Sign Up

Touring the Nuclear World

How safe is the world from nuclear weapons?

March 19, 2007

How safe is the world from nuclear weapons?

The number of nuclear weapons in the world has been cut in half over the past fifteen years, from a Cold War high of 650,000 in 1986 to about 27,000 today. These stockpiles will continue to decline for at least the rest of this decade.

There are now far fewer countries that have nuclear weapons or weapon programs than there were in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. In the 1960s, 23 countries had weapons, were conducting weapons-related research, or were discussing the pursuit of weapons — including Australia, Canada, China, Egypt, India, Japan, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany.

Today, eight countries have weapons (China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom and the United States) — with North Korea a possible ninth. Iran may be pursuing a weapons program under the guise of peaceful nuclear power, but no other nation is believed to be doing so.

More countries have given up nuclear weapons or weapon programs in the past 15 years than have started them. These were not easy cases:

  • Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine inherited thousands of nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Within a few years, they were convinced to give them up and join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear weapon states.
  • The apartheid government in South Africa, on the eve of transition to majority rule in 1993, announced that it had destroyed its six secret nuclear weapons. Nelson Mandela could have reversed that decision, but he concluded that South Africa's security would be better served in a region where no state had nuclear weapons than in one with a nuclear arms race.
  • Similarly, civilian governments in Brazil and Argentina in the 1980s, stopped the nuclear weapon research that military juntas had started. Both nations have since joined the NPT.
  • We now know with great certainty that United Nations inspection and dismantlement programs ended Iraq's nuclear weapon program in 1991.
  • In December 2003, Libya became the most recent nation to abandon a secret program.

The NPT itself is widely considered one of the most successful security pacts in history, with every nation of the world a member except for Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Most of the 183 member states that do not have nuclear weapons believe what the treaty says: We should eliminate nuclear weapons. Most of the U.S. public agrees. An Associated Press poll in March 2005 showed that 66% of Americans believe that no country should be allowed to hay nuclear weapons, including the United States.

In fact, when asked if the United States and its allies should be allowed to have nuclear weapons and all other nations prevented from doing so, only 13% agreed — though that is essentially what U.S. policy is today. In September 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, finally concluding the work Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy had begun.

Clinton called the treaty "our commitment to end all nuclear tests for all time—the longest-sought, hardest-fought prize in the history of arms control. It will help to prevent the nuclear powers from developing more advanced and more dangerous weapons. It will limit the possibilities for other states to acquire such devices."

Even though the U.S. Senate declined to ratify the treaty, since its signing only Pakistan and India have broken the new norm, testing weapons in May 1998. They then pledged to refrain from tests. Over 176 nations have now signed the treaty — and 132 have ratified it as of April 2006.

For eight years — the longest period in the atomic age — no nuclear weapons had exploded anywhere on, above, or below earth, until North Korea's October 2006 test. Restoring this moratorium will make it more difficult for any other nation to shatter it.

There is more good news. The ballistic missile threat that dominated national security debates in the late 199os was greatly exaggerated. The danger that any nation could strike the United States with this nuclear "bolt-out-of-the-blue" is declining by most measures:

  • There are far fewer long-range missiles capable of hitting the United States today than there were ten or twenty years ago.
  • By the beginning of 2006, the total number of such missiles in the world had decreased by 67% from the number deployed in 1987.
  • There are also far fewer intermediate-range missiles that could threaten our allies. Thanks to Reagan-era arms control treaties, these missile have been all but eliminated.
  • The United States and Russia no longer deploy them, and with only 12 Chinese missiles of this range left in the world, the global stockpile has declined by a remarkable 98% from Cold War levels.
  • There are regional threats from the programs that remain, largely in the Middle East, South Asia, and Korea — but even here there is some good news.
  • The number of states with ballistic missile programs has decreased from the number with such programs during the Cold War. By 2005, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, South Africa — and, most recently Libya — had all abandoned their efforts.
  • Today, the nations that are pursuing long-range ballistic missile development are smaller, poorer and less technologically advanced than those that had ballistic missile programs 15 years ago.
  • Even with the medium-range missile programs of Iran, Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan and Syria, the threat today is a limited one. It is confined to a few countries whose political evolution will be the determining factor in whether they emerge as, or remain, threats to global security.

This excerpt is adapted from “Bomb Scare” by Joseph Cirincione. Reprinted by arrangement with Columbia University Press. Copyright 2007 by Joseph Cirincione. All rights reserved.