The least the international community needs is a return to a nuclear arms race. We have already experienced it during the Cold War, at the height of which it is estimated that 60,000 nuclear weapons were in the arsenals (mostly) of the United States and the Soviet Union. These weapons could have destroyed our planet many times over! Today, it is estimated that the nuclear weapons in those arsenals are around 15,000. This is a “dramatic” reduction, indeed, which, however, does not allow us to sleep peacefully. With the current figures, the destructive effects and risks, albeit reduced, would not be significantly different from those of the Cold War.
Today, we are once again faced with the risk of a nuclear race. The regulatory instruments in force do not prohibit it. Most of the reductions hinted at above were undertaken unilaterally and outside international agreements. The current legislation is still based on the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which successfully managed to contain the number of countries that possess nuclear weapons but was unable to implement Article VI, which provides for nuclear disarmament. The NPT prohibits all its member countries except five (the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom) from acquiring nuclear weapons. Although the overwhelming majority of countries has ratified it, those that have acquired nuclear weapons outside the treaty and are therefore not technically violating it (India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea) have not joined it. The signing in 2017 of a new treaty under UN auspices, prohibiting any nuclear weapon activities, indeed represents a positive development. However, it has not yet entered into force, and the countries to which it is mainly addressed – namely the nine above-mentioned nuclear-armed countries – have not joined it and have no intention of doing so. Countries whose safety is based on nuclear deterrence, such as NATO members, also remain outside the agreement.
The most important problem today remains the fact that, instead of making progress in the field of nuclear disarmament, steps are being taken backwards. This is borne out by the American announcement of an imminent withdrawal from the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty by Washington, which led to the elimination of an entire category of Russian and American nuclear missiles. The INF has so far been one of the pillars of European security, and its likely denunciation reopens the possibility of launching a new nuclear arms race in the Old Continent. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits nuclear testing, has never entered into force and has been ratified by the vast majority of states but not by key countries such as the United States and China. By withdrawing from the NPT in 2003, and subsequently launching a fearsome military nuclear program, North Korea has dealt a massive blow to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation process. One of the most significant achievements in recent years had been the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action) agreement, which succeeded in freezing Iran’s nuclear program. The withdrawal of the Trump administration from that agreement risks doing away with last bastion of anti-nuclear proliferation.
While past reductions have been significant, we cannot disregard the fact that the current trend is to modernise nuclear warheads and their carriers. What we are witnessing today is the introduction of increasingly sophisticated missile systems and nuclear devices allowing to hit both military and civilian targets with increasing precision and speed. This may reduce so-called “collateral damages”, but at the same time, it increases the likelihood of their use. Once the exclusive preserve of the Americans, missile defence technology is spreading to other countries, giving rise to a new and costly endless run. All this is making the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons, advocated by President Obama ten years ago and then fully accepted by the international community, more remote rather than closer. This goal does not come up as often as it used to: a further step back in nuclear disarmament.