Nuclear proliferation is not a bad thing
The Nation
May 3, 1998
In global discussions and debates on the question of nuclear proliferation, Kenneth N Waltz is a big name. Many years ago, he wrote his famous Adelphi Paper, a publication of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, under the title, “More May be the Better”. Kenneth questioned the still-widely-held presumption of Western nuclear states and experts that proliferation of nuclear arms to more states will endanger international peace and security, as these states will be less responsible and less capable of self-control, Instead, to him, new nuclear states will behave as responsible as did the old ones.

Kenneth’s thesis was written purely in the Cold War context, which has long vanished. Therefore, some of what he argued might be invalid today. Still, however, many of the conclusions that he arrived at make a lot of sense. This is because most of the key issues in the nuclear debate remain as unsettled at present as they were in past. One, even if nuclear arms have depreciated in value after the end of the Cold War, they still remain a key instrument of national defence and security policies of five declared nuclear state-the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and France. Two, that the United States and Russia have made some credible arms reductions, does not necessarily mean the beginning of nuclear peace. Third, the perception of threshold nuclear states-India, Pakistan and Israel-about the discriminatory nature of arms limitation accords, such as the NPT and CTBT, is still there.

India, which until recently was opposing these accords on this account only at the conference tables, has now threatened to declare itself a nuclear state. A step that necessitates a review of the various theories which form the basis of the current global nuclear debate, Kenneth Waltz’s “More May be the Better” being one of the most important published works in this regard. According to him, the spread of nuclear arms to more states has been gradual and slow. It will remain so, due to various domestic and international constraints. Therefore, to term this phenomenon as proliferation is wrong. The post-Second World War international system, according to him, has undergone unprecedented changes, such as decolonization, technological innovation, and regional conflicts. Yet the international system has remained in order, as no general war, on the scale of the two world wars in the first half of this century, has been fought.

Wars did occur, but only on the periphery of international politics, not at its centre. And, all of them have remained limited, both geographically and militarily. There must be some strong factor enabling the post-Second World War international system to absorb radical transformations and restrain general war. To Kenneth, this factor is the introduction of nuclear weapons.

While highlighting the ‘war prevention’ and ‘maintenance of peace’ role of nuclear arms, Kenneth gives five reasons to establish why a future with more nuclear states will be promising. First, international politics functions on the basis of a self-help system. States exist in an anarchic order, in which every state’s best effort is to maximize its own security. And it will do so against all odds. Secondly, despite the fact that the recognized nuclear states have enormous nuclear weapons potential to strike at each other many times over, the central nuclear balance among them has remained intact. How can new nuclear states, which are likely to have small nuclear capabilities, disturb the central nuclear balance? Since a nuclear state is more or less certain about the nuclear strength of the other and about its own annihilation through retaliation by the other, war is prevented between nuclear states.

Countries go to conventional wars because even in defeat they expect their sufferings will not be massive. In conventional world, one is uncertain about winning or losing. In nuclear world, one is uncertain about surviving or being annihilated.

Thirdly, the stakes of a nuclear conflict will be as high for the new nuclear states as they have been for the old ones. States act with less care when the expected costs of war are low. They act with more care when they perceive that the victory in war will not come at an affordable price. Nuclear deterrence, therefore, removes a major cause of war.

The Cuban Missile Crisis can be cited as one example of how the two nuclear powers, the United States and the former Soviet Union, restrained themselves from going to war, simply because neither of them could afford to bear the consequences. Similarly, the American extended deterrence in Europe worked as the Soviets were frightened by the consequences of any bid on their part to attack Western Europe, a region of vital US interests. Fourthly, nuclear deterrence leads to an ideal defence situation through a state’s ability to punish. A situation that small and potential nuclear states catering for their survival need the most.

The nuclear balance forbids both preventive and pre-emptive strikes. The former is meant to prevent the emergence of a state as a nuclear power, while the latter is meant to exploit vulnerabilities in the nuclear arsenal of a state. The preventive strike can be made in two situations: one, when the targeted state’s nuclear programme is at an initial stage; and, two, when it is at an advanced state. Israel’s 1981 strike against the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak is cited as a classical example of the former type of preventive strike.

But, as it has been established through UN inspections of Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, the Israeli pre-emptive strike did not have much effect on Iraq’s nuclear ambitions; it, in fact, strengthened Iraqi resolve to build nuclear weapons. A preventive strike against a state whose nuclear programme is at an advanced stage is not possible, since there is always possibility that it is already nuclear armed. Had this not been the case, the United States would have launched a preventive strike against the Soviet Union soon after the end of the Second World War in order to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power. A pre-emptive strike, on the other hand, is not possible, as nuclear weapons are always kept in survivable manners and can be easily hidden. Had this not been the case, the United States and the Soviet Union would have launched pre-emptive strikes against each other several times during the Cold War period.

Fifthly, nuclear deterrence can be maintained at a lower level of nuclear forces. China, for that matter, did not have second strike capability against the Soviet Union. Yet deterrence between the two Communist rivals was effectively maintained. The same can hold true for India and Pakistan. Thus, Western argument that the resort to nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan will force the two countries into an endless and wasteful nuclear arms race does not make any sense. India can maintain credible deterrence with China without having second-strike capability vis-a-vis China. Pakistan can achieve the same vis-a-vis India.

The sixth and final reason which Kenneth Waltz gives in favour of the nuclear spread to more states is that small nuclear states will feel as constrained in their behaviour as the big ones have. Their defence and deterrence capabilities will prevent the resort to war. Deterrent strategies induce caution and thus reduce the incidence of war. Western nuclear states and experts maintain the following main worries with regard to domestic and regional aspects of nuclear proliferation: that new nuclear states will not be politically strong and stable enough to control nuclear weapons and control decision to use them; that feelings of insecurity among them may cause an arms race at the expense of civilian needs; and that an accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons may take place in the case of military coup in a small nuclear state, or if a tyrannical regime or a dictator comes to power, or if anarchy results in a power struggle.

Regionally, small nuclear states may exist in hostile pairs to cause nuclear exchange. A radical nuclear state wishing to export its revolutionary ends abroad may resort to nuclear strike. In addition, in the case of military coup, the civilian control of nuclear arms may fall in the hands of military leaders.

But Kenneth considers such predominantly-held Western concerns “unfounded”. Why would one faction in a domestic power struggle use a nuclear device against the other? Even if the Generals come to power, they will be more interested in strengthening their power base than in using a nuclear weapon. Soldiers are not scientists. Further, in a period of turmoil, nuclear weapon programmes of small states will slow down.

In addition, once a country feels that it has achieved a massive retaliation capability-different from state to state-why will it engage in nuclear arms race? More is not better if less is enough. Unlike the five nuclear powers, small nuclear states will be economically hard pressed and, therefore, not be in a position to afford cost effective nuclear arms race. For countries like Pakistan, faced with a conventionally far superior India, conventional arms race will be ruinous in the absence of nuclear deterrence.

As regards Western concerns about regional dimension of nuclear proliferation, India and Pakistan are not less bitter in their ties as the United States and the former Soviet Union were. Moreover, even the most radical regimes have been moderate when it comes to their external conduct. Iran, for instance.

Also, even the most radical leaders, like Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, have eventually constrained their reactionary attitudes. The fact is that all rulers like to rule over their countries. States have to survive in a world which is very competitive. So, their leaders have to move with caution. Therefore, blackmail by small nuclear state is not possible. Chinese and Russian Generals have had a lot of say in the nuclear programmes and still nothing has happened. The same will be the case for the military command of any small state. In case a commander goes berserk, the threat of nuclear annihilation will force others not to obey him. Even if nuclear weapons are used domestically or in a regional conflict, the central nuclear balance in the world will endure. And, if ever a state is forced to use nuclear arms for the sake of its survival, this will be a fair act on its part.

Kenneth Waltz has criticized the US nuclear proliferation policy by terming it unfair. In his opinion, it is creating some acute dilemmas for the United States. The United States, according to Kenneth, has two choices: either provide security to small states opting for nuclear arms or take punitive actions against them. In the first case, how many commitments can the US afford to make? In the second case, if the US chooses to punish Pakistan selectively and maintain leniency towards India-which it has-this will amount to disapproving a small state’s nuclear programme no matter what its adversary is dong. On the other hand, by not punishing Pakistan, the US will be sending a signal to potential nuclear states that if one state is opting for nuclear arms, the other should be allowed to opt for the same.

Nations, according to Kenneth Waltz, attend to their security the way they think best. Some, like Japan, don’t aspire for nuclear arms at all. Since they don’t face any security threat, they don’t need them. On the other hand, the acquisition of nuclear arms for states like Pakistan, whose very survival is threatened by a militarily far superior enemy India, is a do or die matter. The United States, therefore, should not follow a uni-dimensional nuclear proliferation policy; rather, it should focus on peculiar instances and individual cases. The United States must acknowledge the interests of other countries before putting pressure on them. Some countries are likely to suffer continued arms races and pains if they do not acquire nuclear arms.