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Debates on Nuclear Proliferation

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Published: 23rd Sep 2019 in International Relations

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          Essay on Nuclear Proliferation Debate

It has been 73 years since the launch of an atomic bomb in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where hundreds of thousands of people died or were injured in seconds. Exposing the terrible destructive power of nuclear weapons in Japan was not enough to convince humanity to get rid of these dangerous weapons. On the contrary, their extraordinary destructive power increased the attractiveness of nuclear weapons for many states and administrators. In the following years, Soviet Union, Britain, France and the Peoples Republic of China have followed the US and have nuclear weapons. In the following periods, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea joined the nuclear club with their atomic bombs.

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Moreover, proliferation of nuclear weapons has brought about scholarly debates from many aspects since 1950s. Two schools of nuclear proliferation have been discussing the role of nuclear weapons in international relations for a long time. The optimists demonstrate the past as evidence when they claim that nuclear weapons will only be used for defensive purposes and to ensure international peace and security. Mearsheimer points out that while 50 million people were killed in Europe between 1900 and 1945, In the nuclear age, only 15.000 Europeans died because of the wars. (Mearsheimer, 2009, p.57) Furthermore, possible nuclear war started with the aim of conquest is regarded by Waltz as the product of feverish imaginations. (Waltz, 1995, p.12) On the other hand, nuclear proliferation pessimists such as Sagan claim that nuclear weapons may pose great danger for international peace and security by taking into consideration the potential drawbacks of nuclear world. (Sagan, 1994) In this essay whether nuclear proliferation is better for international security and future of humanity will be discussed by examining both pessimist and optimist approaches, particularly, taking Kenneth Waltz‘s and Scott Sagan’s arguments as point of departure.

General Overview on Waltz’s Ideas

Waltz, who can be defined as defensive neorealist, suggests that the primary purpose of states is not to gain strength but to preserve their existence in an anarchical international system. He stresses that the international system rewards states that do not want to dominate the states, but rather protect the status quo. Each state can maintain its position in the system with a status quoist approach and at the end of this process it can ensure its security because of the balance of power in the international system. The balance of power model serves as the regulatory mechanism of the international system, and the security of the international system goes hand in hand with the security of states. (Waltz, 1979, p. 41)

When it comes to nuclear world, Waltz argues that in the case of minor conflict or escalation, nuclear weapons force parties to become more cautious concerning the possibility of deepening of the dispute. Both sides refrain from threatening their adversaries’ vital interest comprehending that even small number of weapons may give rise to catastrophic consequences. There is no point of applying nuclear weapons with offensive purposes, if states know that military and financial centres can be easily bombed as a result of the second-strike attack. (Waltz, 1981, p.19) States would not want to face such a danger for benefits that are very low compared to the cost of war. While the states with the option of preventive or pre-emptive war may have the advantage of first strike as the states of traditional war times, the second strike from other side may cause great damages. Deciders of state that behave rationally would not risk even preventive strike against antagonist who develop nuclear weapons because the probability of being sure that adversary do not have yet ready-to-use weapons is highly low. (Waltz, 1981, p.7) However, it seems that two of the most important human senses are being ignored; fear and panic. Waltz’s thoughts are based on the fear that states do not take the risk of huge damage in return for limited benefits. But, the other side of the coin is that fear, in a moment of panic, may force states to take action irrationally. What if irrational rulers with nuclear weapons see no possibility for their own survive on the threshold of nuclear war? Even if, it can be contended that spread of nuclear weapons may reduce the possibility of full-scale war given the territory between regional adversaries, it is likely to increase aggression of the nuclear power, in particular, states ruled by dictator such as North Korea in which one man has no responsibility to any organizations and law regarding his actions.

Pessimists state that nuclear powers did not apply their weapons whatever the reason. On the other hand after the cold war, some regions in the world that have tension               arising from religious or ethnic reasons may engender the use of nuclear weapons. First of all, in 1999, Kargil War indicates that nuclear powers can start conventional war against each other. (Sagan, Waltz, 2003, p.96) Furthermore, no one can guarantee that if Slobodan Milosevic, who was the President of the Republic of Serbia during the Bosnian War, had possessed, he would not have applied nuclear weapon option. Long established religious or ethnic disputes and geographic proximity between opponents can create more dangerous situations than the Cold War.

When it comes to states suffering political crisis or civil war, Waltz remarks that ”Nuclear weapons induce caution, especially in weak states.” (Waltz, 1981, p.14) While scud missiles that can hold nuclear warhead have been used during Syrian and Libyan Civil War, it appears that probability of nuclear strike during civil war is being ignored by Waltz. Even more importantly, civil wars create convenient environment for the accidental use of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Accidents

The other debate, between optimist and pessimist, has stemmed from the probability of nuclear accidents. Waltz argues that nuclear states are more careful concerning their nuclear ammunition owing to risk of accident and anonymous use in both crisis and peace time. (Waltz, 1995, p,9) On the other hand, for a couple of reasons, possibility of accidental war should not be overlooked. First of all, nuclear weapons can be fired as a result of the false warnings during the war. For example, Pakistan or India, that have a geographic proximity, may only have a limited time to decide whether they must retaliate in response to wrongly perceived nuclear attack launched from their enemies.

Second, Inadequate nuclear projects in terms of security increase the likelihood of nuclear accident in states suffering financial matters. It seems that Waltz underemphasises this probability: ”Although some of the new nuclear states may be economically and technically backward, they will either have expert scientists and engineers or they will not be able to produce nuclear weapons.” (Waltz, 1995, p.9) However, states such as North Korea possessing nuclear weapons or Iran that will be able to develop nuclear weapons may ignore the necessities related to safety procedures due to lack of finance and time limit. Because of their threat perception, new proliferators may give more importance to having nuclear weapons as soon as possible than security measures.

Thirdly, organizations that in charge of nuclear weapons may give less importance to safety. By taking into consideration its boundedly rational structures, it is doubtful that they will overcome all problems caused by hazardous nuclear technologies. (Sagan, Waltz, 2003, p.74) Structure of organizations that contains a wide range of routines and complex procedures can lead to disregard of even the simplest precautions. Cuban missile crisis can be given as an example to the problems caused by the organizational routines. During the deployment of nuclear weapons, missile sites were not camouflaged because of the Soviet operating procedures with the result that American intelligence established the installation of weapons. (Allyn, Blight and Welch, 1989-1990, p.153).

Last but not least, In the past, some countries have developed nuclear weapons in secret. In future, as a result of the international norms against nuclear proliferation, more states may opt to be opaque when they develop nuclear weapons. Opacity gives rise to lack of publicl awareness and absence of international pressures and supervision, and in this way drive states to become less cautious about security issues. (Feaver, Sagan and Karl, 1997, p.191)

Waltz was right in emphasizing the fact that there was no accident during the cold war despite enormous concern from pessimist school. Optimists are also right in mentioning that unassembled and undeployed nuclear warheads provides security for nuclear states. However, on the threshold of war, it is most likely that states will incline to make their nuclear arsenals ready to be used. By considering that Pakistan did not even have advanced electronic locks on nuclear arsenal, and their nuclear weapons have been alerted against possible attack since 1999 Kargil crisis, it can be asserted that there would have been no surprise if there had been a nuclear war between Pakistan and India emerging from accidental use. In similar cases, nuclear states can face enormous dangers regarding accidental use because of unsafe operating procedures and technological insufficiencies.

Arms Race

With regards to arms race between nuclear states, Waltz defends that if states have second strike nuclear capability, they are likely to reduce their conventional military expenditure levels, and they consider nuclear arms racing as unnecessary because of their deterrence capacity: (Waltz, 1990)

”Conventional arms races will wither if countries shift emphasis from conventional defence to nuclear deterrence. For Pakistan, for example, acquiring nuclear weapons is an alternative to running a ruinous conventional race with India. And deterrent strategies make nuclear arms races pointless.” (Waltz, 1981, p.26)

On the other hand, in the light of evidence provided by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, it is obvious for India and Pakistan, military expenditures have increased remarkable since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, India’s military spending had risen by 45 per cent between 2008 and 2017. India was the fifth largest military spender in the world in 2017. (Fleurant, Wezeman, 2018) India and Pakistan have also incentive to expand their nuclear material production capabilities. (Kile, Kristensen, 2017) It seems that Karl was wrong to claim that scarcity of resources would limit to arms racing in South Asia. (Feaver, Sagan and Karl, 1997, p.189) Statistics prove that there has not been a correlation between obtaining nuclear weapons and reducing military expenditure. As long as the states fell insecure in the face of threats created by their foes, they need to have the ability to retaliate proportionally in both conventional and nuclear ways.

Optimistic approach regarding arms race seems inadequate not only because nuclear states continue to allocate a huge amount of money to conventional arms industry but also because decisions emerging from domestic politics are one of the main causes of unnecessary military expenditure. Sagan, who is one of the main critics of Waltz’s theory, claim that in addition to perceived foreign threat, bureaucratic organizations and actors may play an important role in deciding defense spending by supporting politicians who share their thoughts and manipulating public opinion. (Sagan, 1996-1997, p.64)

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Moreover, even if we assume that states should be satisfied with small number of nuclear arsenals because of their deterrence capabilities, other factors affecting military spending are norms and symbolic functions. For instance, apart from Soviet threat over Europe, another reason for France’s nuclear weapons development is the desire to increase its prestige in international relations. After the prestige lost in World War II and withdrawal from Egypt in 1956, France decided to become nuclear state as a way of displaying its rooted great power status. (Sagan, 1996-1997, p.78) To appear strong is important as symbolic in international relations, in spite of the fact that developing nuclear weapons is not considered as prestigious today, states that have adversaries will continue to invest a lot in conventional and nuclear arms industry with the intention of gaining psychological advantage.


 It appears that one of the main focal points of Waltz’s ideas is deterrence. Nuclear deterrence is based on the fact that in the event of a war between the two countries with nuclear weapons technology, a nuclear attack from one of the parties will result in a non-winner conflict, even worse complete disappearance of both sides. since the other party is able to respond in the same way with its second-strike forces even if it has a small number of nuclear arsenals. Wohlstetter described second strike capability as attacked state’s ability to retaliate with nuclear weapons even if the other side attacks with all its nuclear power. He entitled this situation as the delicate balance of terror. (Wohlstetter, 1959, pp. 211-234)

From the standpoint of optimist school, deterrence is the most important function of the nuclear world that prompt states to obtain nuclear weapons. According to nuclear rational deterrence theory, nuclear weapons have reduced dramatically the likelihood of war, and most likely they will continue to play a role in preventing prospective conflicts. Since extent of the risk posed by nuclear weapons is extremely high between two nuclear states, the one can not attempt to use nuclear option. In this way, nuclear weapons strengthened international stability and led to absence of war between super power during the Cold War. (Waltz, 1981, p.4) Sagan notes that “The logic of this “proliferation optimist” position flows easily from the expected-utility assumptions of rational deterrence theory: the possession of nuclear weapons by two powers reduces the likelihood of war precisely because it makes the costs of war so great.” (Sagan, 1994, p.67)

However, from organizational perspective used by Sagan concerning nuclear proliferation, state that is about to develop nuclear weapons should not be subjected to preventive attack by nuclear armed state because it can give rise to nuclear war. Moreover, states are not rational unitary actors. Instead, decisions are taken as a result of the conflicting goals between organizations. In nuclear case, military organizations have a significant effect on decision making process. What drives Sagan to being pessimist concerning preventive attack is that military organizations and officers always have a tendency to choose offensive options due to their background. (Sagan, 1994, pp. 69-85) Even in democratic states such as United States, there is a lot of evidence from the Cold War that support the effect of military officials over nuclear decision-making process. (Waltz, Sagan, 2003, pp. 56-61) Preventive war can be considered as a solution in new proliferator states where the military has a high impact on the governance, which cares less about the diplomatic and economic consequences of the decisions. (Sagan, 1994, p.82) Therefore, it is difficult to claim that small number of nuclear weapons can deter the state from attacking in any case.

Finally, another aspect for the deterrence is the principle of no first use. Not being the first state using nuclear weapons in a potential conflict fits the logic of deterrence theory. This is a declared strategy for America, Russia, France, England and China and India. In this way, states display that their only reason for obtaining nuclear weapon is to increase their deterrence and defensive capability. On the other hand some states such as North Korea, Pakistan and Israel may be the first to use these weapons in a possible conflict.


Waltz argues that becoming nuclear power do not necessarily weaken alliances. In the Cold War years, alliance and threat definitions could be made more easily because there was equilibrium in the system that could create a balance of power. With similar perceptions and expectations, actors were able to maintain their relations through this polarization by taking place in different camps. However, as the system becomes more complicated after the Cold War, it makes the security perception of the players more difficult in terms of alliances.

In 2015, while whether leaving NATO would be more beneficial were being discussed in Turkish politics, immense tension between Turkey and Russia occurred in consequence of downing Russian aircraft by Turkey in Syria. During the crises Turkey’s executives realised that they are in desperate need of stressing their NATO member status, and relationship between Turkey and NATO must be strengthened again because of Russian threat. Turkey was threatened even with possible nuclear attack by Vladimir Zhirinovsky who was the member of Russian parliament. It is obvious that if Turkey had had nuclear deterrence capability, it would have pursued more independent policy.

Nuclear proliferation, especially for superpowers, undermines the alliances because it makes security guarantees given by superpowers pointless. South Korea, similar France’s doubtfulness with regard to guarantee of protection given by United States in the face of Soviet threat, can decide to develop nuclear weapons in the near future, and this is likely to tempt Japan and Taiwan into obtaining their own nuclear arsenal. As a result of that by not depending on USA, they may fell more confident in deciding about their foreign policy, and this leads to weakening of alliances and increasing tensions in East Asia.


Even if, Waltz was substantially justified about his all claims, very little possibility of nuclear war or accident can not be ignored. Because, nobody claim that one nuclear strike which may stem from planned activity or accident will never turn out to be nuclear Mexican standoff. Worse, this kind of regional conflict can turn out to be worldwide nuclear conflict.

If nuclear weapons can, of course, be destroyed simultaneously by all countries, this could be a very important achievement for world peace. However, due to the competition of the states, this is not an easy target. Thus, the management of nuclear weapons and the preservation of world peace and balance will be one of the most important issues of International Relations in the 21st century. At this point, potential proliferators should be deterred from obtaining nuclear weapons, nuclear weapons capacities of the states should be reduced, and necessary precautions should be taken to increase security level.

Reference List

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  • https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2018-04/sipri_fs_1805_milex_2017.pdf
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