Global Nuclear Order in 2019: A Review
Dr Kapil Patil

The year 2019 has precipitated two important trends in the global nuclear order namely, an unstable deterrence environment, and worsening tensions between nuclear and non-nuclear weapon possessor states over the pace of nuclear reductions. According to Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), the bygone year marked a “new abnormal” in the “global security situation” marked by the dangerous departure of the U.S. from “leadership role in designing and supporting global agreements that advanced a safer and healthier planet”. Especially in the realm of nuclear non-proliferation, Washington’s commitment to steer the regime has increasingly come under the scanner due to worsening regional proliferation dynamics including in the East and West Asian regions.

In East Asia, North Korea’s short-range missile tests and its threats to resume long-range missiles and nuclear weapons tests, after the failure of the Hanoi Summit, is yet again pushing the region into the sphere of instability. At the second summit meeting between President Trump and Kim Jong-Un at Hanoi in February 2019, the two sides failed to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough over reciprocal steps to North Korea’s denuclearisation. As part of the summit diplomacy, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un demanded relief from sanctions in return for Pyongyang’s “practical measures” such as exercising moratorium over nuclear and missile testing, and the closure of Pungye-ri nuclear test site. Washington’s refusal to ease the sanctions before Pyongyang’s acceptance on additional steps to “denuclearization” however, resulted in an inconclusive Summit.

Since then, Pyongyang has conducted as many as five short-range missile tests in direct violation of the UNSC resolutions. Similarly, in West Asia, the tensions between U.S.-Iran have been on the rise after Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018. In September 2019, the two countries came close to the brink of a military confrontation after the U.S. accused Tehran of launching a drone strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations. Washington’s ‘Maximum Pressure’ policy against Iran has not only backfired but emboldened the Iranian regime to risk a regional confrontation.

The escalating regional tensions thus cast serious doubts over Trump administration’s commitment to steer the global non-proliferation regime beyond narrow partisan interests.

The year 2019 also saw the nuclear deterrence order come under great duress with Washington announcing a unilateral withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). The Trump administration strongly accused Russia of violating the INF treaty provisions and testing missiles which were prohibited under the INF treaty. Besides INF, the Trump administration is also dithering on the extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New-START), which is set to expire in 2021. The uncertain future of the global arms control architecture and the end restrictions is leading the way for the return of hitherto prohibited class of weapons.

For instance, in 2019, President Vladimir Putin announced a series of new nuclear military capabilities, including a nuclear torpedo and a nuclear cruise missile, neither of which are covered the existing arms control agreements. The U.S., on its part, too announced plans to test previously restricted intermediate-range weapons. The continuous modernisation of the nuclear arsenals and delivery systems, along with the growing salience of nuclear weapons in their strategic doctrines is thus likely to render the nuclear order more unstable in time to come.

The bygone year has also seen strategic experts raising concerns over the disruptive impact of emerging technologies. A rapid transformation in various ‘disruptive technologies’, such as artificial intelligence, cyber weapons, hypersonic vehicles and persistent surveillance, by themselves or in combination with one another, have been eroding global nuclear stability and impinging on the nature of deterrence. These technologies are increasingly threatening the survivability of nuclear weapons, and, in turn, undermining the confidence in a nuclear weapon state’s ability to effectively deploy them in retaliation.

Amidst the uncertain global nuclear governance, there has also been a widening rift between nuclear weapon possessors and non-nuclear weapon states over the pace of nuclear disarmament. With U.S. and Russian relentlessly modernizing their nuclear arsenals, the non-nuclear weapons states have expressed grave dissatisfaction over the failure of the P-5 states to adhere to the ‘grand bargain’ underpinning the symbiotic relationship between nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. These developments have been perceived to be inherently de-stabilising for the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which will observe the 50th anniversary of its existence, and 25th anniversary of the indefinite extension in the year 2020.

However, the disagreements over the pace of disarmament are at the heart of current rift between many non-nuclear weapon states and nuclear-weapon states. The current impasse has threatened to render the NPT system largely dysfunctional and devoid of the raison d’etre to uphold the grand bargain nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and peaceful uses of atoms. Sans any progress over issues identified in the previous meetings, the Review Conference meetings are feared to become just another forum like the UN Conference on Disarmament (CD), which has not registered any progress in more than 20 years.

Contrary to the expectations of the global non-proliferation, however, the major powers have devoted fewer coordination efforts and to create amenable conditions for nuclear disarmament. The current discord between the U.S., Russia and China over the future of the global nuclear governance offers little hope for the successful outcome of the 2020 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Although there have been growing appeals from the international community for U.S. and Russia to extend the New-START and work with together to arrest the further slide of the global nuclear regime, it remains unclear the extent to which P-5 states can safeguard global non-proliferation regime. Consequently, the prognosis for global nuclear order appears highly uncertain in 2020 and much will depend on the extent to which U.S., China and Russia willing to work to create a stable and predictable nuclear environment.

(The paper is the author's individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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