The World’s Superpowers Aren’t About to Give Up Their Nukes

In April 2009, President Barack Obama went before a crowd in Prague and delivered the first major foreign-policy address of his then-young presidency. He made an astonishing proclamation: "Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will ...

Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

In April 2009, President Barack Obama went before a crowd in Prague and delivered the first major foreign-policy address of his then-young presidency. He made an astonishing proclamation: "Today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime."

Regardless of his commitment, Obama was right about one thing: That goal would not be reached in his lifetime. New data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Monday, June 16, shows that the world's superpowers, including the United States, are in no hurry to scrap their nukes. Although there are fewer nuclear weapons overall, the globe's nuclear powers are modernizing their arsenals and pursuing technological innovations even as their arsenals dwindle.

Since the Cold War's end, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has steadily declined, the last four years seeing a pickup in pace. Between 2010 and 2014, globally the number of nuclear warheads dropped from 22,600 to 16,300; a 28 percent decrease:

In April 2009, President Barack Obama went before a crowd in Prague and delivered the first major foreign-policy address of his then-young presidency. He made an astonishing proclamation: "Today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime."

Regardless of his commitment, Obama was right about one thing: That goal would not be reached in his lifetime. New data released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Monday, June 16, shows that the world’s superpowers, including the United States, are in no hurry to scrap their nukes. Although there are fewer nuclear weapons overall, the globe’s nuclear powers are modernizing their arsenals and pursuing technological innovations even as their arsenals dwindle.

Since the Cold War’s end, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has steadily declined, the last four years seeing a pickup in pace. Between 2010 and 2014, globally the number of nuclear warheads dropped from 22,600 to 16,300; a 28 percent decrease:

But don’t declare the world a nuke-free zone yet.

"Once again this year, the nuclear weapon-possessing states took little action to indicate a genuine willingness to work toward complete dismantlement of their nuclear arsenals," SIPRI researchers Shannon Kile and Phillip Patton Schell said Monday.

Nuclear arms-race inventors Russia and the United States possess 93 percent of all nuclear weapons. Reductions of their respective nuclear arsenals account for most of the precipitous drop of the last four years. But even as the total number of nuclear weapons is decreasing, all five legally recognized nuclear weapons states are developing or deploying new nuclear weapons delivery systems, according to SIPRI:

The United States is plowing $350 billion into modernizing its nuclear forces. Those upgrades include a new class of missiles for its nuclear submarines and a new land-based intercontinental missile. Russia, meanwhile, is retiring all Soviet-era intercontinental ballistic missiles and hopes to finish in the next decade. However, it is also building a new class of ballistic-missile submarine.

The smaller players are following suit. China is expanding and modernizing its arsenal, with plans to outfit its submarines with nuclear weapons. Last year, India successfully tested for the second time its road-mobile intercontinental missile, which is capable of hitting targets everywhere in China. Meanwhile, Pakistan, India’s historical rival, is boosting its capacity to produce fissile materials.

Not legally recognized as a nuclear power but plowing ahead nonetheless, North Korea is developing its stock of deadly weapons. Last year it started trying to improve plutonium production.

Indeed, Obama’s goal looks far off.

Graphics: Catherine Traywick, Tony Papousek / FP

Twitter: @EliasGroll

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.