The race for nuclear proliferation exploded globally in the mid-20th Century as countries attempted to gain control of new weapons of mass destruction. However, this wasn’t a unanimous decision, with many individuals questioning the utilisation of this new technology due to its capacity to cause widespread destruction. Proliferation optimists and proliferation pessimists have continued to argue about whether the increasing availability of these weapons in various countries around the world is beneficial to international stability and peace.
Nuclear proliferation refers to the spread of nuclear weapons and technology to countries that do not already possess them. These weapons and technology have an enormous destruction capacity, witnessed initially in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb explosions in 1945 where over 200,000 lives were lost. Due to the increasing global understanding of nuclear power within combat, countries began to attempt constructing these weapons, or forming friendly relations with nations who owned various nuclear weapons.
However, the vast nature of their impact and possible damage has raised questions regarding the utilisation of these weapons. Proliferation pessimists strongly argue that more countries obtaining nuclear weapons is highly dangerous as although they have been largely avoided so far in conflict since 1945, there is nothing to suggest that this trend will continue. Moreover, although conventional warfare has decreased over the past few decades, unconventional warfare such as border disputes and civil conflict remain common, which poses a threat to society if nuclear weapons are used. These theorists also argue that the best way to achieve order within the international community is through complete disarmament which is impossible through the current standard of nuclear weapon acquisition.
Conversely, proliferation optimists argue that the increasing spread of nuclear weapons could improve international stability as they can act as a deterrent to war. This is because neither country would be willing to initiate a first strike, due to fears of a retaliatory second strike. Furthermore, optimists concede the inevitability of the creation of nuclear weaponry, and state that learning to accept life with nuclear technology is the only realistic option within the 21st Century. Let’s break down each of these theories and see which contains the most convincing reasoning:
Proliferation pessimists support a goal of nuclear disarmament, which aims to decrease the size and capability of a nation’s nuclear arsenal. The theory suggests that achieving disarmament will inevitably lead to greater international stability and security by removing weapons that cause the greatest destruction when utilised. The main forum to achieve this change is through international declarations and treaties which attempt to pressure Nuclear Weapons States to set goals of disarmament and encourage Non-Nuclear Weapons States to not develop nuclear weapons.
The initial international law regarding this was the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons which aimed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. This agreement has been signed by 191 parties; however, has failed to rapidly decrease the number of nuclear weapons, with five of the authorised nuclear weapons states still having over 13,000 warheads collectively. Therefore, a subsequent treaty was adopted in 2017 called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons which prohibits states from developing, testing, producing and utilising nuclear weapons. The effectiveness of this treaty is yet to be realised as it was only entered into force in 2021; however, it demonstrates the limitations of international law in enforcing provisions relating to nuclear disarmament.
Therefore, although proliferation pessimists support nuclear disarmament, this goal has not been reached and seems unlikely to be achieved due to the continual nuclear-related agreements at present, such as Australia’s partnership with the United States and United Kingdom in constructing new nuclear submarines. This is a key limitation impacting the effectiveness of the approach as although disarmament could successfully increase stability, it contradicts the nature of international law.
Furthermore, proliferation pessimists argue that the rise in unconventional warfare could result in nuclear weapons being utilised either by intention, through emotion, or as an accident. This approach subverts the belief of holding nuclear weapons acting as a deterrent, which relates primarily to conventional warfare between states. However, the increase in territorial disputes such as the South China Sea, or civil wars, as recently illustrated in Myanmar, if nuclear weapons were used, they could have a disastrous impact. This is prominent in situations where a new government or militia takes power as evident in Iran which announced in 2010 that they have become a nuclear state due to their ability to produce up to 20% enriched uranium.
Thus, proliferation pessimists effectively communicate the risks of nuclear power falling into the hands of individuals with limited political or military experience, who could act without proper advice and planning. This threatens the security of the rest of the world, as the notion of deterrence doesn’t impact these countries, prompting a chain reaction of second strikes. This horizontal proliferation, especially among smaller or unstable nations could have serious global consequences due to spontaneous decision-making.
Contrastingly, proliferation optimists argue that the increasing supply of nuclear weapons could result in greater international security, strongly supporting the notion that nuclear weapons can act as a deterrent to dissuade an adversary from initiating an undesirable act. This approach, supported by advocates such as Kenneth Waltz has stated that a deterrent strategy makes it unnecessary for a country to fight to enhance its security. If this is the main goal driving a military movement within a nation, the ability of a country to withhold the means to cancel the gains of an attack would remove a substantial cause of war.
This is demonstrated in the Cold War where neither the United States of America nor the Soviet Union were willing to engage in nuclear warfare due to the risks of retaliatory behaviour. As both nations held nuclear weapons, deterrent strategies promoted peace through fear and threatening behaviour, even though there was no realistic intention to fire the weapons. Furthermore, the extent of nuclear proliferation to a diverse range of countries arguably wouldn’t increase the chances of nuclear conflict as all leaders are aware of the damage a nuclear war could have upon their own country, and that risk wouldn’t be worth the limited gains.
Yet, in practice this theory has been challenged by Argentina seizing the Falkland Islands even though Great Britain had nuclear weapons, and Israel’s nuclear arsenal not preventing Egypt’s attack in 1973. Therefore, nuclear deterrence has the capacity to create a global stalemate which increases stability but doesn’t extend to completely denying international conflict.
Furthermore, the ineffectiveness of international institutions in enforcing nuclear regulations demonstrates the advantages of proliferation. International law is limited in enforcement due to the restrictions of state sovereignty enabling a nation to make decisions without external influence. As highlighted, although 191 nations are signatories to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the continual increase in nuclear arsenals globally illustrates how nations have neglected their obligations under the treaty.
Moreover, as the treaty accepts nuclear proliferation for specific states, it undermines the pursuit of disarmament, providing countries with no incentive to support proliferation pessimism due to fears it could limit their national security. This is demonstrated by Robert Fischer who claimed that “even in the unlikely event of total disarmament, nuclear weapons would hold the existential threat over states deterring nations from resorting to conventional war”, conveying the notion that treaties delay the inevitable, instead of assisting states in living within a world of international nuclear proliferation.
As demonstrated through the discussion of proliferation optimists and proliferation pessimists, both arguments claim that their approach should be a permanent part of the international community; however, they both contain flaws within their reasoning. Optimists place immense trust upon governments to avoid nuclear weapons when faced with conflict and increasing tensions, whereas pessimists encourage countries to disarm themselves even if it poses a risk to their national security. Therefore, a new approach, inspired by proliferation optimists, is required to achieve a global understanding on the role and utilisation of nuclear weapons and technology.
Proliferation optimists contain the most persuasive and convincing argument as they reflect the realities of international law and international relations. State sovereignty and the inability of international law to be effectively enforced significantly reduces the possibility of international institutions effectively causing disarmament, the central belief of proliferation pessimists. Optimists acknowledge that countries will not voluntarily give up their weapons, and the continual spread of nuclear weapons through horizontal proliferation will promote safety through deterrence of direct nuclear combat. The nuclear weapons ban movement developed out of the failure of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to deliver on the promise of complete nuclear disarmament, yet nothing has altered in the 53 years since this initial agreement.
Therefore, nuclear proliferation is the most persuasive approach, but must be adapted to ensure its long-term effectiveness. Regulating the transfer and ownership of nuclear weapons and technology through an international institution could achieve this. This body could ensure that a maximum number of weapons are allowed for specific nations and enable the transferring of technology to allow other nations to also create nuclear programs. This adapted model of proliferation optimists enables nations the authority, consistent with state sovereignty, to have the freedom to produce and manufacture nuclear weapons if they desire, but also maintain peace and order within international politics. Moreover, this approach has the capacity to decrease the production of weaponry by superpowers as they no longer have the incentive of the exclusivity of nuclear production, as all other nations will have a similar capability.
A world without nuclear power no longer exists, we must learn to accept nuclear power as modern weaponry, and entrust governments through appropriate regulation to control these weapons of mass destruction.