Understanding the reasons why a country chooses to go nuclear are complex, variable and speculative, but I would offer as a hypothesis four principal, though often overlapping factors: fear, security, enhancing the country’s bully potential or countering another country’s bully potential, and prestige. North Korea seems to be pioneering a fifth reason: to use the weapons as a bargaining chip to gain security guarantees and financial concessions. Each country that chooses to go nuclear will certainly reflect some or all of these reasons in their decision, although they may be in different combinations or proportions for different states. The reasons that the current nuclear weapons states went nuclear provide insights into these dynamics.

Existing Nuclear Weapons States

The first country to develop nuclear weapons was the United States, initiating the world’s first nuclear weapons program in anticipation of US involvement in World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt had been warned by Albert Einstein that a possibility existed for the Germans to develop nuclear weapons. Roosevelt and his advisors were motivated by fear that the German scientists would succeed in their quest for nuclear weapons, and that US nuclear weapons would be necessary to assure the security of the United States and the Allied powers by deterring the Germans from using theirs with impunity.

Germany never succeeded in developing nuclear weapons and was defeated two months prior to the testing of the first US nuclear weapon. The United States quickly found another use for its nuclear arms, using the bombs against two cities in a nearly defeated Japan. Evidence suggests that this militarily questionable act was also intended to keep the Soviets from playing a larger role in the defeat and occupation of Japan and generally to send a warning message to the Soviet Union. Thus, while fear and security may have been the initial impetus for the US developing nuclear weapons, their use was subsequently overtly justified as saving US and Allied lives and bringing the war in the Pacific to a faster conclusion. At the same time, the US was flexing its muscles before the world, and demonstrating the bully potential of these weapons.

The next country to develop nuclear weapons was the Soviet Union. Although the US and Soviet Union were allies in World War II, there were early signs that this relationship would not hold in the post-WWII period. The US use of nuclear weapons at the end of the war, when combined with the fact that the US kept the project secret from the Soviet Union, must have created the fear for Soviet leadership that the US would use its new weapons to dominate them. While many US political leaders thought that it might take decades for the Soviet Union to go nuclear, it actually took them only four years. Driven by fear of US domination, they sought security in the deterrence potential of the weapons, while at the same time adding to their prestige and bestowing upon themselves the bully potential of the weapons.

Despite sharing in the Allied victory in World War II, both Britain and France emerged from the war with less power and prestige than they had going into the war. Britain, as a wartime ally of the US, had played a role in the development of the bomb in the US Manhattan Project, and thus its scientists were privy to the secrets of creating nuclear weapons. First Britain and then France went ahead with developing their own nuclear arms. Both countries could have chosen to remain under the US nuclear umbrella, but both chose instead to develop their own nuclear arsenals. Their reasoning was said to be based on the fear that a US leader would not be willing to sacrifice New York in an exchange with the Soviet Union in order to retaliate against a Soviet attack against London or Paris. Thus, both Britain and France, chose to go nuclear out of fear and a lack of trust in placing their security in the hands of the US. At the same time, they bolstered their waning prestige in the world, and increased their bully power against their remaining colonies and other weaker states.

China, the final permanent member of the UN Security Council, chose also to go nuclear, fearing that without nuclear weapons its security was threatened by both the US and Soviet Union and that it would remain subject to their bully potential. China announced from the onset of its nuclear status that it did not intend to develop more than a minimum deterrent force and that it would not use nuclear weapons first. It sought only a small but sufficient nuclear retaliatory force to prevent the US or Soviet Union from using nuclear weapons against it. Fear and security appeared to be the driving force in China’s decision to go nuclear, although it enhanced its international prestige in the process and also gave itself some increase in bully power on a regional level.

These five states – the US, Soviet Union (now Russia), UK, France and China – were the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the five states that were named as nuclear weapons states in the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While other states joined this treaty as non-nuclear weapons states and agreed not to develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapons states promised, among other things, to engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament. The International Court of Justice later ruled that these states were obligated by the NPT “to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

Today the NPT has become nearly universal. Only four states are outside the treaty structure: Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. The first three never joined the treaty, and the latter withdrew from the treaty in 2003. Israel’s official position is the ambiguous statement that it will never be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East, but it is widely understood that Israel possesses some 100 to 200 nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery. Israel has had a troubled existence and has engaged in many wars with its neighbors, all of which it has won with its high-tech military forces. Israel’s decision to go nuclear may be best understood as a desire to enhance its security by implicitly threatening ultimate recourse against hostile neighboring countries, and by reducing or eliminating the bully power that the US or Russia might seek to use to alter Israeli policies. However, by going nuclear, Israel has raised the fear level of its neighbors and their desire to enhance their security, potentially by going nuclear themselves.

India held the position for many years that it was willing to remain a non-nuclear weapons state, but not in a world where some states continue to possess and refuse to give up their nuclear arms. Indian leaders have used the term “nuclear apartheid” to describe the two-tier structure of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” India is thought to have initially secretly tested a nuclear device in 1974. It openly tested nuclear weapons in 1998. While fear and security may have played some role in India’s decision to go nuclear, particularly vis-à-vis China, there was a sense that India was motivated to a large degree by prestige. The country seemed to go wild with celebration in 1998 when India conducted its open nuclear weapons tests, as though this were validation of its emergence into “great power” status.

India also had some potential to use its nuclear arms to bully Pakistan in their dispute over Kashmir, but this possibility was erased immediately when Pakistan followed India in publicly testing its own nuclear arms. For Pakistan, reasons for going nuclear certainly included fear of India, the desire to enhance its security, and prestige. The people of Pakistan, like those of India, exploded in celebration upon its successful nuclear weapons tests in 1998. A.Q. Khan, the “father” of Pakistan’s bomb, is a national hero in Pakistan, despite being the mastermind of a major international black market nuclear proliferation scheme.

The final country that claims to have gone nuclear is North Korea. This country again fits the pattern of developing nuclear weapons out of fear of attack, principally by the US, and thus to enhance its security. In the case of North Korea, there is the added element of creating these weapons as a bargaining chip to gain security assurances from the US and also development aid. The long-standing six-party negotiations on North Korea’s nuclear arms point to North Korea’s desire to trade its nuclear arms capability for nuclear energy plants and US security assurances. Thus, for North Korea, prestige and bully potential seem less significant than security promises and development aid.

Why Nations Do Not Go Nuclear

There are currently 191 member states of the United Nations. Of these, only nine have chosen to go nuclear. Thus, the overwhelming majority of states in the international system have chosen not to go nuclear. Why nations go nuclear needs to be weighed against why nations do not go nuclear. Among the reasons why nations choose not to go nuclear are the following:

  1. Technological capability. Many nations, particularly poorer nations, lack the technological capability to develop nuclear arms. While this leaves out many states, there are at least 44 states with nuclear reactors on their territory, suggesting potential technological capability and access to nuclear materials for bomb production.
  2. Security Alliances. Alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) provide a nuclear umbrella for member states, and thus act as a disincentive for an alliance member to go nuclear.
  3. Non-Proliferation Treaty. The NPT is the centerpiece of nuclear arms control and disarmament efforts. In joining the treaty, non-nuclear weapons states agree not to develop or acquire nuclear arms. There is, however, a reciprocal pledge by the nuclear weapons states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, and the failure of the nuclear weapons states to fulfill this obligation may be eroding viability of the treaty.
  4. Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone (NWFZ) Agreements. Such regional agreements now cover the entire southern hemisphere of the planet. Such agreements now exist for Antarctica, Latin America and the Caribbean, the South Pacific, Africa and Southeast Asia.
  5. Perception of Negative Consequences. National leaders may perceive that they would suffer negative consequences by going nuclear, such as a loss of economic support, including development aid, disruption of alliances, and becoming targets of other states’ nuclear arsenals.
  6. National Self-Image. Some states may not have as goals being nuclear weapons states, preferring to provide leadership toward a nuclear weapons-free world.

Incentives and Disincentives to Going Nuclear

Among the principal incentives for a state to go nuclear are threats by a current nuclear weapons state or a regional security environment that is uncertain. When the US president named Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” he provided incentive for them to develop nuclear arms. These incentives were enhanced by the leaked 2001 US Nuclear Posture Review that called for developing contingency plans to use nuclear weapons against seven states (Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya and Syria), five of which were non-nuclear weapons states (although North Korea subsequently chose to go nuclear).

Four of these states ( Iraq, Iran, Libya and Syria) are in the Middle East, one of the most dangerous security environments in the world and an area in which one nuclear weapons state currently exists ( Israel). Since the US Nuclear Posture Review came out, Iraq was attacked and invaded by the US and its “Coalition of the Willing,” and Libya has chosen on its own to give up its nuclear weapons program. Iran and Syria, however, are still viewed as possible regional candidates to develop nuclear weapons, as is Egypt. Like India and Pakistan, these states may choose to go nuclear rather than continue to live with the unbalance and uncertainty of implied and overt threats to their security by the US and Israel.

The greatest disincentives to these states going nuclear would be to establish a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East or, more broadly, a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone, combined with credible pledges by the US and other nuclear weapons states to provide security assurances to non-nuclear weapons states. It seems clear that so long as Israel remains the sole state in the Middle East with nuclear weapons, there will be strong incentives for other states to seek nuclear weapons as an equalizer, much as the Soviet Union sought to do against the US or Pakistan sought to do against India.

Several states have come into possession of nuclear weapons and chosen to give them up. South Africa clandestinely developed a small nuclear arsenal when it felt beleaguered due to its policy of Apartheid. When South Africa chose to give up its policy and practice of Apartheid, it also made the decision to give up its nuclear arsenal. Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus inherited nuclear weapons upon the break up of the Soviet Union, and all chose to turn these weapons over to Russia for dismantlement. This was accomplished with incentives and security assurances from the US and Russia. Argentina and Brazil were two countries that were moving toward developing nuclear weapons, but were dissuaded from doing so by regional security arrangements and gave up their programs. These examples all show that the development or acquisition of nuclear arsenals can be reversed.

Unraveling the Nuclear Knot

What is now needed are disincentives that would unravel the current knot of nuclear weapons states. The greatest disincentive to continue to possess nuclear weapons may be the possibility that other states will also continue to retain their weapons, leading to nuclear weapons or the materials to create them falling into the hands of terrorists. The possibility of a terrorist group in possession of nuclear weapons should give even the most powerful country in the world, the United States, incentive to seek the global elimination of nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible and to bring the materials to make such weapons under strict international control.

Russia has suggested many times that it is prepared to further reduce its nuclear arsenal by agreement with the United States to under 1,500 nuclear weapons. Thus far, the US has not indicated an interest in reducing the number of its deployed strategic weapons to under 1,700 to 2,200 weapons. Further, the US has failed to accept its obligation to move forward on the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. Under the Bush administration the leadership for progress in achieving nuclear disarmament has been severely lacking.

It would seem that only the United States, due to its military and economic power, has the capability and convening power to bring together the nuclear weapons states and lead them in creating a Nuclear Weapons Convention that would set forth obligations for phased nuclear disarmament with adequate provisions for verification and international control. We can only hope that such leadership will be forthcoming before nuclear weapons proliferate to other countries and are again used.

Although the United States may be needed for the actual implementation of a Nuclear Weapons Convention, the world cannot wait for the US to take action on this issue, particularly knowing of the Bush administration’s hostility to fulfilling its obligations under Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the steps set forth in the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament in the Final Document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. While US initiative remains dormant, other states must fill this void with innovative collective measures to move ahead with a Nuclear Weapons Convention. This idea has been most seriously embraced by civil society groups, such as the Abolition 2000 Global Network and the Mayors for Peace Emergency Campaign to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons by the year 2020.

With the failure of the 2005 NPT Review Conference to make any progress and the failure of the 2005 High-Level Summit meeting at the United Nations to reach any agreement on nuclear disarmament issues, both due to US opposition, the world stands at a deadlock on nuclear disarmament issues. The United Nations Conference on Disarmament has not addressed nuclear disarmament issues for eight years, also largely due to US opposition.

There are only two possibilities to change this situation. The first is the awakening of the American people to put pressure on their government to cease being an obstacle to nuclear disarmament efforts and start being a leader in these efforts. The second is for the international community to unite in putting pressure on the US from outside. At this point in time, neither of these possibilities appears promising, and thus we drift toward nuclear the “unparalleled catastrophes” that Einstein warned would occur unless we can change our thinking.

David Krieger is the president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). He is a leader in the global effort to abolish nuclear weapons. This paper was prepared for The Istanbul Workshop on Nuclear Dangers in the Middle East, 17-21 November 2005.