How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has unleashed a wave of concern about the global nuclear order. Such worries are understandable. A nuclear-armed state invaded and is trying to conquer its nonnuclear neighbor, threatening to use nuclear weapons to win if necessary. Making matters worse, that neighbor, Ukraine, had agreed not to become a nuclear-armed state, returning the arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War in exchange for security assurances from Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Russia’s blatant violation of those assurances and its threats to use nuclear weapons to deter outside intervention in Ukraine, according to many analysts, sends a powerful signal to nonnuclear states: get nuclear weapons as fast as you can, lest you become the next Ukraine. As Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution have argued, if Washington doesn’t help Ukraine defend itself and ensure that it remains territorially intact, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s prediction that the world could see up to 25 nuclear-armed states “may wind up just being premature, not wrong.” These concerns are shared by more than just nongovernment experts. At a meeting of parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in August, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine sent “the worst possible message” to any state considering nuclear weapons for its security.
But although Russia’s war has created nuclear risks, the risk that it will unleash a wave of nuclear proliferation is lower than many believe. There are good reasons to fear the spread of nuclear weapons and related technologies, particularly among Washington’s allies and partners. Some have begun to question the credibility of U.S. security commitments, for instance, and the United States’ ability to dissuade these countries from going nuclear by providing (or denying) civil nuclear energy assistance has diminished as Russia and China have become more competitive providers of such technology. Finally, strained relations among great powers have made cooperation on nonproliferation far more difficult. But these challenges predate the crisis in Ukraine. And far from making them worse, the war may actually offer the United States an opportunity to halt or at least ameliorate some of the most worrying proliferation trends.
For the most part, Washington’s nonnuclear allies want to remain under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, even if some have pursued so-called hedging strategies that involve developing civil nuclear capabilities that could one day be used for military purposes. Russia’s invasion has increased demand for security partnerships with the United States and made some countries wary of Russian civil nuclear assistance, giving Washington even more sway. Taking advantage of this moment will not be easy, and it will require a strong government commitment to revitalizing U.S. civil nuclear exports. But handled properly, the crisis could end up strengthening U.S. nonproliferation efforts rather than igniting a cascade of new weapons states.
There are four reasons to doubt that Russia’s war in Ukraine will lead to an uptick in proliferation. First, although Russia’s nuclear threats have been unusually explicit, this is not the first time a nuclear power has threatened a relatively weak state. During the Cold War, West Germany feared a Soviet invasion and Taiwan feared an attack from communist China. Both nonnuclear powers considered acquiring deterrents of their own but ultimately abandoned their efforts. Nor is it the first time that a country has faced an existential attack after giving up its nuclear weapons program. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Libya abandoned their weapons ambitions and both leaders were later deposed following Western military action. There is no evidence that either experience prompted other countries to seek nuclear weapons.
Second, history suggests that getting the bomb is easier said than done. Washington went to great lengths to prevent West Germany, Taiwan, and other powers from going nuclear, using a mix of assurances and threats of abandonment if they persisted on the nuclear path. Middle Eastern countries have found it similarly difficult to acquire nuclear weapons. Iraq and Syria had their programs derailed by Israeli and U.S. attacks, while Iran has endured three decades of sanctions and sabotage as it has progressed toward the weapons threshold. In short, the path to nuclear weapons status is littered with obstacles and risks. Although Washington must work to keep these barriers in place, countries cannot simply wave a magic wand and acquire nuclear weapons. This is unlikely to change after the war in Ukraine.
Third, countries with allied protection are less vulnerable to external aggression than Ukraine and therefore less likely to feel compelled to seek a nuclear deterrent. Unlike Ukraine, many countries that lie in the crosshairs of a potential nuclear-armed aggressor fall under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella—as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and most European countries do—or have close security relationships with the United States, as do Taiwan and several Gulf countries. U.S. backing makes these countries far less tempting targets for aggression than Ukraine; it is not an accident that Russia has refrained from deliberately attacking NATO members, despite their substantial support for Ukraine’s war effort. The United States provides this protection in part so that its allies and partners don’t need nuclear weapons of their own. Such assurance doesn’t guarantee that U.S. allies and partners won’t someday decide to develop nuclear weapons, but it does mean that building their own arsenals would be an option of last rather than first resort. It also means that the United States would have an opportunity to try to persuade these countries from going down the nuclear path.
Finally, although Russia’s violation of its security assurances to Ukraine and threats to use nuclear weapons have undermined the already strained Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, these actions are unlikely to prompt an exodus from the agreement. Partly for the reasons outlined above, most countries see little value in exiting the treaty and producing nuclear weapons of their own. And those that might be tempted to do so are likely to be driven by national security considerations, not frustration that nuclear-armed states are abusing their privileges and ignoring their nonproliferation commitments.
None of this means Washington should declare victory when it comes to nonproliferation. The risk that U.S. allies and partners will pursue nuclear weapons is real. But that risk predates Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is largely the result of deepening concerns about U.S. reliability amid the rise of powerful revanchist adversaries, diverging perspectives between Washington and its allies, and growing worries about antialliance strains in U.S. politics.
Rushing to acquire nuclear weapons in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would carry significant risks, however, possibly provoking adversaries, triggering economic sanctions, and leading Washington to withdraw its security guarantees. As a result, U.S. allies and partners are more likely to seek a nuclear weapons option—a strategy known as “hedging.” Hedgers develop the capacity to build the bomb for ostensibly peaceful purposes, such as fueling nuclear power plants or managing radioactive waste. Sometimes, they also develop nonnuclear missiles or space launch capabilities that can later be modified for nuclear delivery systems. Such investments underwrite an insurance policy against aggression by adversaries or abandonment by allies, since much of the same technology can be used to build nuclear weapons later if the security environment deteriorates.
Some countries appear to be pursuing this strategy already. In South Korea, for instance, more than 70 percent of the public and a growing number of national security experts support developing an indigenous nuclear weapon. In negotiations with Washington, Seoul has long pushed for the ability to enrich and reprocess nuclear fuel. Last year, South Korea also scrapped limits on its conventional missile program, allowing it to develop more sophisticated, longer-range missiles to counter North Korea and possibly China. Seoul has also sought greater integration with U.S. nuclear planning and even asked for a return of U.S. nuclear weapons to the peninsula.
History suggests that getting the bomb is easier said than done.
Saudi Arabia has also hedged its bets, refusing to forswear enrichment or reprocessing and maintaining an outdated arrangement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that limits the access of international inspectors. In addition, it has openly threatened to build nuclear weapons if Iran does the same and, according to reports from CNN and other news outlets, is working to bolster its missile capabilities with Chinese assistance. Although the United States remains Saudi Arabia’s closest defense partner, the relationship is rocky and Riyadh has sought to cultivate deeper ties with Moscow and China.
In addition to the option to develop a bomb, nuclear hedging gives U.S. allies and partners leverage over Washington—flaunting the ability to quit the alliance with an independent nuclear arsenal is a powerful way to shore up security commitments from the United States. But although this dynamic might force Washington to shoulder more defense responsibilities or better equip its allies, it also creates an opportunity to strengthen nonproliferation. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, U.S. allies and partners may be even more likely to seek greater protections from the United States than to grasp at nuclear weapons.
Washington should capitalize on this desire for reassurance to manage nuclear proliferation risks. Not all countries will seek the same protections, and the United States will have to carefully consider what it is willing to provide and where. For countries such as South Korea, there may be room for more integrated military planning and more detailed discussion about the role of nuclear weapons in defense. For countries such as Saudi Arabia, where extending a nuclear deterrent may not be politically viable, Washington will need to do more to help the government develop the ability to defend against regional threats, such as Iranian missiles and drones. The Pentagon’s plans to establish a facility in Saudi Arabia to jointly develop and test integrated counterdrone capabilities is a step in the right direction. Greater regional cooperation on security, defense, and energy would also pay dividends.
The so-called AUKUS partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States offers another example of how Washington can solidify alliances, bolster allied conventional capabilities, and set a positive nonproliferation precedent in the process. The bottom line is that greater demand for U.S. security backing gives Washington more leverage to attach nonproliferation strings to whatever assurances it provides.
Creating incentives for nonproliferation through security assurances is difficult, and the stakes—making or breaking alliance commitments—are incredibly high. Fortunately, the United States can strengthen this approach with another one that has become more attractive in the wake of the war in Ukraine: civil nuclear assistance. During the Cold War, the United States helped countries set up nonmilitary nuclear programs to strengthen alliances, court new partners, and gain influence. Such assistance was an important tool for promoting nonproliferation: Washington could set limits on the civil nuclear programs of partner countries, ensuring that the technology was not used for nuclear weapons. And if an ally began a covert weapons program, U.S. officials could threaten to end civil nuclear assistance in response.
Yet the United States eventually ceded the nuclear marketplace to Russia and China—19 of the 33 commercial nuclear power plants exported worldwide between 2000 and 2020 came from these authoritarian rivals. Not only has U.S. influence diminished as a result, proliferation risks may have increased. The controls that Russia and China impose on foreign nuclear energy projects are often much looser than those required under U.S. nuclear cooperation agreements.
Moscow and Beijing frequently offer U.S. allies and partners valuable atomic assistance packages, in part to weaken their alignment with Washington. Both powers have made bids to build nuclear power plants in Saudi Arabia, for instance, putting them in direct competition with bids from the United States and other countries. If Washington, Moscow, and Beijing continue to vie for dominance over civil nuclear exports, savvy states could exploit this competition to build nuclear energy programs under generous and perhaps even permissive supply agreements.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created an opening for Washington to chip away at Russian dominance over the nuclear marketplace. Moscow became the poster child for irresponsible civil nuclear stewardship when its forces shelled and then brutally occupied Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. And the dangers of depending on Russia for energy have prompted some countries to put civil nuclear projects back on the table. Germany, for example, has delayed its plan to phase out nuclear energy, keeping several nuclear power plants operational after they were scheduled to be decommissioned. Other governments have explored building new nuclear power plants to enhance energy security after losing access to Russian gas. Washington was quick to seize these opportunities, pouring additional resources into efforts to shore up nuclear fuel production, develop advanced reactors, and enhance export competitiveness, most notably by providing grants from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency to U.S. firms that develop nuclear energy programs abroad.
The initial results have been promising. In just the last six months, Romania announced a preliminary agreement for the Oregon-based firm NuScale Power to build a new type of nuclear power plant, Sweden signed a deal with Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse and the French company Framatome to replace Russian nuclear fuel supply contracts, Ukraine hired Westinghouse to help end its reliance on Russian nuclear fuel, and Poland selected Westinghouse to develop the country’s first nuclear power plant. Meanwhile, Finland walked away from a deal with the Russian state-owned enterprise Rosatom to build nuclear power plants. In other words, Russia’s war in Ukraine has put the United States in a prime position to supply civil nuclear technology around the world, especially in the West.
Whether Washington can succeed in revitalizing its civil nuclear exports will depend on its willingness to sustain strong support for U.S. nuclear firms in the face of stiff competition from Russian and Chinese state-owned enterprises. Some countries, including NATO members such as Turkey and Hungary, remain beholden to Russia because of nuclear contracts or investments; they don’t want to be left holding the bag on unfinished nuclear power plants. Russia also faces greater pressure to compete for influence via civil nuclear exports, since this area is one of its few comparative advantages. The political and material costs of underwriting nuclear energy projects can be daunting, but the payoffs promise to be significant. By restoring its ability to supply allies and partners with civil nuclear technology, Washington can acquire a powerful instrument to counterbalance Moscow and Beijing while also strengthening global nonproliferation efforts.
The United States has retooled its diplomatic, economic, and military strategies to align with the overarching goal of competing with China and Russia. It is time for Washington to do the same for its nonproliferation strategy. The war in Ukraine could go disastrously wrong in many ways, including through nuclear use, but it has also created an opportunity to inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons. Washington must not miss this chance.