Question Terry Politics & International Relations

Nuclear weapons

How do nuclear weapons differ from conventional ones?

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Answer Expert #26314

Categorised by the United Nations as weapons of mass destruction (WMD) to distinguish them from conventional weapons, nuclear weapons have substantial and unparalleled capability to cause devastating damage to states’ populations and infrastructure as evidenced in Japan at the end of the Second World War. The damage caused by a nuclear bomb has greater initial and long term effects due to the exposure to radiation.

Although only nine states (UK, China, France, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, the US and North Korea) are thought to possess nuclear weapons, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) also plays differentiates nuclear weapons from conventional ones in that this doctrine states that a full scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more adversaries would cause the annihilation of both sides.

Such an imagined fate largely influenced scholars of deterrence theory including Thomas Schelling who suggested that the capacity to attack another state is now used in itself as a motivating factor for states to avoid nuclear conflict and influence state behaviour (1966). Thus, the threat of nuclear weapons plays an important role in the power dynamic of international relations in a way conventional weapons do not.


Shelling, T. (1966) Arms and influence, New Haven: Yale University Press