Armed and Dangerous

When Dictators Get the Bomb

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at a ballistic rocket launch drill at an unknown location in an undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency in March 2016.  KCNA/REUTERS

There have always been good reasons to worry about nuclear weapons, but those reasons have changed over time. During the Cold War, U.S. national security experts fretted about an expensive nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. After the 9/11 attacks, specialists and the American public alike were afraid that terrorists might get their hands on highly enriched uranium and make a primitive nuclear device. Those dangers remain. But the first concern has been mitigated to some degree by strategic arms control agreements between the United States and Russia, which are still in place (although not always adhered to). And the second concern has been ameliorated through a significant reduction in the amount of highly enriched uranium used in research reactors around the world. 

Today, however, there is another reason to worry about nuclear weapons: the rise of personalist dictatorships in states that possess or could acquire the bomb. These dictatorships differ from other autocratic governments because their leaders have such dominant personal power that other state institutions—such as parties, politburos, or military officers—cannot overrule the decisions made at the top. Personalist dictators can make decisions on a whim, which creates a grave challenge to the concept of nuclear stability. The world has faced this particular nuclear danger only once before: between 1949 and 1953, when Joseph Stalin enjoyed unchallenged personal dominion over a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. 

Of course, other threats from nuclear proliferation persist. Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is growing, for example. But it remains in the hands of professional military officers who share at least some degree of power with a democratically elected civilian government. Iran also has latent nuclear capabilities. Yet despite the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 agreement that limited Iran’s nuclear activities and the reimposition of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran, the Islamic Republic has, at least for now, decided to keep its commitments to not enrich uranium to bomb-grade levels and to permit international inspectors to monitor any suspected nuclear facilities. 

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