January 17, 2019

Are More Nuclear Weapons Better?

By Angelica Faotto


Nuclear weapons have been at the centre of the international system and of diplomatic and policy discourses for more than sixty years, and they have become ever more prominent in the last decades (Walton 2009, p.196). There has been a shift from the First Nuclear Age, the Cold War, to the Second Nuclear Age, whereby the scenario is multipolar and characterized by a growing number of actors, the United States and Russia do not have an antagonistic relationship and weapons proliferate horizontally to regimes that are regarded as unstable and dangerous. Therefore, contrary to the belief that they would have faded away as a consequence of the reduction of the two superpowers’ stockpiles, they still embody a crucial component of a vast number of militaries in the world. (Garcia 2017, p.356-7)

However, today there are more aspects to worry about compared to the Cold War era. Therefore, are more nuclear arms better? Will the nuclear taboo grow stronger? Will nuclear weapons continue to play a major role in the international scene or will their presence fade away with new technological developments? This paper will explore the above questions by casting light on the main arguments against and for an increase in nuclear weapons, touching upon the idea of proliferation optimism and pessimism, deterrence, strategic stability, political leaders and rationality to conclude, after having deeply delved into the above arguments and because this is a decision with significant consequences on every sphere of politics and policy, having an impact on military strategy, diplomacy, economics, domestic institutions, and ethical and normative self-image, that more nuclear weapons are not better.

On Nuclear Optimism

As far as the wide-ranging debate regarding the expansion of nuclear weapons is concerned, one of the main areas of focus is nuclear optimism, whereby according to neorealists, actors under the anarchical state of order compete and socialize to achieve security, enhanced by the proliferation of nuclear weapons which stabilize the system and bring peace (Woods 2002, p.163-4). This has been emphasized by the fact that objective and empirical evidence has proved that proliferation is neither inevitable nor dangerous and that war continues mainly in areas without nuclear arms (Walton 2009, p.198). Waltz has been one of the main advocates of proliferation optimism, turning conventional wisdom on its head by arguing that nuclear deterrence, which gives mutual security for nuclear-armed states is the alternative to the idea that anarchy must be replaced by a nuclear authority (Wheeler 2009, p.431). Waltz wrote that “Although the possibility of war remains, nuclear weapons have drastically reduced the probability of its being fought by the states that have them.” (Waltz 2008, p.291), going to the extent of arguing that the proliferation might represent an ‘international good’ (Wheeler 2009, p.431), and for this reason, should be extended beyond the existing nuclear states. Since, “the probability of major war among states having nuclear weapons approaches zero”(Waltz, p.64-5), they should be welcomed rather than feared. Waltz’s views rest on the assumption that all leaders will rationally decide to avoid war in the face of nuclear devastation. Fear rather than rationality plays an essential role in the proliferation of nuclear arms, to the point that deterrence depends solely on the former (Wheeler 2009, p.431), although there is a wave of optimism arguing that proliferation is governed by universal laws, stemming from scientific knowledge rather than political decisions (Woods 2002, p.169).

Order also depends upon the building of trust between the nuclear-armed and arming powers, where “two or more actors, based on the mutual interpretation of each other’s attitudes and behaviour, believe that the other(s) now and in the future, can be relied upon [at a minimum] to desist from acting in ways that will be injurious to their interests and values [and at a maximum] … promote each other’s interests and values.” (Wheeler 2009, p.428) Contrary to realist belief, even though uncertainty cannot be removed from international politics, it does not represent a limitation since trust and uncertainty are not antithetical (Misztal 1996, p.21), because if humans were to be certain about the motives and intentions of others, trust would not be needed (Wheeler 2009, p.435). The current relationship between Argentina and Brazil best illustrates this idea of trust. In fact, their mutual sensibility to security dilemma dynamics, their belief in trust which comes with uncertainty and vulnerability and the presence of common interests and shared values has led both countries to pursue a peaceful nuclear programme and participate in the NPT in the 1990s (Booth and Wheeler, p. 234–6, 241–2)

Furthermore, several studies have emerged according to which the spread of nuclear weapons will: re-establish rigidity in a dangerously fluid Europe (Garnham 1985, p.96-110, Posen 1993, p.27-47), inspire a smothering fear in the Middle East (Rosen 1977), alert South Asia to the lessons of stability (Cohen 1990), and erode the barriers to technology transfers that would enhance deterrence (such as the diffusion of missile technology) and solidify command and control (Harvey 1992).

Lastly, the concept of strategic stability or strategic interdependence and its core principle, mutual vulnerability, is also key. Schelling argues that the vulnerability of the strategic forces of one side translates in the need to maintain offensive nuclear postures and any attempt to achieve strategic primacy will set a chain of reaction that will automatically undermine the process. Therefore, successful arms control regimes in this age have to be more inclusive and multilateral in nature. (Garcia 2017, p.361)

On Nuclear Pessimism

On the other hand, nuclear pessimism, arguments contra strategic stability and deterrence, rationality and the vulnerability of certain programmes are also central to the debate.

It has been claimed that neorealism is as conservative as realism, hence as pessimistic about nuclear proliferation, contrary to the belief that it is optimistic about the unchecked increase in nuclear weapons. Therefore, it is “realism as pessimism rather than neorealism as optimism that typifies American global security discourse”  (Woods 2002, p.177), since they are both based on a pessimistic view on human nature. Hence, optimism reproduces unintentionally what it seeks to eliminate: proliferation pessimism. (Woods 2002, p.184).

As far as strategic stability is concerned, it has become increasingly difficult for states to maintain it under the current conditions, due to the growing number of nuclear-armed actors, which has expanded to include Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea, together with their different capabilities and motivations, and a new breed of weapons systems (Garcia 2017, p.360). The challenges posed by the conventional systems that characterize our century, as well as their development and implementation are also important in this evaluation, such as the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defence System (BMDS) and their consequent withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2001 which triggered the belief on behalf of China and Russia that the US was attempting to achieve strategic primacy, despite the assurance that it was not aimed at them, but rather a response to the threat of ballistic missiles to the US, especially the Iranian and North Korean programs. (Garcia 2017, p.357-8).  

Deterrence theory is another significant aspect of the scenario, whereby it is naive to assume that today’s actors will act in a manner that is consistent with Cold War deterrence theory. In fact, the assumptions regarding deterrence are not universal, as every political culture is unique. It is often assumed that leaders will not act in a certain way because it will not be in their best interest to do so, however, a high probability that an event will not occur, such as the attack of South Korea and Israel on behalf of North Korea and Iran respectively, or their provision of nuclear devices to terrorists, is not the same as certainty that it will not take place (Walton 2009, p.200-1). Wildavsky further stresses the unreliability of deterrence by arguing that:

“A policy of spreading nuclear weapons presents the possibility of defence against nuclear blackmail … [But] Obviously, possession of atomic weapons should not be encouraged in nations which are unstable, trigger-happy, in the mood for vendettas, or what have you. Many nations … are not good candidates … other nations…-Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Canada, and Turkey are a few that come to mind-should be encouraged to acquire nuclear weapons if they wish to do so” (Woods 2002, p.186).   

According to Gallois certain states will never change after acquiring nuclear weapons, and those which are transformed are likely revert to non-rational behaviour (Woods 2002, p.168). Furthermore, some political leaders, who represent the main actors in the decision-making process, named oppositional nationalists, have a deep attachment to their nation’s identity, which is at odds with external enemies and naturally its equal or superior. Driven by fear and pride, for these nationalists acquiring nuclear weapons is an end to itself, a matter of self-expression. Therefore, decisions to go nuclear are likely to be made hastily, without the typical procedures that characterize the most important state choices (Hymans 2006, p.2).

Another argument against nuclear weapons focuses on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), established to dissuade states to acquire nuclear weapons. Although it did have some measurable effect, since its establishment more members have become part of the nuclear club. In fact, the systemic and sub systemic security dynamics that motivated states to acquire new weapons, such as regional rivalry due to historical grievances and territorial disputes, in the case of India and Pakistan, have challenged the assumptions that these weapons would progressively disappear, calling for the necessity to implement a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to strategic stability (Garcia 2017, p.357). Another vulnerability of the programme is that compliance is voluntary and there are weak provisions for the inspection of suspect sites, for example, Iraq was able to not fully disclose its WMD programme, which had been overestimated by intelligence agencies between 1991 and 2003, as well as a mechanism for punishing bad actors that is very weak. In fact, non-compliance with agreements does not have a prohibitive price, and North Korea has often profited financially from its non-compliance in exchange for fuel, oil and goods from other countries yet building its nuclear weapons nonetheless (Walton 2009, p.206).


To conclude, given this reality, nuclear weapons will continue to have a significant political role, and because of the growing number of states with nuclear programmes, eradicating proliferation will become more difficult than ever, and it is plausible that we will see the breaking of the long nuclear truce. After having delved into the arguments for nuclear weapons, including proliferation optimism, deterrence and strategic stability and the arguments against it, such as nuclear pessimism, the vulnerability of the NPT programme, oppositional nationalist leaders and how strategic stability has been undermined by several factors, even though the number of nuclear-armed states will increase, perhaps dramatically, more nuclear arms are not better. In fact, according to Waltz, once each side has achieved a secure capacity against an opponent, there is no need to accumulate arms, predicting that “New nuclear states are likely to … aim for a modest sufficiency rather than vie with each [other] for a meaningless superiority”(Waltz 2009, p.22), thus challenging influential nuclear strategists who argue that deterrence policy would be enhanced if more nuclear war-fighting capabilities were implemented. Hence, pursuing strategic primacy or the expansion of nuclear arms will undermine states’ security in the long run and might well mark the beginning of a Third Nuclear Age, an era of “unbridled horizontal proliferation and repeated use of nuclear weapons” (Walton 2009, p.204), whereby a balance of terror rather than a balance of peace will prevail in our system.


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  • Kenneth N. Waltz, ‘The Origins of War in Neorealist Theory’, in Kenneth N. Waltz, Realism and International Politics, Routledge, 2009.
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