Once the United States initiated the nuclear age with attacks of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons, various states have acquired, or attempted to acquire, the capability to deploy a nuclear weapon. Most notable of these nations is the former Soviet Union, who functioned as the main nuclear adversary of the United States throughout much of the twentieth century. Besides the United States and the former Soviet Union, seven other states have developed nuclear weapons, including China, France, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea (Davenport & Reif, 2018). Many more have attempted to develop nuclear weapons for various reasons, and with differing degrees of success. Each of these states, and the others who have attempted to develop a nuclear weapon, found themselves in unique situations and facing different challenges than other nuclear hopefuls. While many differences and particulars exist in the narrative of each nation, certain commonalities underlie each of them. The underlying factors that determine and shape why a nation may pursue nuclear weapons can be condensed into two different areas: external and internal. External factors include national security and international prestige and standing, while internal factors include bureaucratic and political interests. In most situations, the external factors take precedence over the internal factors.
To begin, external factors facing a state often form the most clear and visible reasons for the pursuit of a nuclear weapon. During World War II, the United States and its allies faced a potential nuclear threat from Nazi Germany, and they pursued their own nuclear program in response to such a threat (Manhattan Project). While the United States did not end up using a nuclear weapon against Nazi Germany, the threat was still present, and this situation outlines the basics of the national security factor that may influence states to pursue a nuclear weapon. Essentially, the national security factor boils down to the idea that your enemy may have a nuclear weapon, so you need a nuclear weapon in order to deter that enemy and defend yourself from a potential attack. However, the national security factor does not have to be explicitly for the reason of deterring another nuclear power, however. Wherever an imbalance of forces exists, a national security risk may exist as well, prompting the need for a nuclear weapon. This situation is what existed in Europe after the end of World War II and through the early stages of the Cold War, as the United States and its NATO allies faced a conventional threat from the Soviet Union and its eventual Warsaw Pact allies on the continent of Europe (Desch, 2018). In order to counter this massive conventional threat, the United States guaranteed the safety of Europe through their nuclear weapons (Desch, 2018). However, as the Cold War progressed, and the Soviet Union acquired its own nuclear capability, the credibility of the American nuclear guarantee was diminished, leading nations like the United Kingdom and France to eventually acquire nuclear weapons to provide for their own security against the threat of the Soviet Union (Sagan, 1996). In particular, French diplomat Charles de Gaulle wanted France to pursue a nuclear capability, so the French could safeguard their own national security, without absolute reliance on the United States. The thought process of de Gaulle is evident in his question to American President Dwight Eisenhower: Will they [Future U.S. presidents] take the risk of devastating American cities so that Berlin, Brussels, and Paris might remain free? (Sagan, 1996). France did not believe the United States’ nuclear capability was sufficient to ensure the national security of France (Narang, 2017), and the logical response was for the French to deploy their own nuclear weapons, which they eventually did in 1960 (Davenport & Reif, 1960). In addition to France, countries such as India, China, Pakistan, South Africa, North Korea, and Israel have pursued nuclear weapons due to a concern of national security as well. In the case of China, they pursued nuclear weapons in order to deter the United States after the Korean War. India pursued nuclear weapons after their loss to China during the Sino-Indian Border Dispute in 1962 to counter any potential Chinese aggression (Smith, 2016). Consequently, Pakistan began to explore options for a nuclear weapon after the Indians (Smith, 2016). India was unable to secure an agreement with the United States or the Soviet Union for nuclear defense, which led to the pursuit of an indigenous nuclear program (Sagan, 1996). This kind of domino effect highlights the perils of pursuing a nuclear weapon for the sake of defensive national security interests. However, it is not a requirement that each time a state acquires a nuclear capability that another state in the region also acquires a nuclear capability. For example, South Africa began developing nuclear weapons after the 1975 Cuban & Soviet intervention in Angola, as the South African government feared potential aggression by the Soviets into their own territory (Sagan, 1996). Similar to the situation in India, South Africa was unable to secure an agreement with a nuclear power to provide for their defense, necessitating their homegrown nuclear weapons program (Sagan, 1996). South Africa did eventually achieve a nuclear capability, but no other nation in the region achieved a nuclear capability in response, and the South Africans eventually dismantled their nuclear weapons after the Cubans withdrew from Angola (Sagan, 1996). Lastly, Israel has procured nuclear weapons in order to safeguard its future in a region where it faces many enemies (Jo & Gartzke, 2007).
The other portion of external factors for proliferation stem from the ideas of prestige or enhanced international recognition from possessing a nuclear weapon (Sagan, 1996). A nuclear weapons program may allow a nation to garner more respect and power on the world stage than they previously held without a nuclear weapon. Charles de Gaulle, in addition to wanting a nuclear weapon for purposes of French national security, also desired a nuclear weapon to provide a symbol of French power and grandeur (Sagan, 1996). De Gaulle stated to Dwight Eisenhower that A France without world responsibility would be unworthy of herself, especially in the eyes of Frenchmen (Sagan, 1996). De Gaulle understood the great power nuclear weapons held, not only in their detonation or deterrent capability, but as a status symbol of a great and powerful nation. The international community would be more likely to take the opinion and actions of a nuclear capable state more seriously than those of a non-nuclear capable state, it’s not hard to see. By possessing nuclear weapons, a state can potentially punch above its weight on the worldwide stage. In recent times, North Korea, a nation possessing somewhere in the range of 15 nuclear weapons (Davenport & Reif, 2018) has brought the President of the United States, a man who commands the over 6,000 nuclear warheads and the world’s most sophisticated military, to the negotiating table (Groll, 2018). While it can be argued that North Korea and the United States did not enter the negotiations on the same playing field, the fact that the President of the United States is participating in the negotiations in any capacity is remarkable. The North Koreans likely pursued a nuclear capability to secure the regime of the Kim family, but it has also allowed increased international recognition and prestige.
A last important external factor is the current status of a nuclear hopeful on the world stage. If a nation has few or no allies in their region on the world stage, they may be more inclined to pursue a nuclear weapon than if they had more allies (Jo & Gartzke, 2007). These nations can be known as ‘pariah nations,’ (Jo & Gartzke, 2007) and they have little choice but to pursue an indigenous nuclear weapon, or they may have to external influences preventing them from pursuing a nuclear weapon. North Korea, Israel, and South Africa are all examples of pariah nations. South Africa, with its policy of apartheid throughout the twentieth century, could not expect the United States or the United Kingdom to come to its aid if the Soviet-backed Cuban troops in Angola turned towards South Africa (Sagan, 1996). They would be on their own to defend themselves, so they had no other choice but to pursue an indigenous nuclear weapon. North Korea, an isolated hermit kingdom (Groll, 2018), didn’t have any allies to lose if they pursued a nuclear weapon, so they pursued it. Israel is likely the most obvious example of a pariah nation. Israel has less than cordial relations with the nations in its vicinity, so acquiring a nuclear weapon would not alienate any its neighbors any more than they already have. This alienation effect gives a state the leeway to pursue a nuclear weapon, as the thought process may be What do we have to lose? when their foreign relations are already in a damaged state.
Complementing the external factors are the internal factors, comprising mostly bureaucratic and political interests and desires. Depending upon the specific situation within the country at the time, it may be politically expedient for politicians to pursue attainment of nuclear weapons. This could be done to win back public opinion and support if the country has been undergoing a difficult period, or to rile up nationalist support (Jo & Gartzke, 2007). This idea played a role in the development of nuclear weapons in both India and Pakistan, as public discontent was quelled via pursuit of nuclear weapons (Jo & Gartzke, 2007). Pakistan in particular had high public support for nuclear weapons tests, as a 1998 poll found that 97% of Pakistanis favored nuclear testing at the time (Jo & Gartzke, 2007). Politicians and the nuclear power industry can also have considerable sway in the decision to pursue nuclear weapons, as was evident during India’s nuclear development. An important figure in the development of Indian nuclear weapons was Homi Bhabha, an outspoken physicist from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) who pushed for Indian development of nuclear weapons (Indian Nuclear Program, 2018). While one cannot be entirely sure of Bhabha’s personal motivations for a nuclear, what is known is his strong influence on and support of the Indian nuclear program (Indian Nuclear Program, 2018). Known as the Indian Oppenheimer (Indian Nuclear Program, 2018) Bhabha supported measures to explore nuclear energy, which later evolved into a weapons program (India’s Nuclear Weapons Program, 2001). Bhabha also met with American officials in an attempt to secure American nuclear support, but this was unsuccessful (Indian Nuclear Program, 2018). While Bhabha would die before India would deploy a nuclear weapon, his efforts and his colleagues were instrumental in eventually convincing Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to approve a nuclear test (Indian Nuclear Program, 2018). Of note, evidence suggests that Gandhi was strongly influenced by scientists to support the tests, with minimal input from military officials (Sagan, 1996). Gandhi may have also been motivated to pursue a nuclear weapon to win back public opinion, as support for her government was rather low in 1973, as the country was facing numerous internal issues (Sagan, 1996). A public opinion poll regarding the test found that 90% of respondents were personally proud of this achievement (Sagan, 1996). The recent developments of North Korean nuclear weapons may have a similar effect on their citizens, to reinforce loyalty and obedience to the ruling family, but this can only be speculation.
In conclusion, the primary factors influencing a state’s decision to pursue nuclear weapons stem from the external environment, consisting of national security risks and the desires for international recognition and prestige. Internal factors like political and bureaucratic interests also play a role, but typically take a secondary role to the security concerns and interests. Looking throughout history, states primarily pursued nuclear weapons to secure their own national security, but any secondary effects of political expedience may have greased the wheels of proliferation. The reasons to pursue a nuclear weapon are best summed up by former Soviet Premier Josef Stalin: Provide the bomb-it will remove a great danger to us (Sagan, 1996).
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