In the winter of February 2023, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was withdrawing from the New START arms control treaty. This Cold War-era accord, the last of its kind, had been crucial in maintaining a delicate equilibrium between Moscow and Washington. Barely a month later, in March, Putin went a step further, stating that Russia would install nuclear-capable ballistic missile systems in Belarus, right at the doorstep of NATO territory, Poland.
Last month, the Federalist Society’s International & National Security Law Practice Group held an event with Stephen P. Rosen, the Beton Michael Kaneb Professor of National Security and Military Affairs at Harvard University, to explore these recent developments and their policy and legal ramifications. Rosen, a seasoned expert in national security and military affairs, brought his expertise to bear in a fascinating conversation moderated by Dan West, Director of SCF Partners.
Rosen began by discussing the original purpose of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), acknowledging its shortcomings in curbing the spread of nuclear weapons and technology. “The NPT didn’t succeed in preventing non-signatory powers from getting nuclear weapons, and it didn’t prevent North Korea from getting nuclear weapons,” he said. This stark reflection set the stage for examining the arms control and nonproliferation strategies negotiated in the 1990s and how they may have contributed to the current situation.
The conversation then shifted to the Budapest Memorandum, a landmark agreement that Rosen posited may have further undermined the NPT. Rosen highlighted instances where the relinquishment of nuclear capabilities, such as in Ukraine and Libya, led to unfavorable outcomes for those nations. He suggested these instances likely made other countries wary of similar agreements, leading to widespread mistrust of these types of security guarantees.
Rosen also predicted that several countries are quietly investing in civilian nuclear energy programs with a potential dual purpose of developing nuclear weapons capabilities. Citing Saudi Arabia and Turkey as examples, he underscored a growing concern that these nations are preparing themselves for a potential nuclear threat. Rosen also spoke about Japan, arguing that the country might be contemplating its own nuclear strategy. “Even countries as conservative as Japan have [through] back channels said to us, ‘America if we get into a fight with China, isn’t it better if we have our own nuclear weapons?” he said. Rosen indicated that this shift in the international community’s attitude toward nuclear weapons raises questions about the efficacy of existing nonproliferation treaties.
Rosen concluded his remarks with a bleak assessment of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, describing the country as a “de facto nuclear weapon state.” He noted the growing acceptance of this fact, even by Iran’s arch-rival Israel, and speculated on a future Middle East populated with multiple independent nuclear powers. This grim picture, however, came with the cautious optimism that nuclear deterrence might prevent the use of nuclear weapons in the region.
Pessimism notwithstanding, the conversation between Rosen and West was an insightful exploration of the new landscape of nuclear weapons and arms control. As the world enters a new era of great power competition, discussions like these provide invaluable insights into understanding the shifting sands of international law’s treatment of nuclear weapons.
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