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Is a New Nuclear Age Upon Us?

Why We May Look Back on 2019 as the Point of No Return

A North Korean missile test in an undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency in November 2019 KCNA / Reuters

A year ago, it was clear that a storm was brewing on the nuclear horizon. Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, we warned that “the United States could find itself in not one but three nuclear crises in the next 12 months.” We pointed to the risk that negotiations with North Korea would break down, that arms control between the United States and Russia would further deteriorate, and that Iran would begin violating its commitments under the 2015 nuclear deal.

Looking back, it is clear that we missed the mark—by being too optimistic. Over the past year, Washington has not only faced nuclear crises with North Korea, Russia, and Iran, as predicted; it has also watched as nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan stumbled to the brink of all-out war and a host of U.S. allies began to rethink their nuclear options. Unless governments in Washington and elsewhere act quickly to reverse course, future scholars may look back on 2019 as the turning point from an era of relative calm to one of intense nuclear competition and proliferation—the dawn of a dangerous new nuclear age.

THE BREAKDOWN OF ARMS CONTROL

At the top of a long list of worrying developments is the heightened risk of a nuclear arms race between Washington and its most powerful rivals. The demise, earlier this year, of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, was an early sign of trouble. The first treaty to ever outlaw an entire category of nuclear delivery systems, the 1987 agreement had been a cornerstone of U.S.-Russian arms control for more than three decades. But the United States accused Russia of violating the terms of the agreement and voiced concerns about the large arsenal of intermediate-range missiles that China, free of any treaty constraints, had built up in recent years. In February, Washington announced that it would stop complying with the treaty. A few months later, it withdrew from the agreement altogether. 

A similar fate may soon befall the most important remaining guardrail on U.S.-Russian

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