On Tuesday, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said of North Korea that the current U.S. “focus is on diplomacy to solve this problem that is presented by the DPRK. We must, however…be prepared for the worst, should diplomacy fail.” Not surprisingly, most recent commentary and analysis on the current North Korea crisis has focused on the prospects of either a near-term conflict or a diplomatic way out. That focus is understandable, but fixates on the two least likely outcomes. Rather than preparing for diplomatic or warfighting scenarios with a nuclear-armed North Korea, the United States should be preparing for a sustained period of deterrence, coercive diplomacy, and rollback. This is the best approach to achieve the international community’s long-stated goal of the eventual peaceful denuclearization and reunification of the Korean Peninsula at an acceptable cost.
Since the atom was first split, the possibilities of war, terrorism, and proliferation have polluted the connotation of “nuclear,” driving public fear and associated dialogue surrounding the development of nuclear technology. In the last half of the twentieth century, the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union defined the modern geopolitical layout of the world, from alliances to modern conflicts. Nuclear capabilities became one of the greatest criteria to determine a country’s power and respect on the global stage.
In this year’s US presidential election, the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran was a divisive issue. The multinational agreement aims to prevent weapons development by fostering an officially recognized and heavily regulated nuclear energy program. This deal reflects a shift in the global nuclear narrative, from aggressive prevention efforts to diplomatic limitations. It further recognizes that as more states acquire nuclear development infrastructure, there will be more chances for materials to fall into the wrong hands. Preventing proliferation to terrorists, militant groups, and less amicable state actors is a global priority. Greater involvement and oversight from institutions like the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can facilitate better security standards for protecting nuclear materials.
Donald Trump is making Europe think again, especially about European defense. Some European politicians are so concerned that the U.S. president-elect may scale back American military commitments in Europe that they are making radical proposals.
The foreign policy spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, Roderich Kiesewetter, told Reuters on November 16, “The U.S. nuclear shield and nuclear security guarantees are imperative for Europe. . . . If the United States no longer wants to provide this guarantee, Europe still needs nuclear protection for deterrent purposes.” He added that Germany could play an important role in convincing nuclear powers France and Britain to provide security guarantees for all of Europe.
The recent Nuclear Security Summit 2016 in Washington DC highlighted the pervasive threat of nuclear terrorism, for which governments see the need to commit more resources and prioritise the issue as a primary national security agenda.
Since the biennial Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) ended its 2016 instalment in the United States, stakeholders and policy analysts are left searching for an equivalent high-level platform with the same mission. The critical role to enhance nuclear security has expanded with the threat of nuclear terrorism growing. Investigative works on the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels highlighted that terrorist organisations could be after radiological materials that will enable them to construct a crude nuclear bomb.
During the nongovernmental experts meeting of the NSS, Argentine ambassador Rafael Mariano Grossi mentioned that, unlike nuclear safety which has established quantitative guidelines, nuclear security requires variable policing efforts that are difficult to agree upon at the international level. Instruments such as the Convention on Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials (CPPNM) and the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism (ICSANT) have not been universally adopted, and could therefore pose a challenge in dealing with terrorism that is global in nature. As such, initiatives to deal with the threats of nuclear terrorism have been mostly adopted at the national level.
The fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit meeting, held in Washington DC, has been the catalyst for a flood of op-eds bemoaning either the imminent emergence of sub-state groups as nuclear powers or the relative lack of progress that President Obama has made on reducing the number of U.S. nuclear weapons. Both of these views are shortsighted, ignoring the actual threat in context to contemporary national security issues. Despite decades of global terrorism and the continuing growth of nuclear power and weapons programs, there has not been a successful terrorist radiological or nuclear attack. And while the United States has reduced its military nuclear weapons stockpile by more than 90 percent since its peak in 1968, the dangers posed by nuclear weapon states continue to require a nuclear deterrent. These are inherently linked arguments, given the technology-centered discussions on radiological/nuclear threats. In both cases, actions to advance either agenda — that nuclear terrorism is an imminent threat and that U.S. nuclear stockpiles must be further reduced — need to be informed by risk calculations as well as cost-benefit analyses, rather than by worst-case assumptions.
Most recently, Gary Ackerman and James Halverson warn that recent activities by ISIL and other terrorist groups, combined with potential vulnerabilities of nuclear power facilities and other nuclear storage facilities, represent a serious threat. I don’t question that a few sub-state groups may be interested in obtaining radioactive material or even nuclear fissile material. With the constant drumbeat by U.S. government officials warning of the existential threat posed by terrorist nuclear devices since 2001, any half-awake violent extremist group would have to wonder as to whether this capability represented a useful tool. Joe Cirincione and others have been warning about potential nuclear terrorism for at least the past 15 years. The mantra has been, “it’s not a question of if, but when,” and that terrorists will use a nuclear device or a “dirty bomb” as soon as they can acquire one. And yet it remains a fact that even given motive, opportunity, and time, these sub-state groups have not done so.