It is U.S. credibility and power—not our moral example—that prevents proliferation.
Since it came into effect in 1970, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has assumed almost sacred status in the liberal firmament. But can it survive Joe Biden’s presidency?
Liberals and the arms-control establishment have always loved the NPT for its vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, with the nuclear-armed lions lying down with the nonnuclear lambs. Conservatives have embraced the eminently sensible idea of trying to limit the number of nations with access to the world’s most dangerous weapons.
Unfortunately, reality is undermining whatever attraction the NPT once held. Going into 2023, the overriding incentive for those that don’t have a nuke—particularly the most undemocratic countries—is to get one. The incentive for those who have the bomb is never to give it up under any circumstances.
If Ukraine hadn’t given up its nukes after the collapse of the Soviet Union, would Vladimir Putin have dared invade? Likewise there’s Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, who gave up his nuclear ambitions and ended up overthrown, brutalized and killed in a drainage ditch—while Kim Jong Un, who continues with his nuclear program, has kept the North Korean dictatorship his grandfather founded intact. Cold-eyed dictators aren’t likely to find much evidence that going the nonproliferation route is the better option.
This may be even more true for America’s friends. How long before leaders in Taipei, listening to an increasingly bellicose Xi Jinping issuing reminders that China reserves the right to take Taiwan by force, conclude that their only hope for protecting their free society is to restart their secret nuclear program? And could anyone blame them if they did?
Right now eight states are known to have nukes—the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Israel is assumed to have one but has not acknowledged so officially. India, Pakistan and Israel never signed on to the NPT, while North Korea signed in 1985, cheated, then withdrew in 1993.
There are rewards for going nuclear. North Korea is a nation of about 26 million, slightly smaller than the population of Texas. Yet its nuclear capabilities give it an outsize importance in world affairs. High-profile summits with then-President Donald Trump in Singapore, Hanoi and the demilitarized zone along the border between the two Koreas provide ample evidence of the special attention a nuclear arsenal commands.
Or look at Iran. The Biden administration is desperately trying to get Tehran to revive the Obama-era nuclear deal that Mr. Trump took the U.S. out of. This summer the Iranians announced they had come closer than ever to enriching uranium at a grade suitable for weapons. How long before we wake up one morning to a nuclear-armed Iran, which would destabilize the Middle East and send every Arab nation looking for its own bomb?
The NPT may appear to be a pact that favors the nuclear haves or rogue regimes that refuse to abide by its rule—while leaving rule-following have-nots at the mercy of the world’s worst actors.
Most proliferation concerns focus on the rogue regimes because of the obvious threat they pose. But there’s an equal if not greater proliferation problem from generally law-abiding countries that will want the security of a nuke if one of their hostile neighbors has one.
This is exactly the dynamic now with Taiwan. Were Taiwan to develop a nuke to ensure it doesn’t end up like Ukraine, it would have huge ripple effects throughout Asia. Japan would probably develop one soon after, and we could quickly see a nuclear arms race in the Pacific. If Mr. Xi got wind of a Taiwanese bomb, it could easily lead him to give the order to invade.
Mr. Biden’s answer to all these developments was a statement in August re-emphasizing America’s commitment to the NPT and vowing that the “U.S. is determined to lead by the power of our example.” This is classic liberal virtue signaling of the sort the NPT often inspires.
But neither friend nor foe will forgo nuclear weapons because of America’s moral example. To the degree that the NPT has worked, it is only because of America’s power, including its nuclear arsenal, which gives credibility both to its threats to enemies and its security guarantees to allies. As a Journal editorial once put it, “A credible U.S. nuclear deterrent is the world’s greatest antiproliferation weapon.”
But what does the world see today? A humiliating American retreat from Afghanistan, an assertive China determined to overtake U.S. military superiority in the Pacific, and a general sense that the Americans are bugging out. The hard reality is that if Joe Biden really wants the NPT to have a future, he needs to lead a massive buildup of U.S. military capabilities.
Appeared in the December 13, 2022, print edition as ‘Joe Biden’s Nuclear Misfire’.