Having just rolled back Iran’s nuclear program, if the world can stop North Korea, we could reasonably be looking at the end of proliferation, the wave of weapon programs that began over 70 years ago following the first nuclear attack, on Hiroshima. While several nations have the technical capability to make nuclear materials and nuclear weapons, there is no other country with a dedicated program like North Korea’s. Our nuclear nightmares could continue to shrink.
That's somewhat comforting. It remains true, though, that the world is a dangerous place. America's nuclear weapons, at least, actually make the world safer by deterring potential conflicts through the threat of massive retaliation.
Has history shown that to be true? Nuclear-armed states are attacked all the time. The U.K.’s nuclear weapons didn’t stop Argentina from attacking the British-held Falkland Islands in 1982. Israel’s nuclear weapons didn’t stop Arab states from attacking that country in 1973. Nor did they deter North Vietnam from fighting the United States. Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan still teeter on the edge of all-out war.
True, the potential for going nuclear may have reduced the risk of a global war between the Soviet Union and the United States, but deterrence almost failed catastrophically several times, including during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In the real world, those who have had their fingers on the button have taken a different view of nuclear weapons’ security benefits. Colin Powell had 28,000 nuclear weapons under his command as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “The one thing I convinced myself after all these years of exposure to the use of nuclear weapons is that they were useless,” he has said. President Ronald Reagan knew that “Everybody would be a loser if there’s a nuclear war.”
Using a nuclear bomb on a non-nuclear armed foe could kill hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, send shock waves through global security and financial structures, and bring world condemnation on the perpetrator of the catastrophe. Using such a bomb on a nuclear-armed adversary would trigger a devastating nuclear response.
There is no way that treaties, or diplomatic agreements like the Iran deal, can restrict this kind of danger, though. The problem is that the good guys would abide by the restrictions and the bad guys would cheat.
How effective have treaties and other agreements been at limiting nuclear proliferation?
As I’ve argued elsewhere, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is the most effective security treaty in history. Coupled with positive security guarantees, it provides the diplomatic, political, and legal framework that has helped convince dozens of nations to end nuclear-weapon programs.
Thanks in great part to the treaty and related agreements, the entire southern hemisphere is free of nuclear weapons, including the continents of South America and Africa. States that have cheated, like Iran, pay a heavy penalty or, like North Korea, are ostracized. Only Israel, Pakistan, and India have remained outside this global pact.