Why Do States Pursue Nuclear Weapons?

 

 

Introduction

 The XX century is doomed to be remembered for the devastating and dramatic events that characterized those one hundred years and that changed forever the history of humankind, the way in which we see the world and the way in which we perceive our role in it.

Of those events, that include two world wars, genocides, civil wars, and ethno-religious conflicts, one that clearly stands out is the advent of nuclear weapons. First used in 1945 by the United States, their subsequent proliferation and their centrality in the bipolar dynamics of the Cold War years has made of them a crucial element of international relations. Far from reducing their relevance, the end of the Cold War has rather confirmed their growing importance in influencing inter-state affairs in a world become multipolar and much more complex. Since 1989, indeed, the number of States that have taken the decision to go nuclear has increased, forcing politicians and scholars to seek an answer to the question of the century: “Why do States want to acquire nuclear weapons?”

Explaining the reasons that lie behind the decision of an increasing number of States to go (and conversely not go) nuclear – especially in a moment in time in which the Iranian nuclear issue has brought the topic at the center of attention again – is also the purpose of the present work. Inserting itself into that research field that tries to elaborate a general theory of nuclear proliferation, the first part of the work will focus on drivers and barriers of nuclear weapons acquisition. The second part will focus on the Indian case, whose complexity and multidimensionality is particularly useful to shed light on what reasons inspire the path that leads a state to join the family of nuclear powers.

 

 

Part I

Drivers and Barriers of Nuclear Proliferation

 The first part of the work aims at identifying the considerations and the calculations that come into play when States take a decision with respect to nuclear proliferation.

Until 1952, only the two super-powers, the United States and the Soviet Union, had acquired the nuclear weapon and built massive nuclear arsenals, according to the logic of the nuclear arms race. After 1952, though, other countries followed suit: the United Kingdom, France, and China. Since the end of the Cold War, then, the family of nuclear weapons states has been growing ever more, coming to include Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Today, the aspiration to nuclear weapons of states like Iran is challenging the capability of the international community to maintain a credible international regime of non-proliferation.

Therefore, analyzing the motivations of a state’s interest and disinterest in building a nuclear arsenal is of paramount importance to elaborate an effective counter-proliferation politics.

 

Drivers of Nuclear Proliferation

The traditional literature on nuclear proliferation identifies three major drivers behind it: national security, domestic politics, and international prestige, on which Sagan built three models of nuclear proliferation: the security model, the domestic politics model, and the norms model.[1] To these three major drivers, that as we will see can also be barriers, two more factors need to be added in order to build a more comprehensive explanatory theory: technology and economy.[2]

The security model has been the leading explanation of nuclear proliferation since its earliest formulations and its roots are to be found in the Realist theory of International Relations. According to this theory, the international system is inherently anarchic, with no superior authority capable of providing security to the States. Therefore, each State is responsible for its own security and survival and must rely on self-help. The consequence is a mutual suspicion and rivalry that gives rise to the so-called security dilemma: when a state’s rival increases its military buildup, the former will perceive it as a direct threat and will follow suit, thus making feel others threatened and leading them to increase their military force.[3]

Nuclear weapons well fit this model: due to their deterrent power they are perceived by States as desirable security providers, and, in particular, a state will acquire nuclear weapons if the rival (especially a neighboring one) does so.[4]  Prompted by security concerns, though, a State can decide to go nuclear even if the rival does not have nuclear weapons but has a conventional superiority that is enough to pose a security threat, or if the rival (though not necessarily superior in military terms) embraces an aggressive rhetoric that poses existential threats and spurs security anxieties.[5]  Nuclear weapons are thus in this model a State’s response to all those situations in which its national security and survival are threatened.

In discussing the security model, it is also necessary to consider the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Signed in 1968, the NPT aims at preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to safeguard international security. Its capability to guarantee security, though, is not reckoned by all the States, because of the Treaty’s discrimination between the five “haves” and all the other “have-nots”.  As we will see in the second part, this lack of trust in the security system instituted by the NPT can be a driver towards proliferation (or aspiration to proliferation).

Despite its usefulness in explaining proliferation, the security model needs to be considered in combination with other factors. Among them, a major role is played by a state’s domestic politics.

Within states, political decision-making is a complex process in which more actors intervene, each of them representing, promoting and defending specific interests that they want to see reflected in policies. Decisions on nuclear weapons do not make an exception: a state’s proliferation is the result of the lobbying of internal actors who support nuclear programs because of the advantages they can obtain from them. Among these actors, the most relevant ones are: scientists, whose support for nuclear weapons is often due to professional ambitions; military leaders who want through nuclear weapons to increase the role of the military; and political leaders, whose interest in nuclear weapons is generally the consequence of the pressure exercised by the former two groups of actors. [6]

According to this model, scientists and military leaders influence political leaders acting as what Peter Savoy defines “nuclear myth makers”: they emphasize the benefits that nuclear weapons can bring to the state in order to have nuclear programs go forward. Without the intervention of internal bureaucratic actors in constructing “myths” and perceptions, security concerns alone might not be enough. [7]

The third major driver introduced above is the international prestige a country can achieve by acquiring a nuclear arsenal. According to Sagan, in fact, nuclear weapons both shape and reflect a country’s identity, and with nuclear weapons a state can feel more powerful and respected in the international arena and consequently have more possibilities of building significant relations with other states. From this perspective, the decision of a state to go nuclear is not the result of a calculus of national security nor the result of the influence played by internal actors who want their interests to prevail. It is rather the result of a state’s belief that nuclear arsenals can make it a legitimate, modern, and respected power, capable of spreading its influence worldwide.[8]

An interesting approach to this model is also given by Hymans, according to whom (non-)proliferation stems from “the hearts of state leaders themselves”. In particular, political leaders who are “oppositional nationalists”, moved by intense pride in their own nation’s alleged superiority, will see in nuclear weapons a matter of national self-expression and will try to acquire them. [9]

The last two factors here proposed are economy and technology, which though can be better thought of as additional intervening factors capable of reinforcing a state’s decision to go, or not go, nuclear.

Economic considerations, as we will see, function in most cases as barriers. They can contribute to proliferation only if within the state there are internal actors who de-emphasize the costs that nuclear programs imply and build the “myth” that a limited nuclear arsenal can be less expensive than a sophisticated conventional one.[10]

The technological model stems from the belief that a state with the nuclear know-how is likely to build the bomb.[11] Scholars such as Kroenig[12] and Fuhrmann[13] have indeed provided empirical evidence that the spread of nuclear technology has been accompanied by an increase in proliferation.[14] However, the existence of a considerable number of states that, despite having the necessary technological capability, have refused to build nuclear arsenals proves how technology alone cannot drive a state towards proliferation. Technological capability should rather be seen as an additional consideration that can confirm a state’s decision to go nuclear.

 

Barriers to Nuclear Proliferation

As already anticipated, all the factors that can drive a state towards proliferation are also factors that can prevent a state from going nuclear. All the above-analyzed models, in fact, entail considerations that can lead a state to find more advantages in a non-nuclear stance rather than in a nuclear one.

Starting from considerations of domestic politics, we shall take into account the fact that, if there are internal actors interested in promoting nuclear programs, there are also actors who conversely oppose nuclear weapons. The strongest opposition to nuclear weapons tends to come from the public, the actor that usually has to gain the least from proliferation.[15] At this respect, the best example is provided by Japan, a country that has the knowledge to build the weapon but whose population is, for understandable historical reasons, opposed to nuclear weapons and has always blocked any proliferation proposal. Moreover, also the army can play a role in opposing nuclear programs if military leaders regard nuclear weapons as an investment that diverts finances that could be better invested in conventional arsenals.[16]

As far as the security model is concerned, in many cases the security dilemma can be a curb on proliferation. If a state decides to go nuclear to increase its security, the most likely consequence, as seen above, is that its rival(s) will feel threatened and therefore will follow suit. This chain reaction, that can involve a large number of states, creates an international environment that is for everyone (even for the state that went nuclear first) less secure because more weaponized. From living in such an environment, no one has nothing to win because no state is more secure than it was before the arms race. This consideration has led most states to conclude that they can better ensure their security by avoiding to pursue nuclear weapons (especially if they can benefit from the protection of an ally’s nuclear umbrella), so as not to provoke a nuclear arms race.[17]

Chafetz (1993), in particular, has proposed a distinction between “core states” and “periphery states” that can be used to explain states’ different perceptions of the relation between security and nuclear weapons. Core states are generally liberal democracies that develop shared rules and values on whose bases they found a security community of which they are part and that can guarantee their protection and security without the need of nuclear weapons. Differently, periphery states, lacking a system of common values, do not form security communities, regard each other as military threats and are therefore less likely to embrace non-proliferation.[18]

Tightly connected to the considerations that emerge from Chafetz’s theory is the norms model of non-proliferation. Most countries, in fact, hold the view that their prestige and esteem in the international system is not dependent upon the possession of nuclear weapons, and that they can more effectively boost their image by sticking to non-proliferation. This stance stems from the awareness that the world public opinion, since the time of the Cold War, holds a critical attitude towards nuclear weapons and, therefore, looks negatively at those states that pursue them. Belonging to the big family of responsible non-weapons states that share convictions on the value of human life and the excessive danger posed by nuclear weapons, can thus give to a state more international prestige than nuclear arsenals can.[19] For these states (Chaftez’s “core states”), renouncing to nuclear weapons allows to join the respected group of peaceful states and thus brings advantages in terms of political opportunities and image.

Linked to what said above is the role of the NPT, which can be effective in preventing a state from proliferating, as it spreads the perception that a state that abides by international treaties on non-proliferation can increase its prestige and stature in the international arena, with all the consequent benefits that this brings.

At this point, a crucial link can be established between the prestige model and the economic one. If the international prestige of a state is increased, in fact, that state can more easily build with other states beneficial ties not only on the political level but also on the economic one. Solingen, indeed, argues that those states that are interested in achieving full integration in the global economy have chosen to reject nuclearization, while those that prefer reliance on domestic markets and autarchy are more likely to aspire to nuclear weapons.[20]

Moreover, from an economic point of view, not only does non-proliferation increase prestige and therefore economic relations with other states and integration in the world economic, but it also allows to focus financial resources on programs and projects that can better benefit the population and reinforce in this way the internal legitimacy of a government.[21]

Finally, technological factors can play a role in leading to non-proliferation because of the engineering and scientific challenges that a state has to go through if it wants to build a weapon. In particular, technological barriers can be an obstacle for developing countries that may be lacking the facilities and the scientists capable of planning and directing a nuclear program. Moreover, if these technological difficulties are considered together with the bans on the import-export of nuclear materials imposed by the IAEA and the NSG, it emerges how technology can be the grave of nuclear ambitions.[22]

 

 

Part II

The Indian Case

What said thus far was aiming at presenting the various factors that lead a State to either proliferation or non-proliferation. To understand how they work in shaping a State’s decision for proliferation, it is here proposed the case of India, in which the combination of more drivers is clearly at play: security concerns, domestic political dynamics, and aspiration to international prestige.

 

Security concerns

To understand how security has played a major (if not the major) role in prompting India to acquire a nuclear weapon, it is necessary to keep in mind the strategic environment of South Asia in which India is inserted, characterized by a security dilemma that sees India on one side and China and Pakistan on the other.  It is in fact in light of this rivalry that the Indian nuclear program can find an explanation. As stated by Prime Minister Vajpaee in 1996, “We do not want to see India blown apart by Pakistan or China because we didn’t possess the deterrent nuclear power”.

As early as 1948, India created the Indian Atomic Energy Commission (IAEC) but it was not until 1965 that it launched a nuclear explosion project, after a series of events that took place in the early ‘60s convinced New Delhi of the need to redirect a nuclear policy initially elaborated in the framework of a “peaceful nuclear program”.[23] In 1962, in fact, India and China were involved in a war that ended with India’s defeat. In 1963, Pakistan and China reached a border agreement that marked the beginning of a partnership extremely threatening from New Delhi’s perspective. In 1964, China conducted its first nuclear test, thus marking the most relevant game changer of the period in India’s perception of its security threats. The following year, India and Pakistan fought their second war over the territory of Kashmir, and in 1966 China tested a thermo-nuclear weapon in May and a missile mounted with a nuclear warhead in October. These events inevitably had a major impact on Indira Gandhi’s approach to India’s nuclear program, and the government began to consider embarking on a nuclear weapons program.[24]

In April 1970, then, China launched its first long-range rocket carrying a satellite into orbit, and in 1971 India and Pakistan fought another war. These two major events had a crucial significance on India’s perception of its security in the region: after China’s launch, a special seminar of the Indian Parliamentary and Scientific Committee argued that India had no other alternative but go nuclear, an option that was “scientifically feasible, politically desirable, strategically inescapable, and economically not only sustainable but actually advantageous”. As a result of these two events, in 1972 Indira Gandhi authorized the scientific and technological preparations necessary for a peaceful nuclear explosion that was eventually conducted in 1974 at the Pokhran site.[25]

Since then, India officially pursued until the ‘90s an ambiguous nuclear policy, so as to keep open the nuclear weapons option.  In the ‘80s, though, new security concerns emerged and instructed the internal debate in a way that would ultimately lead to the weaponization of India’s nuclear capability. In 1985, A.Q. Khan stated that Pakistan could carry out an atomic explosion and an American television reported that Pakistan was making concrete steps towards the development of a nuclear weapon, thus increasing India’s concern over the prospect of a Pakistani nuclear bomb. In 1987, then, the Brasstacks crisis escalated tensions with Pakistan to the point that a new war seemed likely.

Security concerns finally escalated in the post-Cold War years: in 1993 and 1995, China conducted new nuclear tests and deployed nuclear warheads in Tibet, and voices of China providing nuclear technical assistance to Pakistan became ever more insistent. It was in this security context that India in 1998 came to see nuclear weapons as a necessary means to maintain stability in the region, and between the 11th and 13th of May it carried out five nuclear tests, thus joining the family of nuclear weapons states.[26]

This brief review of the most relevant steps of the path that led India to acquire nuclear weapons sheds light on how each major security threat that India was subject to in the period 1964-1998 was followed by a renewal of the internal nuclear debate and by a step toward the nuclear bomb.

However, a deeper understanding of how security concerns influenced India’s choice to go nuclear has to take into account also India’s stance with respect to the NPT. India, in fact, has always been deeply critical of the Treaty, asserting that it creates an unjust discrimination and that it is incapable of providing security guarantees to those countries that lack a nuclear weapon. Therefore, Indian governments have always asserted that their country’s security lies either in global disarmament or in the possession of the nuclear weapon.

 

Domestic Politics

Despite the centrality (and, in the author’s opinion, the prevalence) of security concerns in explaining why India in the ‘60s began to question its commitment to an exclusively peaceful nuclear program and to embark on a nuclear project that would culminate in the 1998 tests, dynamics connected with India’s internal politics played their part too.

Particularly relevant was the role played by Bhabha (the first head of the IAEC) in directing the internal debate on the nuclear program. In 1964, even after the Chinese nuclear test, there was still no consensus within the Indian political establishment on which direction should the nuclear program take. Politicians like Prime Minister Shastri were opposed to nuclear weapons, and wanted to push for the overall elimination of nuclear weapons rather than for their acquisition. In the context of this heated debate, Bhabha, who had pushed India on the nuclear pathway throughout the ‘50s, acted as “myth maker”: he lobbied for the development of a nuclear program emphasizing the benefits that it would bring to India in terms of security and understating the economic costs. By doing so, he managed to collect the support of media, politicians and public opinion, and Shastri could not but agree to a peaceful nuclear explosion.[27]

In the following years, the nuclear program knew a halt because of the anti-nuclear-weapons stance of Sarabhai, the new head of the IAEC who abandoned the “myth maker” role of his predecessor Bhabha. Only after Sarabhai’s death could pro-nuclear weapon lobbyists (mainly scientists and nuclear engineers) retrieve their pressure on Indira Gandhi, on whose watch the PNE was conducted in 1974.[28]

According to many scholars, in Gandhi’s decision in favor of the PNE a major role was played by the necessity to regain public support in a moment in which she had lost it due to economic recession. Therefore, the PNE of 1974 might be seen not only as the result of security concerns ignited by China and Pakistan, but also as the result of scientists’ push and Gandhi’s need of domestic political gains.[29]

As previously seen, in the ‘80s India followed an ambiguous nuclear policy, as neither pro-nuclear actors nor anti-nuclear actors were able to exert a resolute influence. It was in 1998, when the right-wing BJP took power, that pro-nuclear lobbyists found room to exercise their influence, as BJP had made of the nuclear program a campaign issue and regarded the tests as a way to maintain domestic support.[30]

These considerations on the role played in the various phases by different pro-nuclear weapons groups show that in the analysis of India’s nuclear path it is necessary to take into account not only external security factors but also internal dynamics that contributed to diverting the nuclear program toward the bomb.

 

International Prestige

 A final consideration to explain the reasons behind India’s nuclear program has to be made with regard to the pursuit of international prestige.

Since gaining independence in 1947, India has always aspired to reach the status of major power, to shake off its colonial past and gain a new standing in the international arena, and nuclear technology was perceived since the ‘50s as the key to achieving that.[31] As a representative of BJP stated in 1993 “Nuclear weapons will give us prestige, power, standing. An Indian will walk straight and talk straight when we have the weapon”.

Nehru and Bhabha (and after them leaders such as Rajiv Gandhi and Rao, and political parties such as BJP) were led to support atomic energy by the belief that no field of science was as prestigious as that one, and that India’s development and modernization went through it.[32] Indeed, the prospect of being able to match the richest and most powerful nations through nuclear weapons and getting rid of the label of “Third World country” through nuclear energy was a major motivation behind Nehru’s and Bhabha’s enthusiasm for nuclear technology. Most importantly, such belief inspired not only Bhabha and Nehru, but survived up to the ‘90s, when the final decision was taken, and it was such a determinant factor that it led J. Singh to state that “Nuclear weapons remain a key indicator of a State’s power. India was left with no choice”.[33]

Moreover, with respect to India’s hostility towards the NPT, building nuclear weapons was the key to abandoning the status of “have not” and upset that system of “nuclear apartheid” India had always condemned.[34]

A crucial link can therefore be identified between the importance the nuclear weapon had for India and the status of post-colonial country of which it wanted to get rid, and in assessing India’s nuclear program and its origins it is important not to underestimate the role played by these normative impulses.

 

 

Conclusion

In today’s world, nine countries possess the nuclear weapon and, of those who do not, an increasing number is aspiring to. Confronted with such a reality, we cannot but examine why states want this kind of weapon.

In the present work, we have identified five major drivers: security concerns, matters of domestic politics, aspiration to international prestige, technological capability, and economic affordability. Their analysis in the first part and their application to the Indian case in the second part can now lead us to conclude that in the reality of states’ politics there is no model that can alone explain the decision to go nuclear: such decision results from the interaction of more drivers, both internal and external. What Sagan calls “multi-causality” implies that no driver can lead to proliferation if it does not interplay with at least another. Concerns on national security cannot lead a state to embark on a nuclear weapons program if there are not domestic actors interpreting security threats in a way that justifies weaponization. Nor can the pressure of some actor lead to proliferation if there are too many or too relevant economic or technological obstacles.

The considerations proposed with respect to the path that has led India to acquire a nuclear weapon have shown how multi-causality actually works. The pressures that have led India progressively from a peaceful nuclear program to a nuclear bomb are firstly the result of security concerns emerged from India’s rivalry with China and Pakistan. However, it was not security alone to drive India’s nuclearization. Actors such as Bhabha and other pro-nuclear scientists, indeed, managed over the years to elaborate those “myths” that influenced and convinced politicians and the public opinion that India’s security and prestige were dependent upon the nuclear weapon. The appeal to prestige, as seen, proved quite effective, due to India’s aspiration to a role of internationally recognized great power that nuclear weapons can help to reach.

The theoretical considerations of the first part and the empirical samples of the second one, lead thus to a conclusive remark on the necessity of questioning why states seek nuclear weapons, and on the importance of remembering that a single answer does not (and cannot) exist and that more factors need to be taken into account. Only in this way, we can build an effective non-proliferation regime.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

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Burchill S. et al., Theories of International Relations, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013

Cirincione J., Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007

Fuhrmann M., Spreading Temptation: Proliferation and Nuclear Cooperation Agreements, International Security, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2009

Hymans Jacques E. C., The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 12-13

Kapur S. P., O. Njolstad, Nuclear Proliferation and International Order, Routledge Global Security Studies, 2011

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[1] S. Sagan, Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb, International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter 1996-1997

[2] J. Cirincione, Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007, pp.47-48

[3] S. Burchill et al., Theories of International Relations, Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, pp. 32-56

[4] At this respect Shultz talks of “proliferation [that] begets proliferation”

[5]J. Cirincione, Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 52-53

[6] S. Sagan, Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb, International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter 1996-1997

[7] J. Cirincione, Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 66

[8] S. Sagan, Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb, International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter 1996-1997

[9] Jacques E. C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy, Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 12-13

[10] J. Cirincione, Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 77

[11] Ibi., p. 73

[12] M. Kroenig, Importing the Bomb: Sensitive Nuclear Assistance and Proliferation, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 53, No. 2, 2009, pp. 161-180

[13] M. Fuhrmann, Spreading Temptation: Proliferation and Nuclear Cooperation Agreements, International Security, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2009, pp. 7-41

[14] S. Sagan, The Causes of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation, Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 14, June 2011

[15] J. Cirincione, Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 70

[16] Ibi., p. 69

[17] Ibi., pp. 54-55

[18] T. Ogilvie-White, Is There a Theory of Nuclear Proliferation? An Analysis of the Contemporary Debate, The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1996

[19]J. Cirincione, Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 61-62

[20] E. Solingen, The Political Economy of Nuclear Restraint, International Security, Vol. 19, No. 2, 1994, pp. 126-169

[21] J. Cirincione, Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 81

[22] Ibi., pp.74-76

[23] G. Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, University of California Press, 2011, p. 60

[24] C. Bhumitra., Toward Pokhran II: Explaining India’s Nuclearisation Process, Modern Asia Studies, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 207

[25] Ibi., pp. 210-214

[26] Ibi., pp. 232-233

[27]J. Cirincione, Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007, pp. 66-67

[28] S. Sagan, Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb, International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3, Winter 1996-1997

[29]G. Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, University of California Press, 2011, p. 187

[30] C. Bhumitra., Toward Pokhran II: Explaining India’s Nuclearisation Process, Modern Asia Studies, Cambridge University Press, 2007, p. 233

[31] S. P. Kapur, O. Njolstad, Nuclear Proliferation and International Order, Routledge Global Security Studies, 2011, pp. 13-15

[32] G. Perkovich, India’s Nuclear Bomb, University of California Press, 2011, p. 15

[33] J. Cirincione, Bomb Scare, Columbia University Press, 2007, p. 60

[34] S. P. Kapur, O. Njolstad, Nuclear Proliferation and International Order, Routledge Global Security Studies, 2011, p. 16