Why Countries Build Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century
Image Credit: flickr/International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons

Why Countries Build Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century

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Throughout the nuclear era, the conventional wisdom has been that one state’s nuclear acquisition has driven its adversaries to follow suit. As former Secretary of State George Shultz so eloquently put it, “proliferation begets proliferation.”

Although some of the earliest nuclear proliferation cases followed this pattern, it has been increasingly rare as the taboo against the first use of nuclear weapons has become more entrenched. Instead, the primary security factor driving nuclear weapons proliferation today is the disparity in conventional military power. This is likely to continue in the future, with profound consequences for which states do and don’t seek nuclear weapons.

Although conventional military power’s importance in nuclear proliferation has certainly increased in recent decades, it wasn’t completely negligible in earlier years. France’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon is a case in point. The historical narrative on France’s nuclear program has been that it was motivated by Charles De Gaulle’s intense nationalism and lack of faith in extended deterrence.  

The archival record does not completely support this interpretation, however. To begin with, as Jacques Hymans finds from his careful review of the historical record, it was Mendes France not De Gaulle who made the first crucial decisions to pursue the bomb. The timing of President France’s decision is telling; specifically, he ordered the initial preparations be made for building an atomic weapon three days after the Nine-Power Conference laid out the terms for West Germany’s rearmament, largely over Paris’s objections.

President France’s rationale was straight forward. As Hymans explains, he believed that “French military power must remain at least one order of magnitude superior to Germany’s; thus, the fewer the restrictions on German conventional weapons, the greater the need for a French atomic force.” Given France’s suffering at the hands of the German military in WWI and WWII, his decision isn’t too hard to comprehend.

Israel’s decision to pursue the bomb was also motivated almost entirely by its perceived conventional inferiority vis-à-vis its Arab neighbors. Although these neighbors did not possess nuclear weapons, Israeli leaders in the late 1950s and 1960s could not be optimistic about the military balance both then and into the future. After all, Egypt alone is 55 times larger than Israel and, in 1967, had about eleven times its population.  Israeli leaders therefore calculated that acquiring a nuclear weapon was the surest way to negate this inherent conventional imbalance, and thereby ensure the Jewish state’s survival.

As the nuclear taboo has become more entrenched over the decades, states have had less to fear from a neighbor acquiring an atomic weapon. Consequentially, conventional military power has surpassed nuclear arsenals in terms of its importance in driving nuclear proliferation.

North Korea illustrates this nicely. Although Pyongyang began its nuclear program during the Cold War, it only started making substantial progress in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Notably, this was when the nuclear threat it faced was declining as the U.S. withdrew its nuclear weapons from South Korea.

By contrast, it was also the time when North Korea had the most to fear from the conventional military balance on the Peninsula. Not only had it lost its great power protectorate in the Soviet Union, but South Korea’s economic ascendancy, combined with its inherent demographic advantage, meant that Pyongyang’s military position was growing precarious even if America was not part of the equation.

Of course, the U.S. military is part of the equation on the Korean Peninsula, and its stunning victory in the first Gulf War left little doubt about its conventional dominance in the post-Cold War era. Subsequent years have confirmed this dominance, as well as the United States’ willingness to use it to overthrow adversarial governments. This was ominous indeed for policymakers in Pyongyang, who rightly calculated that they couldn’t match America’s conventional military might. Consequently, they sought to negate its military superiority by acquiring the ultimate deterrent.

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear program has followed a similar trajectory. Although the initial decision to restart the Shah’s nuclear program was motivated almost entirely by Saddam Hussein’s nuclear and chemical weapons programs, Tehran only began making real progress on the nuclear front in the middle to late 1990s. Saddam Hussein can hardly explain this trajectory, given that his threat to Iran was significantly diminished following the first Gulf War, and it was eliminated entirely after 2003.

Iran’s nuclear program is better explained, then, by the rise in the potential conventional threat the U.S. poses to Iran. In the post-Cold War era, this began in full force when the U.S. decided to reactivate the 5th Fleet in July 1995, after a 45-year hiatus. Suddenly, U.S. Naval might was permanently stationed on Iranian shores.

Further underscoring this danger to Iran, the following year President Bill Clinton signed the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996, confirming that President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s outreach to the U.S. had failed. The U.S. threat to Iran has only grown more precarious since 2003; not surprisingly, Iran’s nuclear program has made its greatest advances during this time.

The conventional military balance’s primacy in influencing horizontal nuclear proliferation is also evident from the states that have not chosen to go nuclear. For instance, no Northeast Asian country went nuclear following China or North Korea’s nuclear tests, nor did Israel’s nuclear arsenal cause a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

The fact that conventional military power is the strongest factor driving nuclear proliferation should guide how we think about proliferation threats in the future. For instance, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, its neighbors will be unlikely to follow suit. Not only do these states lack the necessary technical capacity, but they have little to fear from Iran’s nearly non-existent power projection capabilities.

On the other hand, the rise in China’s conventional military strength makes it likely that Eastern Asia will be the region where the most potent proliferation risks emanate from. Countries with territorial disputes with China—first and foremost, Japan— will have the strongest motivation to build the bomb. Unfortunately, for non-proliferation advocates, many of China’s neighbors—including Japan and South Korea— already have robust civilian nuclear programs. This breakout capability will only make it more tempting for policymakers to order a mad dash for the bomb.

Comments
10
R Peppe
September 14, 2013 at 12:12

In 1956 the US could have destroyed China without any fear of an attack from China. The risks from Russia were more real, but the US had a defense against Russian bombers both in Canada and in the US. Today the US could destroy China and Russia, but China and Russia could both destroy the US. Nuclear weapons and a missile delivery system have helped Russia and China more than the US. There is a reason for this. See my blog WARBYIQ. RP

dan
September 12, 2013 at 23:58

USA proliferated nukes to israel,uk and france. Not only to them but many of its allies.

Agualeguas
July 8, 2013 at 11:19

hk. Sir I believe you are wrong. The nuclear program of India got pushed forward mostly with spirits related to Pakistan not China.
I do agree with you about the NPT and somehow about the security council where I feel new members would bring a balance that is clearly not there at the moment.

hk
July 3, 2013 at 22:27

India's Nuclear weapons program was in response to China's possession of the Bomb. India is not a miniscule nation and India rightfully deserves a place in UN Security council and be recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty as nuclear weapon state. It was a historical mistake to sideline India in this regard. NPT rules need correction.

No country got the nuclear weapon technology on a platter. Every country developed the Bomb clandestinely and then multiplied their stocks.

Nuclear war means definite MAD (mutually assured destruction). No country can get away nuking another nation.

Nuclear weapons are only good for pulverizing rogue asteroids (if that is really possible other than in fiction). Other use is to militarily bully a non-nuclear state for whatever reason.

We can argue on this but will nuclear weapons free world ever happen !?  

hk
July 3, 2013 at 22:25

India's Nuclear weapons program was in response to China's possession of the Bomb. India is not a miniscule nation and India rightfully deserves a place in UN Security council and be recognized by the Non-Proliferation Treaty as nuclear weapon state. It was a historical mistake to sideline India in this regard. NPT rules need correction.

No country got the nuclear weapon technology on a platter. Every country developed the Bomb clandestinely and then multiplied their stocks.

Nuclear war means definite MAD (mutually assured destruction). No country can get away nuking another nation.

Nuclear weapons are only good for pulverizing rogue asteroids (if that is really possible other than in fiction). Other use is to militarily bully a non-nuclear state for whatever reason.

We can argue on this but will nuclear weapons free world ever happen !?  

Daveinva
July 3, 2013 at 21:47

"For instance, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, its neighbors will be unlikely to follow suit. Not only do these states lack the necessary technical capacity, but they have little to fear from Iran’s nearly non-existent power projection capabilities."

Perhaps true– unless Shiite terrorism and destabilization is a concern for those states, which it is.

But the larger consequence of the Iranian Bomb would be the near-certain "Finlandization" of the Gulf states as they bend to Tehran's will.

That's always been the strongest– and shockingly, quietest– argument against Iranian nuclear weapons.  Even if we can safely assume they are 100% rational and will never use them– a risky assumption, but let's grant it– Iranian nuclear weapons protect the regime from conventional military overthrow.  The day Tehran gets the bomb, NO ONE will ever act against Iran– just as no one acts against North Korea, or Pakistan, or any other nuclear power.  Iran will have fulfilled the late Saddam Hussein's ambition of acquiring the ultimate deterrent to the United States: a nuclear umbrella that protects a mischief-making regime from external defeat.

If we think Kim Jong-Un is a bad-behaving actor under the safety of his nuclear umbrella, at least he has China to restrain him.  Who will restrain Tehran?  The United States may "deter" Iran from using nuclear weapons, but Iran's nuclear weapons will deter the United States from using conventional military power in the Gulf– thus, we'll have no response to Iranian-sponsored terrorism or other mischief-making from Tehran.  Unless anyone seriously believes the United States will threaten a nuclear response over truck bombings?

Bankotsu
July 3, 2013 at 15:48

I don't see a big deal about South Korea or Japan having nukes. Only the U.S is concerned about it as both ROK and Japan will be harder to control. China doesn't really care about it at all.

I support ROK and Japan having nukes.

Oro Invictus
July 3, 2013 at 11:16

@ TDog

… And what about Israel? It possesses nuclear weapons and has been quite amenable to the US. Likewise, the primary deterrence of the UK is in the form of their UK-Trident II defense system which, while it has its origins in the US Trident program, is entirely overseen by the UK government (and even these may be replaced in the near term); thus, US control over the primary UK nuclear deterrent is negligible (by comparison, the PRC almost certainly maintains a greater relative level of influence over Pakistan’s arsenal than the US does the UK). Similarly, India’s nuclear weapon project was developed in direct opposition to NATO (given it was developed illegally via reverse-engineering loaned Canadian reactors), yet the US has not only done little to condemn this, it has done a great deal to cement the international community’s acceptance of India as a nuclear weapon state (which goes well beyond simply trying to prevent alienating a potential ally), despite it not even being a full-fledged US ally and thus almost entirely out of their control.

Also, considering the US provided Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey with a combined total of around ~200 nuclear warheads (if memory serves) and has actually supported and continues to support their modification for these individual states’ deployments of the weapons independent of US systems, suggests the US, if anything, is relatively aloof when it comes to its allies possession of nuclear weapons.

Actually, that would be my major criticism of the US on this: They lack discretion when it comes to facilitating the development and maintenance of nuclear weapons among their allies. While I don’t expect the US to become a full-fledged supporter of a world without nuclear weapons (although that would be a very welcome thing), one wishes they had a little more tact when it comes to those whose interests align with its own.

papa john
July 3, 2013 at 11:09

Nukes are always the best weapon of choices for the weaks. It looks like it will soon be a first choice for Japan, Skorea, Vietnam and the Phillipines to deter big red commie trying to grab their land and sea.

TDog
July 3, 2013 at 07:10

It is unlikely Japan or even South Korea will pursue a nuclear deterrent.  Without trying to sound too cynical, the US doesn't care for allies it can not ultimately bully and control.  To paraphrase the line out of "Lawrence of Arabia", allow them nuclear weapons and you've given them independence.  The UK shares at least part of its nuclear arsenal with the US, granting the US some degree of leverage over the UK's ultimate line of defense/retaliation.  Note that France, which pursued an independent nuclear program and has resisted most efforts by the US to put French military forces under NATO (read "American") command, has suffered an extremely poor, if not strained, relationship with the US.

A Japanese or South Korean nuclear arsenal is likely only in the event of an American pullout from the Far East.  It is highly doubtful that the US would allow an independent Japanese or South Korean nuclear deterrent, especially when it is more controllable (and profitable) to sell both Japan and South Korea conventional arms.

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