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The Real Problem Underlying the Global Nuclear Conundrum

The nuclear threat has always been and continues to be a formidable and perplexing problem. Surrounding and intertwined in this debate is a set of complex and often opaque issues. The nuclear debate is about global and regional issues, as well as moral and technological factors. Domestic political considerations as well as geopolitical dynamics also are present. However, psychological factors, such as mutual mistrust and insecurity, lie at the foundation of it all (this is so with the U.S. and China, and is keenly on display in the nuclearized Indo-Pakistan conflict).

The more recent nuclear weapons proliferators (notably, Pakistan, North Korea, and then nuclear aspirant Iran) tend to receive the lion’s share of attention in policy debates and the public discourse. Indeed, there is little disagreement that these newer nuclear powers are a major part of the problem of our global nuclear conundrum. But they are not the core issue. The real problem that keeps the world mired in a state of perpetual global nuclear insecurity is the intransigence of the earlier nuclear powers, namely, the United States and Russia. Until these two national actors, along with ascendant military power China, are pressed to disavow their goals of global nuclear hegemony, we shall remain mired in this nuclear dilemma.

Confusion, conflict, and non-cooperation, which have come to define contemporary US domestic affairs, are increasingly the hallmarks of global affairs a quarter-century after the end of the Cold War. Our country, previously the guarantor of the post-WWII political and economic order, the world’s first nuclear weapons state, and then the leading actor in guiding post-Cold War affairs, is leading the way, especially during the Donald J. Trump era, in deconstructing whatever level of global governance that has been put in place. Observer Richard Haass writes of the “disarray” that has arisen from the unravelling of international agreements and alliances and the overall abdication of American leadership and regional and global engagement.1 This trend cannot be disputed. Since the end of the Cold War and under two Republican presidents, the United States has removed itself from important bilateral and multilateral accords -- the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Agreement, the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, also known as the Iran nuclear agreement), and probably soon to come, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These moves are being made while U.S. counterparts like China, Russia, other BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries as well as emerging powers like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, are establishing and furthering a host of multilateral initiatives. Domestically and globally, the Trump administration engages in politics and implements policies that are remarkably divisive, ill-considered, and unproductive. Indeed, the consequences of the ‘make America great again’ framework will have lasting impact.

Many would like to believe that our leaders across the world would work hard to achieve lasting and genuine movement on a path toward global nuclear security. It is difficult to imagine that this will occur in the foreseeable future. Arguably, the JCPOA forestalled a war with Iran. But now, as the agreement unravels, how will Israel and Western powers respond as Iran takes steps that could again bring the country to the threshold of becoming a fledgling nuclear state? Some observers argued that the ABM Treaty had outlived its usefulness. But one wonders what will be the consequences for other nuclear agreements. What will ultimately become of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the bilateral agreement between the U.S. and Russia that deals with long-range nuclear weapons? Why is the United Nations (UN) nuclear treaty (Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the Nuclear Ban Treaty) that was promulgated last year being disregarded by the established nuclear powers?

And then there’s the North Korean nuclear conundrum, which is undoubtedly the most perplexing nuclear problem of all. To be sure, a summit between President Trump and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un would be a positive development in international affairs. This is so even if such a meeting (assuming that it takes place) yielded no immediate concrete results. But as this meeting comes together, there are important areas of concern. Based on available information and the analyses of expert observers, both clarity and a framework are lacking, and this is on the eve of this meeting. In my own estimation, there are three critical questions for US-North Korean diplomacy and the upcoming meeting:

  1. What kind of, and how much “daylight” exists between whatever is the US operational definition of denuclearization and that of the North Korean counterparts?

  2. What is the American side willing to give up, especially on the military side, in an eventual bilateral or multilateral agreement?

  3. Are President Trump and his Chinese and Russian counterparts prepared to engage in the give-and-take that will be necessary for the success of any bilateral or multilateral agreement on Korean Peninsula security, or, will the trend of major power mistrust and non-cooperation persist?

I don’t want to overstate this point, but the political and diplomatic theatre in the lead-up to the planned summit (even the announcement of a future meeting between Kim and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad) raises serious questions about what “success” would look like for US-North Korean diplomacy and its prospects. Then there are the well chronicled and obvious nuclear double standards and even unrealistic demands for denuclearization that are being made from the US side. Just this week, several leading Democrats in the US Senate sent a letter to President Trump that pointedly called for complete denuclearization of North Korea and “anytime,” “anywhere” inspections by outside observers. Much that was stated in this letter closely mirrored sentiments recently expressed by US National Security Advisor John Bolton, to which the North Korean leaders had strong negative reactions. As Jeffrey Sachs observes, and as writers like Joseph Gerson have chronicled through the years, the United States (and even its ally Israel) wants to have it both ways regarding nuclear security: other actors are expected to abide by the provisions of the global nuclear regime, notably, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires signers to take active steps to denuclearize, while the U.S. maintains global nuclear dominance.

Is it reasonable to expect our country to maintain nuclear hegemony in the contemporary period? Is that what we want, and if so, how far are we willing to go to forcefully deny nuclear capability to undesirable actors? In my own estimation, the recent inter-Korean diplomacy is the only real bright spot on the Peninsula, and the major powers should bolster those efforts. If nuclear diplomacy on the Korean Peninsula breaks down yet again, it will be due principally to irreconcilable differences both of demands as well as expectations.

To be sure, the forgoing is a bleak assessment of the current state of affairs and prospects for a breakthrough in the global nuclear conundrum. But all is not lost. People throughout the world deserve much better from our leaders. We need to press harder where we can, and especially at the ballot box, for accountability and for pathways toward achieving nuclear security and ultimately, phased disarmament. The established nuclear powers, led by the U.S., Russia, and China, can do much better to lead by example and demonstrate genuine commitments to nuclear disarmament. The established nuclear powers can work harder to temper the power-driven policies and hypocrisy that are gradually eroding the global nuclear security regime. Moreover, people can press leaders for broader national control over nuclear weapons and their use; that is to say, authorization beyond political executives and the military. In the case of the United States, the Congress can, and should, place greater scrutiny on the president’s use of executive agreements (this is a longstanding issue). Congress also needs to move forward with urgency on a new Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) bill. The established nuclear powers and nuclear aspirants are bringing the world closer to the first use of such weapons in conflict since 1945. This is the epitome of global irresponsibility. In a recent article in the journal Survival, Paul Meyer and Tom Sauer reflected on the growing “global impatience” among members of the world community with the lack of progress on nuclear disarmament. It is time for a sincere and straightforward commitment to dealing with the issues that are hastening the erosion of the global nuclear security regime.


1On the other side of the coin, there is the gradual depletion of resources and personnel devoted to the US diplomatic mission, as examined in Ronan Farrow, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018).


Farrow, Ronan, War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2018).

Gerson, Joseph, Empire and the Bomb: How the U.S. Uses Nuclear Weapons to Dominate the World (Ann Arbor: Pluto Press, 2007).

Haass, Richard, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York: Penguin Books, 2018).

Meyer, Paul, and Tom Sauer, “The Nuclear Ban Treaty: A Sign of Global Impatience,” Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Volume 60, Edition 2, April-May 2018, 61-72.

Sachs, Jeffrey D., “Denuclearization Means the US, Too,” Project Syndicate, 7 May 2018,

Gregory Hall

Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce

University of Kentucky

Lexington, Kentucky

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