On the Rarity of Nuclear States

The proliferation of nuclear weapons is undoubtedly an acute problem in international politics today. Currently, there are nine states in possession of nuclear weapons: America, Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel; while those capable of manufacturing at short notice are estimated to be around 30. This begs a significant question, indeed: Despite the security benefits associated with nuclear weapons, why are there still so few states that procure them in practice? Reflect, for instance, on each of the five Free-Zone regions around the globe, from Latin America and the Caribbean to Central Asia, in order to ask what precludes such states from proliferation? To answer this question in as brief a length as possible, it is perhaps best to examine only the most important factors that come to mind.

Assuredly, starting with the most obvious of all reasons, one’s initial response must be centred round the fact that many states lack the requisite capabilities, like material resources (highly enriched uranium as well as finances), specialised facilities, not to mention expertise and knowledge, to produce and maintain nuclear weapons. In this vein, a nation, obdurate in acquiring nuclear weapons (if it lacks the capabilities), will fail to even start the process at the very outset. One should bear in mind, however, exceptions to this rule would be the above mentioned 30 states, Japan and Sweden to name but two, which are sufficiently capable. Hence, they do not fall under the said category.

A further ground for nonproliferation is to do with possible external threats to security, which are probably best delineated from two different angles. On one level, many states that lack nuclear weapons do not face existential threats from other nations. Two cases that demonstrate this point well include Argentina and Brazil. Clearly, when these two states realised in the 1990s – immediately after the Cold War – that they did not pose a danger to each other’s safety, they openly began to reverse their nuclear weapons programmes. Yet, one must not omit, respecting the other level, alternative cases shew that states, in spite of continued hostility from others, might not commit to proliferation as an active means of self-defence. An instance in point comprises South Korea and North Korea. To be sure, while facing a threat for more than six decades and a probability of a nuclear attack, the former is still to manufacture atomic weapons of its own as a means of deterrence against the latter. One may explain this, of course, through no other reason than South Korea’s security alliance with the US overall. Certainly, the former is essentially guaranteed security with the latter’s assurance of retaliation against a belligerent in the potential event of an attack.

Proceeding on this track, a third factor conducive to nonproliferation involves inter-national agreements and the development of long-term norms. In this regard, the Non-Proliferation Treaty

(NPT), which was instigated by the US – currently signed by five nuclear states and 190 states in total – was intended to reverse the spread of nuclear states until none remained. Furthermore, by establishing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the NPT equally has ensured nuclear facilities within signatory states could be investigated in person and, thusly, prevented (say, by sanctions) from conducting secret programmes. Meanwhile, one must not forget, all this is accompanied by the development of long-term norms, evidenced somewhat by the general aversion to violent images of nuclear explosions, entailing a global consensus that it is better if only a few states possessed nuclear weapons, as well as concern with reputation and prestige amongst ‘good international citizens’, such as Germany and Switzerland.

Lastly, bearing those in mind, the final reason concerns a leadership, or hegemony, enforcing and managing nonproliferation across the globe; securing resources and fissile material away from emerging black markets; at the same time as developing long-term norms by way of its soft power. In essence, the leadership must articulate short-term goals and guideposts for the ultimate achievement of nonproliferation. It goes without saying, this role is at present filled by the US as the most powerful nation in the world: not only did it inaugurate the NPT and the IAEA, it has engaged in bilateral as well as multilateral negotiations with states under its ‘security umbrella’, assuming in turn the responsibility of their safety and protection. During the Cold War, to recall, the Soviet Union offered an alternative leadership and ‘security umbrella’, which is why (when it collapsed), some nations that already possessed nuclear weapons, such as Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, became convinced of their dispensability when offered to join the US’s ‘security umbrella’ in addition to receiving package deals, like economic aid.

Summarily, all things considered, four factors may explain the rarity of nuclear states across the globe: capabilities; external threats and alliances; inter-national agreements and norms; and, finally, leadership. Here, one must be cautioned that no single factor is responsible for absolutely every case of nonproliferation. Rather, to conjecture, it is the dynamic combination of these factors under the specific context of a state that really determines their relative significance compared to another. In this way, all factors might be said to be probabilistic, but not deterministic. What seems to be important, therefore, is to treat the above reasons as ‘implements’ within a toolbox used circumspectly to form relevant and context-based policies towards the eventual objective of a nuclear-free world.

text by Daniele Hadi Irandoost

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