What’s more, governments face decisions that could undermine multilateral agreements that have curbed the risks of nuclear proliferation and arms races and prevented conflict. Below, I will examine three areas where the world could face greater challenges in 2020.
1. Escalating conflicts with Iran and North Korea
Most immediate, Iran promises retaliation for last week’s killing of Soleimani — and the United States is sending 3,500 more troops to the region. This confrontation could escalate into war, and that could happen through either side’s miscalculation. Or the U.S. government could encourage Iran to escalate — which would justify a stronger response, enabling the Americans to try to overthrow the regime, which former national security adviser John Bolton has long argued for.
But Iran’s longer-term efforts in the nuclear realm could prove even more difficult to handle. Iran has responded to the U.S. exit from the nuclear deal by scaling up its nuclear program bit by bit, in a “less-for-less” strategy, something that the latest announcement takes even further. Expect Iran’s willingness to comply with what is now effectively a dead agreement to decline rapidly.
Although Iran has apparently not yet restarted a nuclear weapons program, its incentives to do so are obvious now. Trump argued that he could negotiate a new and better deal than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which the United States and Iran negotiated alongside the European Union and the U.N. Security Council’s other permanent members. That will be much more difficult now. By killing a key regime figure, the Americans have closed off avenues for rapprochement — and have shown the Iranian regime that it is a target.
In Pyongyang, the situation is dangerous for different reasons. For all practical purposes, North Korea is an established nuclear-weapons state — and has an incentive to escalate first if the regime believes it’s in a conflict that threatens its survival. Kim never did agree to roll back North Korea’s nuclear program and so is now unconstrained in his effort to expand its arsenal. The Trump administration’s apparent reluctance to admit its failure to curb the North Korean program makes responding difficult. Should the administration change its “maximum pressure” approach, which is essentially rhetorical and has little potential to change North Korean behavior, things could get ugly quickly.
2. Nuclear proliferation pressures will increase
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which has been remarkably successful in stopping nuclear weapons from spreading. Don’t expect much celebration. The United States and other traditional supporters express little enthusiasm for the treaty, while some critics argue it can be replaced by the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) once it enters into force. Governments supporting the TPNW say they are frustrated that the NPT members with nuclear weapons have not yet completely disarmed those weapons.
But the NPT has succeeded in limiting the spread of nuclear weapons. Leaders in Saudi Arabia and Turkey speak openly about the appeal of nuclear weapons. If Iran leaves the NPT and acquires nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced that his government will develop nuclear weapons, too. Last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said “I cannot accept” that Turkey is banned from possessing nuclear weapons.
Meanwhile, the United States’ European and Asian allies question whether they can rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella. Some of these states abandoned early interest in nuclear weapons decades ago in exchange for U.S. extended deterrence. In Washington, there is growing concern that the United States should not have nuclear weapons deployed on NATO’s base in Incirlik, Turkey. This heightens NATO allies’ worries that, with Trump in office, the United States is abandoning its commitment to their defense. France has pledged to cover Germany with its own nuclear deterrence. German politicians are arguing over whether to explore nuclear weapons. Australian politicians are having a similar debate.
These discussions don’t necessarily mean the governments will indeed seek to acquire nuclear weapons. However, the discussions themselves weaken the nuclear taboo that has helped keep the weapons out of international conflicts. And nuclear weapons now have a place in domestic political debates that they have not had since the Cold War.
3. The demise of arms control as we know it
Meanwhile, nations are backing away from, and even abandoning, treaties that prevent nuclear arms races. New START, the sole remaining nuclear arms control treaty between the United States and Russia, is likely to expire in February 2021. This follows the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) after reports that Russia had violated it for several years. The Trump administration argues that China should join nuclear arms control treaties, including New START. China is not interested. If that prompts the United States to abandon New START, the Americans and Russians could begin a nuclear arms race.
If New START is not extended, that will be the collapse of arms control in its current form. Combine more dangerous weapons deployments with the Trump administration’s possible misperceptions of Russian and Chinese nuclear strategy, and NATO and Russia could more easily stumble into dangerous misunderstandings.
Technological advances will require adaptations in arms control frameworks. This year could show us the importance of multilateral approaches to curbing proliferation risks and nuclear arms races and illuminate why more should be done to preserve them. The world will be more dangerous without the imperfect treaties we have to curb nuclear proliferation and arms races, increasing the risks that miscalculations lead to war and conflict.
Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer is an associate professor of political science at the University of Oslo and the author of “Unclear Physics: Why Iraq and Libya failed to build nuclear weapons” (Cornell University Press, 2016).
Read more TMC analysis of the Middle East crisis: