Why do nations reach for the Bomb?

Today eight countries are possessing nuclear weapons. The five nuclear weapons states United States, Russia (former Soviet Union), United Kingdom, France and China, are the only countries allowed to have nuclear weapons according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) from 1970. All members of the United Nations except Israel, India and Pakistan have signed the NPT.

A quick history of the nuclear age reveals many mixed motives and only a tenuous relationship between great-power assurances and client-power abstinence. The key question is “Should more of our European or Pacific democratic allies possess nuclear weapons?” harbors two unspoken ones.

First, why do nations go nuclear? Second, will America’s allies do so if U.S. security guarantees wane in this era of retraction and disarmament? A quick summary drawing by Josef Joffe together with those questions has led to Why do nations in the first place reach for the Bomb?

The U.S. launched the Manhattan Project to pre-empt Nazi Germany. The Soviet Union went nuclear because the U.S. had done so. France and Britain wanted their own deterrents against the U.S.S.R. China explicitly invoked the “superpowers’ monopoly on nuclear weapons” to justify its own acquisition.

After the First Five, the story becomes more complicated.

  • India was surely eying Beijing’s Bomb when it exploded a nuclear device in 1974. But the main purpose was to offset the conventional superiority of the giant next door, who had taught India a bloody lesson in the 1962 border war.
  • For Pakistan, a nuclear power since 1998, the Bomb also had more than one purpose. It created a balance of terror vis-à-vis New Delhi, equalized a vast imbalance of conventional power, and boosted Pakistan’s international standing.
  • The Bomb-as-great-equalizer was also the main reason for Israel’s program. As last resort, nuclear weapons would neutralize the massive numerical superiority of its Arab foes, which were being fed by a steady stream of Soviet arms since the 1950s.
  • When Israel launched its program in the mid-Fifties, it had no great-power protector; so for a nation of 3 million facing 200 million Arabs sworn to its annihilation, the nuclear option was a no-brainer once France had provided the technological underpinning.
  • Iraq continued to rebuild its armed forces with major weapons from a variety of suppliers. Saddam’s Iraq, on the other hand, was a Soviet ally in all but name—the beneficiary of Soviet instructors and arms. And yet, Saddam chose the nuclear road, which was rudely blocked by the Israeli Air Force when it bombed the Osirak reactor in 1981.

Next door, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi’s Iran was sheltered by America’s strategic umbrella, and yet it was this good friend of the West who first set foot on the nuclear road by buying four German reactors in 1975.

The historical record is one of complex motives.

The First Five practiced competitive proliferation. Israel, India, and Pakistan went “asymmetric proliferation” to equalize the conventional edge held by their neighbors.

Scientific progress now brought new fears as well as hope. During the Cold War, the fears about the proliferation potential of civilian nuclear power programs waxed and waned, depending in part on the perceived prospects for nuclear power, and were especially intense in the 1970s.

Despite the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, the Indian test of a so-called “peaceful nuclear explosion” and the prospect of dramatic, even exponential, nuclear power growth raised fears of uncontrolled proliferation.

In his Atoms for Peace speech before the United Nations General Assembly on December 8, 1953, President Eisenhower sought to solve this terrible problem by suggesting a means to transform the atom from a scourge into a benefit for mankind.

  • President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech embodied his most important nuclear initiative as President. From it sprang a panoply of peaceful atomic programs. Since that time, all mankind has been struggling to escape from the darkening prospect of mass destruction on earth.

Disarmament was largely off the table during the Cold War, and the nuclear threat was dealt with through deterrence and halting, modest arms control efforts. President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace speech laid the foundation for a far less ambitious international nuclear nonproliferation regime. It was in this context that latency was a proliferation issue in the ensuing decades.

The 1977 report of the Ford-MITRE Nuclear Energy Policy Subgroup, Nuclear Power: Issues and Choices, reflected the concerns of the times, arguing on the basis of the long-standing recognition of the link between nuclear power and weapon capability, that the “growth and diffusion of nuclear power. ..inevitably enhance the potential for the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The issue was based on the fear that the growth of nuclear energy programs for peaceful purposes would create latent weapon capabilities. When interest in disarmament was revived in recent years, latency in this arena was linked to, and shared the spotlight with, proliferation latency.

The strongest relationship between guarantees and non-proliferation seems to reign in the German, Japanese, and South Korean cases. For decades, all three have had the technology and the resources to go nuclear in short order. This trio stands out as special case. The security guarantees extended to them have been the strongest in the annals of inter-state politics.

These emplacements signaled 24/7: If you attack our ally, you attack the United States. This was known as the “tripwire strategy” that would entangle the U.S. ab initio.

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Central and Eastern Europe in 1994, the issue did not come up during twenty years of Russia’s decline. At present, the issue is slowly moving forward because Putin’s Russia is on an expansionist course.

The case for developing and possessing such weapons is now more obvious and pressing in the Middle East and the Pacific than it appears to be in Europe. But even in Europe, Russia’s behavior has created the uncertainty necessary to push the Poles and the Germans to think about creating a nuclear deterrent.

West Germany played with a nuclear (plutonium) option in the 1960s by acquiring key components such as reprocessing and a “fast (plutonium) breeder.” These as well as fuel-element fabrication have since been abandoned, and the country’s power plants are slated for extinction in 2022. This is de-proliferation to the max.

For the Germans the existence of a strong Poland, as well as the French and British nuclear arsenals, provides a certain sense of security that makes it doubtful that the Germans would go nuclear.

But the Poles are another matter. They face substantially different strategic and geo-political realities. The memory of centuries-long mistreatment at the hands of the Russians may well drive the Poles toward creating a nuclear option for their military forces.

A feeling among Japanese leaders that they cannot rely on the United States will lead them to create their own nuclear capabilities. The same will hold true for the Koreans, while the Taiwanese probably already possess nuclear weapons. In the end, what will drive the continued stability of East Asia and the willingness of these highly sophisticated powers not to cross the nuclear threshold will be the perception that the United States will stand by its allies.

The Middle East presents an even more depressing picture.

Over the past half-century, radical regimes committed to revolutionary change in the region have aspired to create their own nuclear capabilities, justified at least to their internal constituencies by Israel’s possession of such weapons.

As Williamson Murray pointed out in “The Scramble for Nuclear Deterrence”hooverinst Strategika “The potential of Iraqi possession of their own nuclear weapons was particularly dangerous because of the fact that Saddam had every intention of using such weapons in a war with the Israelis. Assad’s Syrians were following the same trajectory until the Israeli raid of 2007 eliminated their facility”. That left the Iranian program, which has moved haltingly toward the creation of nuclear weapons.

At present, the Iranians are close to the creation of nuclear capabilities. How close is a matter of debate, but close enough to cause serious fears throughout the Gulf and in Israel. A continued American withdrawal from the region will undoubtedly push the Saudis toward crossing the nuclear threshold; and while that capability should raise few qualms, the successors to the present rulers are another matter.

Nation such as Japan may be toward the upper great capability to acquire nuclear weapons but weak intent to do so. A terrorist group such as Al-Qaeda might have a very high measure of intent but minimal capability.

When it comes to stopping a country from getting a weapons capability, there are only educated assessments about how much warning time can be created by limiting a country’s access to certain technologies, reducing the amounts of fuel that can be quickly converted to bomb-grade fuel and exposing the history of weapons-making efforts. Those bets failed in North Korea and Pakistan; they succeeded in South Africa and South Korea, where leaders decided a weapon was not worth the cost.

Whether Iran is racing toward nuclear weapon capabilities is one of the most contentious foreign-policy issues challenging the West. A senior American official briefing reporters on Saturday, 13th july 2014, said that Iran would have to accept sharp limits on its number of working centrifuges — meaning fewer than the 10,000 it has today — for a decade or more.





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