International Relations Assess the arguments for and against the proliferation of nuclear weapons

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Euan R. Clark

International Relations

Assess the arguments for and against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.


Michel Torsten

2151 words



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.’ 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.’ Similarly, building “…defenses so patently strong that no one will try to destroy or overcome them would make international life perfectly tranquil.”

ii) Deterrence.

Waltz says that deterrence is different from dissuasion. 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”

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

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

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?”

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‘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 ...

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