You are on page 1of 11

Aaron Samson

Pol. 3 Short Paper

Professor Maoz, Sec. A-02

27 February 2007

Nuclear Proliferation and World Politics
Since the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet

Union, nuclear proliferation and its affect on the international system has been a strong

focus in international politics. Nuclear weapons have become a symbol of power in the

international system; states that have obtained nuclear weapons are carefully regarded

before actions are taken so as to avoid conflict (Dunn, 1977, 99). The world is still in a

transition stage; there a multiple courses of action that can be taken to address the issue of

nuclear proliferation. Each of these courses of action could lead to a form of an

international unit-veto system if followed, but as of now there is no large-scale unit-veto

system emerging as a result of nuclear proliferation.

Nuclear proliferation has changed drastically. The diffusion of technologies makes

it much easier for states to gain access to information pertaining to nuclear weapons,

while each new state that is added to the nuclear list is faced with less political penalty

(Martel, 1994, 6). It is increasingly difficult for superpowers to prevent proliferation

other than by military preemption or “counter proliferation” (Martel, 1994, 7), and while

the NPT is an extremely integral part of the fight against nuclear proliferation, it is no

longer sufficient as the only effort to curb the spread of nuclear weapons (Nacht, 1977,

168)
Proliferation is fueled by several factors, including regional insecurity,

competition for regional status, fears of opposing states acquiring first-strike capabilities,

and traditionally hostile regions (Dunn, 1977, 99). Consequently, nuclear weapons now

represent an instrument for redefining the status of great powers, and more states are

seeking this redefinition through the development of their nuclear programs (Martel,

1994, 20).

There are two main schools of thought when addressing nuclear proliferation

known as optimism and pessimism. These opposing views reflect idea that the world can

only become more or less stable as a result of nuclear proliferation; optimism with the

idea that the world will become infinitely more stable with each nuclear state, while

pessimism believes that each new nuclear state brings the international system one step

closer to a breakdown.

Nuclear optimism uses the Cold War model to express the notion that nuclear

proliferation will ultimately bring stability to the international system, and focuses to a

large extent on the interactions between the United States and the Soviet Union during

the almost fifty years of cold war. When focusing on the interactions between the United

States and the Soviet Union during the period of cold war, it can be noted that the Cold

War system strengthened political and military stability between the two actors because

they shaped the all of their decisions on the idea that the other had nuclear weapons,

which ultimately simplified diplomacy, (Martel, 1994, 17). This supports the idea that a

unit-veto system would eventually develop in a proliferated world. The interactions

between the U.S. and Soviet Union reflect the basic premise of nuclear optimism that the

presence of nuclear weapons makes states more cautious of each other, or as stated by
Kenneth Waltz: “Why fight if you can’t win much and can lose everything?” (Karl, 1997,

90).

Optimists believe that the presence of second-strike capabilities by nations will

strictly reduce the possibility of conflict between nations, because If all nuclear states

have equal deterrence power, there will be no war because no one will want to fight if

they can be equally hurt (Karl, 1997, 90). Pessimists argue that stable deterrence between

nuclear powers is not as easy as simply having the weapons; they feel that in order for

deterrence to happen the states must possess second-strike capabilities, which can be

easily hindered by technological and financial weaknesses of states (Karl, 1997, 104).

This argument can be countered through the idea that that once the initial hurdle of

creating nuclear weapons is overcome, second-strike capabilities are easily acquired.

Furthermore, it is argued by pessimists that preemptive disarming strikes could be used to

eliminate second-strike capabilities before an initial attack, but it is contested that

preemptive strikes are too much of a gamble, and no country would logically take that

risk (Karl, 1997, 95).

It is often argued that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, and if

incorporated into the international system properly, they can be a force for stability.

Bueno de Mesquita and Riker (1982) used an expected utility model to show that the

probability of a nuclear war declines as the number of nuclear nations increases (Brito

and Intriligator, 1996, 207). This argument supports the idea that When a nuclear state

attacks a non-nuclear state, a nuclear war is more likely to be initiated because there is no

risk of second-strike. The more nuclear states there are, the more risk of second-strike

and the less likely a war is to be intentionally initiated (Brito and Intriligator, 1996, 207).
This argument is personified in the fact that the only use of nuclear weapons to date has

been the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the only time a nuclear

weapon has been used in wartime has been by a nuclear state attacking a non-nuclear

state. It is argued that a third power acquiring nuclear weapons decreases chance of war

even more than a single opponent with second-strike capabilities, because the other two

powers don’t know which side the third country will help in the case of a conflict.

The second main school of thought counters Optimism, and is referred to as

Nuclear Pessimism. Pessimism feels that proliferation where regions are prone to military

conflict (like the middle-east) could lead to nuclear war, regardless of the consequences

to the initiating country (Karl, 1997, 92). It is often argued by Pessimists that accidental

or inadvertent war is much more likely as the number of nuclear states increases, and that

stability is greatly compromised if adequate provisions are not made against unauthorized

seizure and use of weapons and technology (Dunn, 1977, 99). In these cases, even a

stable international order can be compromised by inadvertent or unauthorized detonation

of nuclear weapons or during a conflict situation; pessimists argue that an international

order that relies on deterrence to keep peace can crumble immediately in these cases

(Karl, 1997, 111)

The world is still in a transitional stage, learning how to cope with the spread of

nuclear weapons and deciding how it will address this problem. From the main schools of

thought, certain strategies have been derived for dealing with nuclear proliferation:

Malign Neglect, Promotion of Nuclear Realignment, Confrontation Politics, and

Incentive. Each of these strategies deals with proliferation in a different way that attempts

to promote stability in the international system, though they all have pro’s and con’s.
Malign Neglect is one of the less-adopted strategies. It involves completely

ignoring proliferation as it stands today, and turning inward to focus on individual

defense (Nacht, 1977, 164) and (Martel, 1994, 9-10). A country that takes this approach

would concentrate exclusively on deterrence, ignoring where and who has nuclear

weapons, and staying away from conflict and international issues as much as possible, so

as to avoid nuclear war. Malign Neglect takes into account the fact that deterrence will

allow the world to stabilize itself; however it does not address the threat of terrorist

groups or accidental war, and the idea that there is only so much a country can be

isolationist about.

A second strategy is the Promotion of Nuclear Realignment. This essentially

keeps the world system as it is now, with a few minor changes. Nuclear Realignment

promotes the idea that a nuclear elite of the five nuclear-responsible states should be

created, and these five should act as international policemen to keep nuclear capabilities

out of the hands of other states (Nacht, 1977, 165). (The five states are: United States,

China, France, UK, and Russia). This is a variation on an international unit-veto system;

instead of all states deterring each other, only the nuclear-states would face the issue of

deterrence, and each state would essentially have a unit-veto over the other five states.

This would create a commonality of interests for the five nuclear powers, and reduce the

likely of any major wars between superpowers.

The elevation of the status of nuclear weapons could make it hard to control

nuclear proliferation, however, because the elevation of the status of nuclear states would

give less-powerful states an incentive to develop their nuclear weapons programs. The

other problem with realignment is the argument that nuclear proliferation is inevitable.
Indeed, it is much easier today for states to acquire nuclear information, and so far no

state has been successful in preventing a determined state from developing a nuclear

weapons program. The failure of international regimes and superpowers to prevent

nuclear proliferation to date makes the realignment strategy an unlikely mode for the

stability of the international system.

A third strategy for preventing proliferation is known as Confrontation Politics, or

to behave as a “nuclear bully” by applying sanctions or in some cases preemptive strikes

on developing nuclear states (Nacht, 1977, 146). This is essentially the same process as

Realignment, except confrontation politics says nothing about advocating a nuclear elite,

and it is not as vague in technique as Realignment. Confrontation politics aims to stop

proliferation in its tracks through techniques that are almost like the process of using

incentive, except the incentive for proliferation to halt is that stronger states won’t impose

sanctions on developing nuclear states. This is the policy that the United States is

currently following in its attempts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. Sanctions have

been imposed on North Korea, Iran, and other countries that have developing nuclear

weapons programs. The main issue with this strategy is that it is nearly impossible to

impose equally amongst developing states; the United States, for example, cannot

feasibly impose sanctions on oil from middle-eastern countries, or impose heavy

sanctions on imports from China or Japan, for the U.S. economy is heavily tied into these

things. This represents a conflict of interest between economic ties and nuclear agendas.

Finally, incentive argues that nuclear states should provide incentives for non-

nuclear states to stay away from or suspend nuclear weapons programs. These incentives

include a test ban treaty, pledges of non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear
states, nuclear free zones, maintenance and enhanced security guarantees, and sanctions

(Nacht, 1977, 146). These measures are good incentives to curb proliferation, though

again they cannot ultimately prevent any state that is determined to acquire nuclear

capabilities from acquiring them. Incentive is currently the policy being used to curb

North Korea’s nuclear program, and if this policy does indeed halt the spread of

proliferation, a realignment form of the unit-veto system would emerge.

With each of these strategies for dealing with proliferation, it is seen as a fact by

scholars that “nuclear weapons will be one of the enduring fixtures of international

politics for the foreseeable future” (Martel, 1994, 2). International regimes have failed so

far to prevent proliferation, and there are no immediate reasons that are likely to

eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons in the world (Martel, 1994, 2). Any definition

of stability, therefore, must be one of an international system that coexists with the

nuclear capabilities of actors at the state level (Martel, 1994, 3).

Though it is eventually assumed that nuclear proliferation will lead to either a

unit-veto system or world destruction, the world is in a transitional phase right now. As

more states acquire nuclear capabilities, the already-nuclear states are attempting to curb

proliferation rather than work with it. Today strong focus and pressure has been put onto

both North Korea and Iran to suspend their nuclear testing.

As of the present it seems that no international unit-veto system exists. It is not

only the fact that there is a rather hierarchical world order, consisting of the United States

at the top, followed by the other four strong nuclear powers, and then lesser countries; the

five strong powers of the international system, strong defined as a presence on the

security council, are all in relative harmony with each other, maintaining minimal if any
conflict. Four out of the five strong powers are democratic; according to the Democratic

Peace Theory, these four will have little to no clashes, and their economic

interdependence negates the need for a unit-veto system, simply on the grounds that they

have common goals and interests.

There is a regional unit-veto system currently between India and Pakistan. Prior to

the development of nuclear weapons by the countries, both were at odds with each other

and clashes were numerous. Since the development of nuclear weapons in both countries

the region has experienced a relatively large decrease in hostile activity (Martel, 1994,

22). This event reflects a trend that began with the United States-Soviet Union Cold War

that, scholars say, will continue as more countries acquire nuclear weapons capabilities. A

second example can be seen if one takes a look at Israel’s current predicament. Israel has

not claimed that it possesses nuclear capabilities, though it is assumed by most countries

around the world that they do in fact have nuclear weapons. If an international unit-veto

system were in place, Israel’s security as a state would be much less of an issue, for if a

unit-veto system were in place, deterrence would be the policy, and middle-eastern states

would be fearful of hostilities with Israel at the consequence of beginning a nuclear war.

It is quite possible to argue, as many will do in the case of Israel, that it is terrorist

organizations, not states, that pose a threat to Israel. However a traditional unit-veto

system involves actors at the state level, and when analyzing an international system,

though NGO’s must be taken into account, it must also be realized that terrorists have

never played by the rules of the international system thus far.

Though a unit-veto system has not yet emerged, if nuclear proliferation continues,

which is likely, one will emerge eventually. As previously stated, it is widely theorized
the more nuclear states that appear in the world, the more stable the world will be come.

This should be the case, because as more nuclear states develop, the more likely a state is

to develop a policy of deterrence against the others, stockpiling weapons and developing

(or sustaining) second-strike capabilities. With a world order of multiple nuclear states

with second-strike capabilities, it would be foolish for a state to initiate conflict, for if a

nuclear war were to develop both states would face complete ruin. Because of this, states

will be more likely to be diplomatic in their relations with each other and be wary of

actions that could develop into conflict or conflict that could develop into war.

This course of actions makes nuclear stockpiling and arms races an integral part

of world stability in a nuclear world. This is the case because the only way for states to be

completely fearful of each other is for each to have an equal second-strike capability. This

is obviously taken to an extreme, in that if one state has a thousand nuclear

warheads while another has a hundred, those weapons hundred would still do extremely

significant damage to the initiating country if second-strike capabilities were developed,

and the first country would be very unlikely to initiate. But for argument’s sake, if two

states have completely equal nuclear arsenals, it is not only unlikely, but ludicrous for any

type of conflict to take place, since both countries can inflict equal destruct damage on

one another.

It can be argued that rogue states, such as states in the Middle East, North Korea,

or other states that are more radical would disprove this theory; that no matter how stable

the world is, these rogue states would not play by the rules and disrupt the world order.

Though this has happened in the past, these states have usually made concessions once

stronger powers stand up to them, as in Afghanistan, Iraq (with the invasion of Kuwait),
and even North Korea. I theory that this is because of the fact that no matter what

extremist state agenda there may be, a government’s first and foremost priority is and has

been to preserve their state and their rule; they cannot rule or accomplish their goals if the

state is completely destroyed, and they are therefore unlikely to start a nuclear war with

any state that has second-strike capabilities.

There are some threats to the idea of a unit-veto system in the future, however.

First and foremost, there is the threat of a terrorist organization or any other unauthorized

organization acquiring nuclear capabilities; the acquisition of these capabilities would

“deter hostility/opposition to the group, establish protected sanctuary for their activities,

and make it much easier for terrorists to have their demands met by threatening

anonymous detonations” (2.105) Terrorists groups or other un-centralized NGO’s pose a

major threat if they acquire nuclear capabilities, namely because they are not a country;

they cannot be completely annihilated without annihilating an area where innocent people

are as well. Furthermore, because they are not centralized, they cannot be taken out by

nuclear capabilities, which would result in a one-sided nuclear war that could cripple

every country that does not recognize or permit their actions and agendas.

Finally, if an accidental detonation was to occur, or an intentional one by the

wrong people, it could severely disrupt the international order; this is analogous to a 3-D

puzzle, where if you remove a single piece, the entire puzzle collapses. If an inadvertent

war were to occur in a nuclear proliferated world, it is quite possible that the unit-veto

would be thrown out the window in place of blind fear, and nuclear war could rage.

The world currently is a place where nuclear proliferation is both sought and

feared. There are many options for dealing with this, but in the end it seems as though a
proliferated world would be a rather stable international system, so long as all or a large

majority of states have equal capabilities in order to deter conflict. This system represents

an international unit-veto system, or an adapted form of such a system, where state

conflict would almost disappear in exchange for a constant assessment of how the best

actions can be taken to benefit the system and avoid nuclear war. The world has not

achieved a unit-veto system yet, nor is one rising, for there is still a hierarchical system of

international power, and there aren’t enough strong nuclear states with equal second-

strike capabilities to deter each other. There is, however, a strong possibility, if not a sure

prediction, of an international system based on deterrence and a redefinition of power that

puts makes all states equals in the international system.

Word Count: 3087