What Happens When Countries with Nukes Fall Apart?
Why the disintegration of nuclear-armed states could contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, there’s been a small but continuing cycle of chatter surrounding the potential for nuclear escalation.
A lot of this chatter has taken on the tone and character of old Cold War era fears. For a variety of reasons that I won’t go into now, I’m skeptical of the fashionable vision of hot-heads among Russian and American military leadership escalating the world into the mutually assured destruction tango. But I am concerned about another risk: the disintegration of nuclear-armed states.
Declines in states’ capacities to maintain control over large swaths of territory in the coming decades present the terrifying possibility of loose nukes falling into the hands of unscrupulous non-state actors.
I believe that the chief contributor to this risk is the impact of climate change on global agricultural capacity.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, many of the food production systems developed over the past century and half are reliant upon inputs that climate change is likely to make less reliable as we progress into a hotter future. Moreover, as the War in Ukraine is amply demonstrating, instability in one part of the world can massively disrupt world food distribution flows. In his book, Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in an Ungoverned World, geopolitical analyst Peter Zeihan argues, “Far more cultures and governments and dynasties and countries and empires have collapsed throughout history from famine and failures in food distribution than have been wiped out by war or disease or revolution ro terrorism.”
Given these factors, the butterfly effects of climate change may carry with them the very real threat of state disintegration in the coming decades.
Subsequently, international policy actors should consider what happens to a country’s nukes when that country no longer continues to remain intact.
This has been an item of discussion in the British press regarding the UK’s submarine-based Trident nuclear missiles in the event of any eventual independent Scotland. To my mind, a scenario in which a post-divorce Scotland and Britain could not amicable determine what to do with these nukes seems laughable. But the same cannot be said for the fallout from a split up of such nuclear powers as Pakistan, North Korea, or even the Russian Federation or China.
Such state disintegrations would dramatically impact the security of the world’s nuclear stockpiles.
Unfortunately, recent history does not lend itself to hopeful future outcomes.
Thirty years ago, the break up of the Soviet Union tested the question. In the end, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine decided to hand their nuclear stockpiles over to the Russian Federation. Looking at the war in Ukraine today, however, the long-term consequences of this decision do not seem all that desirable. Following a failed attempt to control the fortunes of Ukraine through softer means, the Russian Federation waged a small war in Ukraine’s east for eight years. That war escalated into a much larger fight this February.
Given this outcome, no one can reasonably expect the example set following the fall of the USSR to be followed by the newly independent states of the future. What happens in the coming decades will depend greatly on how the international community plans to respond to this risk.
Originally published at https://davidnwaeze.substack.com on July 22, 2022.