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September 02, 2020

CNAS-CSIS Report: Toward a More Proliferated World?

The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons

The United States and the international community have been relatively successful in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons. Disincentives and barriers to entry to the nuclear club are high, and those countries that want the ultimate weapon need to be willing to accept significant risks. However, several trends are eroding proliferation barriers and generating new proliferation pressures.

In a new joint report from the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “Toward a More Proliferated World? The Geopolitical Forces that Will Shape the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” Eric Brewer, with Ilan Goldenberg, Joseph Rodgers, Maxwell Simon, and Kaleigh Thomas, survey the geopolitical forces that will shape the proliferation landscape and the United States’ ability to manage it in the next 10-20 years. The report identifies seven trends that will shape the future of proliferation:

  1. Nuclear threats are increasing, and regional security environments are becoming more tense, thereby creating proliferation pressures.
  2. U.S. allies and partners are losing trust and confidence in the United States—including Washington’s willingness to uphold its security commitments—increasing the risk that they will seek nuclear weapons or weapons-relevant capabilities.
  3. The rise of authoritarian leaders is increasing the chances of nuclear proliferation.
  4. Prospects are dim for arms control measures that can further reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons or cap growing global nuclear weapons arsenals. As a result, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is likely to come under further strain.
  5. The ability of the United States to use civil nuclear energy sales and assistance to advance nonproliferation objectives will likely decline.
  6. The effectiveness of sanctions as a nonproliferation tool will likely diminish as countries develop ways to reduce their impact and U.S. financial dominance erodes over the long term.
  7. The more competitive relationships between the United States and Russia and China (i.e., “strategic competition”), will likely impede cooperation on nonproliferation and complicate U.S. implementation of nonproliferation policy.

The authors evaluate three potential proliferators—Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Turkey—against these seven trends and discuss the broad implications for proliferation and U.S. policy in an effort to answer the question, “Are we headed toward a more proliferated world?”

To request an interview with the authors, contact Cole Stevens at cstevens@cnas.org or (202) 695-8166.

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The Center for a New American Security (CNAS) is an independent and bipartisan research institution that develops strong, pragmatic, and principled national security and defense policies. CNAS leads efforts to help inform and prepare the national security leaders of today and tomorrow.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) is a bipartisan, nonprofit policy research organization dedicated to advancing practical ideas to address the world’s greatest challenges.