Tag Archives: proliferation

Why do States seek nuclear weapons? Can nuclear proliferation be prevented?

–Note —  I made several mistakes in this essay, most noticeably, the use of ‘Russia’ in place of the USSR.  Yes, I’m terribly stupid.


Nuclear weapons have the ability to kill or maim many people instantly, and even more over a period of time.  For this reason, nuclear weapons have developed a respect borne of fear, inspiring the development of social norms of non-use and non-proliferation.  However in the current socio-political climate, the prevention of nuclear weapon proliferation is unlikely to be successful.  In order to illustrate this, several key problems with non-proliferation measures will be discussed.  Firstly, however, it is necessary to outline why states may seek nuclear weapons.  This brief outline is based on a reconceptualization of Waltz (1981) and others (Khan, 2010; Krieger, 2006; Barnaby, 2005; Sagan, 1997), developing into four primary categories: Offensive, Defensive, Balancing and Social. These may act individually, or in combination, to entice a state to proliferate in nuclear weapons.

States interested in nuclear weapons for offensive reasons may be attracted to the destructive power shown through the use of these weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the subsequent development of power through the Cold War.  Of particular concern is the possibility of ‘rogue’ states or terrorist groups obtaining ‘the bomb’ (Khan, 2010).  The likelihood of states pursuing nuclear weapons for offensive purposes is contested (Waltz, 1981; Krieger, 2006); however the possibility of their use is arguably necessary in order to establish the defensive use of nuclear weapons (Wilson, 2008; Khan, 2010) which is promoted by the current Nuclear Weapons States (NWS).

Defensive uses for the bomb are based around the idea that nuclear weapons deter conflict in its entirety (Waltz, 1981; Khan, 2010), forcing states to use alternate means of conflict resolution; however without the possibility of a state using these weapons, there would be no deterrent.  This ‘need’ for a deterrent may be required because a state fears their opponents’ current or future capabilities, or it may doubt the political will or capability of its allies to defend it in a time of need, especially in light of the allies other political interests (Waltz, 1981).  This ‘defensive’ use also leads to the concept of a ‘counterbalance’ of power.

States may seek nuclear weapons in order to ‘balance’ a particular states’ power, removing the capability of one state to have complete military dominance, with effectively unchecked power at either a global or regional level (Khan, 2010; Waltz, 1981).  This can be seen in Russia’s nuclear arms race with the US in the late 1940s, and more recently with India and Pakistan.  This adversarial desire can often be linked to social factors between the states concerned.

In spite of the military focus for proliferation, there are several social reasons why states may seek ‘the bomb’, particularly in relation to identity and power.  Firstly, identity factors relate to the development of technologies, and how they can become embedded in a states’ identity (Barker & Kelly, 2008), being equated with proof of their modernity and advancement, or their development towards this goal.  States ‘benchmark’ themselves against the latest technologies; the ‘nuclear age’ has led to perceptions that nuclear technology is at the height of modernity, providing significant success and power to nations with this capability.

It is arguably this relation to power which seduces some states to pursue nuclear weapons, though this power comes in different forms (Khan, 2010).  The US, wielding significant political and economic power, can be seen as a poster-child for success with nuclear weapons; with much of their power being perceived as pure military might from World War II and the Cold War.  The notion that significant success and power comes from development of this technology has been formed; however this is not the only form of power that can be gained through nuclear weapons.  Power can be used for bargaining; where a state uses their capacity to develop these weapons to bring other nations to the bargaining table, either through ‘forcing’ other states to take them seriously, or through offers to ‘give up’ their weapons under certain conditions (Khan, 2010; Hunter, 2004).  Obtaining nuclear weapons allows a state to be on an ‘equal footing’ with a great or hegemonic power, at least on that one level; without these weapons, those states have little to gain attention (Khan, 2010).

These categorised reasons point to the strength of Herz’s ‘security dilemma’ (as cited in Russett et al., 2010, p. 240).  So can nuclear weapon proliferation be prevented?  In order to provide an affirmative response to this, we would have to establish that all these factors can be fully answered in our current (or at least short to medium term future) socio-political environment, removing any perceived ‘need’ for these weapons, and for these conditions to remain so indefinitely.  However, while there is hope for this goal, it is unlikely that proliferation can be prevented in the short to medium term.  This is due to several problems within our socio-political environment, including the social factors of ‘prestige’ and power, problematic collective security measures, the lack of progress in disarmament by the NWS, and inherent discrimination within the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

As already demonstrated, nuclear weapons can provide a state with prestige and power, from showing their nation has the smarts and capacity for developing these weapons, placing them in a relatively exclusive club, to ‘being equal’ to the most powerful states.  For proliferation to be prevented, these factors must be dealt with, and this is currently not being addressed.  It is quite evident to the world that those seen as the most powerful are also NWS (Barnaby, 2005, p. 10), which highlights a level of power and prestige correlated with nuclear weapons (Barnaby, 1998).  This also causes other difficulties; the NWS insistence on non-proliferation, combined with the lack of progress towards disarmament and various other proposals have led some to the belief that these powerful ‘western’ nations have ulterior motives for their insistence on non-proliferation (Hunter, 2004; Khan, 2010).   Mearsheimer (2001) puts this idea as where a great power attempts to ‘thwart rivals bent on gaining power at its expense’ (p. 3).  Even if the belief is wrong, and the NWS motives are pure, this perception can entice rebellion instead of acceptance and conformism.

Adding to these difficulties is the fact that nuclear weapons are not decreasing in importance to the NWS (Barnaby, 2005, p. 12; Ogilvie-White & Santoro, 2011).  They are played up in politico-military speeches on defence, and, perhaps unintentionally, promoted as necessary to their security.  In particular, the US in their position as the ‘global power’ has not used this position to downplay nuclear weapons.  While nuclear weapons are recognised as having such a degree of political and military utility, it is very difficult to encourage NNWS to avoid proliferation (Khan, 2010; Hunter, 2004; Barnaby, 1977).

In order to mitigate Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) fears of nuclear attack while demanding they remain non-nuclear, the NWS have provided variously worded negative and positive security assurances to the NNWS (Gallagher, 2011; Cortright & Väyrynen, 2009).  Negative security assurances provide for the conditional non-use of nuclear weapons against NNWS, while positive assurances provide for the provision of assistance, and in some cases retaliation, to NNWS if attacked or threatened by the use of nuclear weapons (Cortright & Väyrynen, 2009).  As Waltz (1981) notes, this is ‘the strongest means’ for persuading a state to ‘forgo nuclear weapons’, effectively placing the NWS in the position of ‘protectors’, and by doing so, it is assumed that the proliferation of these weapons becomes unnecessary.  However, this does not completely eradicate the desire to proliferate, since not all NNWS are covered by these assurances, nor are all completely confident that their ‘protectors’ other political or diplomatic concerns would not be prioritised over the defence of their state (Jo & Gartzke, 2007; Cortright & Väyrynen, 2009).  Further, the provision of security assurances can cause problems for the non-proliferation agenda, since the NWS claim an inability to disarm their nuclear weapons due to these assurances (Huntley, 2010).

These security assurances provided by the NWS have created other issues, especially for the goal of nuclear disarmament (Müller, 2011),. The NWS are concerned that through reductions or disarmament, ‘protected’ states may be less confident of their security, and so may consider proliferation (Cortright & Väyrynen, 2009; Gallagher, 2011).  However disarmament is the other side of the non-proliferation coin (Cirincione, 2009).  Promoting non-proliferation and requiring NNWS to undergo escalating monitoring of their nuclear activities can lead to problems, especially where NNWS consider that they not getting what they expected (Blechman & Bollfrass, 2010), creating a perception of, indeed arguably real and deliberate inequality written into the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is widely considered to have an inherent inequality ‘built in’, though not all agree this is negative (Ogilvie-White & Santoro, 2011; Cortright & Väyrynen, 2009; Ware, 2008; Blechman & Bollfrass, 2010).  The NPT is generally taken as ‘a grand bargain’, whereby the NNWS trade their forgoing of nuclear weapons for the progress towards ‘nuclear zero’.  Several NNWS are concerned that they are taking on the biggest problems of proliferation and accepting considerable oversight and monitoring of their activities, while NWS do not accept similar constraints, nor are they seen as fulfilling their obligations towards disarmament objectives (Ogilvie-White & Santoro, 2011; Barnaby, 1998; Blechman & Bollfrass, 2010)(Perkovich, 1998; Ogilvie-White & Santoro, 2011). As noted by Perkovich (1998) “Nothing in politics animates people as much as perceived inequity and unfairness” (1998, p. 21).  This lack of progress towards disarmament reduces support for the arrangements under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and for this reason, some claim the NPT will not survive, and a new treaty will need to be written (Ogilvie-White & Santoro, 2011; Barnaby, 1977; Blechman & Bollfrass, 2010).

Ultimately, it would not only take significant effort to resolve the ‘need’ for these weapons, but also the weaning off our current dependence on military solutions, and an increase in trust and transparency for the world to feel secure, combined with the political will to make it happen.  However the variation in reasons for states to pursue these weapons, and the numerous difficulties for non-proliferation and disarmament make the prevention of proliferation unlikely in the foreseeable future.


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