The Biden administration’s recent agreement to share nuclear technology with the United Kingdom and Australia has returned attention back to American policy on strategic nuclear weapons. While the deal would transfer the technology for stealthy submarines, the material and know-how represent the spread of crucial elements of nuclear weapons construction, even though Australia has no plans to arm. With China rising and the U.S. retrenching after the Afghanistan debacle, the Biden administration has inadvertently re-opened the question of whether or not U.S. allies should develop their own nuclear deterrents.
While all eyes were on Afghanistan, the nuclear race between the U.S. and its rivals has only accelerated. The State Department called China's nuclear buildup concerning, with China on track to surpass Russia’s nuclear arsenal. The International Atomic Energy Agency said North Korea restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, and Iran continues to progress toward a nuclear weapon. Given that the international community cannot stop these rogue regimes as they develop nuclear options, America's interest may actually be in expanding its allies’ ability to deter adversaries and defend themselves directly.
Nevertheless, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres reaffirmed his full support for a “powerful global movement against nuclear arms” in the form of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). In January 2021, the treaty officially went into effect as the first multilateral, legally binding agreement to ban the development, production, testing, stockpiling, use, and the threat of using nuclear weapons. TPNW aims to eliminate the 13,000 nuclear weapons that exist today and has already garnered 86 signatories.
The initiative ostensibly jibes with Biden's promise to "work to bring [the U.S.] closer to a world without nuclear weapons." While a world free of nuclear weapons sounds peaceful, the United States and our allies cannot back the TPNW in the face of adversaries that surely will refuse to do so.
The rosy prospect of a nuke-free world has always been hindered by the issue of countries having to lay down their nuclear arms. So far, the only historical examples of this came after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Ukraine and South Africa surrendered their arsenals. Since then, Ukraine has notably suffered from Russian meddling and invasion.
Today, 90 percent of nuclear weapons are held by the U.S. and Russia. Regardless of the size of their arsenal, however, most nuclear countries have no incentive to give up weapons programs that represent indispensable negotiation leverage. For example, North Korea's nuclear missiles allow Pyongyang to asymmetrically deter the U.S. military and threaten other nations to provide aid and economic access. Similarly, while Russia's massive nuclear arsenal certainly serves as an in-kind deterrent against other nuclear-armed countries, it also protects its far eastern territories and serves to balance against superior competitors such as NATO.
The lack of incentives for countries to give up their nuclear weapons makes the TPNW a paper tiger. With the notable exception of Kazakhstan, a country that assists the Russian nuclear program, the only states that support the Treaty have either been historical proponents of disarmament or victimized by nuclear testing.
This is particularly true within NATO. While support for the Treaty seems to be gaining a foothold among some member states, the reliance of the alliance on the American nuclear umbrella does not bode well for the TPNW. As NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated, “a world where Russia, China, North Korea and others have nuclear weapons, but NATO does not, is not a safer world.”
Uncooperative adversaries mean that the best course forward is the opposite of the TPNW. As was true during the Cold War, mutually assured destruction is the safest international nuclear strategy. Rather than clinging to America’s protection, we should encourage trusted allies to nuclearize.
In a world where Poland has nukes, for example, would Russia would be less provocative? Similarly, would China be forced to check its aggressiveness in the face of a nuclear-armed Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, or Vietnam?
In recognition of this reality, the U.S. fiscal year 2022 budget proposal includes a $1.2 billion increase in modernization funding for the U.S. Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile system, as well as an increase in funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration. That budget proposal demonstrates the Biden administration’s recognition that nuclear deterrence, not an international treaty, has historically prevented a disastrous conflict.
Of course, some might fear that increased nuclearization means a greater likelihood of accident or disaster. But among democracies, the record has been promising. The greater threat is letting revisionist powers gain nuclear weapons without appropriate deterrence from trusted allies. Treaties like the TPNW might mean well, but the intransigence of adversarial powers means that the U.S. needs to renew its commitment to deterrence—and help its allies do the same.
John Yoo is a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where Ivana Stradner is a visiting research fellow.