Press Release

The Fissile State of International Nuclear Cooperation

  • 2020-06-10
  • Kyle L. Evanoff (Council on Foreign Relations)

After a several-month hiatus, U.S. President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un resumed bilateral meetings this past weekend. The two met along the North-South Korea border to build on their blossoming pen-pal relationship and talk shop on nuclear issues. Analysts pronounced the tête-à-tête in the demilitarized zone, which saw Trump cross into North Korean territory, a less-than-shining example of effective diplomacy (the phrase “photo-op” found more than its fair share of use). Nevertheless, this and previous meetings have marked an improvement from the “fire and fury” Twitter escapades that defined the two leaders’ early exchanges.

On the whole, international cooperation on nuclear issues—both on the Korean Peninsula and writ large—has been spotty in recent years. Luminaries of the Council of Councils (CoC), a network of twenty-eight leading think tanks worldwide, awarded a C to the world’s efforts in “Preventing Nuclear Proliferation” in 2018, a significant improvement from 2017’s D-. With the advantage of greater hindsight, however, this increase appears to have been more an anomalous uptick than indicative of any broadly positive trend. Recent developments in disparate regions of the globe signal a resumed descent into the atomistic politics of nuclear arms racing and deterrence.

Efforts in 2018

Nominally, preventing nuclear proliferation remains near the top of the global agenda. The issue area ranked third out of ten global challenges on the 2018-2019 Report Card on International Cooperation in terms of importance. CoC member institute heads recognized the need to address a number of “serious challenges to the nuclear governance regime,” as Elizabeth Sidiropoulos of the South African Institute of International Affairs put it. “Nuclear concerns came from both great powers and misfits,” according to Michael Fullilove of the Lowy Institute (Australia), who pointed to the United States and North Korea as sources of anxiety.

The historically contentious relationship between the two powers saw some degree of conciliation in 2018. Yul Sohn of the East Asia Institute (South Korea) cited “a string of successful meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and a ground-breaking tête-à-tête with U.S President Donald J. Trump” as indicative of “noteworthy progress.” Memduh Karakullukçu of the Global Relations Forum (Turkey) averred that “de-escalation of the North Korean crisis needs to be registered as an encouraging development in 2018.” “The U.S.-North Korean Singapore Summit achieved a moratorium on testing,” a positive outcome in light of past frustrations, as Riccardo Alcaro of the Institute of International Affairs (Italy) noted, though “there has not been any reduction in North Korean nuclear warheads.”

Diplomatic overtures aside, lack of tangible progress toward denuclearization depressed overall expectations for nonproliferation efforts on the Korean Peninsula. As Yasushi Kudo of Genron NPO (Japan) observed, “North Korea has not yet presented a schedule for denuclearization, and no concrete progress is expected.” Steven Blockmans of the Centre for European Policy Studies (Belgium) was skeptical of the entire affair, contending that “so-called denuclearization talks with North Korea appeared primarily designed for President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to show off their supposed statesmanship.” Fyodor Lukyanov of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy (Russia) was even more cynical, writing that “the U.S.-North Korea summit de facto legitimized the nuclear status of North Korea.”

North Korea, though a conspicuous source of headlines, was not alone in the noteworthiness of its developments. Trump’s decision to exit the United States from the Iran Nuclear Deal elicited an array of reactions from representatives to the CoC. Mariana Campero of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations remarked that “the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) . . . dealt a big blow to political and diplomatic efforts.” Amos Yadlin of the Institute for National Security Studies (Israel), meanwhile, contended that “U.S. withdrawal from the [JCPOA] allowed for further pressure on Iran,” and that “continued diplomatic and sanctions pressure by the United States is crucial.”

The United States also came to loggerheads with Russia over nuclear issues. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was a major point of contention, as U.S. and Russian officials forwarded claims that the other country was in violation of the agreement. Sergey Kulik of the Institute of Contemporary Development (Russia) saw the prospect of the treaty’s demise as “particularly fraught with weakening nuclear security and safety.”

Prospects in 2019

Unfortunately, recent developments have done little to assuage atomic anxieties. Talks between the United States and North Korea continue, though to unknown ends. As Yadlin wrote, “the situation with North Korea remains uncertain and it is unclear which direction it could take.” Other relationships, however, have edged more clearly toward the nuclear brink. In South Asia, India and Pakistan have teetered between hostility and conflict, and the two have tested antisatellite and ballistic missiles. Likewise, “the United States’ decision to withdraw from the JCPOA and impose sanctions added fuel to the fire of Iranian discontent,” according to Sohn. The effects of the agreement’s evisceration have become clear: Iran has exceeded previously agreed-upon limits in its stockpiling of enriched uranium. And the INF Treaty, at risk in late 2018, is now little more than tattered paper.

The broader nuclear context—one in which policymakers are embracing geopolitical competition, modernizing nuclear arsenals, and questioning the value of arms control—offers little reassurance to those who fear catastrophe. As Sunjoy Joshi and Samir Saran of the Observer Research Foundation (India) note, “larger powers such as the United States, China, and Russia are upgrading, not downgrading, their nuclear weapons systems.” At the same time, the potential demise of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), up for renewal in 2021, “marks an end to a whole era of arms control,” in Lukyanov’s words.


The current, fissile state of international nuclear cooperation leaves the world in considerable peril. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists announced this January that their Doomsday Clock would remain at two minutes to midnight, in large part due to nuclear concerns. A catastrophic nuclear exchange remains a remote prospect to be sure, but the probability is non-zero. And nuclear proliferation and arms-racing heighten the potential for conventional conflict between current and would-be nuclear powers.

Incremental measures can yield some measure of progress. Adam Ward of Chatham House has contended that “a more structured and coordinated approach to nuclear diplomacy with North Korea” could produce results. And Rohinton P. Medhora of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (Canada) offers a simple recommendation for the Middle East: “re-engagement with Iran.” These suggestions, however, are of limited scope and offer inadequate salves to the more global affliction of deepening mistrust. For now, the world’s nuclear powers seem recalcitrant to measures that would limit their freedom of action. The dismaying reality may be, in the words of Kudo, that “the situation surrounding nuclear disarmament is currently at its worst, and no improvement can be expected without the leaders of the major nuclear powers making the decision to disarm.”