How to Convince a State That Thinks It Wants Nuclear Weapons That It Really Doesn’t

Written with the assistance of another individual, who, I can safely say, would not care to be identified with my work.

The success that nuclear weapons supporters have experienced in convincing centrists and other self-described realists that disarmament should be uncoupled from nonproliferation makes advocating nonproliferation a loaded proposition. In other words, one of the two greatest nuclear powers, the United States, seems to feel less of a need than ever to set an example for states that have yet to acquire nuclear know-how and technology by disarming. (Except for the token extent to which the United States is ostensibly disarming while seeking to funnel exorbitant amounts of funds to its nuclear weapons industry.)

In fact, nuclear-weapons advocates and those they’ve won over to their point of view not only insist that other states refrain from acquiring nukes while we keep ours and disarm ever so slowly, they’re using nonproliferation as a pretext to call for an attack on a state that seems to be developing the means to make a nuclear weapon, if not the actual weapon (Iran, of course).

Accepting, for the moment, the reality, or lack thereof, of disarmament, a plethora of options nevertheless exist for diverting states from acquiring nuclear weapons. But first, let’s examine the reasons why states feel the need to acquire the technology and know-how to build a nuclear weapons program in the first place. Those often cited include:

Security threats. States, of course, assume that nuclear weapons will deter them.

Prestige, as well as swagger. Primarily, this line of thinking goes, if a state cannot defend itself from foreign rivals, it is not legitimate. Furthermore, military organizations and advanced weapons systems serve a function similar to that of flags, airlines, and Olympic teams: They’re what modern states believe they need to win the respect of their peer states. Of course, they’re also a source of national pride and serve to exalt a ruler, as well as the state’s military, elite classes, and scientists in the eyes of the public.

Domestic politics. The development of a nuclear weapons program is used to advance political ends such as winning elections. Author Scott Sagan, in an article titled “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?” for the winter 1997 issue of International Security (not available online) provided an example: Support for the Ghandi government in India “had fallen to an all-time low in late 1973 and early 1974 due to [among other things] a prolonged and severe domestic recession. . . . it would be highly surprising for a politician with such problems to resist what she knew was a major opportunity to increase her standing in public opinion polls and to defuse an issue [a reluctance to test a nuclear weapon] about which she had been criticized by her domestic opponents.” The decision to proceed with the test was made by Gandhi at “the advice of a very small circle of personal advisers and scientists from the nuclear establishment. Senior defense and foreign affairs officials in India were not involved.”

Now let’s move on to how a state that aspires to be the proud possessor a nuclear-weapons program can be disabused of the notion that it needs one. Using the same bullet-point headings as above, measures that may be taken include:

Security threats. According to conventional thinking, a state is less likely to seek nuclear weapons if it’s in an alliance with a nuclear power, especially one with a declared first-use policy. Other ways to keep it from proliferating include instituting confidence-building measures, such as transparency and verification, as well as “negative security assurances” (that nuclear states will not use their weapons against non-nuclear states).

What tends to be forgotten is that states often develop nuclear weapons only in part to deter other nuclear states. More often, they seek to deter a neighbor with a more powerful military and a larger arsenal of conventional weapons from launching a non-nuclear attack (even if the more powerful state possesses nuclear weapons, too). The obvious examples are Pakistan and India. In fact, disarmament can backfire if states that divest themselves of nuclear weapons build up their conventional arsenals by way of compensation.

Moving to the next concentric circle beyond conventional thinking, a fundamental shift in how states identify and prioritize threats needs to be implemented. In other words states need to understand that custodianship of nuclear weapons and materials makes them less secure by turning them into targets for terrorists looking to sabotage or steal these capabilities. Furthermore, they need to stop viewing non-state actors as useful instruments of policy for engaging in low-grade conflict with other states (like Pakistan with the Taliban) and as threats to not only the state’s nuclear-weapons program but to the existence of the state itself. In fact, were it up to Islamic terrorists, with their dreams of a modern-day caliphate, the state system period would be dismantled.

Prestige, as well as swagger. Sagan writes that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons appears to have had some success shifting “the norm concerning what acts grant prestige and legitimacy from the. . . notion of joining the ‘nuclear club’ to the. . . concept of joining ‘the club of the nations adhering to the NPT.’” For example, when the Soviet Union disintegrated, Ukraine decided to eliminate its nuclear weapons program. Sagan explains: “Without the NPT, a policy of keeping a nuclear arsenal would have placed Ukraine in the category of France and China.” Post enactment of the NPT, Ukraine would have been consigned to “the company of dissenters like India and Pakistan and pariahs like Iraq and North Korea.”

Besides the NPT, what are other paths to prestige are open to a state? For one, writes Sagan, “a policy that made permanent UN Security Council membership for Japan, Germany, and India conditional upon the maintenance of non-nuclear status under the NPT.”

As for actual swagger, moving yet another concentric circle beyond conventional thinking, other types of societal achievements are capable of instilling states with confidence in their technical capabilities and international prestige. In Renaissance Europe, Leonardo da Vinci’s revolutionary inventions were sometimes military in nature, but essentially they were trophies for royal courts. Italian city states competed by showing off the technical prowess and resources of their engineers.

What technologies today would impress other states as Da Vinci’s technologies did visitors to the royal court? Possibilities include high-powered computers, renewable energy sources, scientific research facilities such as the Hadron Collider, and satellite technology. In the future, nanotech and biotech are also capable of replacing nuclear-weapons programs in sheer prestige. Perhaps a nuclear terrorist attack itself could even act as the spur for a new technical race for prestige. For example, a nano-machine could be created or an organism bioengineered organism to “eat” the radioactive fallout from a nuclear detonation.

Domestic politics. It’s difficult to meet a ruler or ruling party’s perceived need for nuclear weapons when it’s motivated by internal politics since writes Sagan, “the key factors that influence decisions are domestic in origin and therefore largely outside the control of U.S. policy.” For example, he explains that South Africa surrendered its nuclear-weapons program, not, as often thought, because the threat of Soviet expansionism had disappeared. It seems that, because apartheid was ending, President F.W. de Klerk feared nuclear weapons would wind up in the hands of the ANC — or white extremists.

Still, he writes, “International financial institutions are [as of the nineties] demanding that cuts in military expenditures be included in conditionality packages for aid recipients. [Also] deducting the estimated budget of any suspect research and development program from IMF or U.S. loans to a country. . . could heighten domestic opposition to such programs.” Furthermore: “To the degree that professional military organizations area supporting nuclear proliferation, encouraging their involvement in other military activities could decrease such support. [For] laboratory officials and scientists, assistance in non-nuclear research and development programs. . . could decrease personal and organizational incentives for weapons research.”

These methods of meeting the needs of states that aspire to nuclear-weapons programs, however outside the box, still fall under the heading of policy prescriptions. But, ultimately, it’s difficult to deny that, even if swept up in the passions of nationalism, states experience deep, emotional needs that they believe will be met by the development of a nuclear-weapons program. Just as policy needs can be met in other ways, perhaps a state’s unconscious needs for nuclear weapons can be as well (a subject for a future post).