III-The Most Pressing Challenges to International Security: Why Nuclear Proliferation is One
According to hardcore Realist thinkers such as Kenneth Waltz, having more actors (states) possessed nuclear weapons may contribute better to international peace and security since no state would be willing to face mutual nuclear annihilation as a result of a direct nuclear confrontation. This idea is the backbone of what is known as “Nuclear Deterrence Stability” (or what some commentators dubbed “stability under madness”). Indeed, at prima facie, the idea seems compelling enough, especially given the fact that no nuclear war has ever been fought since the end of the WWII despite the massive proliferation of nuclear weapons the world has seen thereafter.
Nevertheless, had this premises been correct, one would certainly expect almost no country to adhere to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as it strives to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Instead, well over 180 countries are now signatories to the NPT, making it a near-universal regime on nuclear limitation that will undoubtedly have long term implications. In fact, although nuclear weapons are widely perceived as an effective deterrent against actual or potential aggressors, there are many issues associated with them, ranging from the costs of maintaining their facilities to accidental nuclear strikes. That is not all, however. Just like they could fall into the hands of non-state actors and, especially, terrorist organizations, who could utilize them indiscriminately for their malicious purposes, nuclear weapons could also be used for expansive and aggressive purposes (rather than defensive ones) by ambitious state actors. Even more challenging is the difficulty in discerning when a state uses its nuclear capabilities for defensive or offensive purposes since in many cases those capabilities can serve both ends simultaneously.
While vertical proliferation helps amplify the challenges caused by rising great powers, the cost of maintenance, the looming possibility of an accidental nuclear strike, and the possibility of using nuclear weapons to subvert other states (for expansive and aggressive purposes) add to this entangling complexity. By the same token, however, horizontal proliferation also has the inherent danger of spreading nuclear materials to “unwanted”, unstable, and even crabby actors. That is, the horizontal proliferation increases the possibility for terrorist groups to acquire nuclear materials, possibly allowing them to make nuclear weapons either independently or in collaboration with “friendly” state(s)—a state-sponsored nuclearized terrorism?
Nonetheless, if the prospects for terrorist groups to acquire nuclear weapons seem low, the possibility of a nuclear disaster at any given moment seems to loom large. Otherwise stated, since the adoption of the NPT in 1970, horizontal proliferation has dramatically slowed down (or nearly halted); yet the issues of nuclear weapons have never gone away. And to a larger extent, this is due to vertical proliferations and the fact that some states party to NPT such as North Korean and Iran have acquired or attempting to do so despite the Treaty. The danger, however, is that vertical nuclear proliferation not only amplifies great power competitions, but it also undermines the credibility of the NPT, since as Graham Thomas (2004), argues, the Treaty is based on a central bargain, whereby: “the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon states in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals”. To these days, however, it is obvious that the latter close (nuclear disarmament and the elimination of nuclear arsenals) has been a dramatic failure.
In sharp contrast to Graham Thomas (2004)’s determined optimism, vertical nuclear proliferation is increasingly rendering the NPT a “nuclear apartheid” regime of some sort, as it de facto provides privileged “great-power” statuses to a small group of nuclear states while confining other states, the non-nuclear majority, to a “second-class status”. As such, there is little doubt that the success or failure to maintain both ends of the bargain will be the determinant factor for the future of nuclear armaments in general, and the NPT, as a near-universal nuclear regime, in particular.
It is actually intriguing that many international security strategists have stuck to their mantra that building and maintaining a stronghold on nuclear arsenals is still the best course of action in boosting state security, notwithstanding history and historical records showing otherwise. Consider, for example, Trachtenberg (1985), who questions the political utility of nuclear weapons in the international relations of states. In his study of the role nuclear weapons played in the Cuban missile crisis, Trachtenberg (1985) concludes that the crisis clearly demonstrated the political insignificance and even the political irrelevance of nuclear weapons. Citing a prominent figure in the Kennedy administration, Robert McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense, Trachtenberg (1985) argues that America’s nuclear superiority "was not such that it could be translated into usable military power to support political objectives” while Dean Rusk, the former Secretary of State, is even blunter on that matter. For Dean Rusk, nuclear power does not translate into usable political influence. Indeed, it is a lesson the US should have learnt long before the Cuban crisis, since the US-Soviet struggles over the defeated Germany, the struggle that helped start the Cold War, showed that the United States could not use its nuclear monopoly to impose its political will on the Soviet bloc although many American leaders at the time hoped that would be the case. Yet apparently, people do not learn or at least they forget to learn from these historical circumstances.
Perhaps the most daunting challenge with nuclear proliferation is when two or more acrimonious states acquire nuclear weapons. And there is no better example today than the case of India and Pakistan, both of which are nuclear states and none of which is a signatory to the NPT. As aforementioned, nuclear weapons have always been, in the words of Noam Chomsky (2017), “an existential challenge”. But the nuclearization of the Indo-Pakistan animosity has brought that challenge to even an indescribable level. For these two states, it is not beyond possibility that their confrontations could easily escalate to a nuclear disaster, which is facilitated by their seemingly incompatible nuclear postures and differing political regimes; for instance, although there are discussions that India might change its nuclear posture, the state is still (at least rhetorically) adhering to a no-first-use doctrine while Pakistan, due to its weak position and limited conventional capabilities vis-à-vis India, relies more on the first-use posture to deter any potential Indian conventional armed assaults. A nuclear confrontation between the two, however, would be disastrous at the utmost as it would further destabilize the already largely unstable region, generate refugees in a gigantesque proportion, and cost innumerable human lives. Such is the real challenge of nuclear weapons and their proliferation.
To sum up, terrorism, however one understands it, may be receiving more international attention; it may even be the most covered topic on international media; yet there are more pressing, more urgent, and more challenging issues to international peace and security that call for immediate attention and practically workable solutions. Here, I identify nuclear proliferation as one of such issues. First, nuclear weapons and nuclear armaments have always embodied catastrophic and disastrous consequences to the very existence of human beings. Second, it facilitates and intensifies the issues of great powers competitions, as the continued expansion of the nuclear arsenals and massive nuclear armament programs from the US and Russia illustrates. In that regard, George Lee Butler is probably right that “we have so far survived the nuclear age by some combinations of skill, luck and divine intervention—probably the latter in greatest proportion.” Third, nuclear proliferation threatens the credibility of the NPT and therefore the future global peace and security while it also makes peaceful settlements of the dispute between historically acrimonious states almost impossible.
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