Nuclear proliferation refers to the spread of nuclear weapons, either by their acquisition by more states or other actors (horizontal proliferation) or by their accumulation by established nuclear states (vertical proliferation). The proliferation of nuclear weapons has alarmed the United Nation since the end of the Cold War, as the old certainties of a ‘nuclear umbrella’ and ‘mutually assured destruction’ are being challenged by the shift towards a multipolar world order. It is argued that what really threatens peace is the return of great power competition with the return of Russia and the rise of China and most importantly – how nuclear weapons feature in this competition.
The argument that nuclear proliferation poses a substantial threat to global security derives from the massive destructive capacity of nuclear weapons. This, then enables nuclear powers to dictate to other powers. In this case, horizontal proliferation is seen to be a major threat as it inevitably creates temporary imbalances of power in nuclear capability that any one state may be willing to take advantage of at any time. After all, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs were dropped to take advantage of precisely such a military imbalance. This has become increasingly important as concern about the withdrawal of the US or Russian nuclear umbrella was likely to encourage states to stand on their own two feet in nuclear terms. This was particularly the case where regional tensions were deepening, as in South Asia in the 1990s. In 1998, both India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices and joined the ‘nuclear club’, responding to increasingly bitter rivalry over Kashmir. Pakistan’s Defence Minister Khawaja Asif states that “if we need to use them (nuclear weapons) for our survival we will” supports the realist school of thought that states are inherently aggressive (offensive realism) and obsessed with security (defensive realism). This aggressive build-up, however, leads to a security dilemma whereby it poses a threat on international peace.
On the other hand, neo realists like Kenneth Waltz argue that nuclear proliferation does not threaten global peace and security; all states are “power maximisers” and so the possession of nuclear weapons enables states to actually escape their “security dilemma” by creating a “delicate balance of terror”. Therefore, Waltz argues that the possession by India and Pakistan of nuclear weapons has actually made the subcontinent safer. Pakistan’s retaliation is argued to have dissuaded an Indian attack across the border, following the Mumbai terrorist atrocities in 2008 even though the perpetrators had been trained in Pakistan. Waltz continues to support this idea by comparing the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan to that of US and the Soviet Union. It also can be said that Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons has thus meant that since 1973 she has not been attacked by her Arab neighbours as it has been a symbol of deterrence. Furthermore, even if horizontal proliferation is a major threat, liberal cooperation has proved to be successful over the years. As the international Atomic Energy Agency contends, if not for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968), 35 to 40 states would have successful nuclear programs by now, and yet only 9 do. South Africa, Libya, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus have dismantled their nuclear arsenals, and most recently Iran was prevented by the P5+1. All these states were denuclearised through international cooperation after the Cold War, proving the liberal view that we can work together to maintain peace and security.
As the obstacles to horizontal proliferation have diminished, the chances of ‘rogue’ states or even non-state actors acquiring nuclear weapons have significantly increased. The greatest concern is therefore that nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of military-based dictatorial regimes, or even terrorist organisations, which may have fewer scruples about using them. In the post-Cold War era, US foreign policy has increasingly focused on attempts to prevent such thing, with particular concern focusing in 2002 on the states dubbed ‘axis of evil’ by President Bush: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya and North Korea. Just a year later, North Korea pulled out of the NPT treaty and since, Kim Jong-Un has pursued a nuclear program at the expense of the country’s ailing economy. He approved the country’s fourth nuclear test in January 2015 in defiance of UN sanctions and attempted the launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile, also stating that his “nuclear button is on his desk at all times”. What is seen as even more alarming is Trump’s response as he claims his ‘button’ is “much bigger” and “more powerful”. This is a clear example of how nuclear proliferation to rogue states has proved to be a global threat to peace and security. Yet this is not the only concern. The miniaturisation of nuclear equipment and other technological advances have facilitated the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups, organised crime networks, and rebel movements. Nuclear weapons were abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving a thriving black market in Eastern Europe. This has arguably been the most serious consequence of nuclear proliferation, as terrorist groups such as ISIS actively seek radioactive materials to produce “dirty bombs”. Similarly, Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani bomb, acknowledged that during the past two decades he had secretly provided North Korea, Libya and Iran with crucial nuclear know-how. As a result, nuclear proliferation is a great threat when in the hands of irresponsible and irrational hands.
However, Thomas Schelling, like Waltz a veteran proponent of nuclear weapons, believes that we unduly exaggerate the threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists. He argues that the terrorist organisation needs the highly trained scientists who can convert the fissile material into an explosive, which according to Mueller, is not realistically conceivable given the variety of substantial practical difficulties that are faced. Furthermore, as Kenneth Waltz as argued, the possession of nuclear weapons may actually encourage states to act responsibly, thereby creating more rational actors on the global stage. This can be seen as so recently, as Trump is praised for actually accelerating diplomacy and maintaining global peace. His strategy led to a meeting between North and South Korea, and a summit between Trump and Kim which reflects building hopes that Pyongyang’s willingness to talk about dismantling its nuclear arsenal may be genuine. Trump statement “strength is going to keep us out of nuclear war” in his speech supports Pompeo in Brussels who argues “we would not be where we are today without Trump’s maximum pressure campaign”. This emphasises that, actually, boasting about the size of his nuclear button as well as coining of sanctions has forced realist rationality on a rogue state actor like North Korea. Critical theorists such as Chomsky, on the other hand, suggest that North Korea is only copying the West, and that this instability is because the West want a monopoly on violence.
Above all, some argue that real threat is the great power competition and vertical proliferation. Although the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons worked during the bipolar ‘first nuclear age’, it is far less reliable in the less stable, multipolar circumstances of the ‘second nuclear age’. Such examples include US, despite the Prague declaration 2009 by Obama, has increased spending to $1 trillion to upgrade its nuclear arms. Nuclear Orientalism suggests, as Gusterson (1999) notes: the type of binary Western discourse which seeks to represent ‘their’ weapons as a threat in contrast to ‘ours’ which are not. Therefore, while the elites of nuclear weapons states may therefore privilege possession as an acceptable risk in a Hobbesian international system, a world security perspective suggests otherwise. Even worse, developments in recent years have focused increasingly on the production of nuclear weapons that have a more precise and contained impact, making them usable, for example China and its development of supersonic missiles. These ‘tactical’ or ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons are no longer of symbolic importance. This has led to the theory of nuclear utilisation target selection (NUTS), which rejects the logic of MAD. A nuclear exchange between the USA and Russia – and involving just one-fifth of their current arsenals – has been estimated to produce 770 million direct casualties, with indirect effects via ozone depletion. This, surely, is an existential threat of the first order for world society, and it is one which – in both an objective and subjective sense – states in possession of nuclear weapons continuously hold over us all.
However, one cannot completely disregard ‘MAD’ and the defensive realist thought of a “delicate balance of terror”. For instance, Waltz indeed proposed that ‘the world would be safer if Iran did get the bomb.’, as this would have created a balance of power in the Middle East which currently does not exist as only Israel has a nuclear deterrent. The absence of a balance of power gives way to more liberal thinking as it focuses on finding alternatives and more effective mechanisms for ensuring peace and security. The principal liberal solution is the construction of international organisations such as UN. This happens, in part, because whereas the balance of power fosters private agreement amongst states, international organisations foster public agreements that cover most if not all states, so making possible a system of collective security. Also, it can be said that Russia is not a real threat and Putin’s aggression is only to be seen as a ‘great power’, along with China does not actually want war but just regional dominance. Therefore, vertical proliferation is not in reality a substantial threat to global peace and security.
Overall, the likes of Waltz and other realist-orientated security traditionalists obviously advocate proliferation – whether horizontal or vertical, managed of unlimited – as the answer to enduring insecurity. However, if as ‘Welsh School’ Critical Security Studies argues we should see theory as being constitutive of reality and believe emancipatory change to be possible, then – while the security dilemma and threats emanating from it may be a structural condition – there remains distinct scope for agency in potentially transcending the security dilemma. The question is how one moves from a condition of fear, to one of achieving cooperation, and then finally building trust; this is the underling problematic of nuclear proliferation.