Warfare is one of the most tragic institutions devised by humans. Many philosophers and intellectuals of by-gone eras have pondered over the destruction left by war. They have questioned the merits behind purported motives for war. The scale of human and material loss incurred in wars is hard to justify through reasoning. If conventional warfare is bad enough then nuclear confrontation is even more catastrophic. The only known instances of the deployment of nuclear bombs happened toward the closing days of World War II, when Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were atom bombed. It led to the loss of nearly a million civilian lives and total destruction of the city. Even those who survived this event, continued to suffer under effects of radioactive radiation for many subsequent years. A generation of Japanese children was born with congenital defects as a result of mothers’ exposure to radiation. Political leaders of today will have to consider their nuclear weapons program in the backdrop of this ghastly human disaster. The rest of the essay will point out the pros and cons of horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons.
It is very difficult to talk of the merits and demerits of horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons without considering the effects of vertical proliferation. Horizontal proliferation is the acquisition of know-how, technology and material by a nation-state or a political/militant group so as to manufacture nuclear weapons of their own. The term ‘horizontal proliferation’ is used to refer to nation-states or similar entities that do not already have nuclear weapons but aspire and endeavour toward this goal. Vertical proliferation is the process of consolidation and improvisation of nuclear weapons by nation-states already well-established in making nuclear weapons. It is fair to say that vertical proliferation induces horizontal proliferation, as the latter group feels more and more insecure with their militarily well-endowed neighbouring states. In the years after the Second World War, Cold War was the political theatre upon which various nations placed their rationale for developing nuclear weapons. Yet, even as recently as a decade ago, only a handful of nations were classified under the nuclear-enabled category of states (Krepon, 2012, p. 44). Recent geo-political developments, especially in the wake of September 11, 2001 terror strikes on the United States have significantly altered the internal political dynamics of many nations in the Middle-East and Asia. It is these two continents which are most keen to become nuclear-enabled. But the irony is that their main perceived threat is not Islamic terrorism but the excesses of US imperialism and the neo-liberal project. Emerging economies in the Middle-East and Asia see the United States and its allies as the greatest threat to their prospects. As a result, they are put in a position where embracing nuclear weapons becomes a prudent defence strategy. American governments of the past, especially the one run by George W. Bush showed unequivocal disrespect for international law and arms control treaties. For example,
“The invasion of Iraq, carried out despite the lack of a United Nations Security Council endorsement and even though UNMOVIC reported that Iraq’s nuclear capability had indeed been dismantled, is the primary example of such disdain. The termination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Administration’s assertion of a prerogative for “pre-emption” that amounts to “preventive war” are further reasons for horizontal nuclear proliferation.” (Quester, 2008, p.143).
Even though the dangers of horizontal nuclear proliferation are identified by the players involved, there are compelling reasons why they cannot avoid participation. The foremost compulsion is the unmatchable power and reach of the United States and its nuclear-enabled allies. This is why, the nuclear disarmament program has been moving at a very slow pace. Moreover, this program is looked at with pessimism by even well-intentioned participants. For example, the program has so far reduced the nuclear warhead count by 23,000 units, but has left intact wholly operational 27,000 units in place. The program is articulated in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Even in the 2005 treaty review conference, talks of its further implementation met with stiff opposition. As a result, “pessimism is now often expressed about the prospects for survival of the non-proliferation regime, given Iran and North Korea’s apparent intentions to acquire such weapons. But because nuclear proliferation needs to be restrained, it is much too early to give up on the treaty.” (Quester, 2008, p.145).
One of the main reasons why developing nations feel insecure and thus are willing to jump on the nuclear arsenal bandwagon is the ineffectiveness of international law. They fear, quite rightly so, that an unjustified military offense against their sovereignty might not get effective censure and punishment through international law. International law has a long tradition of engagement with the issue of WMD proliferation (especially nuclear arsenal). The International Court of Justice’s Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons illustrates, that there are three bodies regulating WMD – arms control treaties, international law on the use of force, and international humanitarian law. Of these three, it is the arms control treaties which pay focussed attention to WMD proliferation. Provisions under arms control treaties have led to “international agreements designed to prohibit or limit the development, possession, and use of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons by states. Through such treaties, states and international organizations crafted a body of international law dealing directly with the control of WMD.” (Fidler, 2004). But the biggest drawback for these laws is their enforcement. There is no centralized international authority that can take punitive action against breach of these laws. In what constitutes a vicious circle, this feebleness is further rationale for developing nations to adopt nuclear weapons. Hence, as long as international law enforcement remains weak, ambitious or insecure states will find it fit to have nuclear weapons in their armoury.
If horizontal nuclear proliferation continues, then it augurs badly for the prospects of survival of our species. But in terms of geo-political considerations at the level of nation-states, a few strategic rationales could be offered. Firstly, there is a tendency among many nations to “seek local military and political potency vis-a-vis traditional enemies” (Gray, 2006, p. 34). Secondly, there is the broader motive of ‘counter-deterrence’ outside immediate reach. This is especially a valid rationale considering the United States’ inclination to be proactively intervening in regions of strategic interest. Even if the nuclear ammunition in the possession of a rogue state is very small, it is enough of a deterrent to put off active intervention by the de facto ‘international policeman’ – the United States. Many countries find this a highly desirable scenario for the lack of American intervention can re-vitalize local democratic institutions, re-orient domestic policy as per the will of the population and help national sovereignty. To illustrate, “if Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had been believed to possess a handful of nuclear weapons in 1990, Coalition risk-benefit assessment would have been radically different than it was.” (Gray, 2006, p.34). There is another incentive for smaller nations to acquire or develop nuclear weapons. This is not to make retaliatory nuclear strikes, but to thwart conventional military attacks from the United States and its allies. In other words,