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Philip Gordon: The unsung success of nuclear nonproliferation

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U.S. President Barack Obama, left, delivers remarks at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington.   © Reuters

When U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump mused about the possibility of Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia developing their own nuclear weapons, it was probably not his intention to highlight the success of the nuclear nonproliferation regime or the policy of President Barack Obama's administration.

     After all, Trump's remarks prompted a stinging rebuke from Obama, who told reporters that the comments reflected a person who "doesn't know much about foreign policy or nuclear policy or the Korean Peninsula or the world generally."

     Yet Trump's suggestions on CNN and to the New York Times that it is "only a question of time" before these countries go nuclear, and that "in a certain sense" we should welcome this outcome, ended up underlining the success of efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

     The reality is that global efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation have been remarkably successful, and the Obama administration's policies have reinforced this success. The irony is that Trump's proposed approach -- the U.S. telling its allies it will no longer defend them unless they "pay us" for their own defense -- would almost certainly contribute to the nuclear proliferation that Trump claims to "hate."

     To be sure, nuclear proliferation and the security of nuclear materials remain major threats to global security, which is why Obama convened representatives of more than 50 countries in Washington from March 31 to April 1 for a fourth Nuclear Security Summit.

     North Korea's recent satellite and nuclear weapons tests remain of great concern. Pakistan and India continue to expand their arsenals in a dangerous nuclear standoff, and terrorism experts everywhere worry about the Islamic State group getting its hands on a "dirty bomb," not least after reports emerged that IS members in Brussels were looking to get their hands on radioactive material.

     Obama has made little progress toward the goal of "a world without nuclear weapons" announced with great fanfare in 2009. Joe Cirincione, director of the anti-nuclear weapons group Ploughshares Fund, called Obama's nonproliferation legacy "disappointing," while Bruce Blair, head of Global Zero, derided Obama's original vision as "empty calories."

$1 TRILLION MODERNIZATION   Critics are right that no country has abandoned nuclear weapons on Obama's watch; several have expanded their arsenals, and the U.S.'s own plans to spend $1 trillion over the next three decades hardly seem a bold step away from a nuclear world. (Part of the reason for the new spending is the decision to modernize U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear submarines and bombers -- the nuclear "triad" Trump appeared to be unfamiliar with in an early presidential debate.)

     That said, the goal of nuclear abolition even in the long term was probably always unrealistic. And the longstanding U.S. policy of preventing nuclear proliferation, in part by extending defense guarantees to allies in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, has been a major success. When the U.S. first started seriously pursuing nuclear arms control in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy made his famous (and reasonable) prediction that "10, 15 or 20 nations" would have nuclear weapons by 1964.

     Instead, more than 50 years later, the number is still less than 10. Today, as Cirincione has pointed out, fewer countries have nuclear weapons programs than they did when Kennedy made his prediction -- or in the decades that followed. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union fell apart in 1989-1991, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and South Africa all gave up their nuclear weapons and programs, and the number of nuclear weapons states shrunk rather than grew. The U.S. and USSR proceeded to reduce their arsenals by tens of thousands of weapons each.

     Obama has built on these successes in several ways. He continued the arms reductions with Russia with the 2010 New Start Treaty, which limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads on each side to 1,550, a reduction of nearly two-thirds from the original strategic arms treaty and the lowest level for decades.

     An even greater step forward came with the Iran nuclear deal, which removes the risk of nuclear proliferation there -- and of nuclear weapons spreading across the Middle East -- for at least 10-15 years.

SECRET TALKS   When the U.S. initiated secret nuclear talks in early 2013, Iran had mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle, some 20,000 installed centrifuges, enough low-enriched uranium to make numerous nuclear bombs, a stockpile of 20% enriched uranium that reduced the timeline for doing so, an underground uranium enrichment facility, and a nearly complete heavy-water reactor capable of producing material for one to two bombs per year. Experts assessed that Iran could produce enough material for a nuclear weapon in as little as two months.

     As a result of the nuclear deal, Iran has mothballed some 14,000 centrifuges, shipped out more than 10 tons of enriched uranium, completely redesigned its plutonium-producing heavy-water reactor, and set up an intrusive international inspections regime. Now it would take Iran at least a year to produce enough nuclear material for a bomb -- the longest "breakout timeline" since before Obama took office. This gives the U.S. and its international partners ample time to respond to any suspected attempt to fashion a bomb.

     Finally there is the Nuclear Security Summit process, which culminated in the big meeting in Washington. Since 2009, that process has led to the removal or disposal of over 3,800kg of vulnerable nuclear material, the elimination of highly enriched uranium stockpiles from 12 countries, the installation of radiation detection equipment in 36 countries and the elimination of 31 highly enriched uranium research reactors. One of the nuclear security process's most important successes was the removal of hundreds of tons of enriched uranium from Ukraine -- enough for numerous nuclear weapons -- before that country erupted in civil war.

     Threats from nuclear materials and nuclear weapons remain enormous, and the next U.S. president will have to be as vigilant as the current one. But shrugging off nuclear proliferation as inevitable -- "It's going to happen anyway," insisted Trump -- would be a self-fulfilling prophecy. That would make us all less safe.

Philip Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served previously as a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and to Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state.

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