Predicting proliferation

By Rizwan Asghar

One of the basic tenets of the realist theory of international politics is that power is based on the military capabilities and states always build on their military might to fortify themselves against their enemies. However, this does not seem to be the case when it comes to acquiring nuclear weapons. Despite the Cassandra-like predictions, only nine states across the world possess actual nuclear capability.

Several countries have chosen to desist from acquiring the nuclear weapons even though they have latent capabilities. What explains this remarkable self-restraint? As Thomas Schelling, an American economist and national security expert, said in 2005 that: “the most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed 60 years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger”.

There is extensive literature on the causes of nuclear weapons proliferations. But we still lack a thorough understanding of the nuances of nuclear-restraining behaviour.

Why have some countries developed nuclear weapons while others have exercised restraint so far? It is believed that only one-fifth of countries with latent nuclear capability have actually developed nuclear weapons. And the more important question is whether or not the phenomenon of nuclear restraint is likely to continue in the first half of the 21st century.

Constructivist scholars attribute nuclear restraint to the norms promoted by the non-proliferation regime. An alternative explanation emphasises the role of extended nuclear deterrence. Scholars who study the psychology of nuclear proliferation point toward a growing aversion towards nuclear weapons and the pervasive fear of nuclear war exhibited by national leaders.

In April 2009, the then US president Barack Obama outlined his vision of a nuclear-free world and called for the reduced role of nuclear weapons in national strategies. However, after a few months, nonproliferation and disarmament slipped down his list of priorities due to other domestic political demands. In fact, the Obama administration put the US on the course to spend $1 trillion to modernise its nuclear arsenal and production facilities. The existing global nonproliferation regimes have failed to curb the vertical proliferation of nuclear weapons in the five NPT nuclear-weapon states.

Despite unprecedented efforts by disarmament groups and activists, nuclear weapons still shape the strategic behaviour of major powers and play an important role in defining the contours of global politics. Political leaders and military generals think of potent nuclear weapons as the guarantee of absolute security. Nuclear weapons, whether we like it or not, will stay with us at least until the end of this century. At the current pace of disarmament, it will take at least seven more decades for Russia and the US to completely denuclearise themselves.

The terrifying truth about today’s nuclear weapons is that they are strong enough to destroy entire cities within a few minutes. Thousands of people would be totally vaporised from the super-lethal gamma radiation blast. Civilians, rather than soldiers, would be more likely to bear the brunt of a nuclear attack. Within at least 10 miles of a 10-megatonne nuclear bomb blast, people will simply see a flash of light and cease to exist. Yet, these realities have remained unable to knock some sense into the minds of leaders in Pakistan and India who continue to convey explicit nuclear threats from time to time.

What they do not realise is that even a limited nuclear war between Pakistan and India would completely change the politics and geography of both countries for all times to come? Even leaders of the US and the former Soviet Union flirted with the option of launching nuclear strikes at different points during the cold-war period.

The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used in the past does not guarantee a peaceful future. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) does not prohibit its member states from reprocessing plutonium or enriching uranium above 20 percent U-235. Unless serious steps are taken to establish international control over the proliferation-prone stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, there is no reason to believe that countries that have forgone their nuclear options will not revert to the nuclear acquisition.

The challenges associated with building a minimal nuclear deterrent capability, while difficult, are not insurmountable. If a cash-strapped country like North Korea can build weapons, so can many other countries that have been in a state of decisiveness for too long. The threat has increased since the start of a global nuclear renaissance and growing interest in civilian nuclear energy. More than 1,000 nuclear reactors are operating in different countries and the technologies used to produce fuel for reactors can also be used to enrich HEU for use in military programmes.

Given the fragile state of the nonproliferation regimes, our nuclear future seems to be mired in uncertainties. Hedley Bull, a leading theorist of international politics, once said that “countries which have the capacity to acquire nuclear weapons tend to develop the will”. It is an astonishing stroke of luck that we have survived a nuclear war so far. Let’s hope that we do not run out of luck anytime soon.