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Shelving the Cold War’s Prized Possession?

Despite being called the “number-one threat” and the “single greatest problem [of] the world,” according to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively, on-air time for discussing nuclear weapons culminated in a whopping twelve minutes.

In a fascinating post written in September by my friend Luke Radice at Nuclear Threat Initiative, leading experts claim that global nuclear risks are higher today than they were during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which raised the readiness level of U.S. military forces to DEFCON 2 – one step below launching a nuclear strike.

While the Cold War saw the topic of nuclear weapons dominating the Presidential debate stage, accounting for nearly 50% of discussion on foreign policy, the 2016 and 2020 Presidential races looked very different. Despite being called the “number-one threat” and the “single greatest problem [of] the world,” according to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, respectively, on-air time for discussing nuclear weapons culminated in a whopping twelve minutes.

If America is purportedly approaching DEFCON 1, which would position us at maximum nuclear readiness, why is such little consideration, cross-party dialogue, and global cooperation given for nuclear proliferation? Is it simply not as considerable as we may think? Or, has the mysticism and morbid fascination the world has towards nuclear weapons dissipated?

In short: the world is, indeed, teetering on the precipice of nuclear catastrophe, that of which media portrayal sheds seldom light on.

For one, a world without nuclear weapons is near impossible to achieve now that they’re in existence. About 2,000 nukes reside on high-alert status around the world, which historically means that minimal stimuli is needed in order to launch some form of attack or retaliation – a further nod to the significant margin of error present in nuclear-release technology, such as nuclear submarines. Nina Tannenwald, the Director of the International Relations Program at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, claims that accidents and miscalculations have in fact been alarmingly high throughout the decades, compounding the qualitative nuclear arms race ensuing between countries like the United States, China, and Russia, or India and Pakistan.

While former President Barack Obama pursued important disarmament measures during his time in office, including shelving a controversial plan administered by President Bush to place strategic missile defense interceptors in Europe, initiating the New START treaty, which is up for renewal next year, and commencing the Nuclear Posture Review, most of these turned out to be unsubstantial.

The Pentagon remained entrenched in a Cold War headspace that emphasized first-strike capabilities. Towards the end of Obama’s first term, he had signed an agreement to expand America’s nuclear arsenal by constructing an entirely new generation of deployment mechanisms and bombs at a hefty price tag of $1 trillion. 

New technologies and wavering commitments on global arms treaties, the New START Treaty being an exemplar, alongside the rise of rogue countries threatening nuclear war provides zero incentive for states to achieve Nuclear Zero. Geopolitical tensions have heighted. New arms races have emerged. Importantly, the “nuclear taboo,” a focal point in Tannenwald’s research which claims that it is simply unthinkable to deploy nuclear weapons, is weakening. That is, it is no longer a taboo for a country to build a nuclear arsenal. On the contrary, nuclear weapons are a tool for legitimacy, political mobility, and an emblem of economic and scientific success.

There is simply too much uncertainty and too little incentive to denuclearize. It begs intergovernmental agreement, which has not always been afforded. The Pentagon, for one, opposed Obama’s nuclear-free world as it retained that America needed a large nuclear arsenal to demonstrate their defence capabilities for their allies. On top of this, the State Department believed the United Nations’ campaign to quickly denuclearize the world detracted from their more slowed, systematic approach.

What’s more, a plan to safely achieve a world free of nuclear weapons would still see the preservation of nuclear blueprints. That is, states need to leverage the fact that they could rebuild their arsenals at any moment should an opponent act on malign intent.

Bearing in mind nuclear weapons will remain in the military sphere for quite some time, what are the largest threats faced today in the nuclear world? Two things stand out in my mind:

A rising nuclear China

In a previous article, I had mentioned that China will double its nuclear stockpile from around 200 warheads to 400 in the next decade. China has one of the most diverse missile arsenals in the world, which makes their nuclear expansion an important stimulus factoring into what could become a Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0.

China’s new generation of missiles are dual-capable, which means that they could be armed with either nuclear or conventional warheads. The ambiguity around conventional versus nuclear missiles poses a significant threat, as it begs leaders to make decisions off of unclear data – that being whether or not a missile is in fact carrying nuclear weapons. 

The PLA has commenced its first nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarine, fulfilling the second of the three legs of the “nuclear triad” – air, land, and oceanic means of deploying nuclear weapons. To be sure, the PLA is working on developing air-launched ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear warheads, which would complete the triad.

What’s more, China’s language is edging away from its historic “no first use” posture towards a “launch on warning” policy, something former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) called a “hair-trigger” approach. Under this new policy, China would be prepared to attack with minimal stimulants.

Nuclear discourse has circulated around America and Russia getting China to sign onto the New START treaty prior to its renewal next year. A hotly contested endeavor, China is by no means prepared to disarm their nuclear arsenal, which is a mouse in comparison to America’s and Russia’s and, importantly, is still in infancy. Failure to convert this treaty into a trilateral agreement would allow for China to continue expanding their arsenal and pose a significant threat beyond nuclear use, extending to an ever-more powerful rising hegemon. In addition, as Scott Sagan outlines it in his three reasons why states build the bomb, security risks posed by China are likely to trigger some sort of military response to neighboring countries, such as North Korea, India, and thus Pakistan.

This is likely what we will see. There is virtually no chance that China will join New START, which will make the implementation of trilateral measures to control China’s nuclear ascent of chief importance. Moreover, I believe the future Biden Administration should focus on two things: discussing with Russia the adequacy of the New START provisions, which will diverge into the technological and verification networks. The next administration needs to view China as the nuclear power it is by creating a system of management and cooperation between the US and China. To quote Richard Haass “that is what arms control is all about.”

Nuclear Terrorism

The nonuse of nuclear weapons since 1945 is the single most important accomplishment of the nuclear age. Today, a compounding deed will be preventing nuclear information from falling into the hands of terrorist organizations, a pursuit that is more challenging than may be expected.

While in fact the majority of terrorist organizations are not predicted to inflict damage far beyond that of 9/11, Al Qaeda and the global jihadist network pose a different threat. For certain, they are focused on a global struggle that requires the level of immense power afforded by nuclear weapons, making the pursuit to obtain their blueprints a crusade of sorts. The actuality of this ensuing is considerable. “A small but dedicated and resourceful terrorist group could very plausibly design and build at least a crude nuclear bomb,” claimed European security analyst Karl-Heinz Kamp back in 2005. “And the danger that they could get the nuclear material needed to do so is very real.” Fifteen years later, and NTI’s Nuclear Security Index finds that the security of nuclear materials, while in fact should maintain a high level of priority amid ongoing wars and significant security apertures, has, contrastingly, slowed.

Since 2018, the number of countries with worsening nuclear security scores has increased, while those that were seeing improvements in this capacity has dwindled – a testament to the influence of external divisions, including COVID19 breaking up important cross-regional efforts and worsening geopolitical tensions, even among those who had been showing signs of nonproliferation advancements.

What’s more, nuclear war has been prevented in large by deterrence mechanisms afforded under the architecture of nuclear treaties and the existence of the nation-state. Yet, terrorist organizations are notably absent from nuclear treaties, many of which are outdated. And they are without the precise territorial boundaries that go hand-in-hand with economic, political, and societal structures that are imperative for governments to preserve.

All of this paves the way for global jihadist networks, who have had their eyes on nuclear wepaons well-prior to 2001, with bin Laden referring to the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction as a “religious duty,” to move closer towards nuclear achievement. Repeated attempts to steal nuclear information and infiltrate networks through engineers and nuclear physicists is all too real, and in fact has been occurring with formidity throughout this decade.


While Presidential candidates today may spend a mere twelve minutes talking about the threats faced by nuclear weapons, it by no means correlates to reality. We are in the midst of considerable geopolitical and economic shifts that will pave the way for changes imperceivable to many. The desire for nuclear achievement by America’s largest geopolitical threat, China, and by an expansive jihadist network merits taking a microscope to the present status of nuclear weapons, putting into question just how likely the world is to see the resurgence of an arms race.

Unfortunately, history will not provide the sort of guide conventionally given in other military realms. Each nuclear weapons state has acquired its arsenal for a wide variety of reasons, of which has additionally triggered a unique set of consequences. Should China remain unchecked in its growth, the guesswork as to what will emerge from such actions will be expansive and presumably contested. The same goes for jihadist networks, though they operate under and entirely different set of rules and regulations, as nuclear treaties to date exclude third-party actors.

One thing should be certain: nuclear weapons by no means should be shelved as a Cold War phenomena. The fear that engulfed President Kennedy in the 1960s should continue to steer political figures today, especially as Joe Biden enters into a historical moment in the realm of nuclear policy. 

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By Taylor Fairless

Taylor graduated summa cum laude from UCLA in 2021 with a degree in History and a minor in Global Studies. Her principal focuses are on international security in Asia and Europe. She is pursuing a career in arms control and international security.

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