Deep Dive: Nuclear Proliferation

By: Jim Cowles


Self-preservation: a very powerful motivation for people and for nations. When I was 12 and my sister was 15, we made a pact based on self-preservation. We had recently fallen into a routine of reporting one another’s misbehaviors to our parents, in what was fast becoming an escalating tit-for-tat battle.  Being older, and therefore perhaps wiser and certainly having more delinquent misdeeds, my sister suggested that we call a truce because our disclosure of each other’s activities was only leading to us both being frequently punished. It was our own personal case of mutually assured destruction. So, although we agreed to the pact, we continued to keep track of each other’s transgressions (building an arsenal, so to speak) but we both restrained from using it (even to this date).  

For decades, the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD for short) has kept the nuclear peace - first between the U.S., and the then Soviet Union, now Russia, and also with China. The concept that a nation’s leaders would not risk the annihilation of their own country has kept the nuclear powers from launching a first strike nuclear attack. The belief that the MAD doctrine was necessary to protect the world was so strong that many in the U.S. and Western Europe opposed President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (referred to as ‘Star Wars’).  This was an anti-ballistic weapons program that would be capable of shooting down ballistic missiles. Reagan believed that MAD was a ‘suicide pact’ and that his program would render nuclear missiles obsolete. However, critics opposed the Star Wars program for fear that if it proved effective it would upset the status quo achieved by MAD. This is because if the U.S. had a defense against ballistic missiles, theoretically it could launch a first strike attack and defend itself against retaliation.  Critics believed this would lead to a new offensive arms race. Ultimately Star Wars development was dropped. So, long story short, the MAD doctrine has continued to reign.

However, over the last few decades, the issue has become more complicated because new countries have joined the nuclear weapon family (those having ‘the bomb’).  Some countries felt the need to add these weapons to their arsenal as a response to the Soviet threat (the UK and France), others because they believed they needed protection from their neighbors (Israel, India, and Pakistan), and others because of the leverage they hope it gives their countries regionally, and possibly, globally (North Korea, Iran). These latter two countries would further argue that they need nuclear weapons to protect themselves against the U.S. and other foes. Many in the U.S. would argue that if these ‘rogue nations’ possess nuclear weapons they will become even more disruptive.

With more countries having the ‘bomb’, the possibility of an accident, of a misunderstanding, or of a country using their bomb in an act of desperation, increases. And perhaps more disturbing, given scientific advances, it is now thought that tactical nuclear weapons could be used in such a way as to limit the collateral death, destruction, and radiation contamination that larger bombs deliver. How and when such tactical nukes would be used and whether this would lead to the escalating use of nuclear weapons are open questions.  

So what should the U.S. policy be towards those countries currently in possession of nuclear weapons and towards those developing such weapons?  Is there a way to stop them? Is there a way to incentivize them not to pursue their nuclear plans? And lastly, if there's ever another nuclear bomb attack what would the consequences be, not just for the target, but for the world as a whole? This week’s Deep Dive in The Venn examines these key questions surrounding Nuclear Proliferation.

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