The overarching question imparting urgency to this exploration is: Can U.S.-Russian contention in cyberspace cause the two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war? In considering this question we were constantly reminded of recent comments by a prominent U.S. arms control expert: At least as dangerous as the risk of an actual cyberattack, he observed, is cyber operations’ “blurring of the line between peace and war.” Or, as Nye wrote, “in the cyber realm, the difference between a weapon and a non-weapon may come down to a single line of code, or simply the intent of a computer program’s user.”
Over the past three decades, as a number of states joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or abandoned their nuclear weapons ambitions, the membership of the global nonproliferation regime has become nearly universal. While a small number of actors have maintained their nuclear arsenals or acquired nuclear weapons, the overwhelming majority of states have remained nonnuclear. Against this background of widespread nuclear restraint, a number of states have nevertheless pursued or signaled their desire to pursue technological capabilities that could, at some point in the future, enable them to acquire nuclear weapons in short order should they decide to do so. These technologies — namely, uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing — are commonly held to constitute nuclear “latency.” While the term may be common, the understanding of its component parts and its implications are far from clear or well-explored.
To this end, Gene Gerzhoy, Rupal Mehta, and Rachel Whitlark seek to explore the concept in more detail: what drives states to pursue nuclear latency and what benefits and/or burdens are likely accrued to states once they acquire the capability? By examining the intersection of both technical and political decisions to pursue nuclear latency as well as the consequences of this capability for international security and politics, we are better able to understand how this new form of proliferation may affect war and peace, states’ decision-making, and U.S. foreign policy. This focus is especially salient in the context of nonproliferation policies that may encourage the rise of a set of new latent nuclear states that could conceivably use the bargaining leverage that results to achieve political aims and change the status quo. It may also yield new opportunities or tools (or novel applications of existing tools) for those states interested in limiting this type of technological transfer and acquisition.