During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union dominated nuclear politics, amassing some 60,000 weapons in total. Nuclear annihilation was an acute fear, with both nations possessing enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other several times over. Today, the nuclear landscape has expanded, with the potential for catastrophic conflict dispersed between more countries.
Nuclear conflict involving any of the first five nuclear powers – the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and China – is unlikely, but still remains a possibility. Although the number of weapons held by these countries has declined, most are reluctant to engage in disarmament talks because they see nuclear weapons as important components of their security strategies.
Though Israel has never confirmed its status as a nuclear weapons state, it is believed to possess a considerable number of nuclear weapons. It is not a party to the Treaty of the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), but it has taken action to stop nearby countries from building a nuclear arsenal. Israel bombed suspected nuclear reactor sites in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007). It has also signaled that it would attack Iran if it feels threatened by the country’s nuclear program. However, a 2015 deal between Iran and the United States, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Germany, and the European Union limited Iran’s nuclear development and eased some of this international tension. Though this is not necessarily a long-term solution, as the deal’s terms will start expiring in 2025.
Sharing an 1,800-mile border, India and Pakistan have fought several conventional wars over 100,000 square miles of disputed territory. Now, both countries possess nuclear weapons. Neither is party to the NPT, and they both appear to be modernizing and increasing their stockpiles. While many policymakers and experts fear nuclear war could break out between the two countries, they are also concerned that Pakistan could lose control of a nuclear weapon to terrorists.
North Korea poses the biggest nuclear threat. It withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and conducted its first nuclear test in 2006. The country has threatened to use its nuclear weapons against the United States, South Korea, and Japan. Although the country is believed to have a small arsenal, its continued nuclear tests and aggressive behavior have raised widespread concerns over possible nuclear conflict.