The reasons behind nuclear weapons’ revival

backPrinter-friendly versionSend to friend


A nuclear warhead

In recent years, the issue of nuclear weapons has received greater attention because of developments concerning Russia, Iran, North Korea, and possibly Saudi Arabia. Moscow has increasingly mentioned the use of nuclear weapons in its military doctrine, by envisaging a continuum of tools stretching from non-military means such as information warfare to the use of special forces, conventional military, up to nuclear arsenals – what Western experts and officials have labelled “hybrid warfare”. In the Iranian case, the 2015 deal (officially known as Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) allowing Tehran to pursue civilian nuclear power but not a military program is now questioned by its main guarantor, the US, thus opening scenarios of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. A race which Saudi Arabia is likely to join, if Riyadh will have to face an Iranian competitor about to acquire a nuclear arsenal. As is well known, the goal of a significant nuclear weapon capability is actively pursued by North Korea, whose technical advances, coupled with the Donald Trump’s aggressive approach, have triggered a dynamic of military escalation (at least at the level of declaratory policy and some exercises) as well as tentative diplomatic negotiations.

The reasons for such a nuclear revival lie partly in the specific motivations of each leadership, often driven by domestic concerns, and partly in the current evolution of the international security environment. On the first front, the specificities of the “agents” – whether states, government, or single leaders – should be carefully taken into account. For Vladimir Putin’s regime, raising Russia’s nuclear profile is a way to counterbalance its demographic, economic and technological weaknesses, at a time when the Kremlin is pursuing an aggressive and revisionist foreign policy. The plan seems to be to build domestic consensus behind the Russian flag  while depicting the country as under siege by external enemies. Since this path clearly appears to benefit Putin’s hold on power, as shown by its latest electoral victory, it is likely that the Russian efforts to maintain and upgrade its nuclear arsenal will continue.

As for Iran, the nuclear programme has served the two-fold purpose of ultimate guarantee against an external military intervention aimed at regime change, and enabler for a full status of regional power long desired by Tehran. Once a peaceful settlement with the US and a seat at the table of regional powers seemed within reach, the Iranian leadership calculated that the nuclear race could stop (or at least be frozen) in order to consolidate the newly acquired status by other means – including economic relations. Now that Trump has questioned and heavily criticized – but not yet scrapped – the deal, Tehran’s strategic calculus on whether it is worth re-starting the nuclear race will largely depend on US and European acceptance of its hard-won status. In turn, Riyadh’s calculus will be deeply influenced by the Western and Iranian one. Despite the technological and diplomatic weaknesses of Saudi Arabia (including a certain impulsiveness since the ascent of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman), the country’s leadership has sufficient economic resources and political will to undertake a nuclear arms race – on top of the ongoing conventional military one – should they deem it necessary to face an Iranian atomic arsenal. North Korea made a calculus somehow similar to the Iranian one. The build up of nuclear weapons and missile systems is seen as both a guarantee against a US-led regime change, and an enabler to negotiate with neighbouring countries and global powers from a position of greater strength.

These disparate cases are all influenced by the evolution of the international security environment. Such an evolution as been recently conceptualized in various ways, such as a multi-polar world, a post-American order, a crisis of the international liberal order. Indeed, the global redistribution of economic, demographic and military power has enhanced new “poles”, such as Chinese, India, and – on a smaller scale – Iranian, which have become increasingly autonomous and assertive. At the same time, under the Barack Obama administration, the US chose a path of strategic retrenchment after a decade of military and political overstretch, but this course was coupled with diplomatic support for multilateral agreements and institutions, on issues such as climate change, free trade and of course the Iranian nuclear programme.

The path of retrenchment has been accelerated and made bluntly explicit by the Trump administration, for example by avoiding any military involvement in Libya and by planning the pull-out of US troops from Syria shortly after the territorial defeat of the “Caliphate”. The Republican administration has also pursued a withdrawal from longstanding multilateral agreements – including a cooler attitude toward NATO and EU defence cooperation and integration.

Various trends – external and internal – are converging to weaken the very foundations of the Western-led international order. On the external front, China and – to a lesser extent - Russia offer their population and the rest of the world an alternative model of “authoritarian capitalism”, somehow mirrored by the Iranian model. On the internal front, Western democracies are increasingly put under pressure by the social inequalities linked to globalization as well as by massive migratory flows, with a consequent rise of anti-establishment parties.

Such an evolution also has important effects on the strategic calculus regarding nuclear weapons. The rise of a  multi-polar world implies more actors  to be taken into account, more combinations of of alliances, more room of manoeuvre. The US strategic retrenchment has partly removed a deterrent that discouraged others from pushing the nuclear race beyond certain red lines, increasing the available options while simultaneously creating more uncertainty. In parallel, the cultural and political challenges to the international liberal order are weakening the pressure and impact of (liberal) civil society on the anti-nuclear campaigns. As a whole, the international security environment sees more conflicts, more instability, more anarchy, more nationalism, more state-to-state confrontation than just one decade ago. Such an environment makes the development of a nuclear arsenal much more attractive  in some case to maintain the status quo and in others to challenge it.

The latest US National Security Strategy (December 2017) and Nuclear Posture Review (February 2018) do take stock of such a situation, and indeed make a number of points on state-to-state confrontation as well as specifically on the use of nuclear weapons. As to the former, the ongoing investments on nukes with smaller payload and fallout is meant, among other things, to broaden the available options in case of nuclear escalation. This may represent a bargaining chip vis-a-vis Russia when it comes to arms control – i.e. about the enforcement of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Yet it de facto lowers the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons, at a time when conventional weapons – from missiles to cyber war – are capable of inflicting much greater damage than before to an opponent’s armed forces and critical infrastructures. As a result of both the lowering of nuclear threshold and the higher impact of conventional weapons, the gap between conventional and nuclear escalations is reduced in the strategic calculus of those possessing both kind of capabilities.

Last but not least, the acceleration and spread of technological innovation in the civilian sector, coupled with the globalization of knowledge, products and human resources, make it faster and cheaper to undertake complex, long-term technological programs once reserved to superpowers – from the space sector to the nuclear one.

In conclusion, factors such as authoritarian leaderships motivated by domestic concerns, the multi-polar evolution of the international security environment, and the globalized nature of rapid technological innovation, all militate in favour of the ongoing revival of nuclear weapons. Since these factors are likely to remain in place in the next future, Western democracies should start again to think strategically about the nuclear dimension of international relations, if they want to prevent declaratory policy from being followed upwith the concrete use of these weapons.

Read also:

What future for the Iran nuclear deal under Rouhani 2.0?
Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi

Overcharged or Overblown?: Nuclear Risks and Trump's Tweets
Heather Williams