CBS News: Russian President Vladimir Putin is raising the prospect of nuclear war in Ukraine.
Al Jazeera: Iran remains on a path of nuclear escalation.
MSNBC: U.S. nuclear arms submarines will dock in South Korea for what national security officials are calling occasional visits.
ITV News: Russia was suspending its participation in a nuclear treaty with the U.S.
Democracy Now!: North Korean leader Kim Jung-Un has warned he is ready to use nuclear weapons against rivals the United States and South Korea.
Carl Sagan: The idea that more nuclear weapons make you safer is an illusion. Beyond a certain point, more nuclear weapons make you less safe. The Idea is to reduce the arsenal safely on both sides to a minimum deterrent, so that if the worst does happen, the global civilisation and the human species are not imperiled.
Nuclear weapons are making a comeback. Sure, they were never actually gone. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s repeated use of nuclear threats has resurfaced decades-old concerns about proliferation, and the possibility of nuclear war.
To make matters more complicated, Russia isn’t the only concern. China, for example, is rapidly expanding its own arsenal, and some fear a possible nuclear escalation over Taiwan. North Korea, always a wild card, continues to test ballistic missiles and Iran is moving forward with its push to join the nuclear club. Meanwhile the United States, which guarantees nuclear security to at least 30 countries, is still advancing its own nuclear capabilities.
I’m Gabrielle Sierra and this is Why It Matters. Today, an introduction to the world’s ongoing nuclear dilemma, and a look into how Russia’s war in Ukraine may have brought nuclear war back onto our radar.
Gabrielle SIERRA: So I know my parents lived through a scary nuclear period, but after that, it sort of seems like the threat receded into the background. Would you say the world of nuclear weapons is more dangerous today than it was 10 or 20 years ago?
Rupal N. MEHTA: I think unfortunately, a lot changed in February of 2022.
This is Rupal Mehta. She is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Previously, she was a Stanton Nuclear Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center and an advisor for the Director’s Strategic Resilience Initiative, National Security and International Studies Office at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
MEHTA: There of course was the Russian invasion of Ukraine where all of a sudden, we were having conversations about tactical nuclear weapons use and the role of deterrence and trying to understand how the West, how the United States could protect a partner state like Ukraine without escalating to a nuclear conflict with another nuclear weapons country like Russia.
Since the first days of the invasion, Putin has issued thinly-veiled threats about nuclear weapons. Much of this language has centered on the idea of quote “protecting” Russia from Western intervention in the Ukraine war. But as the war in Ukraine has escalated, Putin has also teased the possibility of a [quote] “preventive blow.”
It’s worth noting that this isn’t exactly new. Putin invoked nuclear weapons during the 2014 annexation of Crimea, and during the Syrian war. But the latest threats have led to a much higher level of concern.
MEHTA: If there's even the remote chance they could use them, all of a sudden, this weapon that was meant to mostly be to deter, that had this taboo associated with their use, we get to a point where nuclear use was normalized. It was something that people were talking about pretty openly in a way that I think foretells a really dangerous and very scary future.
A lot of technical terms get thrown around when talking about nukes. So as we go through this episode, I’m going to stop and we’ll define a few. Let’s start with deterrence.
J. Andrés GANNON: So deterrence is the idea that if I have nuclear weapons, I can stop you from doing something you would otherwise do.
This is Andrés Gannon. He’s the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow here at the Council on Foreign Relations.
GANNON: So we can think about this in just a silly context of something like, "Hey, if I'm really big and strong and I'm out at the bar and someone wants to fight me, if I'm like, 'Hey, I'm going to hit you if you do something.'" That's deterrence. You're convincing them to stop something that they would otherwise do.
Okay so nuclear deterrence means using a nuclear threat to prevent an adversary from doing something you don’t want them to do. This can be as simple as keeping a nuclear arsenal around so that other countries will think twice before invading you, and as complex as the system of Mutually Assured Destruction that exists between Russia and the United States.
There’s another term that you won’t get very far without knowing, so let’s hit it now: proliferation.
MEHTA: So proliferation is just a fancy way of saying the spread of nuclear weapons technology to other countries that don't currently have it. And there's a couple of different ways to think about it. The first is horizontal proliferation, which is just spreading across the international system. There's another term that people use nowadays as well, which is vertical proliferation, which is increasing the amount of nuclear weapons a given country might have. Our goal, I think, as researchers and as citizens of the world is to control both types. But the work that I have mostly done is on horizontal proliferation or understanding why other countries might want nuclear weapons and trying to figure out how to stop them from going that route.
SIERRA: So if you're trying to stop them, do you feel that the world always gets more dangerous when a new country acquires nuclear weapons?
MEHTA: I do, and I think there's actually been a fair bit of research to suggest that that's the case. Myself and others have sort of articulated the avenues by which more nuclear weapons in the international system increases the likelihood of conflict or of disputes. Even in the margins, it makes the world a little bit more dangerous. And I think this makes sense when we have more weapons in any given space, there's the potential for accidents, there's the potential for actors to go rogue, there's the potential for errors to be made. And so part of, I think, understanding the consequences of proliferation is to understand that as we just increase these numbers, the world tends to get more dangerous. That's one perspective. I think that's the sort of pessimist side in the nuclear weapons debate. The optimist side sort of follows on the mutually assured destruction path, which is if everyone has it, everyone's deterred. No one should be worried. Nuclear weapons are fine, no one's ever going to use them. I think the data and some of the new empirical research that's come out supports the pessimist side, that there's just more potential for conflict, for lack of cooperation, for disputes that can escalate, for escalation concerns that suggests that more is not necessarily better.
GANNON: So it's bad if you think of the existence of nuclear weapons as something that is scary and threatening. There's sort of a weird tension that exists there that we think it's good for us to have them, but not for anyone else to have them. An analogy that I think not enough people make but is a useful way to think about it is just the domestic issue of guns in the United States. If you think that guns are dangerous, maybe because there could be an accident. Then the more of them that exist, the worse. On the other hand, if you think that guns stop people from invading, then you should have a gun in every house, and every country should have a nuclear weapon, and then no one will fight against each other. And so that's sort of the tension that we see and the way that people think about, "Hey, it's good for us to have nuclear weapons because no one is going to break into our house, but we don't want anyone else to have them just in case we need to."
SIERRA: The world started with no nuclear powers, then there was one, then two. How many are there now?
MEHTA: So I think depending on how you count it, there are the permanent five members of the UN Security Council, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China. We then had the proliferation to what we call the de facto nuclear weapon states, which are India, Pakistan, and Israel. And then we of course have the last nuclear weapon state that was a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty then withdrew, and so it's in this sort of limbo technical ground, but that's North Korea. So we have nine nuclear weapon states. There's been concerns about proliferation to other countries like Iran of course, but right now, there's still nine. And the job of most of us is to try to keep that number as small as possible.
SIERRA: Do you think the invasion changed any nuclear dynamics?
GANNON: It did. I think it changed two dynamics. The first is it changed the question of, "Is it useful to have nuclear weapons by thinking about it on the target's side?" Ukraine was one of the countries that when the Soviet Union collapsed, they inherited nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union that were just left on their territory and there's questions of, “They couldn't have really operated them,” et cetera. But there is a question people have raised of, "Would all this be happening if Ukraine had nuclear weapons?" We don't really know, but that's a sort of important question that we think countries are thinking about as they decide whether to get nuclear weapons.
ABC7: And in his speech, the Russian president, raising the possibility of using nuclear weapons.
ABC7: President Putin has made overt nuclear threats against Europe.
Channel 4 News: Russia wants you to know they have some very impressive nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles that could, for example, reach New York.
MEHTA: I could definitely understand arguments from countries that are feeling pressure from foreign adversaries on their borders or in their regions or in really tense neighborhoods that this would've kept me from being invaded. This could keep me from having my sovereignty violated. This could keep me from being the target of sanctions or the target of really bad actions by the international community. And if you have nuclear weapons, you’ll sort of see Iran or even North Korea want them. This is meant to be a source of protection, but also meant to sort of send a signal. Like, "Don't mess with me,” to the rest of the international system.
GANNON: I think that there's a lot of discussion about “what are countries in East Asia thinking?” Is South Korea or Japan worried about being the next Ukraine given threats that they're facing from China, from North Korea, et cetera? And it's at least plausible. We've seen a lot of discussions in South Korea on them considering getting nuclear weapons. So I think countries do think of nuclear weapons as a way to protect yourself against bullying by nuclear states. And if that's what we see the current situation as being and if you think, "Man, if only Ukraine had had nuclear weapons since they gave them up, they would be in a much better position," then that's something that I think other states are certainly considering. So I think the way that this all plays out in the end is going to be important for that.
SIERRA: Meaning you think that Russia wouldn't have dared to start a war?
Other observers see the war as incentivizing a different kind of proliferation. Yes, some countries might want nuclear weapons in order to protect themselves from a bully like Russia. But other countries might want nuclear weapons in order to behave like Russia. Here’s how Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin put it:
New York Times: Putin’s fellow autocrats are watching. And they could well conclude that getting nuclear weapons would give them a hunting license of their own. And that could drive a dangerous spiral of nuclear proliferation.
After all, a nuclear arsenal is pretty useful for keeping powerful adversaries away while you invade a neighbor, or pursue other ambitions. Experts like Andrés have grown concerned that all of this nuclear talk seems to be far more casual than it used to be.
GANNON: We've had this idea for a while of the nuclear taboo, as it's called, this idea that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were just really horrific, unprecedented events that we never want to repeat. But now, there's at least some politicians and military personnel thinking about what it would mean to repeat that in the sense of using nuclear weapons. So I think even hearing high-level government officials like Putin talk about, "Hey, we're open to it," is a really new thing and I think that's a scary thing that we haven't faced in a long time.
SIERRA: So tell me a little bit more about this idea of a nuclear taboo.
GANNON: So the taboo has sort of been this idea that because the consequences are so horrific in terms of the destruction, no one's seriously considering using nuclear weapons or at least it would take something very, very severe for that to happen. What I think we've seen recently that's interesting is there's not really a taboo if people are willing to entertain the idea. But that is the case with nuclear weapons. We've had a bunch of surveys over the past couple years that have illustrated concerningly that members of the public are more down than we thought to use a nuclear weapon. You ask them, "What if North Korea does X or if they do Y?" And they're just like, "Yeah, fire the nukes. Let's do it." To what degree that matters, I don't really know because they're not going to be the ones making these decisions. But it's something to think about a lot more seriously.
MEHTA: Some of the recent work that I think is fascinating has actually suggested that the taboo may not be as strong as we think it is. Some of the experimental work that has come out by Scott Sagan, Daryl Press, and Ben Valentino actually explore the nuclear taboo amongst the American public. And they find that it's not as strong. And it actually suggests the American public would be okay with using nuclear weapons in certain scenarios, especially if it meant that it would protect the American homeland. And that's, I think, pretty concerning because these have always been seen as the weapons of last resort. In the Cold War, people were hiding under desks and so worried about the Soviet threat. And now, all of a sudden, we're talking about using nuclear weapons, not casually, but certainly more informally than I think we ever have before. And I think the nuclear taboo is something that deserves a lot more exploration, especially in light of the Ukraine war. But it suggests to me that we do need to be keeping an eye on both how people think about nuclear weapons, but also whether or not they truly understand the consequences of nuclear use.
In order to understand why experts like Rupal are so concerned about the erosion of the nuclear taboo, it’s important to understand how the world is hard-wired for nuclear escalation.
SIERRA: So you mentioned a lot of nukes. Are all of these nukes ready to go at a moment's notice?
GANNON: Not quite. I'd say half-ish are ready to go on a moment's notice. There's always a group of them that are being refurbished and being repaired. Some countries have put them into reserves or into storage, and so you can separate the warhead from the actual missile and put them in different buildings like China has done. And it takes 24 hours to glue those things back together in a sense and be ready to launch. But the famous primary U.S. nuclear weapon is called the Minuteman because the president can get a call that says, "Hey, nuclear weapons have to be used." And within about 60 seconds, that thing can be in the air headed towards a target. And so these things can happen really quick and there are enough of them that are on that launch-on-warning that we're ready in the event that these things have to go off.
Similar hair trigger systems exist in other countries, especially Russia. There are, of course, protocols and safeguards, but ultimately these systems mean that any nuclear attack, or even nuclear accident, has the potential to escalate into nuclear war. As time goes on, more nuclear weapons, or even more nuclear nations, would mean more variables in the nuclear equation.
SIERRA: Can you give me a basic history lesson of how we got here? How did the nuclear age start?
MEHTA: So it started in part with a group of scientists in the United States and Canada and the U.K. working together to identify this new technology, which was nuclear weapons and the enrichment and reprocessing of uranium and plutonium to sort of create these signature weapons that have never been used before.
This group of scientists formed what is known as the Manhattan Project. As World War II raged across Europe, these scientists worked closely with the U.S. government to apply the recently-discovered fission process to a new, incredibly powerful type of military technology.
After three years of development, the world’s first atomic bomb detonated at a New Mexico test site on July 16, 1945. Less than a month later, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, resulting in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and effectively ending the war.
Harry S. Truman: With this bomb, we have now added a new and revolutionary increase in destruction to supplement the growing power of our armed forces.
Carl Sagan: The amount of weapons that are available to the United States and the Soviet Union are so bloated, so grossly in excess of what’s needed to dissuade the other that if it weren’t so tragic it would be laughable.
Robert Oppenheimer: We knew the world would not be the same…Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds. I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.
MEHTA: At that time, there was still a lot of interest in protecting their spread and protecting their use. And in fact, if you listen to, sort of, histories about the Manhattan Project and how some of the scientists reacted to their use in World War II, the first thing that they wanted to do after that ended was to figure out a way to never have it happen again, to protect the world from nuclear weapons and from the use of atomic weapons. And even Oppenheimer and some of the other sort of key figures associated with the Manhattan Project spent much of their life dedicated to ensuring that nuclear weapons have never been used or will never be used again, and that they wouldn't be spread to other countries.
SIERRA: So what were the most important concepts in that era?
MEHTA: So I think there was a few, right? I think one of the first ones was arms racing. Worries that any sort of development in the United States or any development in the Soviet Union would trigger the other to continue to arms race to spiral out of control. And that, I think, lends itself to the other big concept that defined the Cold War, which was mutually assured destruction. The United States had the capability to launch an attack against the Soviet Union that would destroy it. And the Soviet Union similarly had the ability to both attack the United States and take out the United States' ability to respond back. We call those terms first and second strike survivability, but really what they mean is if I attack you or if you attack me, we are going to be so devastated that it would actually hinder our ability to respond and to survive those second strikes.
Mutually assured destruction is a core principle of deterrence. The idea is that a nuclear attack by one superpower would be met with an overwhelming counterattack by the other, leaving both sides obliterated. It’s basically the world’s most extreme lose-lose situation, and many analysts say that it succeeded in preventing nuclear conflict during the Cold War. Still, on several occasions the world came mind-bogglingly close to the edge, most famously during the brinkmanship of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
John F. Kennedy: We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the cost of world-wide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth. But neither will we retreat from that risk at any time it must be taken.
MEHTA: And that concept that we had in our arsenals, the ability to destroy and devastate the opponent was meant to sort of protect us from ever getting to that point. If I know that I can destroy you, or if I know that you can destroy me, we have this mutually assured destruction. We should both be weary then of doing anything that would get us to the point where we would invoke that or it could escalate to that level. And that I think was one of the most key or just sort of defining aspects of the Cold War, was the sense of let's never get to the edge of the cliff. And this is sort of a famous shelling example of mutually assured destruction, but let's never both get to the edge of the cliff where we have the ability to take each other over it.
SIERRA: So there's no chance of us all sort of, like, putting down our guns at the same time, all agreeing, one, two, three, drop, and we all just get rid of our nuclear weapons?
MEHTA: I'd love that. I think I'm too much of a cynic and a pessimist to maybe see that happening.
MEHTA: But I think that's the ultimate dream and the ultimate goal, and it would be amazing. But probably not in my lifetime.
Today, the United States has over 1500 nuclear warheads deployed in the U.S. and around the world as part of its so-called nuclear triad, consisting of intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines, and strategic bombers. Half of this arsenal is on a hair trigger alert and can be launched within seconds in response to an enemy's nuclear attack, assuring its annihilation. And still thousands more are kept in storage. Meanwhile, Russia has around the same number of deployed weapons. Combined, these arsenals account for nearly 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons.
SIERRA: Has a country ever given up their nuclear weapons? How easy is that to arrange and under what circumstances could it happen?
MEHTA: I'm so glad you brought this up because this is something that I love to study, and it's always so shocking to people, myself included, when I first started exploring this. There's actually been a lot of countries that have given up nuclear weapons programs. Only one country has given up a nuclear weapons arsenal, which is South Africa. They did that as they were transitioning from an apartheid regime to a democratic regime in the late 1980s, early 1990s. A lot of other countries, in fact, almost 30 of them, more than 30 of them have actually had nuclear weapons programs. They had started to develop the component parts for a nuclear weapons program. Maybe they even had the ability to deploy them somewhere else. And after a lot of cajoling and prodding from the U.S. and other countries, they actually gave them up, usually in an exchange for something like military assistance or economic assistance or something else like a security guarantee. But actually, it's the modal outcome. It's more likely that a country will start and stop a nuclear weapons program than continue one.
One thing that can make it easier for a country to forgo nuclear weapons is to receive a nuclear security guarantee from a country that already has them. A major example of this is the United States’ “nuclear umbrella.”
MEHTA: The nuclear umbrella really refers to a pretty simple network of alliances that the United States has with a host of other countries around the international system. So when we offer US protection, for example, to South Korea or to Taiwan or to Japan, to other countries, what we do is we say, "Look, we don't want you to get nuclear weapons. We don't want you to be in danger though. So what we'll do is we will help provide for your protection. We'll give you a security guarantee whereby if someone attacks you, we'll be there." And this has actually been a really important part of our sort of post Cold War foreign policy. We wanted to ensure that there wasn't going to be proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries, but we were also aware that the world was getting more dangerous, especially in particular neighborhoods. So part of our job is to think, "Okay, well, what can we do as one of the big powers in the international system?" We set up these alliances that were really meant to provide an umbrella or a cover to these countries and provide them with protection against their adversaries, whether it's North Korea or China or other countries that might threaten them.
SIERRA: What about the rules? What are some key treaties we should know about nukes, and are they still relevant to current issues around nukes and nuclear weapons programs?
GANNON: So there's one and a half that are really relevant. The main one is the NPT, the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that some of the main nuclear countries like the United States and Russia and China. Nuclear energy, part of the fear that people have is that it's on the way to getting a nuclear weapon. It involves the same uranium and plutonium and once you can make nuclear energy, which is really great for some environmental and economic issues, you can use that to build a nuclear weapon. So the NPT was a way of promising countries, "You can have nuclear energy and you can do so safely. We're just going to make sure that you don't end up twisting the dial too far and getting nuclear weapons."
The Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968 by both nuclear and non-nuclear states who pledged their cooperation in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. Under the treaty, states without nukes agreed not to get them, and states with nukes began to pursue disarmament. The NPT was ratified by the U.S., Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom, and adopted by another 40 countries at its inception. As the centerpiece of counter-proliferation efforts post-World War II, the treaty has not been signed by four states: South Sudan, India, Israel, and Pakistan. It’s worth noting that the last three of those possess nuclear weapons. North Korea, another nuclear competitor, signed it in 1985, but has since withdrawn.
GANNON: The other one that was a big deal during the Cold War was the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty. As much as we talk about how scary nuclear detonations would be and we have these images of mushroom clouds, we've already had over 2,000 of them happen. There have been over 2,000 nuclear detonations on the surface of the earth that have happened during the Cold War and ending soon after. This was countries testing to see, "Does this thing work?" And so we had all these destinations and countries created this comprehensive test ban to say, "Hey, this is really bad environmentally. We're doing it in places that are near indigenous peoples or in oceans where there's reefs, and those things are a problem and so we shouldn't do it anymore." President Clinton signed it but the Senate never ratified it, so the U.S. hasn't done the CTBT. But it largely hasn't been a thing because the technology and science has gotten good enough that you can just do it on a computer now to see if your nuclear weapons work. And so that is a treaty that was a big deal back in the day, but a lot of people don't really talk about as much anymore.
The implementation of nuclear arms control agreements were crucial to solidifying the end of the Cold War. Alongside the Non-Proliferation and Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaties, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, otherwise known as START, was signed in 1991. This bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Soviet Union dismantled 80 percent of the world’s nuclear warheads - though thousands still remained. Experts were stunned by the success of the initial START treaty, drafting a second agreement with Russia in 1993 that reduced the number of nuclear warheads by another 5,000.
For a long while things seemed promising. But then, in 2018, an important deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program was dismantled under the Trump administration, and in 2023, Russia stopped providing information under the New START treaty, capping years of unofficial noncompliance.
SIERRA: Okay. So what's the state of international nuclear treaties right now?
MEHTA: Alarming, I think, is the short answer. I think we've seen a real decline in interest among states to want our countries to want to sign treaties that would limit their use or protect against their use or to even focus on disarmament. We certainly have some treaties that have withstood the test of time, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. But I think in general, there's still a lot of incentives for countries to sort of act outside of treaties. And I think that especially with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also just with other splits in the international system, it's been really hard for especially Russia, the United States, and China to agree on treaties that would help to protect all of us. As someone who studies this and looks at arms control and looks at the power of some of these institutions, I think it is pretty alarming that we're seeing not only a decline in new institutions coming online, but also just wavering commitments to the existing ones. And I think especially when we see lapses in international treaties and that have not been re-signed, you start to get a little bit worried about what those intentions are and what people are trying to do when they're not actually committing to providing those protections for the global community.
SIERRA: Where are the specific nuclear tensions and fault lines right now on a world map? If things go wrong, where are they most likely to go wrong?
MEHTA: There's actually a few places, which is probably why it still keeps me up a little bit at night about some of these concerns. Everyone's been talking a lot about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That's one of the fault lines. I think one of the other ones is India, Pakistan. It feels very tense at times, and then tensions will deepen a little bit and then they'll rise back up again. You have two nuclear weapon states right on the border that always feels a little scary.
GANNON: India and Pakistan are the two countries that are pointing their weapons at each other from 200 yards away. It would take about 24 minutes for a Russian nuclear weapon to hit the United States, for a Pakistani nuclear weapon to hit India or vice versa, you're looking at 45 to 60 seconds. So that really doesn't give them a lot of time to decide, "How do we de-escalate? Are we sure that this is correct?" So that's been a really scary scenario for a while.
MEHTA: And then I think there's also concerns about Chinese intentions regarding Taiwan and what the role of the international system, especially the United States will be if they were to try to forcibly take Taiwan in the future as they’ve sort of mentioned that they're interested in doing as part of their one China policy.
SIERRA: So what about Iran? Is that also a potential fault line?
MEHTA: Absolutely. And unfortunately, we're back at a place where it's quite dangerous. It's something that I think a lot of people are really worried about being at the forefront of conflict in the region, but also with Israel, who is believed to have a nuclear weapons arsenal but has never publicly confirmed it. And there's all sorts of fears about what a nuclear Iran would do for the region and for the international system. My concern is we had this amazing opportunity to leverage everyone's interest to reduce those concerns, and we actually had a pretty good deal that was signed as a result of it. For a lot of reasons, that's no longer in operation right now.
Signed in 2015 by Iran and several world powers, the Iran Nuclear Agreement, or JCPOA, placed significant restrictions on Iran’s Nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. In 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the deal, and soon after Iran began ignoring limitations on its nuclear program.
MEHTA: The question is can we move forward and try to find an opportunity to renegotiate something that would again prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons? We're getting really close to the day where it could, but there's still potentially opportunities available. And I think part of the job of this administration and future administrations is to look forward and think, "Okay, what can we do to prevent this fault line from really erupting and being similar to India, Pakistan or Taiwan, China, US?" And it's a big problem. No one's been able to solve it yet, but I think it should be something that remains a focal point of US foreign policy.
All of these fault lines work together to increase the likelihood that at some point, somewhere, something could go wrong. And with nuclear weapons, any such catastrophe has the potential to escalate with terrifying speed. Through the years, this has led many observers to believe that the only long-term solution to the nuclear problem is complete disarmament. That moment is likely quite far off and the tense dynamics of deterrence can make it hard for countries to return to the formulas that have worked in the past to reduce arsenals.
SIERRA: What works in terms of disarmament? What do we need to do?
MEHTA: That's a tough question because we don't really see a lot of evidence that it's been working. But I think what does work is providing avenues for conversation and communication between the nuclear weapon states.
GANNON: I think there's a weird way in which we forget that for all this public bravado that we see and troops fighting and countries making statements, they need to be talking to each other behind the scenes. I think whatever we hear Biden and Putin saying in public, they have to be saying to each other in private, "Hey, here's where we're actually going to draw the line. Here's where we're serious about escalation and what is a risk." If they can be honest about that with each other, which I know is a lot to ask in politics, but at least convince each other of what those things are, then I think that that plays a really, really important role.
SIERRA: It's very strange to imagine two sides at war with each other, committing violence against each other, but still agreeing not to use their biggest weapon.
GANNON: Yeah. This happens all the time, and I think it happens a lot more than we know. The case that we had of a Chinese balloon flying overhead, there's no doubt in my mind that the U.S. has drones that are flying over Chinese bases all of the time. We just sort of agree, "Hey, you don't shoot ours down, we're not going to shoot yours down. And we'll just agree to snipe at each other a little bit because that's better than having it all blow up. And then when these things go public or someone's committed to something, then that's where things can blow up." So that's where I think a lot of what we're seeing in Ukraine is potentially concerning because once you sort of tell everybody, "Hey, I'll use nuclear weapons if X happens," once X happens, you might've kind of tied your hands there a little bit.
SIERRA: Right. Right. An uncomfortable amount of this just depends on vibes. And I really…
SIERRA: What is the U.S. obligation going forward given that we play such an important security role in the world? And is it hard for us to lead given that we're the only country to have used nuclear weapons?
GANNON: I think the U.S. credibility on leadership is a bit better than it was. I think people don't blame the administration today for the use of nuclear weapons that happened way back when. I think for adversaries, that's sort of useful in terms of propaganda and politics, but probably not otherwise. I think just that the leadership role is, "Hey, these are something that are useful because they're not used." That's a weird way of thinking about nuclear weapons is they've only been used twice, I mean, or they're used every single day and that their existence is something that changes the way that actors behave. I think what the United States has to do is convince countries, "Just because we have nuclear weapons, doesn't mean we're going to bully our way into getting you to do things that you don't want to do." But also, because we have nuclear weapons, we can stop others from doing that bullying. So that begs a question of who benefits from that and who doesn't, and that's where we see the rifts in the world that we have.
MEHTA: I think countries that have nuclear weapons use them every day. And I think that if you're a non-nuclear weapon state and you're feeling either like the system doesn't work to your advantage or you want to change the system in some way to improve your position in it, you could kind of understand how given the world in which we see and the leadership of the international system, nuclear weapons is an interesting way of maybe getting you there. And so the job of the United States and the rest of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council has been to make that trade off less ideal for countries to want to have nuclear weapons, to sort of make it less appealing, even though there are clear benefits to their possession.
SIERRA: And what about us regular people? I mean, we aren’t the ones with our fingers on the button. But what do you think of the current level of nuclear literacy? What do you wish that people understood?
MEHTA: I think having a bunch of old professors come and chat about nuclear weapons may not be as compelling and as accessible and appealing as it being in a television show, in podcasts, in books, in movies. I think that's the way to really increase our literacy, but also to make these questions not daunting, but more for your information. Let's get a better sense of what's going on. Because I think even in the Cold War, people were more aware, but they were really terrified all the time. And it led to a bunch of negative reactions and feelings of prejudice against people. And that's not what we want. We just want people to be more aware, but also to think about what are the consequences of nuclear weapons use, right? Make sure people understand that they're not going to be safe forever.
We got incredibly lucky this semester and had two amazing interns. SO in honor of their last week with us, they are going to read you out right now.
Thanks Gabby! For resources used in this episode and more information, visit CFR.org/whyitmatters and take a look at the show notes. If you ever have any questions or suggestions or just want to chat with us, email at [email protected] or you can hit us up on Twitter at @CFR_org.
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For Why It Matters, this is Emily Pace, this is Rebecca Rottenberg, signing off. See ya!
Nuclear weapons never went away, but as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine extends into its second year, nuclear worries are making a comeback. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, reigniting concerns about nuclear weapons and proliferation. Elsewhere, China has built up its own nuclear arsenal while ratcheting up tensions with Taiwan, and North Korea and Iran have continued to develop their own nuclear programs. Meanwhile, U.S. allies and bad actors alike could be seeking nuclear weapons of their own, and long-standing nuclear arms control agreements remain suspended.
As U.S. officials confront these and other nuclear challenges, they will be tasked with preventing further proliferation that increases the likelihood of mutually assured destruction. How serious is today’s nuclear threat, and what are the prospects for global denuclearization?
Jonathan Masters and Sabine Baumgartner, “Timeline: U.S.-Russia Nuclear Arms Control”
Jonathan Masters and Will Merrow, “Nuclear Weapons in Europe: Mapping U.S. and Russian Deployments”
Kali Robinson, “What Is the Iran Nuclear Deal?”
Richard Haass, “The New Nuclear Era”
From Our Guests
J. Andrés Gannon, “If Russia Goes Nuclear: Three Scenarios for the Ukraine War,” CFR.org
Rupal N. Mehta, Delaying Doomsday: The Politics of Nuclear Reversal, Oxford University Press
Jonathan Tirone, “U.S. Sees a New Era of Nuclear Risk Dawning in China-Russia Cooperation,” Bloomberg
“What Happens if Nuclear Weapons Are Used?,” International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
Watch and Listen
“Plan A,” Princeton University Program on Science and Global Security