Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Nov 05, 2019
The return of power politics and nuclear non-proliferation

Nuclear non-proliferation has remained a major global challenge for more than six decades but the nature of the problem has undergone many changes, especially since the end of the Cold War. The threat environment and the emerging balance of power dynamics have greatly changed since the global nuclear order was established and they both contribute to making the non-proliferation order much more at risk today than it has ever been. The international order looks much more conflict-prone today than it was even a decade ago, and regional conflicts have further increased insecurity. This essay will briefly look at the effects of both global and regional conflicts on nuclear non-proliferation and the international normative consensus on which it has been based.

It is necessary to acknowledge that for most states, nuclear weapons are ultimately about security, and the bargain offered by the non-proliferation order was accepted despite its inequities because it offered greater security. The number of countries engaged in the pursuit of nuclear weapons has also gone up as the non-proliferation order bargain frays. In addition, from being concerned mostly with the singular threat of the US-Soviet rivalry and the consequent threat of global nuclear war, the threat now has grown to include the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), along with their delivery mechanisms and nuclear terrorism. Some specific challenges in this regard include the China-Pakistan nuclear and missile cooperation, and nuclear and missile activities relating to both North Korea and Iran. Each of these challenges have further had the impact of altering the military balance in Asia.

Nuclear non-proliferation is one area where further institutionalisation appears to have ground to a halt.<1> Though it remains at the core of the global security architecture, major progress in institutionalisation can all be traced to the first three decades of the non-proliferation order, with little further progress being made in the last two decades. The establishment of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and other technology control regimes, as well as tightening of the rules of International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring through the Additional Protocol and changes to the NSG rules themselves to require full-scope safeguards for nuclear transfers, were all innovations and institutional measures introduced from the 1970s through the 1990s.<2> Subsequently, the United States under the second Bush administration mistakenly decided that unilateral measures were far more effective. This proved to be the undoing of the order because the United States did find it difficult to put the genie back in the bottle after it went to war against Iraq on the pretext of nuclear and WMD non-proliferation. Iraq weakened both American ideological and material power, and the consequences are still being felt.

The nuclear non-proliferation order is also one in which the main actors have not changed much, these being the great powers, specifically the P-5, who also are the N-5, the only five countries that can legitimately maintain nuclear arsenals. Despite the growing prominence of the developing world and groups such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and IBSA (India, Brazil, and South Africa), the non-proliferation order has remained firmly under the control of the P-5.<3> Though other actors are sometimes included, such as during negotiations of the Iran nuclear issue, they are essentially window-dressing rather than serious players. This could potentially change in the coming decades, as power shifts occur and the current non-proliferation order decays further. Whether a new non-proliferation order can be fashioned remains to be seen, but it is doubtful.

In the meantime, the global nuclear non-proliferation order remains in serious difficulty, as revealed by the state of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the centrepiece of the state-led non-proliferation regime, discussed below.

The NPT: Evolution and challenges

The effectiveness of the NPT that was negotiated in 1968 is questionable, but those who have remained optimistic about the treaty still see it as playing a useful role. The optimists argue that the treaty has managed to stay the course with its objectives, given that there are only a handful of countries who have developed nuclear weapons.<4> It is also often argued that NPT is the only treaty that has seen large-scale participation, including the five Nuclear Weapon States (NWS),<5> thus alluding to the fact that nuclear disarmament is very much on the agenda through commitment contained in Article VI of the NPT. Yet, this was a serious point of contention between the non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS), particularly a handful of countries like Egypt, and the NWS at every five-year Review Conference (RevCon), including the 2015 NPT RevCon.<6> The prevailing sense among the nuclear weapon countries is to continue with the status quo and they are not willing to do anything significant to make any progress towards nuclear disarmament, even in a long-term framework. This suggests that many of these states see nuclear weapons as “necessary,” “legitimate,” or “justifiable.”<7> As long as nuclear weapons are seen as legitimate by these few states, it will be justified by other states as well. In some cases, there are legitimate security interests and vulnerabilities that have pushed these other non-NWS states to pursue nuclear weapons.

Acknowledging that NPT may have its pitfalls may be the necessary first step to reviving and strengthening the instrument.<8> For instance, the question of Iran and North Korea clearly demonstrates the weakness of the regime in general and the NPT in particular. True, a group of major powers was able to stitch together the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), but the fact that the deal was negotiated and concluded outside the NPT framework is a clear illustration of the flawed regime. Dealing with North Korea has met with the same fate. A unilateral US deal in the 1990s was considered as a permanent solution to the Korean nuclear imbroglio but a decade later, Pyongyang decided to pull out of the NPT to go nuclear.

The difficulties faced by the NPT is evident, but it is not to suggest that efforts should not be made to strengthen the mechanism.<9> Furthermore, the global non-proliferation architecture needs to have a broader perspective and innovative means to integrate countries such as India. India has extended strong ideational support for non-proliferation, and is increasingly becoming integrated with the international nuclear order and export control regimes. Such steps must be pursued with greater vigour to reinforce the value of the global nuclear non-proliferation instruments.<10>

Iran and North Korea are not first instances of the global nuclear non-proliferation order facing a crisis, and they certainly will not be the last. In the past, different crises have brought together all major players with an imperative to review, revise, and strengthen the regime. The manner in which the NSG took shape in a case in point. India’s first nuclear test in 1974 led to a concerted effort on the part of the global nuclear community to further tighten the rules. Similarly, the discovery that Iraq was pursuing a concealed nuclear weapon programme led to streamlining of the rules and the introduction of the Additional Protocol in the early 1990s. Likewise, there have been debates about removing the right to withdrawal from the NPT following North Korea’s decision to do so, but this idea has not gotten very far.

However, greater disagreement among major players today poses a far more serious danger to the regime, which is preventing them from cooperating effectively against proliferation threats. The source of such disagreement stems from power competition.

The return of power politics

Increasingly power-centric competition has begun to cast a long shadow in the way the existing international order is governed. The central challenge, thus, is the increasing great power competition fuelled, in the first instance, by the emergence of new rising powers that has begun to make the debates around nuclear non-proliferation a lot more challenging. The emerging world order appears to be moving closer to greater sense of competition, rivalry, chaos, and conflict. The global political and security order as we know it, defined by alliances, rules of engagement, and respect for international law, is coming under increasing strains. Much of the world took the international liberal order to be some sort of entitlement, but it is no more a given, and unless conscious efforts are made to strengthen and uphold the existing principles and regimes, it could easily wither away. This calls for a clearly calculated strategy.

For many countries, it is not in their interests to see a weakened United States being replaced by China that challenges accepted norms. However, China cannot be held responsible for all the problems and difficulties that ail the global non-proliferation order. Beijing does not comprehend or is unwilling to accept the dangerous consequences of a weakening non-proliferation order. This is driven by the fact that China views the world from a power-centric perspective. Its approach to India’s NSG membership is a good example: China became the single biggest hurdle in taking forward India’s objectives to join the NSG. Even as China’s opposition to India’s NSG membership was couched in technical language, it was clearly driven by its political calculations.<11> It certainly was not driven by a desire to support and sustain the non-proliferation principles of the regime. Rather, Beijing saw that India gaining a seat at the NSG could possibly put New Delhi on an equal footing with China, and it delinked India from Pakistan.

Clearly, all big powers have an interest in ensuring that their interests find acceptance, especially on global governance platforms. But even as they pursue their national interests, their perception of self-interest can be tweaked in a way that serves the larger interests of the global community. Therefore, despite the high-pitched competition and rivalry between the United States and the USSR, Washington and Moscow were able to find common cause with regard to nuclear non-proliferation issues and supported the establishment of the global nuclear non-proliferation regime. The utility of converting narrow national interests to global public good has apparently not yet been recognised by the Chinese leadership.

A second factor, also linked to a changing international order, is the relative decline of US power, even as it continues to be the most dominant power, which has consequences for how willing it is to lead governance in this area. Though these are multilateral arms control measures, it still requires at least one great power to take the lead in promoting and sustaining the regime. The lack of a credible US leadership in this regard has had a negative impact on how the non-proliferation norms are sustained into the future.<12>

Many find it fashionable to conclude that the lack of credible US leadership is a direct result of the Trump administration coming into office, but in reality, the phenomenon has been in the making for a while. This trend was quite evident under Obama, who brought with him the rhetoric of multilateralism as he came into office.<13> The rhetoric was useful to an extent to address the over-stretch of US military power following two simultaneous military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, the problem with the Obama administration was that it started taking the notion too seriously and thus ended up ceding a lot of strategic space to other powers, such as China.

The Trump Administration has further contributed to this perception about the US decline. With President Trump in office, apprehension about US leadership has increased, especially among American allies — many of whom have the technical and industrial capacity to build nuclear weapons, but had deliberately decided that US extended deterrence commitments were a cheaper and safer security bet.

Many regional powers therefore feel that they have been left to fend on their own and take care of their own security needs. If the US’ extended deterrence strategy were to be further called into question, there could be other US allies as well who will be compelled to develop and strengthen their own security measures, which could also include nuclear options. This would lead to further erosion of the nuclear non-proliferation instruments.

We are not on the cusp of a major growth in the number of nuclear-armed powers, but the security provided by the non-proliferation regime and US guarantees backing up the regime are increasingly suspect in the eyes of many capitals.

On the other hand, nuclear security is one area that has seen quite a bit of accommodation among the great powers and some amount of US leadership under Obama. US leadership was a determining factor in holding four successful rounds of nuclear security summits. Even though the summit process has ended now, cooperation on nuclear security could be continued and further expanded to include counter-proliferation measures that could augment the overall effectiveness of global nuclear non-proliferation measures.<14>

The impact on the nuclear non-proliferation regime due to changes in power balances and ensuing competition is strengthened by a third challenge — the growing salience of nuclear weapons. This is becoming more marked in the nuclear plans and strategies of the NWS. Though nuclear arsenals themselves are not growing dramatically, there is little effort on the part of the NWS to move away from nuclear weapons. Every NWS appears intent on maintaining its arsenals for the foreseeable future. In addition, some, such as China, Russia, and the United States,<15> are continuing to modernise and improve their nuclear forces. New missiles and warheads are being designed and incorporated into their arsenals. Nuclear strategies themselves are becoming somewhat more adventurous. For instance, though China has formally adopted a no first use doctrine, the continuing growth in the numbers and sophistication of the Chinese nuclear arsenal and its supporting infrastructure, and hints of an internal debate in China about its no first use doctrine, cannot but add to the growing anxieties about Beijing’s nuclear plans.<16>

Russia, similarly, appears to be emphasising its nuclear weapons more.<17> Moscow’s unnecessary effort to cheat on the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty has now forced the United States to respond, threatening one of the more successful nuclear arms control treaties, one that eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons. There are definitely problems with the INF — it was set up at a time when China and China’s nuclear arsenal was not seen as a major threat, and so the INF treaty does not cover its nuclear arsenal (nor those of any others, as it was a bilateral US/Soviet treaty). With the post-Cold War downsising of US and Russian nuclear arsenals, and the growth in China’s nuclear capabilities and its general power position, the fact that China is able to deploy intermediate range missiles without any constraint has been a concern for both the United States and Russia. But sacrificing the INF treaty may do more harm than good, especially in demonstrating further to the NNWS that nuclear powers have no interest in eliminating their arsenals. And if an INF arms race should begin, especially involving China, it could further spur the interest of others in looking at nuclear weapons.

A fourth challenge has arisen due to shifting power balances among major powers: there is now a growing salience of nuclear weapons in the national security strategies of many countries, though as yet this salience is marked more by greater interest in acquiring nuclear arms than actual nuclear arsenals. This is partly aided by the continued emphasis on nuclear weapons in the security strategies of the NWS’s and the four nuclear-armed states. This increasing interest in nuclear weapons is also driven by regional conflict, aggravated by the reality of growing conventional military imbalances in different regions of the world, particularly, for one, in the Middle East. If Iran goes nuclear, there is likely to be further proliferation in the Middle East, as states such as Saudi Arabia pursue their own deterrent forces.

The growing intensity of regional competition in the form of arms race is playing out in East Asia as well. In 2006, North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon. North Korea is the only state to withdraw from the NPT to acquire its own nuclear weapons. North Korean missile and nuclear-related activities along with the China threat are developments that have important strategic consequences for the region. On-and-off negotiations with North Korea could possibly lead to a denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula at some point but current trends are not particularly positive. If North Korea continues to maintain its nuclear arsenal, it will put additional pressure on countries, such as Japan, to reconsider their own non-nuclear weapon stance. If Japan decides to build nuclear weapons, South Korea will not be far behind.<18> Thus, regional conflicts, especially one in which some have nuclear arms, are increasingly spurring further interest in nuclear arms even among countries that have hitherto been stalwart anti-nuclear powers.

Many of these powers are allied with the US, but as noted above, they worry that Washington will be increasingly unable or unwilling to defend their allies in distant parts as threats rise within their regions. A debate about nuclear weapons is growing even in countries such as Germany, which would have been unimaginable just a few years back. None of this is to suggest that we are on the cusp of a major growth in the number of nuclear-armed powers, but that the security provided by the non-proliferation regime and US guarantees that backed up the regime are increasingly suspect in the eyes of many capitals. There is still time to head off further growth in the numbers of nuclear powers, but the danger of further proliferation needs to be taken seriously by the major powers.


The lack of consensus among the great powers means greater disputes about promoting and sustaining non-proliferation norms. The lack of agreement among major powers is almost a direct function of the changing balance of power equations.<19> The changing global as well as regional balance of power dynamics means less consensus, which suggests that a rule-maintaining exercise is potentially in danger.

This is a larger malady that has conditioned the nuclear non-proliferation regime for a couple of decades now. The lack of consensus among the major powers has essentially hampered the process of strengthening the regime. During several crises in the early days of the non-proliferation order, the major powers were willing to put aside their political differences in developing congruent positions to tighten the regime further. However, this is missing in today’s political environment to the extent where even when all the major powers acknowledge many of the challenges in their official rhetoric, they have failed to address them through a more concrete policy approach that would help present a united front in dealing with nuclear proliferation threats and crises.

While this is not a problem unique to nuclear non-proliferation, that is no solace. The two major camps, the US-led West and the Russia-China one, have failed to build consensus on any major nuclear non-proliferation policy measure, thus leading to indecisiveness and crisis in decision-making. For instance, one area of disagreement among great powers is the status of India within the nuclear order. In the mid-2000s, the United States changed its view on India’s status as it concluded the US-India nuclear deal, a change that was accepted by all other powers, except China, an issue that has continued to rankle relations not only between China and India but also between China and the United States.

The nuclear non-proliferation regime is still dominated by the great powers, and to them must fall the greater responsibility of managing current stresses. But they themselves are victims of the shifting balance of power and their own efforts to maintain their self-interest in this midst. This suggests the need to expand the circle of stakeholders beyond the N-5. At the same time, there are difficulties facing the existing the review mechanisms — the five-year NPT RevCons also suggest that little progress is likely to be made if two hundred countries attempt to negotiate progress of the non-proliferation order.<20> One solution might be to bring together the N-5 alongside the four non-NPT nuclear-armed states and a few key powers from different regions of the world, including countries such as Japan, Germany, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico. These powers should attempt to come up with a new consensus on where to take the non-proliferation order, the common risks they all face, and potential solutions that will be acceptable to all of them. Such an effort, while not very democratic, probably has a better chance of generating a fresh perspective on non-proliferation away from the high-pressure grandstanding at RevCons.

The BRICS countries in fact could potentially take the lead, as the grouping includes two N-5 powers, Russia and China, two key non-nuclear powers, Brazil and South Africa, and one of the non-NPT nuclear-armed states, India. Similar ideas were taken up earlier although they are yet to gain any serious traction.<21>

Renewed discussion could include dealing with some of the more difficult issues in the NPT, such as the Article VI commitment to nuclear disarmament. But it is also important to examine nuclear technology transfer commitments under Article IV. In addition, the anomalous state of the four non-NPT nuclear-armed states could also be considered.

These are likely to be difficult discussions, but they are a necessary step in preserving the non-proliferation order.

This essay originally appeared in The Raisina Files


<1> By institutionalisation, I refer here to the formal and informal arrangements that form part of the non-proliferation order. This includes NPT itself, the Safeguards Arrangement under the IAEA, and technology control regimes, such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), Australia Group (AG), and Wassenaar Arrangement (WA).

<2> James A. Glasgow, Elina Teplinsky, and Stephen L. Markus, “Nuclear Export Controls: A Comparative Analysis of National Regimes for the Control of Nuclear Materials, Components and Technology”, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, Washington DC, October 2012.

<3> Even though the BRICS grouping has two of the N-5 powers, it has made very little progress in real. The challenge could continue in the future due to some of the inherent problems— whether and how China would respond to India’s quest for instance to become part of the global nuclear architecture including membership into export control regimes such as the NSG. So far, BRICS has tried to focus more on the civil nuclear energy aspects for cooperation. See Sergei Uyanaev, “The Nuclear Agenda and BRICS,” Russia International Affairs Council, November 14, 2012, and Sverre Lodgaard, Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Towards A Nuclear Weapons-free World? (London and New York: Routledge, 2011).

<4> For the strengths and weaknesses of the NPT, see “The Global Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime”, Council on Foreign Relations, May 21, 2012.

<5> Nuclear Weapon States (NWS) are the five nuclear weapons states recognised under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

<6> Henrik Salander, “Reviewing a Review Conference: Can There Ever be a Successful NPT RevCon?”, European Leadership Network, June 8, 2015.

<7> “Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Unimplemented, Becomes ‘Place-Holder’ for States to ‘Insert Disarmament Measures Here’, First Committee Told,” GA/DIS/3507, General Assembly First Committee, Sixty-Ninth Session, 13TH Meeting, October 21, 2014.

<8> Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan and Arka Biswas, “India and the NPT Need Each Other”, The Diplomat, August 18, 2015.

<9>Question #1: Why is the Non-Proliferation Treaty important? —John P. Holdren”, Press Release, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University, April 26, 2005.

<10> On India’s efforts and the merits and demerits of New Delhi’s integration with the international nuclear order, see Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan and Arka Boswas, “Locating India within the Global Non-Proliferation Architecture: Prospects, Challenges and Opportunities”, ORF Monograph, 2016.

<11> Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “India’s NSG Quest: A Reality Check”, Science, Technology & Security Forum, November 30, 2016; Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan and Arka Biswas, “India’s Membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group”, ORF Issue Brief No. 141, May 2016.

<12> Rebecca Davis Gibbons, “Nuclear Nonproliferation is Under Threat, and So is American National Security”, Washington Post, February 14, 2015.

<13> Alexandra Homolar, “Multilateralism in Crisis? The Character of US International Engagement under Obama,” Global Society 26, no. 1, (2012): 103-122.

<14> Sarah Shirazyan, “Counterproliferation: ‘Synergies of Strengths’: A Framework to Enhance the Role of Regional Organizations in Preventing WMD Proliferation”, Arms Control Today, September 2018.

<15> See Scot Paltrow, “Special Report: In modernizing nuclear arsenal, U.S. stokes new arms race”, Reuters, November 21, 2017, Peter Huessy “As Russia looms, modernizing US nuclear arsenal is non-negotiable”, The Hill, January 1, 2018; Nick Whigham and AFP, “Trump goes nuclear: US pentagon plans to upgrade nuclear weapons program to counter adversaries’ ‘mistaken confidence’”,, January 19, 2018.

<16> On China’s evolving nuclear strategies and modernisation of its nuclear capabilities, see Nan Li, “China’s Evolving Nuclear Strategy: Will China Drop “No First Use?”, China Brief, 18, no. 1, January 12, 2018; Ben Lowsen, “Is China Abandoning Its ‘No First Use’ Nuclear Policy?”, The Diplomat, March 21, 2018; James Samuel Johnson, “Chinese Evolving Approaches to Nuclear “War-Fighting”: An Emerging Intense US-China Security Dilemma and Threats to Crisis Stability in the Asia Pacific,” Asian Security, 2018, 1-18; and Gregory Kulacki, “China’s Nuclear Force: Modernizing from Behind”, Union of Concerned Scientists, January 2018.

<17> See Pavel Podvig, “Russia’s Current Nuclear Modernization and Arms Control”, Journal of Peace and Nuclear Disarmament 1, no. 2(2018): 256-267; Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, Russian nuclear forces, 2018, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 74, no. 3 (2018): 185-195.

<18> Lami Kim, “South Korea’s Nuclear Hedging?,” Washington Quarterly, vol. 41. no. 1. (Spring 2018): 115-133; Sayuri Romei, “Japan’s Shift in the Nuclear Debate: A Changing Identity?”, Working Paper, The Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University; Masaru Tamamoto, “The Emperor’s New Clothes: Can Japan Live without the Bomb?”, World Policy Journal 26, no. 3 (2009): 63-70.

<19> Differing perspectives and differing priorities among great powers make the decision-making process extremely challenging in nuclear non-proliferation. For these and other challenges facing enforcement of norms in this area, see Jeffrey W. Knopf, “After diffusion: Challenges to Enforcing Nonproliferation and Disarmament Norms,” Contemporary Security Policy 39, no. 3 (2018): 367-398.

<20> The last RevCons have had very poor results. See Henrik Salander, “Reviewing a Review Conference: Can There Ever be a Successful NPT RevCon?”, European Leadership Network, June 8, 2015; Robert Einhorn, “The NPT Review Process: Time to Try Something New”, Issue Brief, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Middlebury Institute for International Studies, Monterey, April 2016.

<21> Groups such as BRICS have tried to pursue the nuclear agenda but it is yet to make any meaningful influence. See Richard Weitz, “How BRICS can Advance Global Non-Proliferation Agenda”, April 13, 2014.

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Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.  Dr ...

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