Earlier this month, the United States government published a legislative-mandated report titled the ‘Nuclear Posture Review.’ The Department of Defense (DoD) report aimed to assess and establish American nuclear policy, tactics and current capabilities, but also warned legislators of the increasing dangers posed by superpowers – Russia, in particular – to its national security. While today most people associate the topic of nuclear war with North Korea, the reality surrounding current nuclear affairs is much more complex than what is depicted in the media: on the one hand, there is a (wrong) perception relating to Kim Jong-un in terms of his sanity (chiefly, that he lacks any), and of the safety of the American hemisphere, on the other.
As mentioned above, most American news outlets have depicted the bellicose North Korean leader as insane, and a threat to global peace. And yet, while this may very be the case, media platforms fail to understand the rationale behind developing and possessing nuclear capabilities, especially regarding the notion of nuclear deterrence. Currently, there are nine countries that possess nuclear weapons, five of which are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France. The remaining four are India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel (though the Israeli government officially does not acknowledge its possession of them). In addition, of all nine aforementioned nuclear states, only the first five have the ability to actually strike any place on earth with a missile (usually via an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM, launched either from a submarine or a strategic bomber).
What is most important to understand about the development and possession of an active nuclear arsenal, however, is that the end goal is not to deploy it, but to deter other nations. As such, nuclear states are in effect ‘deterrers’ who, via their arsenal, try to convince other states that the costs of taking actions against them will be substantially higher than any gain they might anticipate. The notion of deterrence is thus one of the main, if not the main principle behind international security. Yet, with an ever-increasing militarized world, and with the technological advancements therein, states are trying to overcome the dangers of a retaliatory strike and continue to amass more sophisticated weapons to solve the issue of a mutually assured destruction.
This is why the DoD report is significant, as it highlights that, rather than moving towards a security paradigm that underscores the importance of de-nuclearization (and of deterrence) it does quite the opposite. Instead, it calls for the development of more sophisticated and smaller nuclear weapons, which in turn makes them more likely to be used.
Today, there are many regions in the world that are susceptible to nuclear warfare. While the Korean peninsula is the obvious case, there are more complex scenarios: Israel against Iran, Iran against the former, as well as against Saudi Arabia (though Iran has been somehow contained after the landmark de-nuclearization agreement of 2015), as well as India against Pakistan. And, of course, the quintessential scenario of a United States-Russia war, or more recently, a United States-China war.
It is easy to analyze nuclear affairs in a very simplistic way, for instance: Kim Jong-un is insane and as such needs to be dealt with. Doing so, however, is dangerous. It erases the complex realities that go behind the pursuit of a deterrent element, one that ultimately aims to prevent war in the first place. An alternative approach would be to recognize that the continued nuclearization of states is a wrong policy and that existing mechanisms to safeguard the process of de-nuclearization are failing. Multilateral institutions like the United Nations – with all its limitations – are best positioned to mitigate the current status quo. While these days all we can do is hope, we can also understand that nuclear affairs are much more complex than calling someone “rocket man,” as the current American President does.