Why Do Only A Handful Of Countries Have Nuclear Weapons?

Henry Sawyer

Cold War Twentieth Century
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The dawn of the Atomic Age in August 1945 beckoned a new phase of human history, the next stage in man’s scientific and destructive capability.

In quick succession, the USSR (1949), the UK (1952), France (1960) and China (1964) followed the United States in acquiring nuclear weapons. It was feared that this spread could extend to over 20 countries in a matter of decades.

In reality, however, only Israel (1968/70), India (1974/1998), South Africa (1979) Pakistan (1998), and North Korea (2006) have gone on to acquire a nuclear capability successfully.

Many influential and wealthy countries with the resources to develop nuclear weapons have emerged over the decades, as well as rogue states with a nuclear agenda, yet this deadly club of atomic powers has remained consistent in size.

This is the outcome of changing attitudes towards nuclear weapons, and global regimes that restrict their spread.

Nuclear Symbolism

Nuclear Symbolism, the meaning and quality a society attributes to nuclear weapons, determines at a fundamental level the ideas and qualities we associate with the bomb.

All of the nuclear weapons states shared, at the time of their acquisitions, in the belief that the nuclear bomb was a symbol of prestige and greatness. International relations realist Hans Morgenthau commented that acquiring nuclear weapons was a means to:

‘impress other nations with the power one’s nation possesses, or with the power it believes or wants the other nations to believe, it possesses’

The UK’s successful development of nuclear weapons by 1952 was motivated less as a deterrent and rather as a means to project and amplify the UK’s prestige and importance on the world-stage. The nuclear bomb revived the UK’s special role in international affairs following World War Two, strengthening its position in Washington, as well as its leadership in NATO and the United Nations.

United States Trident II missile underwater launch (Credit: Public Domain).

For the majority of nations, however, there is a general consensus that the nuclear bomb is a symbol of unjustifiable destruction and evil. Nuclear weapons are perceived to be immoral, and their use in an offensive war, or even in retaliation, unjustifiable. The collective psyche of these cultures, therefore, deters them from acquiring nuclear weapons.

This is demonstrated in countries like Germany, where successive governments have linked the destructiveness of the nuclear bomb with Nazi mass violence and destruction during World War Two. Regardless of whether nations have a violent history, the prevalent symbolism shared by the majority of countries was, and is, that nuclear bombs are immoral and justifiable.

As such, many nations with the capability to develop nuclear weapons have seen no justification for developing something they would be unwilling to use on ethical grounds.

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Nuclear norms 

Despite the negativity associated with the nuclear bomb by societies and governments, between 1945-1968 there lacked any universal treaty aimed at halting the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons. The norm was that it was socially acceptable for a power with the technological means to develop nuclear weapons, negating serious repercussions for the actions of the original five nuclear states.

The scholars Cohen and Rublee wrote that established norms influence an actor’s conception of what is ‘socially defined as normal, true, right or good’. Therefore, important to the deceleration of nuclear armament was the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s (NPT) institution of an international framework, to create a new norm in which the acquisition of nuclear weapons was unacceptable.

British Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart (third from right) signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, London, 1968. (Credit: IAEA/CC)

The NPT established the official and universal consensus against nuclear proliferation into an enforceable regime.

Mechanisms were provided for countries to advertise their non-nuclear intentions to others who were party to the arrangements as well as those who were not. The NPT, therefore, served several essential functions that have helped maintain non-proliferation. It allowed states to be transparent, increasing their confidence and the confidence of their neighbours.

The non-proliferation norm embedded in the NPT was key to the evolution of the established nuclear norm, from nuclear capability being acceptable to being taboo. Its normative message officially made the nuclear bomb a symbol of isolation and backwardness.

The NPT was not the cause of states forgoing nuclear weapons, but it strengthened and reinforced non-proliferation coalitions in government. It also made it unlikely for a state to acquire nuclear weapons, as most leaders accepted the consensus that acquisition was inappropriate.

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Domestic politics 

If norms and symbolism influence the shared beliefs a state has towards nuclear weapons, the ultimate nuclear decision has foundations at the domestic political level. Ultimately if a state does not have domestic support for a nuclear weapons program, it will not be able to acquire nuclear weapons.

In a globalised world, countries stake their political survival on economic growth and policies that facilitate export-led industrialisation and access to world markets. For the majority of countries, Etel Solingen argues that this means ‘expanding economic activities and foreign investment, controlling military expenditures, reducing barriers to trade, and abiding by international institutions that validate and promote their choices’.

Demonstration against nuclear tests in Lyon, France, 1980s (Credit: Community of the Ark of Lanza del Vasto/CC).

The best possible environment for business in a globalised world is a nation that is politically stable, predictable and cooperative with its neighbours and foreign partners. It is not pragmatic for a state to develop nuclear weapons if it wants to prosper economically and have full access to the international community.

In addition to economic sanctions and other types of coercion, most states simply cannot afford to sustain a nuclear weapons program while having to deal with other societal costs and issues. It costs the United Kingdom £2-2.4 billion a year to operate its nuclear deterrent, alongside a £31 billion bill to modernise its nuclear submarine fleet.

No small-medium economy can come close to meeting such a cost without detriment to its finances. The decision for most democratic countries, regardless of nuclear norms or symbolism, is that the bomb is simply unaffordable, economically and politically.

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Moving forwards

Changes in the symbolism of the nuclear weapon, negative international norms, and the economic and political restraints of a modern-day nuclear weapons program, are but some of the explanations of the question of why nuclear arms are not more widely held.

What is clear is that the Non-Proliferation Regime put in place at the height of the Cold War has been effective in deterring and coercing the majority of nations away from acquisition.

Yet the international community has come to take this regime for granted. It has survived so long due to strict adherence by its backers and unified, cohesive action against those who try to challenge it.

Just as norms and the political-economic cost of developing nuclear weapons have shifted in the past, they can do precisely the same in the future. With Cold-Wars arms treaties crumbling and the capability of rogue actors growing, this atomic club of nations may find itself with some new members.

Henry Sawyer