Pursuing nuclear weapons makes nations less, not more, secure

Pursuing nuclear weapons makes nations less, not more, secure | The Hill

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FILE – In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, technicians work at the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, as officials and media visit the site, near Arak, 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Dec. 23, 2019. Iranian officials now speak openly about something long denied by Tehran as it enriches uranium at its closest-ever levels to weapons-grade material: Iran is ready to build an atomic weapon at will. (Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP, File)

These are harsh times for arms control and non-proliferation. 

No new arms control initiatives are to be seen anywhere, and Russia’s cavalier disdain for the treaties it has signed, combined with China’s refusal to participate in this process ensures the continuation of this forbidding prospect. Moreover, Moscow’s violation of numerous treaties by virtue of its invasion of Ukraine includes violation of both the New START Treaty and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). At the same time, Moscow makes repeated nuclear threats that may be of diminishing credibility but which have inhibited Western responses

Meanwhile, proliferation is continuing in North Korea and Iran without any impediments. Iran reportedly possesses enough enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons. North Korea, according to most estimates, has approximately 40-60 nuclear weapons and is busily building a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) and shorter-range tactical nuclear missiles. As a result, North Korea is increasingly able to threaten the continental U.S., South Korea and Japan, despite 30 years of Western efforts to prevent Pyongyang from obtaining these weapons and capabilities. Both these states can point to Ukraine, as well as Libya and Iraq’s fate, as exemplifying what happens when a country voluntarily renounces nuclear weapons.   

These trends, in turn, are already generating counter-pressures among neighbors to emulate the example and also go nuclear. Saudi Arabia’s flirtation with nuclear weapons has long been known, and should Iran openly achieve nuclear weapon status, it may well follow suit. Similarly, thanks to North Korea’s nuclearization, unceasing missile tests and Putin’s nuclear saber-rattling, South Korean public opinion in favor of nuclearization has “exploded” in the last year. 

It would be much better if these nuclear malefactors followed a different example, namely that of Kazakhstan, which renounced nuclear weapons and pioneered in persuading its Central Asian neighbors to agree to create a nuclear weapon-free zone. As a result, Kazakhstan has actually strengthened its security, international standing and economic prospects — something that Iran and North Korea have signally failed to do and show little interest in pursuing. Guided by the vision of its founding president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, and chastened by the recognition of the catastrophic consequences of Soviet nuclear testing in the country, upon becoming independent, Kazakhstan repudiated nuclear weapons and testing.   

This far-sighted and enlightened decision established at a single stroke Kazakhstan’s respectability and credibility, enhanced its security and international standing and laid the groundwork for its attractiveness as a global ally to other governments and international organizations. Those outcomes also contributed in no small measure to it becoming a magnet for foreign investment

Despite their nuclear programs, neither Iran nor North Korea has done any of these things on a global scale. Nor is it likely under their present governmental systems or mentalities that they will begin to do so. Paradoxically, the quest for weapons of mass destruction, including in North Korea’s case, potential biological and chemical weapons capability, has, if anything, magnified both nations’ own insecurities and those of all their neighbors, which have more than enough capability of their own to follow suit. 

As a result of these policies, Northeast Asia and the Middle East are two of the most dangerous regions in the world today, while Central Asia, though it faces the threat of Islamic terrorism from Afghanistan and serious environmental challenges, is much calmer than anyone would have expected 30 years ago when those states became independent. This outcome owes much to Nazarbayev’s vision and statesmanship. 

But the importance of the Kazakh example does not end here. Nazarbayev’s legacy provides a basis for progress because it shows aspirants to nuclear weapons that, rather than trying to intimidate their neighbors and interlocutors, there is an alternative path to security, status and even the possibility of prosperity. Also, it is not only the states pursuing nuclear weapons that are insecure. The obsession with insecurity seems to make neighbors just as insecure, whether it’s Ukraine in Russia’s case, Japan and South Korea in North Korea’s case, or all of the Middle East in Iran’s case.  

For this and many other reasons, we must continue to champion the cause of nonproliferation. Doing so works to remove one of the major factors for the perpetual uncertainty that afflicts too many regions of the world today, and even leads states to believe they can launch wars with impunity. 

Nazarbayev grasped that trying to possess nuclear weapons neither benefitted Kazakhstan nor enhanced its security. Nonproliferation can give Northeast Asia and the Middle East infinitely more than nuclear weapons can offer. We must continue to champion Nazarbayev’s insight to reverse the trend toward nuclearization, and with it, the trend toward war.

Stephen Blank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). He is a former professor of Russian national security studies and national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and a former MacArthur fellow at the U.S. Army War College. Blank is an independent consultant focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. 


China nuclear

Iran nuclear program


Nursultan Nazarbayev

Politics of the United States

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