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Countries have long agreed to ditch nuclear weapons, but now there are new threats

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shaken assumptions that have guided international relations for the last three decades. Nonproliferation, the movement to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, became the name of the game in the post-Cold War era. But this month, we've seen Russian President Vladimir Putin threaten nuclear warfare and North Korea test a new intercontinental missile last week. That's leaving many countries wondering if it's really a good idea to give up having nuclear weapons. So does disarmament have a chance moving forward? Joining us now is Ankit Panda. He's the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Good morning.

ANKIT PANDA: Thank you so much for having me.

RASCOE: I want to start with, like, how does the world continue to push for nonproliferation at a time where you have international actors who seem to be benefiting or, at the very least, surviving thanks to having nuclear weapons?

PANDA: I think, you know, that's the question that the nonproliferation policy community has been wrangling with since the Cold War. And I'd actually, you know, question that assumption that, you know, is Vladimir Putin thriving? Is Kim Jong Un thriving despite the nuclear threats?

RASCOE: Well, surviving. Oh yeah, surviving. Not - maybe not thriving but surviving.

PANDA: But so I think a lot of national leaders have greater aspirations than just survival. And so, you know, for the United States, our nonproliferation policy has gone down many folds, right? So the Non-Proliferation Treaty is one of the most successful treaties we have in the international system. President Kennedy worried in the '60s that we'd be entering a world by the end of the 20th century with 20, 30 countries with nuclear weapons. Fortunately, we just have nine, and the NPT is a really big part of that. But we also have alliances. One of the best tools in our nonproliferation toolkit is the fact that we tell our friends in Europe and East Asia, Japan, Korea, Australia - that, you know, their leaders should rest easy at night because American nuclear weapons are there as the ultimate backstop for their national defense.

RASCOE: You mentioned the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Like, why was it so successful in the past?

PANDA: Yeah, so, you know, two things on why the NPT was so successful - I think the really big one is that during the Cold War, even as the United States and the Soviet Union were pointing thousands of nuclear weapons at each other, they agreed that it would be really bad for other countries to get nuclear weapons. And then the Soviet Union collapsed. And in the 1990s, when the Russian Federation's power was really diminished, the so-called nuclear weapon states - the United States, Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom - were able to extend the NPT indefinitely. You know, the world is changing today, but the conditions under which the NPT was built and the conditions under which it was extended indefinitely I think were particularly unique.

RASCOE: You mentioned other countries without nuclear weapons. Do you think that some countries at this moment may be looking at the situation in Ukraine and say, do we need to make some changes if we want to avoid Ukraine's fate? Or do you think that they may be making different calculations?

PANDA: Even if a world leader were to decide, hey, these things are actually great - maybe if we had nuclear weapons, you know, nobody can invade us, there would be a lot of costs associated with that, not just the financial costs of building the bomb but operating the bomb, not suffering economic sanctions, not becoming a pariah state. All of these things, I think, are very difficult for national leaders to overlook in the decision to build nuclear weapons. I mean, even Ukraine - I mean, now everybody knows that the Ukrainians returned the Soviet weapons that were on their territory to the Russian Federation. But the Ukrainians never controlled those weapons, right? They could have physically cracked those weapons open and taken the uranium and the plutonium out and build their own weapons. But that would have been a disastrous decision for a country that was newly independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainians decided that they were going to take security guarantees instead and become a member of the global community in good standing. And lo and behold, here we are now in 2022 with those security guarantees really torn up, I mean, really just based on the decision of one man - Vladimir Putin.

RASCOE: So taking a step back, like, how do you see the future of nonproliferation after the invasion of Ukraine? Like, is this a turning point?

PANDA: You know, I think that's, again, very much a question that's looming on the minds of many of us who work in this field. The biggest short-term concern is Iran. The Iran deal is on the cusp of being restored, although we've seen a lot of last-minute doldrums there. And if that deal doesn't get restored, I think the chances of Iran potentially pursuing a nuclear weapon are quite likely. And then you look to Saudi Arabia, where the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has basically - he said this in public interviews - that if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia will look to do the same. The other thing that I'm concerned about is, you know, the return of an America First foreign policy here in the United States. You know, for 70 years, we had American presidents that agreed that our allies were worth supporting and that American-extended deterrence was a force for good in the world. That changed in 2016. And I think the Trump presidency really got many of our partners who relied on the American nuclear deterrent as the ultimate backstop in their own national defense strategies just becoming a lot more concerned.

RASCOE: That's Ankit Panda of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Thanks for being with us today.

PANDA: Thanks a lot, Ayesha. Great to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.