Why Nuclear Weapons Remain Central to International Power

Nuclear weapons have strategic and political utility; they significantly strengthen the state’s position on the international arena. At the same time countries possessing nuclear weapons are more ready to use military power and violate international law.

Although the world has changed fundamentally since the end of World War II, one factor remains the same – nuclear weapons still represent power and force in international relations. Despite major military innovations and the deployment of an array of new weapon systems, nuclear weapons’ relevance or role has not changed. 

Nuclear weapons have strategic and political utility; they significantly strengthen the state’s position on the international arena. At the same time countries possessing nuclear weapons are more ready to use military power and violate international law. However this is not the comprehensive rule - there is also the example of Pakistan and India, which have always been reluctant to exercise power on the international arena. But in any case nuclear capabilities remain necessary for any country wishing to play a major geopolitical role, and there is a direct connection between a country’s possession of nuclear weapons and its geopolitical influence. 

Nuclear proliferation and the utility of nuclear weapons are linked. It is the very utility of nuclear weapons that serves as the main proliferation incentive. This means that the proliferation incentive will remain strong as long as nuclear weapons exist. A source of international status and power, the nuclear bomb guarantees sovereignty and security in an aggressive international environment. That consideration may drive states to obtain nuclear weapons even in the absence of a direct threat. 

To be sure, the international nuclear non-proliferation regime has progressively become very stringent since the 1970s. Today there isn’t much room to further tighten the non-proliferation regime. Still, the stringent non-proliferation regime has made proliferation very difficult or driven it underground. There are limits to what underground proliferation can accomplish. But there are also limits to what coercive enforcement of non-proliferation norms can achieve. 

The real “success” of the NPT has been in reinforcing the system of extended deterrence by enabling countries such as those in NATO and others like Australia, Japan and South Korea to continue to rely on the US for nuclear-umbrella protection. Absent the NPT, these countries would have been the most likely candidates to go nuclear because they also happen to be the most technologically advanced states. So, the effect of the NPT has been to strengthen extended deterrence. 

Looking back, the NPT has been remarkably successful, limiting nuclear weapons to a small number of countries. Yet the NPT’s long-term challenge comes from the dichotomy it creates – that it is morally and legally reprehensible for most countries to pursue nuclear ambitions but morally and legally acceptable for a few states to rely on (and modernize) their nuclear weapons for security. 

Today nuclear disarmament has fallen by the wayside. It has become little more than a pious slogan. The United Nations’ Conference on Disarmament (CD), for example, has been without real work for 18 years now. Not only has nuclear disarmament fallen by the wayside since, there is also little international attention to nuclear modernization programs currently underway. This means the five NPT nuclear powers and the three non-NPT nuclear-weapon states of India, Israel and Pakistan can pursue nuclear modernization with no real constraints. 

Nuclear proliferation in the future will hinge on the credibility of US security guarantees in the eyes of America’s key, technologically advanced allies. The future of the NPT regime, despite its tremendous success thus far, looks far from certain. The treaty’s main challenges now come from within, not from non-parties – India, Israel and Pakistan, which never signed the NPT and have developed nuclear weapons. 

Significantly, technological forces are now playing a greater role in shaping international geopolitics and power equations than at any other time in history. The growing tide of new innovations has not only shrunk the shelf-life of most technologies, but also accelerated the weaponization of science. As a result, instead of disarmament, rearmament today looms large on the horizon, with the arms race being extended to outer space and cyberspace. 

Grand speeches about a world without nuclear weapons are crowd-pleasers at the United Nations. But in truth, as long as nuclear weapons remain the premier technology of mass destruction, disarmament will remain a mirage. The Chemical Weapons Convention became possible only when chemical weapons ceased to be militarily relevant for the major powers and instead threatened to become the WMD of choice for poor states. If the rapid pace of technological change creates a new class of surgical-strike WMD that makes nuclear weapons less relevant, nuclear disarmament would likely take center-stage. 

Nevertheless, it has become difficult to palm off non-proliferation as disarmament. What many members of the international community want to see are genuine efforts to substantially reduce nuclear arsenals and to erode the utility of WMDs in national military strategies. Today, the world has a treaty (although not in force) that bans all nuclear testing – the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – but no treaty to outlaw the use of nuclear weapons. In other words, those that are party to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) are prohibited from testing a nuclear weapon at home but are legally unencumbered to test a weapon by dropping it on another country. This anomaly must be rectified.

This article is based on Valdai Paper #4 , prepared within the framework of the Foundation for Development and Support of the Valdai Discussion Club research program.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.