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The origin of war and warfare traces back to the origin of civilization itself. Conflicts about ownership of land and property existed since humans started settling down. In a state of natural law (in the absence of a governing authority), according to Thomas Hobbes, the natural instinct of humans is to overtake the rest through force. Even as kingdoms formed, wars were the means to overpowering the other by each kingdom. In a situation where battling it out was the legitimate means to reaching agreements between entities, greed for power was answered through war.

“Violence, that is to say physical force, is therefore the means; the compulsory submission of the enemy to our will is the ultimate object. In order to attain this object fully, the enemy must be disarmed; and this is, correctly speaking, the real aim of hostilities in theory.”  [1]

Carl Von Clausewitz thus posits the reason for war and its objective. He resorts to say that pertinent use of physical power, sided with intelligence is the exclusive way to win a war. In his opinion, any act of benevolence is seen as something which got no purpose but finally will force one to taste defeat.

As wars became crucial to creating order and stability between kingdoms, the creation and maintenance of weapons for attack and defence in wars became a matter of serious attention. The evolution of these weapons and advancement of their efficiency are quite observable throughout the passage of time. As technology progressed from bows and arrows in 3500 BC to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in the present, the intensiveness and extensiveness of assured destruction have sharply risen. With evolved political relations between countries and international peace maintenance goals, maintaining a balanced defence policy becomes a matter of crucial concern for every governing authority.

Nuclear weapons are weapons of assured mass destruction and are manufactured through either nuclear fission or a combination of fission and fusion reactions. The energy released from the nuclear reactions is humungous and can pose irrecoverable destruction on life and property. The first nuclear weapon was launched when the U.S. was alarmed about the Nazi Germany building atom bombs. Called the Manhattan project, U.S. scientists, with the assistance of the U.K. and France, conducted researches to enrich uranium in 1940 and built atom bombs which were exploded in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even after the catastrophe of a nuclear bombing, the U.S. kept on enhancing its nuclear might, projecting it as self defence in the light of its then superpower enemy, Soviet Union. This incentivized USSR to be a nuclear weapon state as well and the Western and Eastern imperia turned into enormous stores of nuclear ammunition. Countries like the United Kingdom, France, and China, developed nuclear arms in 1952, 1960 and 1964 respectively. A wave of demands for nuclear disarmament rose in the 1950s with campaigns for nuclear disarmament in different parts of the world Treaties like NPT, CTBT were signed among countries, but non-signatories like India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea developed nuclear weapons in spite of the treaties. The countries abstained from signing the treaties because of their discriminatory nature, giving the discretion of possessing nuclear weaponry to select few countries. Treaties like Non Proliferation Treaty target to stop further proliferation of nuclear weapons while entitling the already nuclear-armed states to keep them. These pacts do not ensure absolute disarmament, and that becomes their biggest flaw. Therefore countries like India abstained from signing treaties of this like.

The rhetoric of proliferation of nuclear weapons among countries is an ongoing debate and will continue further. A single authority doesn’t exist who has the discretion to decide who get to keep the weapons and who do not. Even though there are supranational organizations which seek to figure an answer to this question, it has counter implications and complex functioning, some of which will be dealt with the article. Except for the first two, the intention of creation and maintenance of nuclear weapons has been defence rather than attack. Since the nuclear bombs were dropped during the Second World War by U.S., countries sought to possess nuclear weapons to defend themselves from being attacked in the first place. This is because the nuclear stores are capable of striking back after they are attacked, and that makes a nuclear attack suicidal for the country. The abstinence from a nuclear attack due to the fear of being hit back is called deterrence, and it works as a catalyst in preventing full-scale wars. Thus the nuclear weapons exist as a means to cancel the gains of the attacker. Kenneth Waltz, who came up with the concept of deterrence and is a great proponent of the proliferation of nuclear weapons, said that nuclear deterrence creates peace among countries through fear. 

To reason out nuclear deterrence, we can create a matrix using game theory. Why wouldn’t countries fire nuclear bombs at each other, if both possess nuclear weapons? Here is the matrix: Enemy countries A and B have access to nuclear arms. The game theory picture below gives a clear idea what would happen between two countries (A and B) when they are faced with two choices, to defect or to cooperate, i.e to fire or not to fire. 


The answer for why either of the countries wouldn’t drop a nuclear bomb is ‘rational fear’. In a case of equivalent nuclear access, a one sided victory will not exist. And the most rational choice lies in the final column of the matrix - everyone survives. The fear for the sustenance of life and nation is the reason why nations will choose not to be the first striker.

The argument against the deterrent factor of nuclear possession questions the rationality of leaders. Actual and potentially nuclear weapons states like Iran or Pakistan are governed by autocratic rulers, and their international policies tend to rely on historical, religion or racist agendas. The proponents for disarmament are apprehensive about the responsible handling of the weapons by these states. Kenneth Waltz, an advocate of worldwide proliferation of nuclear arms, defends by saying that all rulers will want a state to lead and deterrence assures the state collapses after the attack.

Alarmists like Bill Perry warn about the possibility of nuclear materials reaching the hands of illegal organizations like terrorist groups and spilling huge destruction in the world. An incident happened when the ISIS seized nuclear material from a scientific university in Northern Iraq, but failed as they couldn’t enrich the uranium required to build the weapon. The creation of weapons and the delivery strategy requires immense funds, which cannot possibly be afforded by organizations. However, the alarmist argument cannot be neglected blatantly. Disarmament of nuclear weapons by countries is not a solution to the problem of anti-social entities’ acquisition of weapons, as the materials could be acquired even otherwise and may also promote underground mafias.

International laws and treaties directed to disarmament are quite controversial in their regulations and functioning. Primarily, the laws are not binding on all countries, and the countries can choose not to sign the treaties. The particular ambiguity in the international law puts forth a scenario of the treaties being partially applicable.

The assurance of nuclear protection to its allies by prominent nuclear weapon states is called a nuclear umbrella. Disarmament propositions require destruction of nuclear weapons in these states. A move to disarmament in the nuclear weapon state would prompt amassing of weapons in the allies which would be facing threats. The countries which were once protected are now out in the open and it’s quite a possibility that the allies would emerge as new nuclear weapons and a cascading of nuclear ammunitions will happen. Absolute disarmament is a prospect only if nations trust and act trustworthy with each other.

An advantage, as well as a disadvantage of nuclear weapons, is the inception of fear among the others and thus can emerge as threats. The capability of advancing threats gives some amount of power at the nuclear weapons state’s disposition. The emergence of the nuclear era has shaken the power dynamics in the international platform to some extent. Wielding of nuclear weapons as a threat as well as a defence has fostered excessive dependence on them. This is not seen as a healthy development.

The proponents of nuclear proliferation tap at the effectiveness of deterrence and it may not work in favor of non-nuclear weapons. The argument is that there are bigger chances of deterrence failure when it comes to total disarmament and non nuclear scenario (due to lack of back strike technology or mass assured destruction) unless a more advanced weapon takes its place. That would be self-defeating for the disarmament objective itself.

While nuclear deterrence is the defence used by the proliferation advocates, the problem of proxy wars counters this vindication. One of the reasons why proxy wars occur is due to feuds between nuclear nations. Albeit, there have also been attacks such as China’s on the U.S. (during Korean War) while U.S. being a Nuclear Weapon State which exposes the point of deterrence. This reasoning is easily criticized when brought out its alternative. In a situation where disarmament takes place, deterrence does not prevail anymore, and higher chances of a big scale war awaits.

A cut and tight solution to this dilemma of nuclear weapons acquisition cannot be possible. Discourses and debates constantly happen on this issue at various levels of policy making. When nuclear arms prove to be the supreme means of defence among powerful nations, outright disarmament does not stand a chance considering real dearth of trust among them. Worldwide proliferation, its alternative, symmetrically poses challenges. As effective as deterrence works, proliferation is an optimal measure. It doesn’t blandly mean everyone gets to own nuclear weapons. A well formed, inclusive set of criteria which determines the parties who can legally maintain nuclear arms is a concrete solution. It imminently can produce results far better than international laws so far, which were formulated more or less on arbitrary lines.



 Mark, J. J. (2009, September 2). War. Retrieved November 13, 2017, from https://www.ancient.eu/war/

C. (n.d.). A Brief History of Nuclear Proliferation . Retrieved November 18, 2017, from http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/issues/proliferation/Proliferation_History.pdf

C. (2010, May 20). Assessing the Arguments For and Against Nuclear Proliferation. Retrieved November 13, 2017, from http://www.e-ir.info/2010/05/20/assessing-the-arguments-for-and-against-nuclear-proliferation/

Foster, J. S., Jr., & Payne, K. B. (2007, October). What are nuclear weapons for. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/2007/october/foster-payne.html

Clausewitz, C. V. (1873). On War (1st ed., Vol. 1). London: N Trubner. doi: https://www.clausewitz.com/readings/OnWar1873/BK1ch01.html#

(Director). (2017, March 21). What Nuclear War Would Look Like From Bill Perry (HBO)[Video file]. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from https://youtu.be/VUBY6bMZn8w

[1] Clausewitz, C. V. (1873). On War (1st ed., Vol. 1). London: N Trubner. doi: https://www.clausewitz.com/readings/OnWar1873/BK1ch01.html#

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Written By Theerdha Sara

Intern, Xavierite, Economics Enthusiast

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