The New Nuclear Reality
Feb 15, 2016

Continuity and Change

In stark contrast to the Cold War, where the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was a fundamental and dominating feature of their superpower relationship, nuclear weapons, specifically the threat of a violent confrontation between those possessing them, is no longer the central issue governing international politics today.

Despite the ever-present risk of a nuclear exchange between the two superpowers (epitomized by the Cuban missile crisis), war did not break out between them. This fortunate (but largely unexpected) phenomenon is explained in part by the tireless work, from both sides, in constructing networks of crises management and mechanisms to de-escalate situations before they reached the nuclear threshold.

Unbeknownst to many political practitioners and scholars at that time, however, was that the Cold War would usher in a period of great power peace that remains to this day; an anomaly in international history largely defined by the regularity of great power warfare.

This period of great power peace has coincided and, in part, contributed to the existence of an equally enduring nuclear peace – the absence of an accidental, unauthorized or deliberate use of nuclear weapons – despite a world populated with a plurality of nuclear states. The deterring effect of nuclear weapons was theorized by scholars within the first few years of the Cold War (such as Bernard Brodie), but its durability in withstanding changes to both the polarity of the international system and the nature of relations between great powers has been a welcome surprise.

Stability Through Deterrence
Nuclear weapons were developed by the United States and her allies as a war-winning mechanism to defeat the axis powers in World War II, infamously being used twice on Japanese cities, ending the war. In the aftermath of victory, both the United States and Soviet Union (uneasy allies during the war) began competing over alternative arrangements for the new international order and, in the process, viewing each other as their principal adversary. Within this contest, the Soviet Union went to great lengths to develop nuclear weapons (achieving this capability in 1949) to offset the U.S. capability, which Moscow saw as an unacceptable imbalance in military power between them. From there emerged a nuclear weapons arms race, characterized by the building of thousands of nuclear weapons, with ever larger yields and sophisticated delivery mechanisms, and with ranges in the thousands of kilometres. The vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons between Moscow and Washington also coincided with its horizontal proliferation as the United Kingdom, France and China all became nuclear states by 1964.

The deterrence theory quickly became the dominating philosophy in academia regarding the purpose of nuclear weapons; but debates raged within Moscow and Washington over the appropriate force size to survive a first strike and respond in kind (termed an assured second strike capability) and inflict ‘unacceptable damage’ – the level of destruction to a country that would effectively deter them from launching an initial attack. The other three nuclear powers retained significantly smaller forces, with France and the United Kingdom relying on the U.S. to provide extended deterrence to Western Europe, and China viewing unacceptable damage as very low level and thus easy to achieve, requiring a small arsenal to deter.

In 1981 Kenneth Waltz, a prominent international relations scholar and founder of the theory of Neo-Realism, argued (contrary to many nuclear experts) not only that nuclear deterrence can be easily achieved with a small nuclear force but that proliferation horizontally to others may stabilize the international system and reduce the likelihood of war between states.

Prominent international relations scholar and founder of the theory of Neo-Realism, Kenneth Waltz, argues that nuclear deterrence can be easily achieved with a small nuclear force but that ­proliferation to others may, in fact, stabilize the international system.

Waltz’ More May be Better argument regarding proliferation emphasizes that nuclear weapons ownership has a socializing effect on states, regardless of their regime type, inducing caution within their interactions with other nuclear states (and by extension those under their protection).

Nuclear states also, despite the myriad of challenges associated with building and maintaining such a program, invest significant resources to protect them for unauthorized or accidental use. Concerns that some states, especially those with aggressive foreign policies, would be irrational with nuclear weapons (aka use them) fail to appreciate the constraining effect their possession has on leaders and regimes. The retaliatory threat posed to their own existence by other nuclear states is very real and almost certain if they ever were to allow (deliberate or otherwise) the use of nuclear weapons in any other capacity but deterrence.

Maoist China represents the clearest example of this phenomenon as the regime’s revolutionary zeal decreased signi­ficantly following the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Beijing, as well, was able to protect and secure their arsenal against the effects of the disastrous Cultural Revolution which almost tore the regime apart.

Nuclear weapons have produced stable relations amongst great powers, across different polarities, and during the transitions between them – periods which are prone to great power conflict.

Nuclear weapons neutralize conventional force inequalities between states due to their destructive potential – they threaten the very survival of state as functional entities like no other weapon has in history. Competition and contestation continues to exist, but are pushed down to lower levels, placing a cap on the escalation of conflict and hostilities.

Nuclear Risks and the Non-Proliferation Regime
Waltz’ argument is theoretically coherent and supported by numerous lines of evidence in explaining the nuclear peace which has persisted despite numerous international crises, nuclear reactor accidents, and the limited proliferation to other states – lending even more legitimacy to his argument. While, theoretically, a Waltzian world full of nuclear weapons may be a more peaceful configuration than other systems, in practice the world cannot assume the risks associated with the turbulent processes to reach such a reality. In particular, Scott Sagan has argued that Waltz relies too heavily on the assumption of a rational actor contrary to historical evidence from the Cold War and the modern era where nuclear powers did not act so (such as the U.S. and Soviet Union building multi-thousand weapons arsenals); that new nuclear states may be vulnerable to having their arsenals compromised or stolen due to resource limitations and internal stability problems (such as Pakistan); and that the developmental stages of aspiring nuclear states are particularly dangerous to attacks from neighbours which could destabilize entire regions (such as Iran). While Waltz acknowledges these very real problems, he contends the nuclear history has shown states to be extremely resilient in the face of such challenges and, furthermore, asserts that non-proliferation efforts are in part driven by far more self-interested goals on the part of established nuclear powers (China, France, Russia, the UK and the U.S.) to ensure other states do not acquire these capacities and complicate their ability to use coercive actions, especially military, against them.

With so many potential risks associated with nuclear proliferation, in 1968 the international community began constructing a complex system of treaties and processes (underpinned by norms against nuclear testing, acquisition or use) to stem the flow of nuclear know how from the great powers to others, and limit arms competition between those already in possession of them.

The non-proliferation regime is designed to achieve three main objectives: 1) non-nuclear states pledging to not acquire such capabilities; 2) create laws and regulations to limit transfer of material or technologies which may be used for militarized programs, and punish those that violate them; and 3) decrease nuclear arsenals of the established nuclear states.

The centerpiece of this evolving framework is the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) committing the five recognized Nuclear Weapons States (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the U.S.) to assist in the transfer of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes (primarily for energy production) to others, combined with a pledge to move towards eventual nuclear disarmament in exchange for non-nuclear countries not acquiring or attempting to build nuclear weapons of their own.

Today, all but four states (all nuclear powers) are part of the NPT – India, Pakistan and Israel are non-signatories, and North Korea withdrew from the Treaty in 2003.

There exist a number of other international treaties pertaining to verifying the peaceful use of nuclear technology (the International Atomic Energy Agency); banning of nuclear environmental testing (the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty); and restricting dual-use technologies exports (the Nuclear Suppliers Group). Many of these instruments have been created due to the small number of states that were successful in becoming nuclear countries.

Global action continues on the non-proliferation front and President Obama will be hosting a nuclear summit at the end of March, which is largely focused on drafting a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty to place strict limits on producing and storing weaponized nuclear material.

The non-proliferation regime has, by and large, been successful in stemming the expansion of nuclear weapons, along with security guarantees provided by the U.S. to ensure nuclear weapons-capable states (such as Japan, Germany and South Korea) do not pursue such a capability.

A strong nuclear taboo has been entrenched throughout the global community against both nuclear weapons acquisition and use. Despite these efforts, a small number of states have crossed the nuclear threshold, complicating the realm as new non-major powers enter the scene.

Over the past four decades, the nuclear monopoly enjoyed by the great powers has been eroding as nuclear weapons technology became more accessible through outside channels (such as the infamous Kahn network in Pakistan selling nuclear technology to North Korea).

A New Nuclear Reality
While not the pre-eminent issue confronting the modern international system, two emerging developments are challenging the ability of the international community to ensure that the threat of nuclear weapons use is as marginalized as possible: 1) the construction of defensive technologies and capabilities to improve nuclear warheads, which may generate a new type of arms race between the great powers; and 2) the emergence of new, non-great power states joining the nuclear club despite the efforts of the non-proliferation regime and how the established powers should respond.

Today there is no quantitative nuclear arms race between the established nuclear powers, but a competition is emerging for building defensive systems against nuclear weapons (such as Ballistic Missile Defence), along with technologies to assist weapons to overcome these defences (including decoys and Multiple-Independent Re-Entry Vehicles). Such developments threaten to curtail the co-operative and largely non-confrontation nature of great power relations at the nuclear level currently.

As the world continues to become more multi-polar in character, the acceptance of mutual vulnerability is important to stabilize competition in this realm. Nowhere is this as important as in the emerging global power relationship between China and the United States. While Arms Control measures only include the U.S. and Russia (a Cold War vestige based on their massive arsenals), in this newly emerging international landscape China should now be included to ensure nuclear weapons competition does not once again become a central feature of the international system.

China’s inclusion is important, not for the size of its arsenal (which remains a fraction of those of the U.S. and Russia), but because of their growing global power and influence. Keeping the nuclear relationship between China, the U.S. and Russia stable and insulated against other, more contested and controversial aspects of their relations, will be critical in managing their ever evolving great power relationship, which will have significant repercussions for the rest of the system at large.

Recent evidence suggests that “Islamic State” or Daesh terrorists may have attempted to acquire nuclear materials from criminal Russian elements in Moldova

The other challenge is to how to deal with states that have become nuclear powers over the decades – Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea – and those suspected of developing such programs currently. Strategic and security reasons underpin these states’ decision to acquire a deterrence capability. Israel, a small country, exists in a region filled with hostile neighbours with a history of major wars between them. India and Pakistan, with a past dominated by warfare and hostility since they split in 1948, have developed nuclear weapons largely to deter one another; though it appears New Delhi is now broadening its deterrence efforts towards China.

The case of North Korea is complicated. Beyond deterring America, Pyongyang appears have a brinkmanship strategy to blackmail the international community into negotiating desperately needed resources and sanctions relief.

In recent times, there have been other suspected nuclear weapons programs, including by Iran, which culminated in an international deal to assist with civilian energy technology for Tehran’s granting access to inspectors to ensure the program remains peaceful, and in Myanmar (with suspected assistance from North Korea), but the program was most likely abandoned with the amelioration of relations with the international community as a result of continued transition away from military rule.

The international community’s reaction to these cases has been varied, demonstrating a number of other political and strategic factors overriding the punishment of some for breaking the proliferation taboo. Israel, a strong U.S. ally, has never publicly admitted to possessing nuclear weapons and, by and large, the great powers have not pressed them to come clean. Also, after years of sanctions for non-conformity, India now enjoys normalized relations with the U.S. and others which have re-started civilian nuclear projects.

India’s perceived strategic counterbalancing ability vis-à-vis China is being seen as more important than supporting the proliferation taboo, on the part of the West in particular. Pakistan has also been quietly accepted as a nuclear state without facing major repercussions, with the U.S. and others appearing more concerned about ensuring Islamabad’s nuclear facilities remain safe from potentially destabilizing forces in the volatile state.

North Korea, in contrast, is condemned for its ongoing nuclear weapons program – including conducting four nuclear tests since 2006 – creating a surprising source of unity amongst the established nuclear powers in taking retaliatory actions to punish Pyongyang. North Korea also, unlike the other new nuclear states, is seen as a destabilizing agent to regional and international security.

Nuclear weapons violations, clearly do not generate a standard reaction but reveal a varied approach based on other political calculations and realities resulting in a range of behaviours – from quiet acquiesce (such as Israel) to more formal recognition (India) to hostility and punitive political and economic actions (North Korea).

Despite these newcomers, and the challenges associated with each of their situations and programs, the nuclear peace remains. Concerns that stability and deterrence could not be replicated as it has at the great power level to the new nuclear states have, for the moment, been largely silenced.

Pakistan, despite significant internal challenges to its stability, appears in firm control of its nuclear arsenal. Tensions remain in Pakistani-Indian relations, but there has not been a major war between them since both became nuclear states in 1998. North Korea has not made good on its bombastic and hostile rhetoric, and has even begun to use the language of deterrence in its official justification for its nuclear program. Israel has not used force to destroy Iran’s nuclear program (in contrast to their attacks on similar programs in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007). These examples not only reinforce Waltz’ assertion that states become more cautious when in possession of nuclear weapons, but that deterrence may be achieved at even a lower than second strike capability – just possessing the weapons has made states like North Korea immune from great power attacks and military action.

There is one important wild card in this equation. Recent evidence suggests that “Islamic State” terrorists may have attempted to acquire nuclear materials from criminal Russian elements in Moldova. This disturbing development demonstrates that non-state, terrorist actors may be able to acquire materials to make an improvised weapon without state support.

While states may act rationally to ensure their survival and thus are tempered by possessing nuclear weapons, a pseudo-terrorist state that has declared war on virtually everyone may break this “rational actor” mold and rashly use any weapon at its disposal.

Anti-terrorist efforts are one of the few areas which, by and large, generate coordination and cooperation between the major powers that remain committed to ensuring such capabilities remain out of terrorists’ (and all non-state actors’) hands.

The general point, however, is that nuclear technology is not only diffusing from major powers to lesser ones but that non-state entities now have a greater (though still remote) chance of acquiring a nuclear device, further complicating efforts to ensure nuclear technologies and arsenals remain firmly under state control.

Nuclear Peace a Reality but Not a Guarantee
Waltz realized that there exists no guarantee against the accidental use or a violent exchange, but nuclear possession among the great powers has created a certain level of caution and inhibition to use force against one another that may not have existed in their absence – an effect that has trickled down to the new nuclear powers as well.

The nuclear threshold is now a permeable boundary necessitating better methods at early identification when states may be militarizing nuclear programs. There have, as well, been a number of successful examples of states voluntarily dismantling their nuclear weapons programs in the past. South Africa had a nuclear arsenal (with suspected aid from Israel) but dismantled its program at the end of Apartheid rule. Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine were ‘born nuclear’ following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but gave their weapons back to Moscow following international efforts to do so in exchange for security guarantees with respect to their sovereignty (a move Kiev most certainly regrets now). Iran may follow suit one day, but this will require the international community, specifically the West, to provide security guarantees to offset the benefits of acquiring this deterrent mechanism.

The case of North Korea is complicated for, beyond deterring the U.S., Pyongyang’s nuclear strategy appears to be based on a brinkmanship strategy to blackmail the international community to negotiate for desperately needed resources and sanctions relief. 

While the end state of Waltz’ world of horizontal proliferation may be a safer one in terms of deterring the use of military power to adjudicate international issues, the risks associated with such a process are not tolerable in a practical sense.

The continuation of the non-proliferation regime, furthermore, remains a strong area of common agreement among the major powers, which produces a stabilizing effect on international politics.

The successful maintenance of proliferation co-operation, may well be a model to manage other emergent domains – such as cyber and space – with a military application which, if weaponized, may threaten the functionality of states and the international system in general, as nuclear weapons do.

Adam P. MacDonald is an independent academic whose work focuses on Canadian foreign policy in Asia, Chinese naval developments. He can be reached at