Despite a US call for nuclear arms reductions, North Korea and Iran continue to work on their nuclear programs and other countries may secretly be doing the same. Has non-proliferation failed?
Just hours after US President Barack Obama's State of the Union address last week, in which he announced a new push to convince Russia to jointly reduce their respective nuclear arsenals, North Korea went ahead with its third nuclear test.
Iran, meanwhile, is suspected of working on its own "bomb," despite international efforts to contain the program, while Pakistan, a highly unstable country, already has an atomic weapon.
A world without nuclear weapons appears to be a distant dream. Is there any chance to achieve a nuclear-free world, or has Obama failed with his strategy to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons?
"We have a few problem countries with North Korea, Iran and a few others," said Annette Schaper from the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF). "But we also have many success stories that are often overlooked. In the past, there were many more worrisome countries."
Progress since the end of the Cold War
In the late 1980s there were a number of other countries also eager to develop nuclear weapons. Argentina and Brazil, for example, were running military nuclear programs. Not until the 1990s did both countries sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
South Africa had nuclear weapons up until the end of apartheid, but scrapped them with the help of the US in 1991. Other countries, including Egypt, Libya, Australia, Taiwan and even Switzerland were also working on the development of a nuclear weapon.
The biggest nuclear reduction success stories, however, have been the disarmament treaties between the US and the Soviet Union, later Russia. Today, the two countries together still maintain 90 percent of all nuclear weapons worldwide.
In the 1980s, the two sides kept an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 nuclear warheads in their arsenals. But with the so-called START treaties, initiated by US President Ronald Reagan in 1982 and later signed by George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the two sides agreed to sharply reduce those stockpiles.
According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the United States last year maintained an arsenal of 2,150 operational nuclear warheads, and Russia about 1,800.
In April 2010, the two sides signed on to a new START accord which envisions a reduction to 1,550 warheads each by 2018. And this may not be the end of their bilateral nuclear disarmament.
"The American side is currently discussing a limit of 1,000 nuclear warheads," said Herbert Maier, a political scientist at the University of Regensburg in southeastern Germany. "Looking at that in a historical context, one could actually be very satisfied. But, if you're talking about total disarmament, the nuclear nil, then there's still a lot to do."
No interest in disarmament
In addition to the recognized nuclear powers – USA, Russia, Britain, France and China – at least India, Pakistan and North Korea also have the bomb. Israel is believed to possess nuclear weapons, but this has never been officially confirmed by the government. All four of these countries have not signed the NPT and are not likely to join any international effort at global disarmament.
In the case of Pakistan and India, these two adversarial nuclear powers are right next door to one another. A resolution of their long-standing regional conflict, not to mention nuclear disarmament, will only ever be achieved through bilateral negotiations.
North Korea is also not interested in disarmament, notes Michael Paul, an arms expert with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "It's part of the national legitimacy of the regime and its standing with the population that it can proudly say: We are a nuclear power," said Paul.
"But in the end it is, of course, about regime security, and that means a guarantee that the United States doesn't try to topple the North Korean regime."
An arms race in East Asia is not likely, however, as long as the US guarantees the security of South Korea and Japan. Far more dangerous is the situation in the Middle East.
Israel is already a nuclear power and Iran is presumably working to become one. An Iranian atomic bomb would seriously disrupt the balance of power in the entire region.
"Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are all seeking political supremacy in the Middle East themselves, or at least trying to prevent Iran from getting it," said Maier. "Here, of course, the most acute goal is to keep Iran from building a nuclear weapon, and then others, so that there is no domino effect." The road to a nuclear-free world, however, is a long way off.