Michael KreponThe Travails of Nuclear-Armed States

Quote of the week:

“We do not seek war, we do not seek nation building, we do not seek regime change.” – Donald Trump before a gathering of evangelical supporters in Miami after the targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani, January 3, 2020.

Nuclear-armed states are a diverse lot, but they have one thing in common: Every one of them is in trouble, and their arsenals don’t help what ails them. Strongmen rule from cracked pedestals. The cracks are widening, making their decision making more worrisome. Weaker leaders in states that possess nuclear weapons are faring no better, as they flounder or head off in the wrong direction.

The United States is in decline. A strong economy lifts too few boats. Domestic divisions weaken the Republic at its core. National politics are broken. One political party has lost its moorings and yet may regain the White House. The outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq will continue to play out in painful ways, as strategic blunders usually do. Another Russian influence campaign in the 2020 election seems likely.

Vladimir Putin is playing a weak hand reasonably well (see above). His new panoply of strategic modernization programs provides some cover, but he knows that the most significant missile, submarine and bomber programs built in the 2020s and beyond will be made in the U.S.A. He has extended Russia’s presence in weak states and basket cases where his troops and proxies are susceptible to injury and pushback. Russia’s economy isn’t conducive to sustained growth.

Strongman rule in China is being tested by the people of Hong Kong and the voters in Taiwan. Xi Jinping deals with his Muslim population by moving them to “re-education” centers and by razing mosques. China’s predatory investments in beholden foreign countries sow seeds of future discord. The bloom is off “free” trade, which hasn’t been free. Smooth sailing isn’t in China’s future.

India’s strongman, Narendra Modi, has shown his true colors after his re-election, proving that Hindu nationalism can get as ugly as any other nationalism. India’s strength and its Achilles heel are its diversity, and that diversity – especially India’s large Muslim population – is under threat. In remarkably short order, Modi has squandered his “India Rising” theme – economically, socially, and politically. New Delhi’s ties with Washington in general and Capitol Hill in particular are fraying.

Pakistan is suffering greatly from circular debt bequeathed by previous governments that engaged in short-term thinking while focusing on domestic opponents. Demographics are daunting. A new national leader continues to act as if he’s still leading the political opposition, while jobs are scarce and climate change narrows prospects for national recovery. Pakistan’s foreign and national security policies are hobbled by its indebtedness. Speaking truth to power over New Delhi’s treatment of Kashmiris is undercut by a muffled response to Beijing’s policies toward the Uighers. Chinese loans for Belt and Road investments are already coming back to haunt. Jinnah’s original rationale for Pakistan as a home for Muslims on the subcontinent could again resonate — but only if a Pakistani government can get its act together.

Whenever Israel’s indicted strongman Benjamin Netanyahu leaves the stage, he will also leave a legacy of national division and frayed ties with American Jewry. His “asks” that has been answered positively by Donald Trump point toward a one state solution that requires apartheid-like policies to keep an emerging Muslim majority population at bay.

Then there’s Kim Jong-Un, who promises “gifts” in the new year to solicit economic rewards. Trump and Kim go from “Rocket Man” and a “mentally deranged dotard” to sweetness and light, and then back to name calling. With each new gift, the economic screws will tighten on Kim.

Great Britain became less great after Tony Blair supported George W. Bush’s Pottery Barn war in Iraq. A succession of weak leaders has continued London’s downhill slide. If Scotland heads for the exits after Brexit, Britain’s nuclear deterrent will be orphaned.

It will be hard for France to reach new heights atop a down-sized European Union, or for its President to lead the pack on climate change when his citizens take to streets against remedial action. France’s nuclear deterrent remains a shining monument to past glory, soaking up funds for usable military power.

So, what, exactly, are nuclear weapons good for? There’s an initial boost to national cohesion that is unsustainable when social, political and economic prospects are lousy. Besides that, deterrence offers two significant benefits by helping to prevent nuclear exchanges and major conventional war — at least so far. There’s value in helping to prevent worst cases, but it comes at significant cost. This is a short list. Am I missing something?

And what are nuclear weapons not good for? They promise more harm than good if used on battlefields. They are of no help when social, political, and cultural divisions grow. They can’t fix unwise strategic choices. As instruments of leveraging other states, they pale by comparison to economic means of suasion, cyber mischief and social media. They provide a means of employment, but they don’t help economies grow. They pose clear opportunity costs for improving conventional military capabilities and for addressing social needs. They don’t prevent loss in warfare again non-nuclear-weapon states. Nor do they assure success in crises against nuclear-armed states, or prevent limited warfare between them.

This list of pros and cons, backed up by the Nonproliferation Treaty, helps explain why so few states have so far chosen to acquire nuclear weapons. But proliferation can continue if states without the Bomb are threatened by possessors and if Washington’s alliance partners place less and less stock in U.S. security guarantees.


  1. Eric LoPresti (History)

    “They can’t fix unwise strategic choices.”
    Yes, but … how else does a ‘pariah’ state — or any other state which finds itself in the way of a great game — prevent itself from being decapitated?

    • Patricia Lewis (History)

      It could try changing its behaviour and implementing domestic human rights policies etc.. just a thought.

    • ajay (History)

      That didn’t work out very well for Ukraine, now did it?

  2. nicholas biniairis (History)

    An analysis to be read by many diplomats and strategists. Unfortunately, diplomats are presently out of work and strategists are called imbeciles and sycophants. The only problem with nuclear weapons is that they still exist and thus by accident or by human folly, ( there is plenty of it around) they may be used. Humanity should have become conscious of its responsibility to survive its own success;in science and technology.

  3. Ashutosh Shastri (History)

    Thought provoking piece as ever. The New Year has clearly started with more than a bump to the delicately poised nuclear security environment. The argument that nuclear weapons no longer provide the asymmetry/differentiated force projection is certainly true and perhaps the asymmetric power projection game has moved a notch towards space weaponization and cyber warfare. The NPT though hasn’t been a deterrent, as much as the author claims, in non-nuclear states to acquire nuclear weapon state status; Plenty of scope within NPT to be a more powerful tool for future deterrence but the “ayatollahs of nuclear proliferation” mindsets have to change first.

    The US Nuclear Posture Review 2018 -the latest one- seeks to “close the gaps with smaller yield weapons; how does this approach help in Washington’s alliance partners increasing their stock in US Security Guarantees- as alluded to in the last paragraph of this article? One could argue that the US NPR-2018 bolsters/seeks to provide legitimacy to the TNW policy of Pakistan. That is hardly confidence inspiring for the world nuclear order.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      My take: you can’t shore up deterrence with moves like this when alliances are dissed from the top down. Pakistan doesn’t have extended deterrence issues, but there are still parallels.
      Tac nukes are a psychological crutch because their military utility is so marginal. They serve more to reaffirm your own sense of resolve than to deter the other guy, because the other guy can go over the top of forward-deployed tac nukes. And if tac nukes aren’t forward deployed when the fighting starts, they’re not psychologically helpful. As many in South Asia have said, tac nukes are strategic weapons. When you cross the threshold, yield matters less than the effect of crossing. The nation that thinks that lower yields are more usable yields demonstrates a poverty of strategic thought. True for the US, true for Pakistan when it borrows US thinking.

  4. Victor Gilinsky (History)

    All true, or mostly true. And yet every one of the nine countries would feel tremendously diminished if it lost its nuclear weapons.

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