Why do states build nuclear weapons? Since the early years of the Cold War, nuclear experts have been grappling with this question to which there is not a single right answer. World leaders have repeatedly expressed their opposition to the use of nuclear weapons. Despite this, states continue to devote enormous human and financial resources to develop these weapons of mass destruction. Nine countries have nuclear weapons to date and it is estimated that 35-40 countries have the necessary scientific knowledge and infrastructure to acquire them on an emergency basis if they so choose. Today’s nuclear weapons are much more powerful in terms of destructive capability than those dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Just 30 to 40 nuclear weapons could completely wipe out the entire population of Pakistan. Exposure to the radioactivity produced by nuclear explosions may also cause the deaths of millions of people in neighbouring countries.
Given these threats, what are the principal ‘desires’ or ‘fears’ that drive the expensive nuclear programmes pursued by different states? The answer to this question has significant implications for the long-term future of international security. Many scholars offer a consensus view that nations choose to go nuclear because they must balance against any rival state that has developed nuclear weapons. According to the neorealist school of thought, an anarchical international system exists and states, therefore, must rely on ‘self-help’ to protect their sovereignty and national security. The Soviet Union acquired nuclear capability because its principal adversary state, the US, already possessed nuclear weapons. China developed nuclear weapons because it was threatened with possible nuclear attack by the US at the end of the Korean War.
Analogously, Pakistan chose the nuclear path only in response to the 1974 Indian nuclear test. Even after 1974, Pakistan proposed to India the establishment of a Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone (NWFZ) in South Asia through a United Nations General Assembly Resolution. However, due to India’s resistance and aggressive designs in the region, Pakistani policymakers gave the go ahead to acquire nuclear weapons capability. A nuclear India with its massive conventional military capability posed not only a serious threat to Pakistan but also to other countries in the region. Against this backdrop, the proposal to denuclearise South Asia was discussed again in the final document of the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. However, India continues to oppose the establishment of a NWFZ because of its unwarranted obsession with China.
In the post-Cold War period, a number of nuclear experts have challenged the conventional wisdom behind developing nukes and have offered a different perspective. They are of the view that focusing on security imperatives as the sole cause of proliferation wrongly assumes that states are monolithic actors. This approach does not explain the cases of nuclear proliferation in countries where nuclear weapons serve other parochial domestic objectives of some institutions or individual bureaucratic actors. Strong vested interests in a number of countries envision nuclear weapons as political tools used to advance their specific interests that may or may not be consistent with broader national interests. In Pakistan, the development of nuclear weapons, along with a vast nuclear security infrastructure over the past three decades has enhanced many times the importance of the military establishment. On the other side of the border, there is firm evidence to suggest that Indian civilian governments were never in favour of developing nuclear weapons but India’s scientific community, under the leadership of Homi Bhabba, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), constantly lobbied to persuade Indira Gandhi to take the decision to acquire nuclear capability.
Even when Indira Gandhi made the final decision in favour of building nuclear weapons, she consulted only with a very small circle of personal advisors. Senior defence and foreign affairs officials were kept in the dark for too long and they were informed only a few days before the nuclear test in 1974. Such a pattern of decision-making suggests that in the development of India’s nuclear programme, security arrangements were of secondary importance. It is also important to recognise that Indira Gandhi decided to go for nuclear tests at a time when public support for her government had fallen to an all-time low due to domestic unrest. Thus, the Gandhi government considered it a major opportunity to divert public attention and increase its public standing. There is no incontrovertible evidence to support the myth created by Indian policymakers that their nuclear weapons programme was ‘security-driven’. Carnegie Endowment expert George Perkovich opined that “the leaders of the strategic weapons establishment, an enclave of scientists and engineers in India’s defence research and atomic energy institutions...for five decades had been pushing India to join the exclusive club of nuclear weapon states.”
Some experts also contend that states seek to develop nuclear capability because nuclear weapons are seen as serving higher symbolic values and are a prerequisite for achieving ‘great power status’. This approach assumes that national decisions are always influenced by certain norms and shared beliefs about what makes any given state strong and modern. Putting it another way, Stanford University Professor Scott Sagan says that nuclear weapons serve “important symbolic functions — both shaping and reflecting a state’s identity”. This sense of national identity is based in part on a country’s observation of other states’ actions. Common people in countries like India, Pakistan and Israel think that nuclear weapons are necessary to meet their national destinies. Despite much evidence to the contrary, they continue to feel that the possession of nuclear weapons has made them more venerated and relevant in the comity of nations.
In the 1950s, France’s Charles de Gaulle actively worked on formulating a general public perception in his country that the Soviet Union constituted a grave threat to their national security. Due to their long and troubled history of mutual conflicts with Germany, the French also viewed both East and West Germany with deep suspicion. In addition, de Gaulle also envisioned a historic great power status for France in European affairs during the Cold War. And, in his view, the best means to achieve that status was to acquire nuclear capability.
In a nutshell, it can be said that states’ decisions to pursue or not to pursue nuclear weapons are influenced by a host of factors. Although national security considerations have played a considerable role in the case of some countries choosing this path, a holistic approach can better help gain a complete understanding of the nuclear proliferation puzzle.
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