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Bringing the world's nine nuclear powers to the one table

The nuclear order has been a central pillar of the liberal world order and its post-WWII institutions. But it is unfolding. 

Like many of the structures birthed in the post-world war context and Cold War bipolarity, it is proving vulnerable in a highly interconnected, multipolar globe. And like all international orders, recognising flaws for reform will be essential for the endurance of international stability, security and governance.

This order, first conceptualised by William Walker, comprises two interlinked arrangements enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Firstly, the nuclear weapons possessor states existing within a system of managed deterrence and secondly, the non-proliferation order of states pledging not to develop their own nuclear weapons capacities. Fractures in both aspects are widening.

Relations between nuclear powers and arms control agreements are in disarray. The erosion of existing ‘management’ between the two possessors of over 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear warheads was apparent in August’s mourning of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the subsequent missile tests. Nuclear weapons have resurged in foreign policy rhetoric, spending and salience. As nuclear states engage in modernisation and building new capabilities – US President Trump just declaring America’s nuclear in ‘tippy top shape’ -  restrictions are receding. Not to mention, a growing body of work questioning the voracity of deterrence theory with the rise of non-state threats, emerging technology and a more complex set of actors is defying the very foundations of the deterrent order.  

As for nuclear non-proliferation - though largely successful for the past few decades - it is being thrown into question. This is not astonishing given many states premised non-development on the extended nuclear deterrence and guarantees provided by the United States. To say the least, Trump’s retreat from multilateralism and nationalist rhetoric is hardly instilling great confidence. 

Look no further than Australia. Hugh White’s invigoration of the nuclear breakout debate in Australia tabled a possibility that was once-castigated (though this has not been without intense pushback). Calcified disarmament measures are undermining non-nuclear weapons states’ support and participation in a nuclear order they deem hypocritical and inequitable, demonstrated in the 122 nation-strong adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). This have/have not delineation is a strong rift in negotiations.   

The 2020 Review Conference of the NPT is rapidly approaching and, judging by the Preparatory Committees, the adoption of an outcome is highly implausible. With a number of states likely to ratify the TPNW as it passes its second anniversary, it will soon be well past the halfway point of its entry into force. As the nuclear order falters, strategic arms control is at a critical juncture. Stagnation and pitfalls in existing arrangements and selective support for new measures must be addressed lest we risk a swift proliferation cascade.  

So where to from here? Obviously, the USA and Russia should exercise sensibility in the current geopolitical environment and restart bilateral negotiations given they share the biggest stockpile burdens. This may seem impossible, but there is low-hanging fruit aplenty and great potential with next year’s American presidential election and increasing public discussion of nuclear policy as a political issue.

Without taking away from the importance of the NPT for international security, we must be cognisant of its limitations. Nearly as many nuclear possessor states sit outside the NPT as the P5 inside it. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have not signed up. Nuclear weapons in their transboundary destructive nature defy unilateral solutions, and as such, engaging all nuclear players holds great value. The convening of a P5+4 summit could prove beneficial in this regard.

At best, it could help synchronise competing and common interests to advance nuclear reductions, reduce risks and WMD salience on the path to disarmament. At the least, it sends signals between nuclear states that there is a serious consideration of nuclear dangers and responsibility.

But it is not only nuclear states that should have a say in the matter. Rising powers of today and the future that are reshaping the world order must play a role in reshaping the nuclear order too. The sentiments of the world’s majority, including powerful, ascending countries such as Indonesia and Brazil, and the strong advocating for nuclear disarmament cannot be sidelined and silenced as geopolitically incompatible and disruptive. Shunning, rather than engaging, with prohibition proponents does little for the sanctity of the NPT and future prospects.

Active efforts must be made to bridge these divides and restore civility to discussion. Most of all, states must recognise their shared interest in strengthening nuclear non-use and delegitimization norms given the risks both unintentional and deliberate. This interest extends to existing nuclear weapons states in avoiding arms races and as rising powers could potentially prioritise proliferation as they pivot their interests internationally. To this end, civil society will continue to play an integral role in garnering public buy-in.

In order to protect the world from the existential threat of nuclear weapons, the nuclear order needs to adapt to new powers and its current failings, and perhaps eventually become no longer nuclear at all. There still remains 13,880 nuclear warheads in the world today. Making substantial reductions in this number requires forward-thinking and introspective ambition and leadership, but the payoffs for international stability will be great. Are we up to the challenge? 

Su-Yin Lew is the International Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She recently attended a program in Japan, courtesy of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons and the Prefectural Government of Hiroshima. Here she heard from Belfer Centre Fellow Dr. Rebecca Davis Gibbons, whom she would like to thank as her ideas inspired this article. 


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