Over the past year, we have seen multiple nations including the United States conducting tests of their nuclear-capable weapons delivery systems. North Korea has been promising to conduct another test detonation of a nuclear bomb for months. Rumors continue to spread that Iran now has enough fissionable material to make a bomb. And, of course, Russia has been reminding everyone of its nuclear arsenal since the invasion of Ukraine began. As the Associated Press reports this week, this has a lot of the other non-nuclear nations looking around and saying, ‘what about us?’ Many of our smaller allies have relied on the United States’ nuclear umbrella to protect them from adversarial nuclear powers, but as they have watched the war in Ukraine unfold, some are having second thoughts. That seems to be particularly true in South Korea, where both citizen activists and government leaders are beginning to talk about developing their own programs. So what would that mean for the world at large?
Out on the sidewalks, 28-year-old office worker Lee Jae Sang already had an opinion about how to respond to North Korea’s fast-growing capacity to lob nuclear bombs across borders and oceans.
“Our country should also develop a nuclear program. And prepare for a possible nuclear war,” said Lee, voicing a desire that a February poll showed was shared by 3 out of 4 South Koreans.
It’s a point that people and politicians of non-nuclear powers globally are raising more often, at what has become a destabilizing moment in more than a half-century of global nuclear nonproliferation efforts, one aggravated by the daily example of nuclear Russia tearing apart non-nuclear Ukraine.
While this may sound like an alarming development (and it definitely is), this is really quite understandable, isn’t it? Think about how poorly Russia’s army has performed during the invasion of Ukraine. Their weaknesses have been exposed to the world. If we lived in a world where nobody had any nuclear weapons, Russia would be a smoking wasteland because EU and NATO forces would have already moved in and beaten the Russians back to the stone age.
But that isn’t going to happen, or at least it won’t unless we crash into a worst-case scenario. The reason is that Russia keeps rattling its nuclear sabers at the rest of the world. And that knowledge allows them to continue attacking Ukraine with impunity. If Ukraine had nukes, Putin probably never would have attacked. If he did and the battle had been going exceptionally badly for Ukraine, Zelensky might just decide to drop a couple on Moscow rather than losing his entire country in a strictly conventional war.
So other countries with smaller militaries and potentially aggressive neighbors are clearly starting to think along the same lines. If they have nukes, perhaps nobody will mess with them either. South Korea seems to be thinking that they might not be able to rely on us as much as they used to and that Kim Jong-un is becoming even more unstable these days. If they have their own nukes, would Kim be less likely to launch an attack against them?
The linked report also points to countries that are invoking the memory of Libia and Moammar Gadhafi. We forced Gadhafi to give up his nuclear program in 2003. His son would later tell a reporter that his father’s greatest fear at the time was that America or other western powers might support an uprising against him at home. Eight years later he was pulled out of a water drainage pipe and shot in the head.
So was nonproliferation always doomed to fail? Will every nation with the money and means to do so soon have some nukes? Mutual Assured Destruction worked for us for a very long time, but would it work for everyone? I hope we’re not at the point where we’re about to find out, but given the current state of the world, I couldn’t rule out the possibility.