“Has the Nuclear Threat Grown in the Last Twenty Years?”

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Source: Business Insider

At exactly 8:15 AM (Japanese time) on 6 August 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was detonated above Hiroshima; a clean, noiseless flash that would pave the way for an anarchic redefinition of power across the liberal international order and a subsequent global rush of states seeking to develop their own nuclear arsenal (Hersey 2019). States’ development of nuclear weapons has brought with it the potential for a new type of threat to a state — nuclear war, an ever-present threat discussed by scholars and policymakers alike. Whilst the number of technologically midlevel states that have acquired nuclear weapons has grown over the last twenty years, the nuclear threat has not developed alongside it in the same manner. Nuclear strikes have been threatened consistently as a means to prevent foreign intervention and protect the vital interests of a state as witnessed prior to the last two decades. This essay will discuss common misconceptions surrounding the nuclear threat over the last twenty years, whilst demonstrating the consistency of nuclear deterrence in constricting the threat from growing.

Deterrence: A New Arrival

The theory of deterrence in the context of international relations is defined as an instrument in which to convince states that the adoption of violence is not an appropriate or worthwhile strategy (Sauer 1998). States adopt deterrence in a nuclear sense through threatening a nuclear attack in response to a state’s utilisation of nuclear weapons against them, mutually assuring the destruction of both states.

Ever since North Korea’s initial development of nuclear weaponry in 2003, the state’s threat to South Korea, its neighbour state protected under the nuclear umbrella of the United States that it is still in a state of war against, has been escalated (Jackson 2016). Despite this, however, North Korea’s attempted development of nuclear technology is not intended to be utilised or deployed in a militaristic fashion despite the regime’s rhetoric. The nuclear doctrine of North Korea is derived from a standard framework of deterrence. Whilst initially holding a nuclear monopoly, the United States of America’s development of the nuclear bomb and extension of its international protection across the globe drove allies and enemies alike to develop their own arsenal of nuclear weapons to protect themselves (Cimbala 2000). The developing nuclear capability of North Korea is a defensive security measure rather than offensive. The state has sought to protect itself from the extended nuclear umbrella of the United States and the West rather than to strike against it (Chull Kim et al 2017). As such, North Korea’s adoption of nuclear weapons cannot be described as having grown the nuclear threat.

A counter argument given to this line of argument is that North Korea’s development of nuclear technology is an example of how the nuclear threat has grown over the last twenty years in a militaristic sense. Pyongyang’s threats to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States in 2013 for aiding South Korea consequently encouraged the United States to expand its arsenal of missile interceptors and its nuclear arsenal, heightening regional and international tensions and the prospect of a nuclear conflict between the two states (Walker 2013). This was not, however, an action taken to realise the nuclear threat, but rather to prevent it being exercised against the state. A nuclear conflict was not in line with the interests of either the United States or North Korea, and not physically possible, in 2013. Barak Obama himself recognised that North Korea did not have the technological capacity to launch a nuclear missile that could hit the United States mainland as threatened by the regime (Allard et al 2017). The political establishment in Pyongyang utilised the nuclear threat as a political tool to discourage the United States from intervening in the region, rather than as a weapon to actively seek to deploy against them (Jackson 2018).

This utilisation of nuclear weaponry is grounded in the perception of nuclear arsenals witnessed in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 — a confrontation between the United States and Soviet Union that is often cited as the closest humanity has come to witnessing a nuclear war (George 2013) (Scott 1999). What prevented this confrontation from realising the nuclear threat was the notion of deterrence; the Soviets did not want to unleash a war through demonstrating their nuclear capability, but instead desired to deter the United States from interfering with Cuba by fronting itself as a credible threat (Scott et al 2015). In both the modern and contemporary context, the states that had acquired nuclear technology used it as a vehicle to demonstrate power to communicate a political ambition to a United States that, after the dropping of the first bomb over Hiroshima, had a nuclear monopoly. This demonstrates that whilst the number of states developing and acquiring nuclear weapons may have increased over the last twenty years, the threat stemming from deterrence has restricted nuclear warfare to a tool of political posturing rather than being a true threat in of itself.

Deterrence: A Consistent Fear

Despite their existence prior to the last twenty years, an example of a persistent cause of fear regarding the nuclear threat are the nuclear warheads developed across Southern Asia. There has been a rise in the number of nuclear warheads possessed by states across the Asian peninsula previously classed as midlevel in regard to their technological ability and resources over the last twenty years, often cited as an example of the growth of the nuclear threat (Younger 2000). Pakistan in particular is forecast to have expanded its nuclear stockpile from 28 warheads in 2000 to an estimated 200 by 2021, a growth of over 600% (Schell et al 2015). This has been argued as being extremely problematic due to the political and militaristic tension between Pakistan and its neighbour, India. Pakistan’s continued expansion of its nuclear arsenal has placed immense pressure in the reignited conflict between the two states over Kashmir throughout the last twenty years — the threat of nuclear annihilation from either side diminished faith across the international community for Pakistan and India to enter diplomatic dialogue and resolve the dispute without conflict (Dixit 2003). As such, it has been argued that Pakistan’s continued development of nuclear weaponry has brought the nuclear threat closer to reality.

This fear, however, has been misplaced. Despite this looming threat presiding over the region of Kashmir, India has reduced the number of nuclear warheads in its possession. Whilst India also initially increased its nuclear stockpile from 28 nuclear weapons in the year 2000 to 110 in 2014, it is forecast that India will only have approximately 60 by the end of 2020 (Schell et al 2015). This is significant in how India has consistently decreased its nuclear capacity even in the midst of the re-ignition of the conflict over the Kashmir border with Pakistan as recently as 2019. This suggests that despite the militaristic tension between the two states, India does not consider a nuclear strike to be a viable strategic option. Whilst Pakistan may have substantially increased its nuclear stockpile, the mutually assured destruction of the two states ensured by the very development of nuclear warheads across the Asian peninsula has prevented the nuclear threat from becoming a reality over the last twenty years (Ganguly 2019). As such, the nuclear threat cannot be argued to have grown over the last twenty years as nations have remained in the state of nuclear deadlock witnessed prior to the last two decades.

Nuclear Misconceptions

There remains significant popular support within the United States for it to not just expand upon its nuclear stockpile, but to exercise it. In a poll conducted in 2019, 33% of Americans actively supported the notion of a pre-emptive nuclear strike against North Korea following its nuclear tests, despite the number of hypothetical innocent civilian casualties numbering over 1,000,000 (Haworth et al 2019). This demonstrates how the new-found development of nuclear weapons across the Asian peninsula has promoted a fear of a potential strike against the mainland, and as such a belief that this has indeed resulted in the growth of the nuclear threat. However, such support can be assigned to the generational transition witnessed over the last twenty years. Almost 50% of the American population were not yet born or were children when the Cold War ended, an era defined by the threat of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union (Schlosser 2013). These generations of American citizens have not been exposed to the reality of foreign states’ adoption of a nuclear doctrine and the lack of viability of nuclear weaponry as a strategic option in foreign policy.

Furthermore, if the threat of nuclear war was still truly perceived as such a vital and present issue of national security to the United States, then it is problematic to explain how its infrastructure has remained in the past despite calls for the U.S. to maintain its nuclear superiority. The technology utilised in the organisation and deployment of nuclear weaponry in the last twenty remains significantly similar to that in the decades prior to 2000. Whilst the warheads themselves have been refined and developed, outdated technology such as floppy disks are still present within the infrastructure of nuclear weaponry (Henley 2012). The stark contrast between the modernity of the nuclear weapons themselves and the outdated infrastructure of deployment suggests that the threat lies not in the execution of these weapons, but the threat of their existence and subsequent disruption of the United States’ militaristic superiority and subsequent political influence.

This fear of a disruption in the United States’ militaristic superiority is a microcosm of the manner in which the nuclear threat has transitioned over the last twenty years. The acquisition and expansion of nuclear weaponry by states such as Pakistan and North Korea have disrupted the previously exclusive club of nuclear weapon states across the West (Perkovich 2001). The exclusive holding of nuclear weapons by the West provided the perceivably best way to secure their security; their limiting of nuclear technology a way of ensuring their maintenance of military and political superiority over the rising states across Asia (Paul et al 2000). The nuclear threat is no longer a threat of a nuclear strike, but instead a political strike against the global balance of power. The threat has evolved to become a method for rising states across Asia to deter a United States with a nuclear umbrella extending across the globe (Roehrig 2017).


States with midlevel technological capabilities such as Pakistan and North Korea have developed significantly greater nuclear capabilities over the last twenty years. India’s reduction of the size of its nuclear stockpile, however, is in line with a larger trend witnessed across the globe. The stockpiles of nuclear weapons throughout the world have decreased dramatically in the last twenty years. In 2014, there were approximately 15,000 nuclear warheads held across the globe, a significantly reduced figure from that of 30,900 four years prior (Schell et al 2015). the overarching trend witnessed across the globe is a willingness to reduce nuclear capability rather than expand upon it. The threat of nuclear war, despite a popular fear within the United States, is no closer to being realised than it has in the past. Whilst the threat of nuclear war itself has not developed throughout the last twenty years, the political disruption stemming from emerging states across Asia poses its own unique challenges. It is forecast that by the end of 2020, Asia will constitute for 50% of global GDP alone (Valentina 2019). With this economic surge, and the presence of nuclear stockpiles even in light of their reduction, the global balance of power over the next twenty years has the potential to swing toward the East. The United States’ hold over nuclear dominance and utilisation of it as a threat has the potential to be dismantled as cleanly as the flash of the nuclear bomb that started it all.


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