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The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More may be better

Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz have written a book entitled The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, this is part of an ongoing debate within International Relations about nuclear weapons, could proliferation be a good thing? or is it too risky? after all its a risk we could not test. The Cold War implied that nuclear weapons helped prevent war and bring stability to the world but does the collapse of a bipolar stystem change this?

All the Yes points:

  1. Deterrence
  2. less arms races
  3. any conflict will rapidly de-escalate
  4. both sides will avoid threatening vital interests

All the No points:

  1. Lack of checks and balances
  2. Accidents
  3. Pre-emptive Nuclear war
  4. Proliferation risks
  5. The Dismantling of Nuclear Warheads.


Yes because…

The bipolar world of the cold war was stable and relatively peaceful. There was no general war among the great powers of the world, unlike the previous half century. The cold war peace has lasted longer even than that created by the concert of Europe between 1815 and 1856. Bipolarity allowed both sides to keep tight control over their respective blocs as they were by far and away the most powerful members. Balancing had to be internal rather than through the movements of a ‘swing’ state, this was done in part by nuclear weapons stockpiles, once they reached a certain level it did not matter if one side had more, the other could still deter attack.

Deterrence operates by frightening a state out of attacking. It is achieved by the ability to punish. This is why a second strike capability is necessary. [John J. Mearshimer, ‘The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrant’, Foreign Affairs, (Summer, 1993), pp.57-58, http://mearsheimer.uchicago.edu/pdfs/A0020.pdf%5D%5D Nuclear weapons make defence and deterrence much more effective than offence. This is because nuclear weapons are a weapon of last resort; they are most likely to be fired in defence. If a country concentrates on its second strike capability rather than offensive nuclear weapons it is possible for it to become an entirely defensive weapon, this would mean it could not act as a coercive threat and would not result in a security dilemma.[Robert Jervis, ‘Weapons Without Purpose? Nuclear Strategy in the Post-Cold War Era’, Foreign Affairs, (July, 2001) http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/57069/robert-jervis/weapons-without-purpose-nuclear-strategy-in-the-post-cold-war-era%5D%5D

No because…

The 1999 Kargil conflict demonstrates that nuclear armed states may well engage in wars. Pakistan was not deterred from engaging in a conflict despite the Indian nuclear weapons. Pakistan even while the operations were going on, maintained that in view of asymmetry of conventional forces, they cannot accept a “no first use” policy. Indeed the Indians won the conflict, but were restrained from going further than forcing the Pakistan forces across their border, India not pressing its victory prevented any feeling by Pakistan that they were being backed into a corner, so helping prevent a nuclear conflict. Pakistan believed that a stable nuclear balance between the two states meant they could take more offensive action in Kashmir as India could not retaliate with her conventional superiority. [Dr. S. Chandrasekharan, (July, 1999) http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers/paper71.html%5D%5D

less arms races

Yes because…

Nuclear weapons have several effects on arms races.

1, there is no need for conventional arms races, any number of conventional weapons can be balanced by nuclear weapons. There is little point in having a ‘relative advantage’ in conventional weapons when there are nuclear weapons as a last resort.

2, nuclear arms races are almost as pointless, unless the possibility of achieving a first strike capability is within striking distance then it won’t matter if there is a big gap in the number of nuclear weapons two states have. Britain and France felt that their modest nuclear stockpiles were an effective deterrent to the USSR, and China felt its 40 or so nuclear weapons was enough when it was not firmly tied to one bloc.
[Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better,” Adelphi Papers, Number 171 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981) http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/waltz1.htm%5D%5D

No because…

Arms races are reduced by arms control agreements and more trust between states, not a spread of nuclear weapons.

Arms races are not caused by the weapons themselves, they are caused by insecurity between states. That is, one country feels insecure vis-a-vis another, so it ensures it has more nukes and conventional weapons than the other. Then the other country does it and so on, causing more and more tension and insecurity between the countries. Even when the number and sophistication of their weapons is almost par, they still attempt to develop further technological advances and a greater number of weapons than their foe.

This is why arms races occur – insecurity between states. It is not the inferiority/superiority in sophistication and numbers of nuclear weapons themselves that cause arms races – it is hostile relations between states that lead them to attempt to acquire more nuclear or conventional weapons than their neighbours.

The statement that ‘there is little point in having a ‘relative advantage’ in conventional weapons when there are nuclear weapons as a last resort’ is absurd. Relative advantage in conventional capabilities over your foes is essential for strategic success. Nuclear weapons have only been used in the most extreme of circumstances against one country in the past and are certainly not being considered as a viable option even ‘as a last resort’, except maybe by Kim Jong Il. This is why conventional superiority is so important in today’s age. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the Cold War ended and this notion was debunked, and the world committed itself to reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons and began signing confidence-generating arms control agreements.

Also, the statement that ‘any number of conventional weapons can be balanced by nuclear weapons’ is hugely unlikely. I cannot flummox the possibility that a country like Pakistan would feel comfortable with having 1000 nuclear weapons and only a tenth of India’s conventional weapon capabilities. This is just impossible because although Pakistan has a ‘first use’ nuclear weapons doctrine, in the event of India conducting military excercises on its’ border they would be unable to drop a nuclear weapon on Mumbai because this is disproportionate – while also they would not be able to threaten India credibly because Indian leaders know they would not retaliate with nuclear weapons and their conventional capability would be too disproportionate to credibly threaten India’s troops to withdraw.

By building up huge amounts of nukes and leaving yourself with little conventional capability is not at all prudent.

any conflict will rapidly de-escalate

Yes because…

If deterrence fails for whatever reason, then both sides still have every incentive to start off with smaller weapons enabling them to escalate upwards if necessary. Moreover the reasons not to go to war (M.A.D) are still there when it comes to a possible escalation in a conflict. Each escalation makes the possibly of mass destruction more likely so if anything the incentives for de-escalation grow as there is escalation towards a nuclear war.

“Defensive deployment, if it should fail to dis-suade, would bring small nuclear weapons into use before the physical, political and psychological environment had deteriorated. The chances of de-escalation are high if the use of nuclear weapons is carefully planned and their use is limited to the battlefield.” [Waltz, http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/waltz1.htm%5D%5D

No because…

If a conflict has occured between two states which both possess nuclear weapons, does this not demonstrate that deterrence has NOT worked?

And that each escalation makes the possibility of mass destruction more likely is something that might not necessary be the deciding factor for one state to call a quit to to conflict. No state wants to back down when the other refuses to – a situation India might find itself in with Pakistan. The assumption that any conflict will rapidly de-escalate is, much like deterrence, nothing more than a theory which is highly dangerous given the consequences if the theory does not stand up in practice.

Let’s return now to the issue of India and Pakistan, which is one which breaks the assumption that many theorists have that nuclear weapons states will not go to war with one another even with conventional weapons due to the fear of the possibility of this escalating into nuclear weapons exchanges occuring. Pakistan is not playing by the rules and has a ‘first use’ nuclear weapons policy. Sure, they may be bluffing, but Pakistan’s use of nuclear weapons in order to have a ‘one-up’ on India to make up for their serious strategic inferiority to India is something that is likely to ESCALATE rather than de-escalate a conflict between India and Pakistan.

both sides will avoid threatening vital interests

Yes because…

Wars fought will be unlikely to threaten a nuclear country’s vital interests, states will ensure that both they and their enemy have room to back down, this means moving the competition on to less contentious issues. Many countries have disputes of varying scales with their neighbours, having nuclear weapons would ensure that these are resolved peacefully, states would no longer be able to threaten force over any such dispute as the potential gains would be so small compared to the possible risk of annihilation. For example both Ukraine and Russia having nuclear weapons would prevent Russian attempts at intimidation over Russians living in the Crimea and the basing of the black sea fleet. While a country does not have nuclear weapons it remains vulnerable and trapped in the security dilemma, as it is unable to realise its own security by building up conventional forces.

No because…

The assumption in the opposing argument is that both parties have both vital interests to protect and a desire not to threaten the vital interests of others. In the post-Westphalian world order of states, this may have been true. If nuclear weapons however were to fall into the hands of a footloose, messianic group hell-bent on revenge, in this world or the next, such rules would not apply. Deterrence would not play a role.

Lack of checks and balances

No because…

Nuclear weapons under military control (rather than civilian) is likely to have too few checks and balances. It is not states and statesmen that have the real control behind nuclear weapons but the military and civilian bureaucracies. Not all new nuclear weapons states are accepting the need for the tight control over nuclear weapons that the 5 nuclear powers have enforced. Bureaucracies are large and difficult to control, corruption within the system could mean nuclear material being sold off[Todd H. Nelson, ‘Russian Realities: Nuclear Weapons, Bureaucratic Maneuvers, and Organized Crime’, Demokratizatsiya, Vol. 8, No. 1, (Winter 2000)]] The states that have until now had nuclear weapons have been stable states, if an unstable state or regime gains control of the weapons then the risks are considerably greater.

Yes because…

States that are unstable will be unable to produce nuclear weapons in the first place, they take a long time to develop. They are very costly to develop and any payback will only be once the weapons are complete so any regime will be stable if starting a nuclear weapons program. If it is the military who are in control then the program is unlikely to begin because they are much more interested in traditional weapons like tanks rather than spending a lot on R&D. In any internal struggle nuclear weapons are not going to be used. Who would they aim at? How would they use them as instruments for maintaining or gaining control?


No because…

Serious accidents are highly likely at some point due to the complexity of nuclear weapons, adding redundancy just makes the weapons more complex. Unexpected events will occur and often can’t be fully anticipated. Thus on Oct. 25th 1962 an air force sentry at Duluth sounded the sabotage alarm. However at Volk Field the bell that indicated a nuclear war had started sounded instead, as this was in the middle of the Cuban missile crisis the pilots had been told there would be no drills. Fortunately the base commander found out what had happened in time to drive his car onto the runway and stop the takeoff. Several other mistakes lead to the possibility of the US striking at the Russians or Cubans during the crisis.[Scott D. Sagan, ‘The Limits of Saftey: Organisations, Accidents and Nuclear Weapons’, (Princeton, 1993), p.3.]]

Yes because…

Pre-emptive Nuclear war

No because…

Military organisations have several incentives for war that don’t occur in civilian regimes. 1, They are more likely to believe that war is better now – as with the German military at the start of the first world war. 2, The Military is much more likely to believe that war is inevitable and if this is the case then pre-emption makes sense. Taking the offensive gives the initiative to the attacking power which gives tactical advantages. 3, The military has less domestic and international political reasons against war, a war would potentially increase the power, prestige and funding of the military, so from a bureaucratic standpoint war is good. [Scott D. Sagan, ‘The Perils of Proliferation in South Asia’, (July, 2001), pp.5-6 http://www.stanford.edu/class/polisci243b/readings/sagan.pdf%5D%5D

Despite the Truman administrations rejection of the idea Major General Orvil Anderson publicly declared: “Give me the order to do it and I can break up Russia’s five A-bomb nests in a week…And when I went up to Christ—I think I could explain to Him that I had saved civilization.” [Austin Stevens, “General Removed over War Speech,” New York Times, September 2, 1950, p. 8]]

Yes because…

Proliferation risks

No because…

One of the main worries is that as more states gain nuclear weapons the more possibility there is for continued proliferation, not just between states but possibly down to terrorists too. Terrorists are undeterrable because they have no territory, and may well be willing to loose their lives in the process of the attack.

No matter how well secured nuclear weapons are there is still a chance that they may be stolen, and even the five official nuclear states have lost nuclear materials that could get into terrorist hands. [Bruce G. Blair, Garry D. Brewer, ‘The Terrorist Threat to World Nuclear Programs’, The Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 31, No. 3, (Sep., 1977), pp. 379-403 http://www.cdi.org/blair/terrorist-threat.cfm%5D%5D

Yes because…

“There has been a persistent sustained effort on the part of Saddam Hussein to acquire this military capability. Now, if he ever were to achieve it, he certainly would not want to share it with anybody. He would guard it. He would have only a small capability.”

Moreover dictators would do anything in their power to prevent terrorists getting the bomb, not just because they may well hold the state that supplys the weapons hostage but because any nuclear terrorist attack that could be traced to that country would probably lead to nuclear retaliation by the US as the only possible territorial target. This can be seen with the US going after Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. [http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people3/Waltz/waltz-con6.html]]

The Dismantling of Nuclear Warheads.

No because…

Whilst the question of this debate is right in saying that by the United States and Russia both having nuclear weapons, nuclear war was avoided, this is mostly correct. However, if neither of these states had weapons, then there wouldn’t have even been a cold war, let alont a hot one. (Briefly, the fact that neither state ordered to fire a nuclear weapon is a myth. Russia gave the orders to one of its nuclear submarines to fire a nuclear warhead. Had it not been for Commander Vasili Arkhipov, nuclear holocaust may well have ensued. He refused these orders).

Dismantling nuclear weapons takes a long time. However, this is far better than the time it would take to rebuild a city should a nuclear bomb goes off, far cheaper, and with no blood shed.

I fail to see an argument for nuclear weapons. If world powers can agree to lessen their nuclear deterrents at an equal (proportionate) rate/speed, then there will be no more nuclear weapons and no state can complain about the method of doing it (seeing as how at a certain point all current nuclear states will have one warhead each. It is then up to these states to destroy the final warhead at the same time. – The idea that this will not happen due to the fact that everyone will want to keep a warhead does not stand up. Yes, one warhead would cause a lot of damage, but as soon as that warhead is used, the amount of damage that country would receive in retaliation is far outweighed, even through non-nuclear means. A non-governmental agency such as the IAEA would also ensure that all countries kept to the agreement).

Yes because…

You are failing to see the main point of this debate – the debate is not whether more nuclear weapons states is better than none but is more better than just one or two weapons states who therefore are able to coerce everyone else?

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5 years ago

The argument in the first paragraph of the last ‘No’ section is not credible. Without nuclear weapons, there would most certainly have been a ‘hot’ war after WW2; perhaps following thr German Surrender, or the Korean War, or later uprisings in Eastern Europe.

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