THURSDAY, JULY 19, 2012: Nuclear Weapons and their Proliferation
The development of nuclear weapons fundamentally changed the cost analysis
in warfare and international politics. Recent developments in nuclear
technology have made these stakes even higher. In game theory terms, nuclear
weapons changed the nature of international politics from the prisoner’s
dilemma to a game of chicken, as the cost is now nuclear annihilation.
By the end of the 1960s the USA, USSR, China, France, and the United Kingdom
had developed nuclear weapons. At this point, non-proliferation efforts began
(non-proliferation treaty was signed in 1968) and all other actors in the
international system were expected to sign away their right to develop nuclear
weapons while the states who already possessed them were allowed to keep
International relations scholars debate the issue of whether nuclear weapons are
a good or bad thing. Does it make the world more or less secure?
Why (not) go nuclear?
Neo-Realism uses a security/systemic explanation. It is the dominant
explanation in nuclear weapons. In a self-help system, they cannot trust other
states’ intention, and they do this by acquiring the best possible military
capabilities to deter the other states from launching an attack. Nuclear weapons
serve as the ultimate deterrence because they threaten the ultimate in pain, so
states naturally seek them as the ultimate deterrent. They explain nuclear
weapon proliferation in that states balance against their adversary—they have
been termed “the great equalizers.” Proliferation begets proliferation, and when
your adversary is seeking nuclear weapons you also must seek nuclear weapons.
It is a security driven chain.
(ex. Once the US got nuclear weapons, the USSR was quick to get them to
balance against the US, and France and the UK soon followed in response to the
USSR’s because they could not be sure the US could protect them. China then
got them after the Korean War to balance the US, and as their relations were
deteriorating with Russia. India then followed in response to China, and Pakistan
in response to India).
Some countries do not seek them (ie. Canada) because they don’t need them—
we are a member of NATO and are under the nuclear security blanket of the
United States as an ally. States develop them only when their security is
threatened. States will only commit to non-proliferation if they believe their
main adversaries are also committed.
The domestic level explanation—sometimes factors, or parochial bureaucratic
interests at this level may push countries to go nuclear. From this perspective, 3
actors are significant. The nuclear facilities and employees and officials within it,
elements within the military establishment (esp. air force), and politicians in the
countries where either parties and the mass public favour nuclear weapons. Each of these actors has strong bureaucratic or parochial interests for pursuing
nuclear weapons. In each case, the belief that the acquisition of such weapons
will bring more resources and prestige (ex. the nuclear labs would get more
economic resources, or the units in the military has incentives because they
would get more resources, and politicians want more prestige to influence
perceptions). When all of these interests are strong enough to dominate the
political system, the likelihood of states acquiring nuclear weapons grows. In
this explanation, external threats do not play a large role, they only matter in
that domestic actors can manipulate that as an explanation for going nuclear.
Ex) This has been used to explain India’s acquisition, because rather than security
interests, their nuclear tests were driven by domestic interests. A bureaucratic
battle occurred in India over whether or not to develop nuclear weapons after
China developed them. If it was truly in response to external threats, India
would have tested their weapons earlier (China had nuclear weapons since
1962), but they did not do so until 1974. This means that the government was
testing them not due to security concerns, but to increase the government’s
prestige. Similarly, with their 1998 nuclear test, the nuclear lobby was growing,
but they justified it as a response to nuclear threats by China and Pakistan.
The normative/ideational explanation suggests that decisions of restraint are
shaped by the symbolic functions in shaping and reflecting a state’s national
identity. There are deep-shared norms at the domestic level about what is right
and legitimate in international relations, and these understandings drive
decisions about nuclear acquisition. Nuclear acquisition reflects what leaders
see as appropriate and modern behaviour (producing them as a symbol of
modernity to some, or relinquishing them reflecting a prevalent norm that
nuclear weapons are dangerous).
ex) France acquired them because of the symbolism that was attached to the
nuclear acquisition—they thought it was essential to the status states would be
granted in the international system. They wanted to secure the grandeur and
retrieve France’s falling status by becoming a nuclear power (ex. acquisition as
“swaggering” for prestige).
Most states, like Canada, despite capabilities, are signatories to the non-
proliferation treaty, and other states, like Ukraine, gave up their weapons at the
end of the Cold war. In these situations, they are reflecting the norms that
states that do not seek nuclear weapons are seen as responsible.
What are the implications for non-proliferation? If you believe they pursue them
for systemic or domestic roles, states will only adhere to non-proliferation to the
point where their security is not in peril or until there is a domestic coalition that
pushes the nuclear lobby.