Dr John C Hulsman is the Founder and Managing Partner of John C Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk firm. He is also a life member of the US Council on Foreign Relations.
As Max Hastings’ hugely enjoyable most recent book, Abyss: The Cuban Missile Crisis 1962 makes abundantly clear, during the Cold War millions of people went to bed terrified of a nuclear conflict breaking out. However, since the implosion of the Soviet Union, the world has increasingly perceived the threat of nuclear war as highly unlikely.
Yet today, as one analyst wrote, “for the first time in the nuclear era, one country used …nuclear threats…to deter other countries from intervening in a large-scale conventional war of aggression. We have entered the age of ‘predatory nuclear-weapon states’”.
As Vladimir Putin issues his bloodcurdling threats to take Russia’s war in Ukraine nuclear, with great power competition once again on the rise, there is a need to revisit our assumptions about the potential for the use of nuclear weapons, as the chances they are used has risen alarmingly. The only way to effectively guard against such a doomsday scenario from unfolding is to strengthen the existing international regime on the issue.
In an August 1st letter to participants of a conference on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), Putin remarked “there can be no winners in a nuclear war, and it should never be unleashed.” This was a blatant effort by the Russian leader to walk back from his earlier warning during a Feb 24 speech when he launched the ongoing war on Ukraine.
At the time, in a pointed reference to the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal, he warned the west that any attempts to interfere in Moscow’s military campaign against its Slavic neighbor would lead “to such consequences that you have never encountered in your history.” Days later, to underline the threat, he placed Russia’s nuclear forces on high alert.
Six months on, Russia’s dismal kinetic performance in the battlespace has been thoroughly exposed to the world, and Moscow is reeling under the weight of massive sanctions. In increasing desperation, Russian senior spokesmen have alluded to the use of tactical nukes – or worse.
The CIA Director’s, William Burns, in his first public speech in April, warned as much when he said that Putin could resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons if he felt Russia was facing a catastrophic loss of its war in Ukraine. Three weeks later, the CIA chief again noted that “given the kind of saber-rattling we’ve heard from the Russian leadership” Washington “can’t take lightly,” as the possibility of Russia engaging in a low-yield nuclear strike grows.
While the risk of Russia engaging in nuclear attacks has increased because of its war in Ukraine, it certainly isn’t the only concern on this front. More recently, in the wake of escalating tensions over Taiwan, a U.S.-China war became possible. As Beijing’s conventional military capabilities are weaker than Washington’s, the same logic applies: in an attempt to avoid defeat, which could also translate into the fatal weakening of their regime, the Chinese could decide to go nuclear.
Unfortunately, great powers aren’t the only ones that could in certain situations resort to the use of tactical nuclear weapons; several regional actors could also engage in their use. Just last month, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un thundered that his country is ready to deploy its nuclear forces in the event that a U.S-backed South Korea decided to launch pre-emptive strikes against Pyongyang.
Likewise, given the parlous state of South Asian geopolitics, the risks of a nuclear exchange in the region are rising. Due to its long-standing conventional disparity with arch-rival India, Pakistan has retained a policy of nuclear first use. But now, with Islamabad’s economy historically at its weakest point amid growing security challenges, especially from Islamist extremists and the rise of the Hindu nationalist regime in neighboring India, the risks of nuclear conflict have increased.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, regardless of whether there is a new nuclear agreement or not, Iran can be expected to continue to pursue nuclear weapons, especially as the regime is weakening internally while maintaining an aggressive foreign policy.
At a time when we have numerous nuclear flashpoints, it is critical to look back at the past successes of denuclearisation. Of course, they are only a handful of such cases, which include Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and South Africa. Nonetheless, they each represent important lessons that can help strengthen efforts towards present international nuclear security.
The Kazakh case is particularly noteworthy in terms of a new country that had emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union and found itself in possession of the world’s fourth largest arsenal. Hundreds of thousands died of radiation poisoning or developed cancer and mutations as a results of over 450 Soviet nuclear tests in the massive Semey (Semipalatinsk) nuclear testing ground during the Cold War.
Not only did the Eurasian nation renounce nuclear weapons, but it also emerged as a leader in international denuclearization efforts, as is evident from the first executive order of the former President, Nursultan Nazarbayev, upon independence: to shut down Semey. Unlike other sites, it has remained shuttered forever.
Nazarbayev’s 2009 initiative to get the United Nations to declare August 29 as the International Day against Nuclear Tests was unanimously adopted General Assembly resolution. The world recently commemorated this important date.
Though symbolic in nature, such moves go a long way in mobilising the collective action necessary to enhance international norms critical to global non-proliferation. They augment the usual multilateral diplomacy that is faced with serious limitations with regard to constraining the behavior of states that find themselves in existential situations. Leaders of malign regimes will be far more likely to be deterred from a nuclear escalation if they know that the international community is unlikely to let them get away with their decisions.
Here is where the Nobel Peace Prize can once again play a key role in shaping the global conversation: after all, it was created in the first place to foster the global pursuit of peace. In the past three decades, however, the annual prize has only twice been awarded in recognition of efforts towards nuclear security. The first was in 2005 when the International Atomic Energy Agency and its then director, Mohamed El-Baradei, received the vaunted peace award, and in 2017 when the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons was the recipients of the prestigious prize.
There is no greater present threat to global security than the potential for nuclear war – the risk of which is likely to rise in an increasingly multi-polar global environment, especially with the dangerous degradation the rules-based international order. In of itself the Nobel Peace Prize is a recognition of the efforts of individuals and institutions furthering international peace. The norms that it shapes in the process are even more important. Today it is critical that the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee help counters the escalating threats of nuclear conflict, remembering the pioneers who bravely have forsaken developing nuclear arsenals.