The year of living dangerously with nuclear weapons

The year of living dangerously with nuclear weapons

Three Crises Washington Could Face in 2019

January 11, 2019 | Foreign Affairs
KCNA via REUTERS A ballistic rocket launch drill of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army is seen at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency in Pyongyang, March 2016.
Nicholas L Miller and Vipin Narang
January 11, 2019
Foreign Affairs

The year 2018 was a chaotic one for U.S. foreign policy. Between a trade war with China, sporadic roller-coaster diplomacy with North Korea, withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, and the recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, observers of international affairs struggled to catch their breath. But if 2018 was chaotic, 2019 is poised to be a much more dangerous year for Washington, particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons. If the Trump administration’s foreign policy continues on its current trajectory, there is a significant chance that the United States could find itself in not one but three nuclear crises in the next 12 months: one with North Korea, one with Russia, and one with Iran.


Although the risk of war on the Korean Peninsula has declined in the last year, the Trump administration’s strategy remains unsustainable, in that it depends on the presumption that North Korea would ever be likely to unilaterally surrender its nuclear weapons. After a flurry of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and thermonuclear tests in 2017, which elicited “fire and fury” threats from Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in a 2018 New Year’s address, ordered his country to “mass produce” nuclear warheads—a directive he did not reverse in his 2019 address. Soon thereafter, he began a charm offensive that resulted in a peace process between the two Koreas, led the Chinese to relax their support of the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign, and culminated in the historic Singapore summit with Trump in June.

At the summit, Kim pretended he was going to disarm, and Trump pretended to believe him. The U.S. president has maintained the pretense ever since. In September, Trump went so far as to say that he “fell in love” with Kim and declared, “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” North Korea has taken cosmetic and reversible steps to partially close its nuclear testing site at Punggye-ri and an engine test stand at Sohae, but these moves do not limit its ability to produce missiles or nuclear warheads.

At first, some hypothesized that Trump simply did not understand that Pyongyang was not actually disarming and got “played” by Kim. But over time, as more evidence leaked about North Korea’s continued nuclear activities, it actually seemed that Trump didn’t care about them so long as North Korea didn’t test its weapons and visibly undermine the appearance of a Trump victory in Singapore.

As Trump continues to publicly heap praise on Kim and vice versa, the relationship is on life support at the working level. Trump’s national security team—led by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and including National Security Adviser John Bolton—was stood up by its North Korean counterparts for the last quarter of 2018 because Washington’s team insists both on the unilateral disarmament of North Korea (the “final fully verified denuclearization of North Korea”) and that this must occur before any sanctions relief.

North Korea, for its part, defines the “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” expansively, as the removal of any and all nuclear threat from the United States in the region and beyond: in other words, North Korea sees the Singapore Declaration as a commitment to bilateral or global disarmament, not unilateral disarmament. Pyongyang further argues that it has taken good faith steps by shuttering its test sites, and it has threatened to return to “exchanges of fire” if the United States does not reciprocate with concessions, particularly the lifting of at least some sanctions.

For Pyongyang, there is no upside to meeting with U.S. working-level delegates below Trump, who can only present speed bumps for Kim. Holding out for a second presidential summit is more attractive, since Kim likely believes he can extract significant concessions directly from Trump. This has set Trump up for a collision course in 2019, either with his own national security team or with Kim if and when the next summit takes place. In order to sustain the fiction of North Korean disarmament and keep Kim from resuming testing, Trump may concede on some sanctions relief or a reorientation of the U.S. regional presence as a prelude to a peace agreement—in essence, choosing Kim’s interpretation of the Singapore Declaration over Bolton’s. This may keep the charade going for another round, but would only serve to kick the can down the road as North Korea gets stronger and continues to pry South Korea away from its U.S. ally. And Trump choosing Kim over his own administration may permanently damage the working-level efforts to at least slow the North Korean nuclear program as Kim gambles that he can continue to bank on future summits without having to make any real concessions.

Alternatively, Trump could finally confront the reality that Kim isn’t disarming and stand firm on the policy of making no concessions until after denuclearization. This stance could lead to conflict between the United States and North Korea if Kim decides to follow through on the renewed “exchanges of fire” threat. With diplomacy having failed, and with Secretary of Defense James Mattis having resigned, the Bolton wing may get its shot at the remaining alternative in 2019: denuclearizing North Korea by force, which would be catastrophic for the region and the world.

For the last year, Washington has continued to insist on unilateral North Korean disarmament while Trump willfully pretended that it was actually occurring. Opportunities to realistically manage and slow the North Korean program were foregone to sustain this charade—if the problem has already been solved, what is there to discuss? The result has certainly been a year calmer than the previous one. But any strategy that depends on denying reality risks implosion or explosion and could well lead to a new nuclear crisis with North Korea.


While the Trump administration deals with—or ignores—North Korea’s nuclear weapons, a nuclear showdown with Moscow also looms. In early December, Pompeo announced that the United States would leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 60 days unless Russia eliminates the missiles it has held in violation of the accord for some time. Although the prospect of U.S. ground-based deployments in East Asia in response to China have also been cited as a rationale to withdraw from the treaty, the ticking clock on withdrawal is seemingly only conditional on, and motivated by, Russia’s violations. In particular, Russia has persisted in its development and deployment of the Novator 9M729 cruise missile and simply denied the United States’ claim that the system violates the treaty’s range restrictions for ground-based systems. Although it is possible that the U.S. threat to withdraw will bring Russia back into compliance, it is more likely that Moscow will continue to deny its noncompliance or take the opportunity to further expand its INF forces, leaving the Trump administration with no choice but to follow through and withdraw.Leaving the treaty would fuel a new arms race with Russia as each country pursues its own nuclear modernization program. Earlier in 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced plans for new nuclear weapons intended to skirt U.S. missile defenses. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has decided to develop a low-yield nuclear weapon for delivery by submarines, a weapon whose use could produce devastating miscalculation since it would be indistinguishable from a higher-yield warhead while en route to its target on Russian territory—and Putin himself stated that Russia will not wait to see the yield before retaliating with strategic nuclear weapons. Moreover, Russia is suspected to have a first-use nuclear doctrine, which means a conventional conflict with NATO could turn nuclear if it starts to go badly for Russia.

With nuclear tensions already escalating, INF withdrawal could deal a death blow to U.S.-Russian arms control.

With nuclear tensions already escalating, INF withdrawal could deal a death blow to U.S.-Russian arms control, reducing the odds that the New START Treaty—the only agreement limiting the number of strategic nuclear weapons each country can deploy—will be extended past 2021. Furthermore, the long-delayed U.S. missile defense review outlining the United State’s vision for its missile defense architecture is expected to be released in 2019. Although Russian nuclear forces are almost certainly capable of penetrating U.S. missile defenses today, it is the fear that they will not be able to do so in the future that is driving Russian (and Chinese) modernization. The review will therefore likely spur further Russian efforts to expand and diversify its arsenal to ensure that its nuclear forces can both survive a U.S. attempt to disarm it—by investing in numbers, stealth, and mobility—and then penetrate U.S. missile defenses by developing measures to defeat U.S. interceptors, such as hypersonic glide vehicles. After almost three decades of steady arms reductions between the two largest nuclear powers, both states may shift direction in 2019 and find themselves in a renewed arms race.


Unlike North Korea and Russia, Iran does not possess nuclear weapons—yet. But the Trump administration’s May decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and reinstate sanctions could lead Tehran to ramp up its nuclear program in 2019. This would greatly increase the chance of two undesirable outcomes: an Iranian nuclear weapon or another war in the Middle East.

Although Tehran has stayed within the limitations of the nuclear deal despite the U.S. withdrawal, there is a significant chance that Iranian restraint will not last through the coming year. If Europe is unable to sustain a meaningful portion of its commerce with Iran in the face of U.S. secondary sanctions and Iranian oil exports dry up, Tehran is likely to rethink the value of remaining in the agreement. After all, why honor a deal if you’re not receiving any of the promised benefits? Instead, Iran may be tempted to expand its enrichment program to pre-2015 levels—shrinking its breakout time to a matter of months—either for domestic reasons such as national pride or to gain international bargaining leverage. Indeed, just a few days ago, a high-ranking Iranian national security official declared, “the Europeans’ opportunity to execute their commitments to our country under the JCPOA … has ended,” suggesting that a return to higher levels of enrichment may be on the horizon.

The stated purpose of Trump’s Iran policy is to use sanctions to force Iran back to the negotiating table, but this is highly unlikely to work. The administration has demanded that Iran change almost every element of its foreign policy in order to win sanctions relief—clearly a nonstarter in Tehran. Even if Tehran were tempted to capitulate to ease the pressure, it would have little reason to believe that the Trump administration would follow through and lift sanctions permanently. After all, Trump already withdrew from one deal with Iran and has acquired a reputation for unpredictable policy decisions. Moreover, there are strong reasons to believe that the Trump administration policy is not intended to bring Iran to the negotiating table at all but, rather, to cause the regime to collapse. The Trump administration has been vocally supporting protestors in Iran and both Pompeo and Bolton have a history of advocating regime change there. In July, Pompeo stated that “the revolutionary nature of the regime itself” is the cause of much of Iran’s objectionable behavior, implying that only regime change could be a durable solution.

Perhaps most worryingly, if Iran does begin violating the nuclear deal or leaves it entirely in 2019—perhaps the real goal of U.S. withdrawal being to bait Iran into doing so—the Trump administration could respond by using military force against Tehran, sparking a regional war. In March 2015, Bolton authored a New York Times op-ed titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” and in July, Trump tweeted, “To Iranian President Rouhani: NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” It’s possible, of course, that this is all bluster intended to intimidate and deter. But the fact is that presidents from both parties have repeatedly affirmed that military force is “on the table” to prevent an Iranian nuclear bomb, and the administration’s rhetoric suggests that Trump is no different.


The United States may face a trifecta of nuclear crises in 2019 because of three flawed strategies it pursued in 2018: a diplomatic process with North Korea based on the fiction of unilateral North Korean disarmament, a threatened withdrawal from the INF Treaty that could accelerate a new arms competition with Russia, and the actual withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran. Unless the Trump administration changes course, observers may look back at 2018 as the calm before the nuclear storm.  

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