The Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Essay Sample

The Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Pages
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This essay will mainly look at the arguments from two of the present day’s most prolific thinkers on the subject of nuclear weapons (NWs). The main subject matter for this essay will come from The Spread of Nuclear Weapons a joint effort by both of these thinkers. It will look firstly to the arguments of Kenneth Waltz: realist thinker and proponent of the argument in favour of nuclear weapons. Secondly there is a discursion to the arguments of Scott Sagan: anti-proliferation thinker and extensive writer on the subject. Lastly the essay looks at some of Sagan’s arguments from other publications in a critical show of how his reasoning is not as robust as he would like us to think.

A Case in favour of Nuclear Weapons

i) The Defensive Ideal – dissuasion through defense.

Waltz, the realist, argues that “more may be better” in his article under that title. He claims a certain ‘military logic of self-help systems.’1 In holding with the realist tradition, it is due to the anarchic system of states and the principle of self-help within this system, it is providing security which is the individual state’s ‘most important way of helping itself.’2 Similarly, building “…defenses so patently strong that no one will try to destroy or overcome them would make international life perfectly tranquil.”3

ii) Deterrence.

Waltz says that deterrence is different from dissuasion.4 Dissuasion is, in the NW related understanding, the gathering of defenses (as stated above) whilst deterrence is stopping something via causing fear. Deterrence, on the other hand is the “commitment to retaliate, or to exact retribution if another party fails to behave in a desired, compliant manner”5

Deterrence is achieved not through the ability to defend, but through the ability to punish.6

Thus deterrence depends on the ability to cause fear in order to stop someone from doing something.7

Therefore, having no defenses is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition that a state may be considered to be of little threat. Indeed, a state may have no defenses, but it is entirely possible (though highly improbable) that a state in this situation may indeed have a massive nuclear arsenal.

iii) Nuclear Deterrence and Nuclear Defense improve the prospects for peace.

NWs are not weapons that humans have historically, and even recently, chosen to use. As a choice we have repeatedly chosen to use more conventional weaponry than NWs. “War can be fought in the face of deterrent threats, but…the closer a country moves toward winning…the more surely that country invites retaliation and risks it’s own destruction…If states can score only small gains, because large ones risk retaliation, they have little incentive to fight.” This leads on to Waltz’s next point that “states will act with less care if the expected costs of war are low, and with more care if they are high…Think of Kennedy and Krushchev in the Cuban missile crisis. Why fight if you can’t win much and might lose everything?”

‘NWs used for deterrence do more for national security than does the acquisition of territory…A state using NWs as a deterrent strategy does not need territory as much as a state relying on conventional defense. A deterrent strategy makes it unnecessary for a country to fight for the sake of increasing its security, and thus removes a major cause of war.’ It follows that the extent to which a deterrent is effective depends upon a state’s capabilities (i.e. what size of arsenal does the state have, what sort of NWs are in it and in what state of repair are they?) and upon a state’s willingness to use such an armoury.

The motivation of the attacked to defend is presumed stronger than the motivation of the attacker to attack.11 Here, the attacked is defending all he has – a convincing argument when considered against the lesser motivation that is annexing further land. Realistically then, a would-be attacker inhibits himself if he attacks a NW state – especially where the annexing of territory [or another non-defensive action] is concerned. Most importantly, intelligence on the size and condition of other states’ nuclear armouries is the largest deterrent of all. Consider the previous two paragraphs and it seems apparent that no matter what the deterrence, the fear imposed by the knowledge that a potential enemy also holds NWs and could totally destroy the domestic state at the same time as the domestic state is destroying the enemy is the single most important deterrent of all.

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).


“mutual assured destruction, mutual deterrence between nuclear powers based on the possession by each of the capacity to destroy a substantial proportion of the population and industry of the other in response to an initial attack; abbreviated MAD.”

According to the doctrine of MAD, by simply possessing NWs and having the ability to use them in a direct attack/defense situation, two (or more) countries which hold them will never actually use them against one another because if they do they are assured destruction.

In addition to the above, there are those who argue for ‘selective’ nuclear proliferation throughout countries who face nuclear armed opponents. Their primary reasoning rests on the MAD pro-proliferation argument: “The chance of bilateral conflict becoming nuclear…decreases to zero when all nations are nuclear armed” Amongst the proponents of the proliferation of NWs are John Mearscheimer, Stephen Van Evera, Peter Lavoy, Martin van Creveld and Shai Feldman who all, for similar reasons, advocate the widening of NW holding/ownership for means of deterrence.

A Case against Nuclear Weapons.

Checks and Balances

Beginning with Scott Sagan presents his “alternative theory of the consequences of nuclear proliferation…rooted in organisational theory.” Sagan presents two arguments fundamental to his theory. Firstly that, unless “professionally managed through a checks-and-balances system of strong civilian control”, present day professional military institutions are liable to lead to a failure in deterrence. Secondly that, he believes forthcoming nuclear-armed states will lack such “positive mechanisms of civilian control” due to the emergence of nuclear proliferators that either are under considerable influence from the military where a weak civilian government is in place, or are led by a military government in the first place. Sagan holds that objective aims of the state are belittled by such stimuli and have their main focus on internal matters, rather than on external threats to national security. Consequentially, a government under such (strong) military persuasion has its “professional competence as a fighting force”

Organisation at highest levels not always rational

The crux of Sagan’s argument lies in his view of the matter from an “organisational perspective” and forms the basis for the rest of his main argument. He says that two topics in organisational theory mar the view that those in charge of NWs (chiefly government and military organisations) are purely rational in their organisational behaviour. Such institutions use simplified models to understand the more complex ‘outside world’. They also do not use distinct or discrete rational decisions, rather that they use standardised and formalised procedure to deal with the necessity of coordinating their internal activities. They ‘satisfice’ (‘the finding and accepting of the first option that is minimally satisfying’) rather than find the most agreeable course of action. Also, the gathering of information is not done from a ‘complete’ basis, rather it tends to be done in regard to the researcher’s past areas of experience, training and responsibilities. He goes on to say that factors such as internal politics and the type of language used within such organisations is important in constructing how that organisation views any particular external consideration.

Internal Politics of organisations contrary to purpose

Sagan’s argument expands to include the “multiple, conflicting goals” of internal organisational structures. These objectives, he states, are ‘intensely political’ and that some units within an organisation may be seen to be acting not in concordance with the organisation’s leadership. Arguably, this is a common and widespread human phenomenon and is not isolated to a few peculiar examples of organisations which hold/control NWs. Furthermore, if it were then we might expect to be able to actually do something about this. However, as it is it is not, and if we cannot accept and work with what it is to be simply human then we will find our purpose in life lessened – and the effect we would like to have in/on life similarly lessened through pathetic cries for help. Furthermore, it is arguable that these internal politics actually help to strengthen an organisational community. By separating out those weaker individuals who may not necessarily have the strength of purpose to always be able to carry out their convictions, an organisation is actually strengthened in purpose, not, as Sagan might imply, weakened in its pursuance of objectives.

Redundancy in extra security

In his article The Problem of Redundancy Problem: Why More Nuclear Security Forces May Produce Less Nuclear Security, Sagan outlines why he thinks it is that the (at the time of writing) emerging terrorist threats to US nuclear installations poses a problem for the ‘redundancy’ of security for those weapons. The specific problem is that a redundancy of security forces (in other words a larger number of security forces than actually required) may lead to the problem of ‘social shirking’ where a member of security personnel may ‘shirk’ unpleasant duties, believing that another member of personnel will ‘take up the slack’. The title of this article alone (implicitly) backs up Sagan’s arguments for less NWs being a possibility for a ‘better’ world. However, it is clear that the argument is that with no NWs, we would not be faced with “The Problem of Redundancy Problem” in this nuclear context.

Sagan goes further with this argument against the proliferation of NWs, in his article The Commitment Trap23 he says that there is a ‘logical inconsistency’ on the half of the pro nuclear argument, and in relation to this he misses an essential point of the MAD argument:

…the mere existence of nuclear weapons- [an] existential deterrence produced by the impossibility of knowing what a nuclear power will do if attacked-will continue to have a useful deterrent effect.

It how he is presenting this that is a worry. His description of an “existential deterrence produced by the impossibility of knowing what a nuclear power will do if attacked” are evocative of the MAD situation. However, where Sagan is misleading us is where he says ‘the impossibility of knowing”. The MAD argument does not rest on any impossibility of knowing anything, rather, it rests on the real (and not impossible) possibility of what a NW state may do if attacked. We can safely say that we know which states have NWs, and even know which ones have the capability to produce NWs if they so desired.

So firstly the fact that states continue to attempt to gain NWs shows that the ownership of these weapons holds some credibility in the eyes of such owners. What is tacitly agreed to is the MAD argument. The MAD argument therefore holds in the real world. If this was not true then states would not continuously chase the ownership of NWs, and without the ownership of NWs, there then would be no argument on either side. However, this is not the case in the real world, rather it is the case that NWs are very much a part of the international community and it is doubtful that arguments about the structure and working of organizations, their internal politics or how security is organized will have any sizeable effect on those who hold, justify and practice the ownership of NWs.


Conclusively, it seems to be a better strategy for argument to propose situations that are as closely linked to the matter in hand as possible. What has been discussed are some matters directly influential to the debate on NWs, and some matters a little farther away from what we might call the ‘immediate’ issues: issues such as the internal workings of organizations, for example, are not issues that any can be placed on an equal footing as issues such as those pertaining more directly to the matters of why or why not do we need nuclear weapons. In this way I hope to have shown how Sagan uses more obscure examples to hope to sway the minds of those interested in this subject matter. In doing so I also hope to have shown how he has weakened his own stance by looking at the problem from behind the main stage. He has veered away from the main issues at hand, and instead focused on issues that may have an effect on our conceptualization of the use of NWs, but do not hold a conclusive show of evidence that might suggest that we do not really need NWs. In short, his arguments are strong, but have more to do with the logistcs and management of NW systems/organizations than do issues affecting the present need for NWs.


Bueno de Mesquita, B., & Riker, W, H., An assessment of the Merits of Selective Nuclear Proliferation, Journal of Conflict Resolution 26, no. 2, June 1982.

Evans, G., & Newnham, J., The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin Reference, London, 1998.

Freedman, L., The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, 3rd Edit., Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK, 2003.

Sagan, S., The Commitment Trap, Commitment Trap: Why The United States Should Not Use Nuclear Threats to Deter Biological and Chemical Weapons Attacks, Internatioanl Security, Volume 24, Number 4, 1 April 2000

Sagan, S., The Problem of Redundancy Problem: Why More Nuclear Security Forces May Produce Less Nuclear Security, Risk Analysis, Vol. 24, No. 4, 2004

Waltz, K., and Sagan, S., The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, A Debate Renewed, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, USA / London, UK, 2003.

Online Bibliography, Oxford English Dictionary, The definitive record of the English language, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK:,

Thursday, 01 December 2005

Wednesday, 07 December 2005, The Atom Bomb: Truman’s Announcement on Hiroshima, Thursday, 01 December 2005, Center for Defence Information, The World’s Nuclear Arsenals,

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