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The Global Nuclear Order is Under Strain


For any global order to establish legitimacy, it must meet two criteria. Firstly, there should be a convergence among the dominant powers of the time. Secondly, it must effectively portray the results as a global public benefit to the rest of the world. The global nuclear order (GNO) is not exempt from these requirements; however, it currently faces challenges and strains.


GS-2- International Relations

  • International Treaties & Agreements
  • Effect of Policies and Politics of Countries on India’s Interests

Mains Question:

Created in the shadow of the Cold War, the Global Nuclear Order has held reasonably well, but is facing pressures under changing geopolitics. Comment. (15 Marks, 250 Words).

Lessons of the Cold War:

Establishment and Evolution of the Global Nuclear Order (GNO):

  • The GNO came into existence during the era of the Cold War, where the United States and the Soviet Union led the Western and Socialist blocs, respectively.
  • The pivotal moment was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, a close call to a nuclear war that led U.S. President John F. Kennedy and General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev to acknowledge two political realities.
  • Firstly, as nuclear superpowers, they recognized the need for bilateral mechanisms to prevent tensions from escalating to a nuclear level.
  • Secondly, understanding the dangers of nuclear weapons, they aimed to curb their proliferation, resulting in the establishment of the GNO.
  • In an effort to control proliferation, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. initiated multilateral negotiations in Geneva in 1965 for a treaty to restrain the spread of nuclear weapons.
  • Three years later, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) opened for signature. Starting with fewer than 60 parties, the NPT is now widely recognized as the cornerstone of the global nuclear order, with 191 adherents.

Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT):

  • The NPT, an international treaty established with the aim of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and technology, promoting the peaceful utilization of nuclear energy, and advancing disarmament objectives, was signed in 1968 and enforced in 1970.
  • Currently, it boasts 191 member states, with India not being a participant. The treaty necessitates that countries relinquish any existing or prospective plans to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for access to the peaceful applications of nuclear energy.
  • Notably, it stands as the sole legally binding commitment within a multilateral agreement concerning the pursuit of disarmament by the nuclear-weapon States.
  • According to the NPT, nuclear-weapon states parties are those that both produced and detonated a nuclear weapon or other nuclear explosive devices before January 1, 1967.
  • The third component of the global nuclear order emerged in 1975 when India, having chosen not to sign the NPT, surprised the world by conducting an underground peaceful nuclear explosive (PNE).
  • Responding to this development, seven countries (the U.S., U.S.S.R, U.K., Canada, France, Japan, and West Germany) convened a series of meetings in London.
  • They concluded that urgent measures were required to establish ad hoc export controls, ensuring that nuclear technology transferred for peaceful purposes would not be utilized for PNEs.
  • Originally named the London Club, this entity later transformed into the Nuclear Suppliers Group, comprising 48 countries today. The group adheres to common guidelines for exporting nuclear and related dual-use materials, equipment, and technologies.

Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG):

  • The establishment of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) occurred in response to a 1974 nuclear device explosion by a non-nuclear-weapon State (India), revealing the potential misuse of nuclear technology intended for peaceful purposes.
  • Comprising nuclear supplier nations, the NSG aims to support non-proliferation efforts by enforcing two sets of Guidelines governing nuclear exports and nuclear-related exports.
  • Currently, the group consists of 48 participating governments, and each member adheres to and implements the NSG Guidelines in alignment with its respective national laws and practices. Decision-making within the NSG operates on a consensus basis.

Evaluation of the Above Treaties:

  • The achievement of non-proliferation has been noteworthy. Despite earlier alarming predictions that over 20 countries would possess nuclear weapons by the 1970s (with five nations— the U.S., U.S.S.R., U.K., France, and China—already having them in 1968), only four additional countries have become nuclear-armed, namely India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan.
  • Even after the Cold War, non-proliferation continued to be a shared objective, leading Moscow and Washington to collaborate in ensuring the denuclearization of Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan, which hosted Soviet nuclear weapons and possessed some nuclear capabilities.
  • Arms control did not halt the U.S.-U.S.S.R. nuclear arms race; in fact, their arsenals increased from 28,000 bombs in 1962 to over 65,000 bombs in the early 1980s.
  • Nevertheless, ongoing dialogue and certain agreements created a semblance of managing the arms race. Since the late 1980s, the U.S. and Soviet arsenals have significantly decreased, falling below 12,000 bombs today, largely attributable to the conclusion of the Cold War and the dissolution of the U.S.S.R.
  • The two nuclear superpowers adhered to a concept of ‘strategic stability’ based on assured second-strike capability, guaranteed by their substantial arsenals. This ensured deterrence stability, eliminating any incentive for a first strike.
  • Arms control negotiations resulted in parity in strategic capacities, establishing a sense of stability in the arms race, and fail-safe communication links contributed to crisis management stability.
  • These understandings of nuclear deterrence in a bipolar world persisted beyond the Cold War but are currently being questioned.

Shifting Geopolitical Dynamics

US and China:

  • The United States now contends with a more assertive China, aiming to reclaim influence both regionally and globally.
  • This rivalry differs from the Cold War era as both economies are intricately interconnected, and China stands as an economic and technological peer rival.
  • China has expressed displeasure with the U.S. naval presence in the South China and East China Seas, steadily enhancing its naval and missile capabilities since the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996.

US and Russia:

  • The evolving geopolitical landscape has impacted treaties between the U.S. and Russia. In 2002, the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, and in 2019, it exited the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, citing Russian violations.
  • The remaining agreement, New START, is set to expire in 2026; its verification meetings were halted during the COVID-19 outbreak and never resumed. Although strategic stability talks commenced in 2021 after the meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in Geneva, they collapsed with the Ukraine war.
  • Last year, Russia de-ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), aligning itself with the U.S., raising concerns about the potential resumption of nuclear testing.
  • As U.S.-Russia relations deteriorated, the U.S. now faces a unique situation with two nuclear peer rivals exploring new roles for more deployable weapons.
  • Russian nuclear posturing to caution NATO and the U.S. against escalation in Ukraine has reignited nuclear concerns, rendering traditional definitions of strategic stability obsolete.

Stability of the GNO:

  • The recent AUKUS deal involving nuclear submarines with Australia, a non-nuclear weapon state, is causing unease within the NPT community.
  • In the 1970s, South Korea contemplated a nuclear weapons program, but pressure from the U.S. led to France withdrawing its offer to supply a reprocessing plant, and South Korea eventually joined the NPT.
  • Current opinion polls indicate a 70% support for developing a national nuclear deterrent and 40% for reintroducing U.S. nuclear weapons (withdrawn in 1991) on South Korean territory.
  • Between 1977 and 1988, the United States actively undermined Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program while simultaneously normalizing relations with China.
  • Despite being a victim of nuclear attacks, the Japanese public has maintained a strong anti-nuclear sentiment. However, there is a noticeable shift, evident in Japan’s decision to double its defense spending over the next five years.


Presently, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan possess the technical capabilities to develop an independent nuclear deterrent quickly, given the necessary political will. It seems only a matter of time before U.S. pragmatism leads to the inevitable recognition that possessing more independent nuclear deterrent capabilities might be the optimal way to manage the rivalry with China. The stability of the Global Nuclear Order (GNO) is becoming increasingly uncertain.

February 2024