of political decision-makers.

Another explanation for the arms control crisis has to do with party politics, especially in the United States. The polarization between Democrats and Republicans reached a level never seen before in the mid-1990s, with Newt Gingrich’s aversion to the Clinton administration.4 Since then, the two parties have not collaborated anymore like they did during the Cold War. One of the victims is arms control, and the first symptom was the non-ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999.

But the most fundamental reason why arms control has got stuck since the mid-1990s has to do with geopolitics, more particularly the worsening political relationship between the U.S. and Russia. Arms control – let alone disarmament – demands trust. Without a minimum amount of trust, it becomes extremely difficult to conclude arms control treaties. On the other hand, claiming that nuclear disarmament is not possible today because of the absence of trust is too deterministic and fatalistic. Trust and distrust are not a dichotomy, but a continuum. Crucially, arms control can help to turn distrust into trust. Arms control can be both a cause and a consequence of better political relations between states. Just like during the Cold War.

As 90 % of nuclear arsenals worldwide are in the hands of the U.S. and Russia, their relationship is crucial for the next arms control steps (although Trump would like to see China climb on board, which is very unlikely). The crucial problem in this regard, as I have explained elsewhere5, is that the political relationship between the two actors has gone awry. In Russia’s case, this stems from the fact that the West has failed to integrate this state into the Euro-Atlantic security architecture since the end of the Cold War, or at least not on an equal basis. To simplify, after 1815 and 1945 the victors of the war engaged with the losers – respectively France, and Germany and Japan – and included them in the regional or worldwide community of the time. Twice that led to decades of stability and security. In contrast, Germany was left alone after the First World War, which sowed the seeds for the Second World War.

Similarly, Russia was left alone after the Cold War. NATO for instance should have been dismantled, just like any other alliance after a (cold) war, such as after the First and the Second World War. The Warsaw Pact also imploded at the end of the Cold War. In contrast, NATO continued to exist, which is an aberration in the history of international politics. Worse, NATO expanded into the East, something to which the Russians were greatly opposed (unless they would have been integrated as well, but this was vetoed by the United States). There had even been spoken promises never to expand NATO to the east, by both the West German and U.S. Ministers of Foreign Affairs in February 1990. These promises were made to Gorbachev and Shevardnadze during the German reunification talks. And what did the West do after German reunification? Expand NATO in the direction of Russia. Not once or twice, but several times. How would you have felt if you had been a decision-maker in Moscow? This conflictual process started in 1994, which by no coincidence was the period when arms control started to slow down.

One could have expected that conflicts between Russia and the West would arise (again) after the end of the Cold War, even apart from NATO and NATO expansion: the Balkan wars (including Kosovo), the Iraq war in 2003, Syria, … Only the establishment of a regional collective organization (like the Concert of Europe in 1815) could have limited the negative consequences of such conflicts between Russia and the West. Many experts in the 1990s, both realists (like George Kennan, Paul Nitze, Michael Mandelbaum) and liberals (like Charles Kupchan), had warned against NATO expansion. But the NATO member states, led by the United States, did not want to listen. Should the West be surprised that Russia felt neglected at the end of the 1990s? But even then, Russia – led by Putin – was still willing to cooperate, even with NATO. President Putin was the first leader who called President Bush, Jr. after 9/11. He also offered help to the West with respect to Afghanistan. But Russia did not gain very much from all these cooperative steps. On the contrary, President Bush announced only a couple of weeks later the unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, something Russia was not at all happy with. There is a moment when patience and goodwill run out. In my assessment, that moment for Putin came around 2003, at the time of the first color revolutions sponsored by the West. Those in the West who were not aware of the thinking in Moscow finally should have got the point when President Putin delivered a blistering speech at the Munich Conference in 2007. But afterwards, the West was still in a phase of denial, as the NATO Bucharest meeting welcomed not only Albania and Croatia (immediately), but also Georgia and Ukraine as future members. The latter was a clear red line for Russia. The annexation of Crimea by Russia, against all rules, made matters worse. However, seen from this perspective, it consisted of reactive rather than offensive behavior. If the West did not want to hear the Russian red lines, the Russian signal had to be clearer. And sure enough, it was.

Is there a way out?

Even realists like John Mearsheimer6 and Stephen Walt explain Russia’s behavior in this way. But they are in a minority. Many observers and politicians in the West still blame Putin for the current state of affairs between Russia and the West. They are wrong. Putin should not be defended, certainly not for his domestic policies. But if we want to resurrect nuclear arms control, the West will need to do some introspection and take some unilateral/reciprocal positive steps towards Russia (as for instance Macron is suggesting), possibly in the domain of arms control. If arms control can resume between Russia and the West, the process can be extended to other nuclear-armed states later on. Unfortunately, the odds are that this is wishful thinking.

What remains are two worst-case scenarios, although one is slightly less worst-case than the other. The worst-case scenario is that arms control remains in limbo, and as a result of a new nuclear arms race, the world will again witness the use of nuclear weapons. By definition, this will be catastrophic. The impact of the corona crisis on national health systems is nothing compared to the consequences of using just one nuclear weapon, let alone a limited or large-scale nuclear war.7 The early warning signals are all red. But the nuclear-armed states and their allies refuse to see the red lights, partly because of the domestic political mechanisms explained above.

The alternative is only slightly better: more and more states will leave the NPT, either because of direct security concerns (Iran and Saudi Arabia) or out of frustration at the discriminatory nature of the NPT (e.g. Turkey, Brazil and Egypt). That would mean the end of the NPT.8 While at first sight this is in nobody’s interest, it may provide the spark needed to convince enough people in the nuclear-armed states to rethink the whole non-proliferation and disarmament regime. In which case the outcome can only be: either all states that want nuclear weapons have nuclear weapons, or none of them do. If that does not do the trick, some of these states can threaten to build or acquire nuclear weapons, and some may even do so, until enough people and decision-makers within the nuclear-armed states and their allies (including Germany) wake up before the worst-case scenario becomes a reality.

1 Kibaroglu, Mustafa, and Sauer, Tom (2017): “Mr Trump, Post Nuclear Ban Treaty, NATO’s Nuclear Weapons Are Obsolete.” In: Insight Turkey 19 (3), pp. 23-33.

2 Onderco, Michal, and Nutti, Leopoldo (2020): Extending the NPT? A Critical Oral History of the 1995 Review and Extension Conference. Washington, D.C.

3 Horovitz, Liviu (2015): “Beyond Pessimism: Why the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Will not Collapse.” In: Journal of Strategic Studies 38 (1-2), pp. 126-158; Scheinman, Adam (2019): “No, It Is Not Time to Ditch the NPT.” In: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 7, 2019. 27.5.2020).

4 Nolan, Janne (1999): An Elusive Consensus. Washington, D.C.; Sauer, Tom (2005): Nuclear Inertia. U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy after the Cold War. London.

5 Sauer, Tom (2017): “The Origins of the Ukraine Crisis and the Need for Collective Security Between Russia and the West.” In: Global Policy 8 (1), pp. 82-91.

6 Mearsheimer, John (2014): “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s Fault.” In: Foreign Affairs, September/October.

7 Sauer, Tom and Thakur, Ramesh: “How many intensive care beds will a nuclear weapon explosion require ?” In: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, April 28, 2020. ((accessed 8.6.2020).

8 Pretorius, Joelien, and Sauer, Tom (2019): “Is It Time to Ditch the NPT?” In: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, September 6, 2019. (accessed 27.5.2020).



Tom Sauer is Associate Professor in International Politics at the Universiteit Antwerpen (Belgium). He is specialized in international security, and more in particular in nuclear arms control, proliferation, and disarmament. He is a former BCSIA Fellow at Harvard University (US), and an active member of the Pugwash Conferences on Sciences and World Affairs. He received the 2019 Alumni Global Service Award of Rotary International.