en English

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.
Says More…

This week in Say More, PS talks with Joseph S. Nye, Jr., an emeritus professor at Harvard Kennedy School, a former US assistant secretary of defense, and the author, most recently, of A Life in the American Century.

Project Syndicate: In your new memoir, A Life in the American Century, you describe implementing US President Jimmy Carter’s policy of ensuring that plutonium formed from uranium in nuclear reactors was not reprocessed and reused. Is there a comparable rule or initiative that could help mitigate nuclear risks today, when, as you recently wrote, “conditions seem especially dire”? What are the most glaring gaps in current nonproliferation efforts?

Joseph S. Nye, Jr.: The beginning of the 1970s was marked by widespread fear of oil shortages and the belief that the world did not have enough uranium to power all the nuclear reactors we would need to replace the oil. We were headed for an economy based on plutonium – a weaponizable material. Some predicted that dozens of countries would soon possess nuclear weapons. Yet today, there are just nine nuclear-weapons states – still too many, but far fewer than expected – and the implementation of an internationally safeguarded “once through” fuel cycle (which left plutonium locked up in the stored spent fuel) is a major reason why.

Today, the threat of proliferation comes less from a new technology than from the loss of credibility in extended deterrence. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, has given some countries second thoughts about their non-nuclear status. Restoring the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella – not least by making clear to our allies that we are not embracing isolationism – has now become urgent.