Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 11 Notes: Nuclear Proliferation and Disarmament

  • How do nuclear weapons differ from other kinds of weapons?
  • How can nuclear proliferation best be explained?
  • Do nuclear weapons promote, or threaten, international peace and stability?
  • How can the spread of nuclear weapons best be controlled, or even reversed?
  • Is a post-nuclear age possible or desirable?

The development and use of nuclear weapons in 1945 marked a major turning point in the history of warfare and, indeed, in the history of humanity. Very quickly, enough nuclear warheads had been created and stockpiled to destroy civilization many times over, giving humanity, for the first time, the capacity to end its own existence. As the Cold War developed, the world thus fell under the shadow of 'the bomb'. However, while some saw nuclear weapons as the lynchpin of a deterrence system that effectively ruled out war between major powers, others viewed the nuclear arms race as a source of unending tension and insecurity. Does the theory of nuclear deterrence work? Do nuclear weapons promote responsible statesmanship, or do they fuel expansionist ambition? Nevertheless, anxieties about nuclear proliferation have, if anything, intensified during the post-Cold War period. Not only has the 'nuclear club' grown from five to at least nine, but many argue that the constraints that had previously prevented nuclear weapons from being used have been dangerously weakened. In what ways have the incentives for states to acquire nuclear weapons intensified? Is it now more likely that nuclear weapons will get into the 'wrong' hands? Finally, greater anxiety about nuclear proliferation has been reflected in an increasing emphasis on the issues of arms control and disarmament. Although non-proliferation strategies have ranged from diplomatic pressure and the imposition of economic sanctions to direct military intervention, nuclear arms control has been notoriously difficult to bring about. In this context, non-proliferation has increasingly been linked to a commitment to nuclear disarmament. Why is it so difficult to prevent states from acquiring nuclear weapons? Why has greater emphasis been placed on the goal of creating a world free of nuclear weapons?

  • The massive destructive capacity of nuclear weapons means that they have affected international and domestic politics in a way that no other weapons ever have. Vertical nuclear proliferation during the Cold War period witnessed the build-up of massive nuclear arsenals in the USA and the Soviet Union.
  • While some believe that the Cold War nuclear arms race effectively underpinned the 'long peace' of the post-1945 period, especially once the condition of Mutually Assured Destruction was achieved, others have associated the 'balance of terror' with instability and the ever-present danger that deterrence would fail.
  • The post-Cold War era has been characterized by heightened anxiety about nuclear proliferation. This occurred for reasons such as a growth in the number of states that have shown an interest in acquiring nuclear weapons, the easier availability of nuclear materials and technology, and the increased danger that nuclear weapons get into the hands of actors who may use them.
  • Despite the development of an extensive non-proliferation regime, effective arms control has been difficult to bring about because states tend to place concerns about national security above their obligations under bilateral or multilateral agreements. Particular anxiety has been expressed about nuclear proliferation in relation to North Korea and Iran, based on the supposedly unstable and risk-prone natures of their regimes and the existence of significant regional tensions.
  • The idea of a nuclear-free world has been advanced by both peace activists and, more recently, senior politicians in the USA and Russia. The Obama administration's defence strategy links a commitment to nuclear disarmament to the ability to exert strong moral and diplomatic pressure to ensure non proliferation.
  • Non-proliferation strategies may nevertheless have little impact on nuclear and would-be nuclear 'rogue' states. They may also fail to enjoy unanimous backing from major powers, possibly make inter-state war more likely, and may intensify defence anxieties in states that once benefited from the USA's nuclear umbrella.