WASHINGTON, DC – The shocking thing about nuclear weapons is that they seem to have lost their power to shock. While the nuclear deal that was just reached with Iran in Lausanne might suggest otherwise and is very good news, that effort should not obscure the bad news elsewhere. The momentum toward a nuclear-weapon-free world driven by US President Barack Obama’s landmark 2009 speech in Prague, having faltered for the last few years, has now gone into sharp reverse.
When Russia annexed Crimea last year, President Vladimir Putin announced his readiness to put Russian nuclear forces on alert, and even signaled plans to “surprise the West with our new developments in offensive nuclear weapons.” The world barely stirred. Meanwhile, China and India are steadily increasing the size of their nuclear arsenals, and Pakistan is doing so even faster, even spelling out plans to combine battlefield nukes with conventional weapons. Again, the world shrugs.
For its part, the United States plans to spend $355 billion upgrading and modernizing its vast nuclear arsenal over the next ten years. Far from moving toward disarmament, the intention seems to be to maintain and enhance every component of America’s current land, sea, and airborne nuclear capability. There was more amusement than alarm at a conference of 800 nuclear specialists in Washington, DC, in March, when a senior Air Force general, eerily channeling George C. Scott in “Dr. Strangelove,” offered a nostrils-bared defense of “an ability to allow no adversary to have sanctuary anywhere in the world.”
Spooked by Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, North Korea’s erratic intransigence, and China’s new foreign-policy assertiveness, US allies and partners in East Asia and Europe have rushed back to unthinking embrace of Cold War assumptions about the deterrent utility of nuclear weapons and their central importance in security policy.