A Realistic Assessment of Nuclear Disarmament

This essay focuses on three main criteria/assumptions in order to evaluate whether abolition is a desirable policy goal for the international community: the capacity of nuclear weapons to deter external threats, the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and the prospect of intensified worldwide proliferation.




[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the nuclear disarmament agenda being increasingly brought to the fore of world politics, firmly supported, at least in rhetoric, by prominent individuals and states, it is essential that a consideration of the issue be based on the clarification of the theoretical ambiguities pertaining to the attributes nuclear weapons have been customarily ascribed with. This essay focuses on three main criteria/assumptions in order to evaluate whether abolition is a desirable policy goal for the international community: the capacity of nuclear weapons to deter external threats, the possibility of nuclear terrorism, and the prospect of intensified worldwide proliferation. It adopts a primarily logical and secondarily factual approach – since history does not provide us with an adequately solid ground for predictions – and argues that the risk involved in a highly nuclearised world outweighs the purported benefits of nuclear weapons.

Deterrent and stabilizing power

One of the main attributes of nuclear weapons is their perceived deterrent power, which minimises external threats to the state that possesses them, reduces the possibility of war, and thus contributes to international stability and security. The Cold War has been the primary historical precedent which seemingly supports this notion, demonstrating that it is highly unlikely for two nuclear-armed rivals with second-strike capabilities to be engaged in a nuclear war. The US and the Soviet Union were both well aware of the catastrophic consequences of a possible nuclear escalation, so they refrained from using them. The idea here is that the certainty of mutual annihilation which accompanies a nuclear war – in contrast to conventional ones, where uncertainty and misperceptions cloud all subjective considerations regarding military capabilities, strategies and potential outcomes – ensures that political leaders will refrain from initiating full-scale nuclear confrontations and bestows deterrence with a level of credibility which is absent in a conventional world.[1]

This credibility, however, is not necessarily unquestionable. As Michael Quinlan correctly points out, the argument that nuclear deterrence has contributed to post-WWII stability and peace may be valid, yet practically impossible to prove.[2] Other factors may have played an equally important role in preventing the Cold War from turning onto a ‘hot’ one. The real intentions of the Soviet leaders, for example, may never be revealed, and we cannot undoubtedly claim that they would have invaded Western Europe in the absence of the US nuclear umbrella. The hypothetical nature of all possible alternative scenarios to the actual historical experience does not allow us to contrast what happened to what could have happened in a meaningful and useful way, yet the fact remains that there can be multiple explanations as to why the US-USSR rivalry did not lead to another world war, and nuclear deterrence is just one among them. Rather than being a factor for peace, nuclear weapons may have actually created or aggravated tensions and crises during the Cold War by minimizing the role of alternative forms of state power such as diplomacy and economic strength, by elevating the appeal of preemption and first-strike capability in military considerations thus promoting more precarious strategies and policies, and by shifting the emphasis from pragmatic to psychological calculations, from balance of power to show of resolve, as risk taking and demonstration of commitment became the recipe for success in the nuclear age, increasing the possibility of miscalculation and escalation.[3]

What is more, nuclear deterrence seems to have no considerable effect on the possibility of nuclear states being drawn into limited, peripheral wars, as the Korea and Vietnam wars have shown. Between roughly equally powerful rivals, the mutually assured destruction concept can nullify their nuclear capabilities, and their conventional forces return to the fore, while ‘small’, often politically convenient wars where the stakes are not so high as to threaten their very survival remain in the repertoire of policy options of democratic and authoritarian regimes alike. India and Pakistan have engaged in several such confrontations – the last one in 1999, when they were both nuclearised – without the nuclear arsenal of one or the other practically posing any convincing obstacle to full-scale military escalation. Similarly, it is perhaps unrealistic to assert that Egypt was completely unaware of Israel’s nuclear capabilities when it launched its surprise attack in the 1973 war, no matter how limited the scope of the Egyptian military objectives may had been at the time. Furthermore, in the absence of nuclear parity, or even between a nuclear and a non-nuclear state, deterrence can be just as problematic when it comes to low-intensity crises or non-vital interests: Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 apparently confident that the UK’s nuclear weapons would remain out of the military and political equation of the conflict, acknowledging the fact that they would represent, on the part of Britain, an overly disproportionate response to the invasion, even if they were invoked only in the context of a threat of use.

With the credibility of nuclear deterrence proving dubious in various cases, it is important to examine whether this is an indication that the deterrent power of nuclear weapons is generally decreasing, reinforcing the calls for their abolition.[4] Despite the aforementioned cases, a nuclear arsenal can still be seen as the most effective and efficient means of deterring external aggression, especially as a last-resort option in the face of imminent conquest by hostile armies. It is difficult to imagine an aggressor willing to push for total victory on the battlefield or complete occupation of another state when threatened by nuclear retaliation on its own troops concentrations or population centres. North Korea’s nuclear capability, for example, obviously decreases the possibility of the US undertaking large-scale military action against it, while an Iranian pursuit of the bomb would certainly be based primarily on a firm belief that the development of a nuclear deterrent can prevent the country from following the fate of its neighbouring Iraq. Especially democracies, with their traditionally low casualty tolerance, can be very effectively deterred by the prospect of even a single nuclear bomb hitting one of their cities. Furthermore, there seems to be no indication that we will be seeing a radically different international structure any time soon, one in which cooperation will have replaced competition and diplomacy will have eliminated the utility of war as a means to political ends. Rather, the system remains anarchical, states are still the primary actors, and survival and security are their main preoccupation. External threats to their existence or vital interests will continue to exist and any strategy or weapon that helps protect against those threats cannot be easily refrained from.

Nuclear terrorism and rogue states

Currently, the most frightening prospect associated with nuclear weapons is their potential acquisition by a terrorist organisation and their use against civilian populations. This danger has been customarily invoked to support the abolition of nuclear weapons, with the whole notion of a nuclear terrorist attack being based on a certain view of terrorists as irrational actors who would use any means in their disposal in order to achieve their goals with no consideration of the consequences. Against the multitude of political statements, scholarly studies and intelligence reports warning about the apocalyptic agenda of groups like Al Qaida – with the obvious expediency of the former and questionable credibility of the latter – one can juxtapose a logical evaluation of the problem which would be seeing terrorist aspirations as being governed by the same rational and pragmatic considerations and limits as those of state actors, in as much as there are clear and realistic political objectives behind any strategy or declaration. Given the US response to the 9/11 hit, i.e. the invasion and occupation of two sovereign states on the other side of the globe, it would perhaps seem unrealistic to assume that Al Qaida would be willing to provoke a much more furious reaction from the US, let alone a certainly more substantiated condemnation by and determined mobilisation of the international community against them, by detonating a nuclear device on American soil, in addition to actually giving unprecedented justification to the policies of its very enemy. Also, terrorists aspire to some widespread public support, or at least recognition for their cause, and it is doubtful if even the most fanatical among them seriously believe that the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of innocents would win them the hearts and minds of the masses, especially given the instinctive abhorrence of nuclear weapons people everywhere share. It should then come as no surprise that a 2008 study examining Al Qaida’s statements and internal debate over the possible use of unconventional means revealed that the organisation’s interest in them has been much lower than generally feared: in its deliberations of the issue during the 90’s, views were conflicting and even the proponents of acquiring a bomb mainly sought to prevent a US attack on their bases in Afghanistan; in any case, CBRN capabilities were apparently never central in Al Qaida’s strategy[5]

But even if we assume that there is real intent by terrorist groups to acquire a nuclear bomb, the practicalities of the whole project can seem to pose insurmountable challenges. There have been states, with all their technological, economic and logistical capacities, that have failed in this task after investing valuable time and resources, or struggled for decades before succeeding in their efforts. From a technical perspective, it would be extremely difficult and expensive for even the largest and wealthiest terrorist organisation to develop a nuclear weapon of its own, in terms of the required fissile material, technological know-how and laboratory infrastructure, while the acquisition of an already functional nuclear weapon is perhaps impossible, as the security measures protecting state arsenals are extremely sophisticated, and no nuclear state would seem prepared to sell one of its weapons to a largely uncontrolled terrorist group, given the possibility of facing severe reprisals if the weapon’s origin was traced.[6] Even if these obstacles were to be overcome, transporting and successfully detonating a bomb against a target in the US or elsewhere is a process highly prone to failure at every stage of the way, which can be made even more precarious for terrorists by effective security defences and precautions.[7]

When it comes to nuclear weapons, so-called rogue states, like North Korea and Iran, are often considered being as dangerous for international security as terrorist organisations. Irrationality is here, too, assumed, combined with the specifics of their political regimes, their purported sponsoring of terrorist groups, and their portrayal as inconsiderate of human rights and international law. These states are seen as unpredictable, irresponsible, lacking nuclear security safeguards and, in any case, as potentially capable and willing of either using nuclear weapons for their own aggrandizement or handing them over to terrorists. To begin with, the issue of what ‘rogue’ state means is highly controversial as it is ideologically charged. By today’s standards, both China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War were essentially ‘rogue’ states, following highly repressive, even murderous policies domestically, and aggressive internationally, yet they displayed rational self-restraint in their nuclear military posture and tensions in their foreign relations gradually eased.[8] In international affairs, tabs like ally, strategic partner, friend, enemy, rogue state and so on can replace each other very easily. Historical experience indicates that no state is likely to treat nuclear weapons lightly, let alone transferring nuclear technology or a functioning weapon to a group or organisation not operating under its direct command. Furthermore, the arsenals of such states would be quite small, and hence every single weapon would be too precious to be sold or not tightly protected from theft. Is it realistic to assume that the weapons even the existence of which the intelligence agencies of the most advanced states cannot confirm can be actually accessible to a terrorist group? In the case of the Iranian program, it is also evident that security concerns are the primary, perhaps the only motivation for the pursuit of the bomb, and not some notion of fundamentalist grandeur, as the country faces challenges coming from multiple directions, from nuclearised neighbours and potential proliferators, to the military presence of a hostile US right at its borders. Finally, regime type does not seem to have any practical effect in determining the maturity of a state’s nuclear posture, as democratic, dictatorial, totalitarian and even an apartheid state have all come to possess nuclear weapons, with seemingly no discernible difference in the degree to which this has affected the orientation of their external behaviour. An Iranian nuclear arsenal is bound to cause proliferation pressures and undermine international stability no more than a Japanese, a South Korean or a Brazilian one.

Systemic pressures

Besides the individual impact of each existing or potential nuclear arsenal on world politics, there is also a cumulative and compounding effect that stems from the characteristics of an international system facing widespread nuclear proliferation. According to Benjamin Frankel, the end of the bipolar, Cold War systemic structure and the potential shift towards multipolarity will intensify proliferation, as the diffusion of power to various centres will create a new and expanded set of security interactions and relationships, as well as challenges, which the weakened security guarantees of the superpower(s) will not be able to check effectively, reinforcing self-help tendencies; consequently, the increased complexity of the system in terms of possible rivalries and alliances translates into a greater probability of miscalculation, escalation and war.[9] As more and more states are considering or already moving towards nuclearization, the above systemic context will apparently be combined with growing arsenals, an abundance of available nuclear material and expertise that can be easily used for military purposes, new arms races and intensified competition in missile defence and high military technology, as well as the promotion of preemption and prevention in strategic thinking and planning, creating a setting in which even minor disputes or incidents could induce some form of nuclear response ranging from precautionary or symbolic deployment to actual weapons use.[10]

In evaluating these concerns, it is first essential to establish whether we are indeed moving towards a multipolar international system. The Cold War certainly ended with an undisputed winner, who could dictate policies and impose its will across the globe to a significant, perhaps unprecedented extent. Since then, however, we have seen the gradual revival of the Russian economic and political strength, the emergence of China as a potential superpower, and regional challenges to US’s political influence or military reach in South America, East Asia and the Middle East. It should be noted that in the case of Iran and North Korea this undermining of US predominance is actually linked to the issue of nuclear weapons, providing some confirmation that the relationship between systemic structure and state power can have two dimensions when it comes to nuclear capabilities: not only does the character of the international system affect a state’s nuclear choices based on the balancing options available, but the nuclearisation of one or more states might augment their own power while diminishing that of others to a degree that it can contribute to a considerably altered distribution of power and, ultimately, the creation of new poles. North Korea’s nuclear weapons, for example, have complicated the regional security status quo, increased South Korea’s and Japan’s motivation to emancipate themselves militarily from the US, limiting the latter’s strategic options and ability to control developments while enhancing the influence of China and Russia both bilaterally and in the context of the UN Security Council. Even if the current situation does not yet justify the term ‘multipolar’, the overall trend seems perhaps unambiguously set towards that direction.

What also requires examination is the effect that the possible break-up of the US’s global hegemony can have on nuclear proliferation and, hence, on the system’s stability. It is perhaps not so clear whether the proliferation pressures of the last 20 years have been indeed fuelled by the gradually declining American power. Strong security concerns have been central in the case of Pakistan, North Korea and in the initial deliberations in the Indian case, while security seems to be the principal consideration in Iran’s stance as well. Of course, it would be a valid assumption that an Iran, for example, that could enjoy the protection of a Russian extended deterrence would have no reason to seek nuclear weapons of its own, but this might not apply to a revisionist state like North Korea, who seeks not only to deter rivals but also to force upon them its political will and change the status quo. In any case, it does seem that the more dispersed power is in the international system, the more probable it gets that states, especially expansionist ones, will feel free to pursue self-aggrandizement through possession of nuclear weapons. Even if historical experience does not provide us with sufficient evidence that as the number of weapons increases so does the chance of their use, it can be logically argued that the risks imaginably associated with a potential plethora of nuclear states competing in a multipolar anarchical world are such that perhaps do not allow humanity the luxury of waiting for factual confirmation to its fears.


Overriding the natural apprehension of nuclear weapons in order to conduct a logical assessment of the desirability of nuclear disarmament is necessary if this goal is to be pursued successfully and for the right reasons. The three criteria analysed unfortunately provide conflicting suggestions regarding the issue at hand, which is already highly speculative, since it essentially involves the comparison of two hypothetical situations, on one hand a world with 20 or even more nuclear powers and on the other a global zero; pressures apparently point towards the two extremes and the current status is seemingly bound to change.[11] Firstly, nuclear deterrence, although occasionally problematic, does seem to minimise the possibility of a major war between nuclear states, providing a psychological barrier to escalation, and generally contributing to an effective and cost-efficient defence; in its absence, states would have to commit significant additional resources to achieve the same degree of security, and, thus, arms races are likely to intensify, while the prospect of conventional wars will possibly increase. Secondly, the danger of nuclear terrorism seems unrealistic at this point, as there are no clear indications that terrorists might be capable of acquiring a nuclear weapon, or willing to pursue such an objective in the first place; if we assume even a minimal level of rationality on their behalf (that is, excluding apocalyptic cults like Aum Shinrikyo), there seems to be no scenario in which terrorists would conceivably decide on a nuclear hit against civilians with a firm belief that this would actually work to their benefit. On the other hand, intensified proliferation would logically mean increased chances that something does go wrong, while the costs of such an eventuality can be as high as our complete extinction as a species. Weighing these three factors can be highly subjective, but I would argue, that with nuclear disarmament, we will not have really lost anything – as instability and conventional wars have accompanied us throughout the millennia – but we will have eliminated a literally mortal, even if remote, danger for humanity. A volatile nuclear weapons-free world is a much lesser evil than having no world at all.


Photo Credit: shadamai

[toggle title= “Citations and Bibliography”]



[1] Waltz (1990), pp. 733-7

[2] Quinlan (2009), pp. 159

[3] Gavin (2009-10), pp. 23-27

[4] Shultz et al (2007) claim that although deterrence is still a valid concept in relations between states, “reliance on nuclear weapons for this purpose is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective.”; Wilson (2008) questions even the military utility of city bombing, on the threat of which nuclear deterrence is based, claiming that “it is difficult to argue that a threat of a non-decisive action is likely to coerce.”, p. 435

[5] Gavin, p. 20-1

[6] Frost (2005), pp. 69-70

[7] Gavin, p. 20

[8] Gavin, pp. 15-6

[9] Frankel (1993), pp. 37, 40-44

[10] Sokolski (2009), pp. 207-8

[11] What testifies to this trend is the 2014 US federal budget recently proposed by the Obama administration, which involves a 9% increase in funding for the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons activities, and a parallel cut to non-proliferation programmes, including counter-nuclear terrorism projects. Guarino (2013); Schneidmiller (2013).



Frankel, Benjamin (1993), ‘The Brooding Shadow: Systemic Incentives and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation’, Security Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 37-78

Frost, Robin M. (2005), ‘Nuclear Terrorism after 9/11’, IISS Adelphi Papers, Vol. 45, No. 378.

Gavin, Francis J. (2009-10). ‘Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War’, International Security, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 7-37.

Guarino, Douglas P. (2013). ‘Obama Seeks Boost in DOE Nuclear Weapons Spending, Cut to Nonproliferation’, Global Security Newswire, April 10, 2013. http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/obama-seeks-boost-doe-nuclear-weapons-spending-cut-nonproliferation.

Quinlan, Michael (2009), Thinking About Nuclear Weapons: Principles, Problems, Prospects (Oxford: Oxford University Press) Oxford Scholarship Online. http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199563944.001.0001

Schneidmiller, Chris (2013), ‘Obama Budget Cuts deeply from Threat Reduction Accounts’, Global Security Newswire, April 18, 2013. http://www.nti.org/gsn/article/obama-budget-cuts-deeply-threat-reduction-accounts

Shultz, George P. Et al. (2007), ‘A World Free of Nuclear Weapons’, The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2007, p. A15

Sokolski, Henry (2009), ‘Nuclear Abolition and the Next Arms Race’, in Taylor Bolz, ed., In the Eyes of the Experts: Analysis and Comments on America’s Strategic Posture, (United States Institute of Peace) pp. 201-216. http://www.usip.org/files/In%20the%20Eyes%20of%20the%20Experts%20Part%203.pdf

Waltz, Kenneth N. (1990), ‘Nuclear Myths and Political Realities’, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 84, No. 3, pp. 731-745.

Wilson, Ward (2008), ‘The Myth of Nuclear Deterrence’, Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 15, No. 3, pp. 421-439.


Leave a Reply