Attitudes Towards Nuclear Nonproliferation and Deterrence

Justin Lee
March 21, 2012

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2012


The term "nuclear proliferation" often elicits images of a life-or-death race to accumulate the extremely destructive weapons before foreign entities. Even now in the 21st century, there are strong associations with countries clandestinely attempting to acquire materials, assemble them, and test prototypes of nuclear weapons.

Theory of Nuclear Deterrence

A common characteristic of nearly every emerging nuclear power from China in the 1960s to Iran in the present day is the concept of opaque proliferation, which is the public denial of nuclear weapons development while secretly doing just that. This phenomenon is certainly a serious cause for concern and tends to put a strain on international relations. Thus, the question comes up as to how countries, both nuclear and non-nuclear states, ought to combat the seemingly self-perpetuating drive to develop functional nuclear arms. While the best strategy is certainly up for debate, a powerful technique is nuclear deterrence, as articulated by Benjamin Frankel: "The theory of nuclear deterrence in its various manifestations is ultimately the waving of a big and visible nuclear stick at a potential aggressor." [1]

This logic of nuclear deterrence is that the principal impact of possessing nuclear weapons is to dissuade opponents from attacking by implicitly threatening overwhelmingly bad consequences in the case of a counterattack, which would result in a mutually undesirable state. Because a nuclear world is one where opponents are uncertain about potential decimation, the possession of nuclear weapons serves as a mean for peace by making the detrimental consequences of bad policy decision impossible to underestimate or misgauge. [2]

Theory of Nuclear Nonproliferation

Complementing nuclear deterrence, as a means to strategically minimizing the damage incurred by nuclear weapons, is the theory of nuclear nonproliferation, which suggests that the mere presence of a nuclear weapon necessarily and dramatically increases the probability that such a weapon will be used. The main argument is that Third World nuclear forces will not have the infrastructure or the ability to deal with the profundity of the weapons they might hold in their hands. [3] Thus, nuclear weapons ought not be "kept around for deterrence purpose" because of the likelihood that entities that newly acquire such weapons will be more prone to nuclear accidents, antagonistic tensions directed against more established nuclear powers, and unresponsiveness to nuclear deterrence as a check on all out nuclear war. The possible destruction of even a small, primitive single-stage atomic warhead from an emerging power can be ultimately devastating to nuclear powerhouses like the U.S.; the persuasiveness of nuclear nonproliferation is realized when the possession of merely one nuclear weapon gives a country tremendous and extremely damaging capacity for destruction. [4]

Dismantling Nuclear Weapons

Much of the world has adhered to the theory of nuclear nonproliferation. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was made effective in 1970 and calls on signed nations to effectively end proliferation of and disarm nuclear weaponry. In the 1970s, the U.S. possessed approximately 24,000 active nuclear weapons; furthermore, a steady reduction in the number of deployed warheads saw this number decrease to about 9,000 in the 1990s, when NPT was extended indefinitely. [5] The U.S. began dismantling about its stockpile further and when President Obama took office in 2008, the count was around 5,000. This process of reducing the stockpile has thus far proven extremely costly due to maintenance of warhead component manufacturing plants, upgrading of old weapons, dismantling of retired weapons, and the creation of new processing facilities to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium, which is itself an surprisingly ineradicable and toxic compound. Furthermore, challenges like mollifying tensions between other nuclear states will prove slow and potentially hostile. [6]


At one time, there was an urgency in the quest to acquire more nuclear weapons, perhaps for the possibility of feelings safe in an the alarmingly uncertain world of nuclear warfare. Even as nuclear superpowers like the U.S. and Soviet Union amassed warheads at alarming rates during the Cold War between 1950-1970s, it was quickly realized that some means of restricting use, and ultimately existence, of these devastating weapons was in order; thus, the concepts of nuclear nonproliferation and deterrence sprung in response. Even today, as hopeful nuclear powers, namely the U.S., attempt to initiate the gradual disarmament of all nuclear weaponry, the costs of dismantling weapons of cosmic power have proven extremely complicated and expensive. [7]

© Justin Lee. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] D. T. Hagerty, The Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: Lessons from South Asia (MIT Press, 1998).

[2] S. D. Sagan and K. N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, Second Ed (W. W. Norton, 2002).

[3] S. M. Meyer, The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation (U. Chicago Press, 1986).

[4] L. Bell, "The Ultimate Nuclear Terrorist Threat To The United States," Forbes, 4 Jan 12.

[5] R. S. Norris and W. M. Arkin, "U.S. Nuclear Weapon Locations, 1995," Bull. Atomic Sci.51, No. 6, 75 (1995).

[6] F. Barnaby, How Nuclear Weapons Spread: Nuclear-Weapon Proliferation in the 1990s (Operational Level of War) (Routledge, 1994).

[7] L. Thompson, "Nuclear Paradox: Shrinking U.S. Arsenal Requires Huge New Expenditures," Forbes, 13 Jun 11.