Sample Paper on Spread of Nuclear Weapons: The Deterrence

Spread of Nuclear Weapons: The Deterrence – Defensive Ideal


It has been argued that spread of nuclear weapons among smaller nations would lead to threatened peace and increased warfare among nations. For so long now, nuclear weapons have continued to proliferate vertically as major powers amass more and more arsenals into their already expanded armory. On the other hand, increased of weapons horizontally has not experienced major changes and there is no likelihood that it will any time soon. As a result, there are very few members of the nuclear club with no new entries. Currently, the membership stands at seven, including Israel and India, accumulated for the last 35 years or so of nuclear age. It is hard to imagine what would happen if this number doubles. Many people believe that the world would become a more dangerous place than it is. By applying the deterrence – defensive ideal, this paper seeks to disprove that theory by arguing that spread of weaponry to new states would not necessary alter the peace of nations experienced today. The paper is involved in answering the question:

  • Whether a rise in the number of nuclear states would introduce serious differences that would be dangerous and destabilize the peace of nations.

Deterrence in a World of Bipolarity

Since the Second World War, the world has witnessed increased peace with no major wars between nations as was so common in previous years. This means that nations have been able to absorb changes and contain conflicts among themselves. This has been attributed to the fact that since the war, the nuclear world has changed from multipolarity to bipolarity, the main superpowers, i.e., Russia and the US owning most of the weapons in the world. Bipolarity has resulted into a peaceful coexistence for a number of reasons. First, unlike in a multipolar world where countries are required to establish and maintain alliances to control each other, the bipolar countries control each other from internal rather than external measures (Jervis, 1989: 147). In such a situation, it is unlikely to underestimate the strength of the other country’s military unlike in a multipolar world where one determines the power of an opponent by looking at the allies. States now live a state of oblivion as to who poses a danger to whom. The uncertainties created by this situation see that dangers are diffused, responsibilities less clear and individual interests more vague. As a result, parties are more independent, dangers are clearer, and responsibilities are more defined leading to a peaceful world.

The question that we then ask ourselves is this; will a spread on nuclear weapons to new states changing the current bipolar system to a multipolar one cause instability in the world? It is noteworthy to say that in the modern world, the likelihood that the world would become multipolar anytime soon is very low (Lumpe, 2000: 34). This is due to the fact that with only two nuclear powers with immense powers in terms of military and other resource, the barrier to entry is much bigger. However, even though there was actually a chance that the world would turn into a multipolar one, would this affect the existing political stability of nations? We reflect on this question in the next part.

Effects of Nuclear Weapons

The power of nuclear weapons has been one of the key factors that have contributed to world peace since the war era. Nuclear power makes nations feel that the cost of war is excessively high which acts as deterrence to start wars using such weapons. It is through nuclear weapons that the super powers have maintained their peace and prevented the smaller nations from experimenting with their few weapons. However, there is a widespread fear that if nuclear weapons were to spread across more nations, the wars that have not been fought over the last half a century might resurface leading to a more chaotic world. This fear is unjustified and requires a consideration of the effect of nuclear weapons to the state that possesses them.

The Concept of Self-Help Systems in Military War and the Deterrence-Defensive Ideal

It is a widely accepted fact that states coexist in a state of anarchy. The principle of self-help exists as a result of an anarchic order, which drives states to strengthen their security system in a bid to help themselves. Thus in determining the possibility for continued peace, we should ask ourselves the ends for which nations are required to use force and employ their weaponry. The probability for peace increases if states can attain their ends without necessarily employing force in doing so. The likelihood of war reduces as the costs of a possible war increase in relation to the possible gains resulting from such efforts (Quester, 1977: 45). Strategies connect ends and means together. The effect of nuclear weapon on the probability for peace can be determined by considering the various strategies available to states.

The use of force may be applied for various reasons that are; for offence, defence, deterrence, and coercion. In regard to offence, Germany and France constitute a classic example of states neglecting their individual defence mechanisms while planning to launch a major attack before the First World War. For France, offence was preferred to defence since Alsace-Lorraine could only be reclaimed through an offensive war. This case demonstrates to us one of the main purposes why states employ offensive tactics, which is conquest. On the other hand, Germany preferred offence to defence by believing that offence was the best defence and in some cases the only defence available. At the time, the only way she could avoid fighting two adversaries at the same time is by concentrating on defeating one of them, France, before the other one, Russia could prepare itself adequately for battle. Thus, this gives us another reason why states employ the offensive tactic, which is security; Germany was only bent on securing itself against enemies.

An offence may be driven by the following two aims; security and conquest (Sagan, 1986:153). An offence may be carried out in two ways or a combination of these two ways; pre-emptively, or preventively. If there are two countries each on unequal strengths, and the weaker starts gaining more power, then the stringer one may be tempted to attack before the weaker one overpowers it. Using this logic, a country strong enough in nuclear weapons is likely to attack and destroy a weaker hostile country that is gaining nuclear power. This constitutes a preventive war, as it would mean the weak country would not grow to become a security nuisance to other nations of the world. On the other hand, the concept of pre-emption is different and means that a country may attack another country, which is equal in power in an offensive tactic to prevent a possible future attack on itself (Posen, 1984: 12). If any of these two countries can achieve their goal using only a single unexpected attack, then this is more encouraged on the basis that failure to do so may lead to attacks from the other. Thus, the mutuality of vulnerability causes nations to engage in surprise attacks on each other based on mutual fear. Whether preventive or pre-emptive, an offensive attack is a strong one and whoever strikes first attains a decisive advantage over the other. Attacks are not planned merely based on military logic, political logic can also lead a country to attack another even where no military victory is expected, and for example, what Egypt did in 1973.

So how can a state stop another from attacking? A state can use two methods to achieve that. One of the methods of countering a potential attack from an adversary is to build nuclear powers and forces that seem frighteningly strong (Quincy, 1942: 798). By having defence mechanisms that are so strong that opponents will be afraid of striking them (Nilsson, 2012, p. 470). This is the defensive ideal. The other method of stopping an adversary’s planned attack is by scaring them out of your country by threatening to visit upon them a strong retaliatory attack. This is dissuasion by deterrence and it works to stop adversaries from attacking not because they will not be able to successfully complete their attack but because the resultant retaliatory attack may be so severe for them to recover from. The concepts of deterrence and defence are usually confused. Statements like “a strong defence in continental Europe will be able to deter Russian attacks” have been heard. This statement means that even though Europe might not be able to lodge a defence against a Russian attack, they will be able to retaliate the attack to an extent of eroding whatever gains Russia might have gained from their attack on them. States who pursue defence mechanisms on the other hand do rarely carries out deterrence attacks.

Another reason why states use force is for coercion purposes (Evera, 1998. P. 6). In this regard, a country may threaten to attack another not to defend or deter it but to compel it to undertake a certain action. For example, Napoleon III had threatened to destroy Tripoli if the Turks failed to comply with the Roman Catholic wishes of controlling the Palestinian Holy Places. Such a coercive force may now be backed by nuclear threats.

This point leads us to our question whether nuclear weapons causes an increase or decrease probability of war. To answer this question, we will need to look at whether nuclear weapons allow or encourage nations to use their forces in manners that are more or less destructive (Sean & Lynn, 1995: 682). Thus if nuclear weapons leads to a more effective offence and a more compelling coercion, then it means that nuclear weapons causes the number of wars to increase and the situation will be made worse by a further spread of nuclear weapons. If on the other hand defence and deterrence attacks are made more effective and a lot easier by increase spread of nuclear weapons, then the reverse is true. For states to ensure their security, they must depend on the mechanisms they are able to formulate for their own sake. The quality of life at the international level therefore changes depending on how well states are equipped to maintain their own security.

As Robert Jervis has shown, weapons and strategies affect nations in a manner that ensures that they are either more or less secure; if weapons are not developed with the aim of conquest, then more peace is guaranteed in the world (Jervis, 1978. p. 184). The defensive-deterrence ideal holds that war becomes less likely to occur when weapon is developed in such a way as to make conquest a difficult task, to render coercive threats less compelling, and to discourage preventive and pre-emptive war. The other question that arises is whether nuclear weapons have these effects. This question can only be answered by considering how nuclear defence and nuclear deterrence possesses the capability to improve chances for peace.

To start with, a country can engage in war to deter threats. However, the higher the stakes for that country and the closer it comes to winning their cause, the more that country attracts retaliatory attacks that could lead to its own destruction. It is unlikely that states will undertake major risks for small potential gains (Nilsson, 2012, p. 468). Wars between nuclear powers become more extensive as the weaker power injects more and more warheads. The fear that a state will draw back increases the likelihood of a de-escalation rather than escalation of the war. A state will not engage in a war merely for victory, as the stakes are too high. It by engaging in war a state will only get small gains because there will be a huge loss if a retaliation occurs, then it will be less inclined to engage in war.

Secondly, states will be more cautious in the possible costs of engaging in war are high and less cautious if the costs are low (Sagan, 1986, p. 156). For example, in 1853 and 1854, France and Britain expected to achieve an easy victory over Russia. All they wanted was political popularity at home and prestige abroad from the war. The vagueness of their plan was coupled with their carelessness when they plundered into Crimea acting hastily and on the basis of scant information. The whole frenzy showed more need to act based on the adversary’s situation rather than concentrate on the possible benefits the country was gaining from the war. There was also the idea of testing the adversary’s strength rather than bargaining for their own ends. In contrast, of this situation, the existence of nuclear weapons makes countries to become more cautious. For example, the memory of Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis is relevant to understanding this point. There seems to be no pint to engage in a war that a country is most probably lose and most states will ponder on this idea before plunging into war.

Thirdly, the question attracts a more negative answer especially where a country’s deterrence strategy in employing nuclear weapon leads to its strengthened security as opposed to their success in the conquest of another country (Levy, 1984: 223). When a country has in place a deterrent strategy, there is a reduced need for an increased territory as compared to that required by a country on a defensive mechanism. Pursuing a deterrent tactic reduces the necessity of a country to engage in war for purposes of securing itself which when removed greatly reduces the probability of a war occurring.

The fourth factor is that a deterrent effect is dependent on one the capability to use nuclear weapon and second, the will of a state to employ that nuclear weapon on another state. Ordinarily, the will of a country that has been attacked to attack back in retaliation is bound to be much stronger than the will of the attacking state in striving to own a chunk of another’s territory. Knowing this only well inhibits the country attacking from continuing with its plans, and this has the effect of reducing the probability of war. Thus, the likelihood of war diminishes as defensive and deterrent capabilities increase. Regardless of the number of states in the world, peaceful coexistence of nations will only prevail if these states are able to issue clear and convincing deterrent signals to their adversaries that would stop them from even attempting to engage in war with them. Attempting to conquer another state will only cause severe punishment being administered and therefore a state may not want to take this route. World peace would even be increased if states are able to effectively issue defensive messages to other states; which gives the message that it would be useless to attempt conquest attacks, as your efforts will be frustrated. The presence of nuclear weapon coupled with a proper doctrine of how they should be used will bring about the defensive-deterrent ideal situation, which diminishes the likelihood of war. The fact that we have continued to concentrate on the adverse effects of nuclear weapons has denied us a chance to experience the myriad of benefits that nuclear weapons may provide to nations trying to coexist within the self-help world. Empirical data and literature review will be used to prove this hypothesis in the next chapter.

How Nuclear Countries Relate

Nuclear weapons are able to change how nations relate in one major way. Adversary nations who acquire nuclear weapons are forced to become more cautious while dealing with other foreign countries that have nuclear weapons. However, most of the time, the same relationship exhibited by states when they have not acquired nuclear weapons is likely to continue even after they acquire nuclear weapons. For example, as Michael Nacht has already pointed out, how the United States relates with the new nuclear states is pretty much the same way it related with them before they acquired their nuclear weapons. Since America’s international relations with other countries is founded on complex historical, political, military, and economic considerations it is unlikely that these relations will change to any material degree even when smaller nations acquire nuclear weapons.

This constant status is in a way uncertain. Spread of nuclear weapons, even though feared by most, would only cause small ripples when it occurs. For example, the special relationship existing between America and Britain prompted America to assist Britain in its efforts of acquisition and retention of nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the distrust that developed between America and France saw America oppose similar efforts by France. The fact that China had acquired nuclear weapons did not in any way prevent the reestablishment of good relations between her and America. During the 1971 Indian–Pakistan war, the relations between America and India soured a great deal for leaning towards Pakistan at the expense of India. However, the nuclear explosions by India in 1974 did not worsen the relations between it and America in the long run. America did not deny India its nuclear supplies as it did with Canada either.

Moreover, President Carter, in 1980, approved transportation of nuclear fuel to India even though America had refused to accept any safeguards for her nuclear facilities in accordance with the requirements of the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act, a provision that gave the president the discretion to waive it in some situations. The President’s reason to congress in seeking to waive the requirement was that America should undertake all steps it can towards stabilizing the region and it is important to strengthen its relations with countries, most especially those that are capable of countering the Soviet expansionism. In addition, even though Pakistan refused to give an undertaking of not conducting nuclear tests, this did not prevent America from agreeing to support the country with nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979.

For America curbing the spread of nuclear weapons seems to have occupied its highest priority, but on a closer look, it does not seem that high after all. An analysis of most situations, starting with the issue of nuclear weapons with Britain, show that the countries interests have ranked higher than the mere curbing of proliferation of nuclear weapons. This is contrary to the expectations of most people that the countries relations whether of friendship or enmity, or the desire to help or hinder the spread of weapons would continue both during the non-nuclear and even after the nuclear state (Jervis, 1978, p. 211).

The situation with America is also the same with the Soviet Union. The country has showed strong support towards any efforts employed to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, which may seem justified. This is because most of its neighboring countries seeking to acquire nuclear weapons are violent and hostile and therefore  a threat to itself  including West Germany all the way to Pakistan and then to South Korea. The other countries who are nearby are India and Iraq and those are friendly. However, when it comes to international politics, friendliness and hostility are only short-lived qualities. It is therefore understandable that the Soviet Union would be more comfortable around non-nuclear states be it regardless of where their political loyalties currently lie. The Soviet Union may also want to mend its relations with developing countries especially after they were severely injured due to its occupation of Afghanistan. The question that still lingers in most people’s mind is whether, if America had failed to supply nuclear weapons to India the Soviet Union would have gone ahead and did it. Some people like Edmund Muskie and others seem to answer in the affirmative. Just as for the US, the Soviet Union puts more emphasis to her own interests that it does to her desire to stop further spread of nuclear weapons.

The other issue that crops up is whether acquisition of nuclear weapons alters the quality of relations between nations. The existence of alliances between nations defines them in unique ways. When a country acquires nuclear weapons, it tends to break the existing alliances to which it belongs. This is based on a mistaken idea that effects are causes. Alliances are adversely affected by doubts of other countries using their military weapons to attack an ally (Sagan, 1986: 162). This is what caused Britain to continue being a nuclear power and drove France to becoming one. However, this did not alter the relations within NATO. The reason why NATO remained intact is because the new nuclear powers are still heavily dependent on US both economically and military wise. Naturally, when the weak feel vulnerable they seek protection from those that are strong. The fact that Britain and France are nuclear powers has its effects of the alliance but it does not end their dependence on America.

The main reason why Britain and France acquired nuclear weapons was to strengthen America’s deterrent strategies. Due to the many uncertainties surrounding these nations and their heavy dependence on America, they struggle to strengthen their forces if only to ensure that America does not withdraw their support. They also want to maintain a little control on how the US exercises its commitment. They want to ensure that they are a part of the American policy that has direct effects on the lives of most Europeans. France and Britain want to control when America retaliates against an attack by the Soviet Union, but since such as retaliation may lead to its destruction, America wants to reserve that decision to herself.

Alliances are strengthened by division of military labor among the various partners (Sagan, 1986: 164). However, since the nuclear power of Britain and France is largely a duplication of US nuclear weaponry it does not add much to NATO’s strength. Division of military labor among the European countries comes in the manner in which they seek to influence US policies. Regardless of whether countries are nuclear or not, when less powerful countries are threatened they always seek safety in the arms of the strong. Thus as long as European countries fail to strengthen their own nuclear power through concerted efforts they will always be vulnerable and feeling threatened and forever dependent on the US. When countries relations are based on dependency, then it is difficult to break them apart. This means that these alliances will continue to exist even if weapons continue to spread. Thus, Alliances are not destroyed by further spread of nuclear weapons; it may change relations between these states but it does not break the alliance.

Deterrence Mechanisms for Lesser Powers

It has been stated that lesser powers will face many challenges in their deterrent processes. This is based on the physical structures required in deterrent forces. Based on the concepts of preventive and pre-emptive attacks, the preventive war is one that is waged by a stronger power against a less-powerful one that is in the process of strengthening itself, while a pre-emptive attack is aimed at ensuring that a country that was preparing to attack has been hit first and destroyed (Sagan, 1986, p. 166). The perceived danger presented by nuclear spread is that a new nuclear power may provoke an older more powerful state to strike it while it is still in its infancy. Since Britain and France were under the protective wings of America, then the Soviet Union could not have destroyed them when they were young. However, America could have attacked Soviet Union when it was beginning its nuclear weaponry journey, while the US together with the Soviet Union had the opportunity to strike China. There were indeed considerations by the two superpowers to strike China in her early nuclear weapon activities. Even countries that do not have nuclear weapons may wage preventive strikes to new nuclear states. For example, President Nasser told Israel to be careful in 1960 as Egypt may strike if they knew that Israel was creating a bomb.

The huge gap between nuclear development in super powers and nuclear development in less-powers this may seem to increase the probability for preventive attacks. There may be several reasons for the reluctance of states to make preventive attacks new nuclear states. First, in order for a country to be guaranteed of success and to rule out any possibilities of retaliatory attacks, it has to attack the new state while it is in its first stages of nuclear development. However, it is questionable whether the country will strike to complete destruction or just partly to destabilize the country’s efforts. If the attack is only partly, that means that the new state may resume its nuclear activities in future. Either of these methods is however difficult and very costly (Nilsson, 2012, p. 478).

Israel showed that it is possible to make a preventive strike when she attacked Iraq. However, it also showed that the probable gains from such an attack are very low. The attack only intensified the Arabs’ desire to develop nuclear weapon and states who would want to undertake such efforts in future will want to do it in extreme secrecy. The strike of Iraq only made it gain more support from other Arab countries.

Waging a preventive strike when the new state is in its late stages of nuclear development is even more risky. With more countries acquiring nuclear weapon and becoming more powerful in that respect, the dangers associated with preventive attacks steadily go up. It is also becoming increasingly hard to determine whether a state has already acquired or developed powerful warheads as more countries have embarked on a secretive journey towards nuclear weapon (Evera, 1998, p. 11). Should it happen that the country being attacked has already amassed enough powerful nuclear weapons, the punishment in store for the attacking state is severe. Fission bombs are also becoming an effective tool for retaliation since they can be used even before they are tested, for example the Hiroshima case. So far, Israel has not tested her weapons but even then, Egypt would never be able to know the extent of nuclear power the country has acquired. Even if Egypt was sure that Israel has zero units of nuclear power, she would still not be able to estimate the amount of time it will take to assemble the work in progress to completion.

With all this in mind, we can conclude that it is very hard for a country to pursue. The other thing is about the use of pre-emptive attacks. Countries are now worried that further spread of nuclear weapons will lead to states lesser nuclear powers may use their weapons against other lesser nuclear powers. This means that since these states have almost equal nuclear power, they may attack other upcoming nuclear powers as a pre-emptive attack to defend themselves from possible attacks in the future. In order for a deterrent mechanism to be effective, three elements must exist (Snyder, 1984, p. 138). First, the nuclear force must show the capability to survive an imminent attack and be able to wage its own. Secondly, in order for the force to survive it must not engage in early firing to false alarms. The third thing is that their weapons should not be accident-prone. The question that arises is whether new states are capable hiding, delivering, and controlling their weapons.

Up until now, the US, which is a superpower, is concerned about the vulnerability of its weaponry. If this is the case, then how much more will new states have to worry about the security of their weapons? During the times of McNamara, the term counterforce was used where a country was capable of reducing another’s missile o such an extent that the first country would be unwilling to take any retaliatory attacks from the second country. Nowadays, one cannot acquire an accurate estimation of a country’s nuclear strength without considering all the components of its force. Deterrent forces are usually strong since not state wants to have a weak force (Moller, 1987: 1123). The good thing about nuclear weapons is that they are small and light, and therefore easy to move around and even to hide. During the early stages of nuclear weapons, people were worried that atomic bombs may be hidden in packing boxes and put on ships for explosion by signals from a remote place. Today, most people are worried that terrorists might be able to steal and hide nuclear bombs.

It has been argued that the acquisition of a few bombs by new nuclear states is much more dangerous as compared to the US and Soviet Union acquiring thousands more. This is based on the presumption that carrying out preemptive attacks on a small force is much easier (Nilsson, 2012, p. 471). In order to do this a country must have through knowledge of the other country’s nuclear power, something that is becoming increasingly hard to do. Lesser nuclear powers may disperse real weapons and an equal amount of dummies in order to make other countries think they have more nuclear weapons than they actually have. The attacking state need only believe that the country they are attacking is capable of surviving the attack, an illusion that is not hard to create with proper management and control. Small nuclear weapons too are capable of overcoming the challenges that old nuclear powers overcame thus the question of whether or not they will accidentally strike another military power should not arise. These countries are also able to undertake defensive mechanisms affectively.


Pre-emptive and preventive attacks are difficult to carry out due to the high costs associate with them. There are strong reasons why countries should not engage in them since they are severe though not necessarily unqualified. Some of the reasons are human inhibitions. The question the arises, is Country A capable of justifying a reason to strike country B when country B is only imitating country A in acquisition of nuclear weapons? The president of a country that undertakes pre-emptive or preventive attacks on another will be condemned by his own country, people all over the world, and generally by history. Extraordinary acts are difficult to carry out. The other reasons are political. Just as Bernard Brodie echoed, war should identify a political goal that is comparable to the heavy costs associated with it. Clausewit’s basic principle is still valid in the contemporary nuclear world. The main reason however lies in the incapability to estimate with certainty whether an attack will be able to completely destroy the attacked country’s force. Thus in answering whether spread of nuclear weapon would cause more wars we conclude that further spread of weapons will not result into increased wars.



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