The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author’s and do not represent any official policy or position of the U.S. Department of Defense or any affiliated U.S. agencies.
On August 13, 2021, two days before the fall of Afghanistan, I sat on a bench in the Pentagon’s courtyard that faced the portion of the building that was hit on September 11, 2001. I was reading Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars.”
I had been working as a legislative analyst at the Pentagon for just a few weeks before being designated as the cross-agency liaison for information requests on the status of Afghanistan—an assignment that placed me in view of two decades’ worth of entangled strategy and failed democratization. While working across the defense enterprise to gather answers for Congress, I began to think about the Afghanistan War not as a prolonged threat, but as an evolutionary threat that demanded attention to the ways that power dynamics, technological advances, and the essence of decision-making affects changes to our security doctrines. In Woodward’s book, former President Barack Obama related Afghanistan to nuclear proliferation, having been quoted as saying: “We absorbed [9/11] and we are stronger…a potential game changer would be a nuclear weapon in the hands of terrorists.”
I realized something critical while reading this. For the many that sat at that bench before me, no matter the conflict, no matter the actors involved, nuclear weapons always compounded existing and emerging threats. Terrorism in the conventional context was not the greatest emerging threat to peace and security in 2001. Nuclear terrorism was. Today’s emerging challenges of a Taliban takeover, Russia violating state sovereignty, and the rise of cyberhacks are not the greatest emerging threats to peace and security. They are a nuclear-armed Taliban, a Russia that integrates nuclear warfare with conventional warfare, and cyber hacks against nuclear systems.
My time assessing how wars evolve periodically—how localized entanglements become global, and how advances in technology paradoxically increase vulnerabilities—have given me a new perspective on the question, what is the greatest emerging threat to international peace and security? It is, and has been, the consistent and evolving threat of nuclear warfare. I see three key concerns that better capture nuclear weapons as emerging threats: states are threatening to proliferate or evolutionize their arsenals; nuclear weapons are integrating with conventional warfare; and cyberhacks are threatening nuclear security.
First, the international community is witnessing states punch well above their weight thanks to nuclear weapons. In my thesis, Reassessing Why States Build or Forgo Nuclear Weapons, I compiled three reasons why states proliferate: security guarantees, international prestige, and political advantages. France and Pakistan are emblematic of the ways that nuclear weapons assist in garnering international prestige, bolstering national security, and facilitating deals that are advantageous to foreign policy objectives—all reasons why the Iranian government is seeking nuclear power. Their efforts, however, threaten a nuclear-cascade in the Middle East.
While the 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement was not perfect, it represented a means to momentarily install control mechanisms both within the country and the region more broadly. As Scott Sagan eloquently put in 2006, America struggled to constrain a proliferating Iran because of a kind of “historical amnesia,” which he saw as leading to “both creeping fatalism about the United States’ ability to keep Iran from getting the bomb and excessive optimism about the United States’ ability to contain Iran if it does become a nuclear power.” This problem of proliferation fatalism and deterrence optimism is seen through withering arms control agreements, the conclusion of bilateral efforts to uphold nonproliferation diplomacy, and deep fissures between Democrats and Republicans on achieving the goal of nuclear nonproliferation. As of recent, Iran has executed meaningful advancements in their nuclear program, with reports from September declaring that the regime was extremely close to having enough fissile material to field a single nuclear weapon. Yet, concerns that the new Iranian administration is delaying negotiation talks in Vienna in order to build up their nuclear program are diminishing the belief that the JCPOA can be restored and strengthened.
Meanwhile, China is quickly advancing its arsenal through astonishing missile developments and defensive capabilities, which culminated in its August test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile that can negate U.S. defense systems designed to destroy incoming ballistic missiles. China is also planning to quadruple its stockpile of deliverable nuclear weapons by 2030. Contrarian optimists like Kenneth Waltz, who once argued that a steady increase in the number of nuclear weapons states would foster stability by deterring states from enacting war, might view this event with hopeful anticipation. But proliferation skeptics like Sagan, and myself, would look towards the unexpected rapidity of China’s escalation as a grave cause for concern, especially in East Asia, where an unstable Kim regime is flaunting an unusually-detailed list of weapon developments said to counter foreign aggression. Waltz lived in the halcyon of the 1990s, when more or less stable leaders across the world ebbed from desires to join the nuclear club and instead vouched for greater arms control efforts. The rise of populist dictators in states that possess or could acquire the bomb today, particularly Kim Jong-un, adds a worrying layer of unpredictability as to how they will react to a rapidly advancing nuclear power as their neighbor.
Second, President Putin is integrating nuclear tactics with conventional warfare in his escalate-to-deescalate strategy, which would employ low-yield nuclear “demonstrations” in conventional conflicts. This grey-zone strategy aims to deter states from threatening to use maximum force. While it gained particular coverage during the Trump years, its concept has been in place well-before that time. As of late, the international community has changed significantly, and the circumstances that Putin dictates as necessary to use limited nuclear war一one, as a retaliatory measure against the use of nuclear weapons or other WMDs, and the other being when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy一are increasingly challenging to define. That stream of hopeful optimism, in which Cold War nostalgia granted a belief that nuclear deterrence is robust even in the most dire of circumstances, has blinded many to the idea that Putin would indeed use nuclear force against U.S. allies if the conditions, as ever unclear they are, lined up.
Lastly, and more than anything, nuclear weapons are an emerging threat due to cyberwarfare. Military personnel now defend against adversaries hacking nuclear security complexes or storage facilities and splintering critical lines of communication. However, the global capacity to address and prevent this threat is limited. The novelty of this new arena coupled with technology’s omnipresence means that there are ample opportunities to infiltrate systems in both military and government spaces. That was demonstrated almost one year ago exactly, when the U.S. Department of Energy and its National Nuclear Security Administration were hacked as part of a suspected Russian cyber-attack that obstructed a number of federal government agencies.
The international community needs a new approach to nonproliferation treaties. Crafting tailored, bilateral treaties in addition to multinational efforts to promote nonproliferation would address concerns of power imbalances between emerging and major nuclear powers. For example, the U.S and Russia have failed at incentivizing China to join New START because the Chinese would be held to the same standards as two of the greatest nuclear powers. The U.S. would find greater success in limiting Beijing’s arsenal through a bilateral treaty that considered China’s current nuclear status. This approach would better address nuclear arms build ups and threatening strategies, such as the escalate-to-deescalate strategy, while enhancing peacebuilding efforts to cooperate on securing nuclear sites globally. Lastly, there is a need to understand the incentives of non-state actors to drive change in nuclear usages via cyberwarfare, and evolve tools and standards to meet those challenges over the next century.
To Sagan’s point, “As nuclear proliferation comes to be seen as inevitable, wishful thinking can make its consequences seem less severe.” I often return to that bench at the Pentagon to contemplate what lies ahead for America’s foreign policy pursuits. And with each concept that arises in my thoughts, I can think of nuclear weapons compounding that issue significantly. The greatest emerging threat has been with the international community for almost a century, demonstrating the remarkable adaptability, evolution, and advancements that have occurred to sustain its threat-protraction.