Nuclear weapons are currently an international security issue. Lessons learned from past events have contributed to a global fear of such weapons. Simultaneously current events are indicating a global trend in nuclear proliferation, especially among powerful actors. States in possession of nuclear weapons are focusing on developing their nuclear capabilities and expanding their programs. Why is that so? Why are states still building nuclear weapons? Are these states conscious of the dangerous consequences involved? Are we experiencing the threat of a nuclear war?
In this paper, we will first define the term nuclear proliferation since it is key to understanding the different aspects of international security. Next, we will look at the different existing models explaining the current trend of nuclear proliferation and link these models to past events. Eventually, we will try to understand the recent developments in the field of international insecurity and analyze whether there is currently an international source of a nuclear threat.
It is important to understand the term nuclear proliferation. To do so, we need to define “proliferation”. The Cambridge Dictionary offers the following definition: “the fact of something increasing a lot and suddenly in number or amount“ (Cambridge Dictionary 2022). To simplify this definition, proliferation can be understood as “growth and propagation” (Rizky 2022).
So, what is nuclear proliferation? Nuclear proliferation is “a spectrum of possible activities related to the exploration, pursuit, or acquisition of nuclear weapons by states” (Rizky 2022). Therefore, it refers to the sudden rise in the number of weapons in circulation. Indeed, powerful states are focusing on developing their nuclear capabilities by building new weapons, perfecting their capability to build such weapons as well as investing financially in nuclear technology and its sophistication.
The main actors currently owning nuclear weapons are Russia, the United States, China, North Korea, Pakistan, India, Israel, France, and the United Kingdom (SIPRI 2021). However, not all of them are taking part in this pursuit of nuclear proliferation.
Reasons for the proliferation of nuclear weapons
Now that the meaning of nuclear proliferation is clear, another question emerges. Why do states still build nuclear weapons? International relations studies often offer an “obvious answer” to this question. Namely the idea of national security. States justify the building of nuclear weapons to ensure their national security in case of an external military threat. It is assumed that no alternative can guarantee their national security like nuclear weapons do (Sagan 1996).
However, this is an important question regarding the current global events and needs a more precise explanation. It is necessary to have a wide range of possible answers to envision the future of international security and its potential nuclear threat.
The answers can be divided into four different categories, respectively models. Namely the Security Model, which refers to the simple and basic answer found in most studies. The second one is the Norms Model, followed by the Domestic Politics Model and finally the Model we will be referring to as the Technological Race Model (Sagan 1996).
In Sagan’s article “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?” (Sagan 1996), he explains the three first models mentioned above. The first model refers to a state’s response to an external threat. States that have the financial resources, build nuclear weapons because it seems to be the safest option to ensure their national security. Weak states, however, states that could not invest in such expensive weapons, have the option to join alliances, such as an alliance with a nuclear power that would become an ally in case of a nuclear threat (Sagan 1996).
Under this category, I believe there is also the idea of international anarchy. A powerful state hearing about another one building a nuclear weapon might consider this as a sign of potential threat. George Shultz explains this phenomenon as “Proliferation begets proliferation” (Shultz 1984).
Indeed, the proliferation started by one state will encourage another one to do the same and therefore take part in this nuclear proliferation as well (Sagan 1996). This phenomenon can be perceived as a post-war strategic reaction. In World War II the United States launched nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These events provoked the current trend of nuclear proliferation. The USSR, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, and Pakistan all reacted in a similar way. They invested in the development of nuclear weapons, widened their nuclear capabilities, and intensified their national research in nuclear technology (Rizky 2022).
This leads us to the next model, namely the Norms Model. Sagan explains this category as followed: “Nuclear weapons decisions are made because weapons acquisition, or restraint in weapons development, provides an important normative symbol of a state’s modernity and identity“ (Sagan 1996).
Indeed, nuclear weapons nowadays are a symbol of prestige and power. Therefore, powerful states follow this unwritten, international norm to ensure their global recognition. They take part in this nuclear proliferation race to show what they are financially and technologically capable of.
Sagan argues that the symbol of possessing nuclear weapons is similar to the symbol of a state’s Olympic team or national airline. In some states, national airlines are established more to demonstrate their technological capabilities and valuable human capital of scientists than to offer an additional domestic mode of transportation (Sagan 1996).
I believe this is also the motivation behind the third model of Technological Race. Globally, the United States (US) has been recognized as the leader in advanced technology and artificial intelligence. Especially when looking at Silicon Valley and its potential. Nonetheless, in the past few years, the US has been caught up by China, which has now become its biggest competitor. This indeed provoked the US to invest even more in its research and that is exactly what it did in its nuclear technology sector (Rizky 2022).
As we can see, this model refers to one country’s whole image as a leader in technology. But, this is only the case from a technological perspective. There exists another model from a political perspective, namely the Domestic Politics Model.
This category demonstrates nuclear proliferation as a tool to ensure domestic political interest. Not necessarily national interest, but the personal interest of at least one politician respectively, one political actor. Indeed, it could be the military influencing a political decision to get a larger national defense budget and acquire nuclear weapons. In such a case, the perception of an external threat could be worsened to promote the necessity of nuclear weapons (Sagan 1996).
For decades, the world has been focusing on disarmament and reducing the number of nuclear weapons in circulation. Especially the main actors mentioned above were dedicated to promoting different treaties to avoid the spread. However, these public announcements, coming from wealthy, powerful nations in possession of such arms are contradictory to the current trend in nuclear proliferation (Al Jazeera 2022).
Even more surprising is the fact that the idea of disarmament has suddenly disappeared after the Russian attack on Ukraine. In fact, in a matter of months, actors in possession of nuclear weapons have announced to invest in nuclear arms in order to increase, modernize and optimize their arsenal. Countries that wanted to get rid of nuclear arms are now putting strong importance on the capability of their weapons. Russia’s threat of using nuclear weapons against Ukraine has provoked a common global reaction to get ready for potential danger (Al Jazeera 2022).
Therefore, it seems like Russia’s war has already activated a nuclear proliferation trend, stronger and faster than in the past decades. A new nuclear arms race has started, altough this time it is not about technological capability and artificial intelligence. This time it is about being prepared and ready for a potential attack from a country possessing the world’s largest nuclear arsenal (Hille 2022).
To conclude, the Russian attack on Ukraine has provoked large, powerful nations to rush toward the development and modernization of their nuclear arms. This reaction has not only accelerated the proliferation of nuclear weapons but also created a threatening environment.
Nevertheless, I believe there will not be a World War III, even if Russia threatens to use its arsenal against Europe, because too much is at stake. The world is aware of the catastrophic consequences a nuclear attack can cause and has learned from the past lessons. Putin’s behavior is his way of showing the world how powerful he is, what resources he owns, and what he is capable of. There is no need for fear since his announcements are pure arrogance and bluff.
The large nations who joined the nuclear arms race are reacting to his threats as the world expects them to. Namely, appearing to act, preparing, and making sure their arsenal could be operated at any time, even if they are not sincerely planning on doing so. Governments expect to reassure their population by taking action and guaranteeing national security.
Therefore, the reason this nuclear arms race is happening is due to Russia’s threat of nuclear attack and led to international governments taking actions such as discussed in the Domestic Politics Model.