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National Observer Home > No. 54 - Spring 2002 > Articles

Looking Forward by Looking Back: a Pragmatic Look at Nuclear Non-Proliferation, Disarmament and Arms Control

Sharif M. Shuja

For the most part, the evidence of the 1990s would seem to suggest that the stability and prosperity of Asia-Pacific have flowed in part from the widespread adherence by regional countries to the non-proliferation norms and regimes, the centrepiece of which is the Non-Proliferation Treaty ("the N.P.T."). The N.P.T. dates back to 1968, when seventy states signed it, and came into force in 1970.

Nuclear non-proliferation was always considered a desirable objective by the states that signed the N.P.T. International consensus held that if there were fewer nuclear nations, the international environment would be more stable because the likelihood of nuclear conflict would be reduced. In other words, there was a directly proportional relationship between the number of nuclear nations and the possibility of nuclear war: fewer nuclear states equalled a lower probability of nuclear hostility. Given the extreme destructive power of the atomic bomb, it was a logical, if not cautious, assumption that a world of fewer, rather than more, nuclear states would be safer because the likelihood of nuclear conflict would be reduced.

Kenneth Waltz's thesis contended that nuclear weapons "make the cost of war seem frighteningly high and this discourages states from starting wars that might lead to the use of such weapons". His principal argument was that since "unclear weapons have helped maintain the peace between the great powers and have not led their few other possessors into military adventures", would not the possession of nuclear weapons by other countries similarly discourage conflict? Waltz is not without his supporters.

The Treaty offered no guarantees of success, but it did afford a small measure of stability in an otherwise unstable world. Of course, if nuclear war broke out it was then most likely to occur between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two nuclear giants; the Cold War, regardless of any attempts to control the bomb, dominated the superpowers’ agendas. In an anarchic, bipolar environment, the superpowers had to contend with the inescapable realities of the time: survival of the nation was dependent on putting the nation's interests first; anything that did not directly ensure that survival was relegated to second place. As such the Cold War mindset dictated superpower actions. Each superpower had to act in such a way that its interests were protected, even reinforced. Thus, while the N.P.T. was in place and the threat of proliferation minimised, the superpowers, and the nuclear powers in general, were obliged to put the Cold War first and nuclear non-proliferation second.

Under the N.P.T.'s provisions, however, two classes of nations were created - nations without nuclear weapons that agreed to forego them, and nations that possessed them and were permitted, for a time, to go on possessing them. Today, almost two hundred nations have ratified the N.P.T. as non-nuclear powers, in return for which they have been given access to certain technology for nuclear energy. With almost two hundred states, it has the widest membership of any arms control agreement in history.

Some states, for example, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Romania, gave up their nuclear stockpiling programs. Algeria, after building up a large nuclear research facility with China's support, eventually joined the N.P.T. in January 1995. India refused to sign the N.P.T. which was, to New Delhi, discriminatory. The treaty extracted a perpetual guarantee from the non-nuclear states to remain non-nuclear, but it did nothing to prevent the nuclear states from further proliferation.

The campaign to prevent the spread or proliferation of nuclear weapons around the globe suffered a serious setback in May 1998 when India and Pakistan carried out eleven nuclear tests.

An Australian academic, J. Mohan Malik, argued in 1998: 1

"By exploding ten nuclear bombs in two weeks, India and Pakistan together have blown the nuclear non-proliferation regime to pieces and altered the nuclear balance of power. The campaign for nuclear disarmament is failing just when success seemed at hand. A Nuclear Weapons Convention based on the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention could be one way out of the imbroglio. But the harsh reality is that none of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council is contemplating the idea of dismantling its nuclear weapons."

The new nuclear arms race arguably calls into question the nature and durability of the campaign for nuclear disarmament. The political and strategic after-shocks were felt beyond the borders of India and Pakistan. Strategic analysts, security planners and policy-makers around the globe became worried about the balance of power implications, the consequences for the non-nuclear proliferation regime, and the spillover effects for the Asia-Pacific region. An unstable nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan could lead to a catastrophic nuclear conflict. Such an apocalyptic development would have consequences that, although largely unpredictable in their specifics, would be grave for the region and the for the international system as a whole.

We need to examine the question of disarmament and arms control, and to demonstrate that issues of disarmament and arms control are quite different from the one of proliferation.

The General Perspective

Some international relations scholars in the Cold War period, such as Kennet Waltz, argued in 1979 (Theory of International Politics), that the countries equipped with nuclear weapons may have a stronger incentive to prevent war than the states with conventional armaments. In 1981 he published The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May be Better, a definite stance for nuclear weaponry increase as a means of stability between the two superpowers. Others also wrote on this issue. Using the contemporary concepts of "international systems" expounded by Gabriel Amond, Morton Kaplan, K.J. Holsti, Le Roy Graymer, Joseph Franklin, Richard Rosecrance and Julian Friedman, this author had earlier in 1974 attempted to establish theoretically that "stability or security in the present age of nuclear deterrence is most probably dependent, in the ultimate analysis, on a balanced relationship between the existing patterns of bipolarity and multipolarity".2 Since 1989, the pulling down of the Berlin Wall followed by the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union collapse have deeply changed the geo-strategic outlook. The Cold War was unexpectedly over and some of its fundamental players had disappeared. The role of N.A.T.O. itself was being put into question.

Within this new and more complex situation, a trend to non-proliferation emerged, that is, elimination of the nuclear threat by scaling down and eventually eliminating all nuclear weapons. This trend, as argued in 1996 by the Italian scholar Paolo Tripodi,3 is based on two approaches, both aimed at peace-keeping: disarmament and control over arms build-up.

In general, both arms control and disarmament deal with the same subject - arms stability. These terms are frequently used interchangeably as linked, compatible and occasionally synonymous concepts. But differentiating these two terms is important. Arms control is a relative concept to limit certain types of weaponry or to reduce armament levels by stabilising relations among rival states in order to discourage an arms race or an attack.4 It is designed to subordinate arms reduction for the purpose of enhancing stability through agreements that reduce the threat.5 Thus arms control measures seek to constrain reciprocal threats without eliminating them. By contrast, disarmament actually reduces existing military capabilities. An arms race is neither a necessary nor a sufficient cause of war. Nations do not distrust each other just because they are armed. Often they are armed because they distrust each other. Disarmament is an absolute concept to destroy global-level-weaponry and to eliminate possibly all armed forces. It aims at the reduction of armament as a goal to avoid war.

Specifically, arms control exists within disarmament and means negotiated measures, either unilateral or bilateral agreements among nation-states in restricting arsenals of weapons instead of abolishing the weapons. In this aspect, arms control is compatible with traditional diplomacy. While disarmament implies absolute reduction of armed forces and demands a change to institutionalised peace, arms control refers to relative reduction of weapons to avoid an arms race and to maintain stability. The former normally requires the agreement of both parties. The latter can be implemented more readily by one party.6 Furthermore, arms control is divided into three types: arms reduction, arms limitation and arms freeze. Arms reduction is sometimes called partial disarmament and refers to a mutually agreed-upon decision to lower the arms level either on a world-wide or on a regional basis among the nation-states. The treaty for the prohibition of nuclear weapons in Latin America in 1967 is a case in point. Arms limitation attempts to limit the scope and destructiveness of warfare and to prevent its accidental outbreak in accordance with the conventional rules of international law.7

A mutual arms freeze does not change the arsenal but reduces (or freezes) the growth so that rival nations can feel comfortable in their military parity. Neither side gives up anything in this latter case. Verification requirements are less stringent than under other types of arms control.8

From a strategic standpoint, disarmament is based on the assumption that the existence of weapons is not a consequence but rather a fundamental cause of uncertainty and conflicts. According to this approach, by reducing or eliminating armaments on a global scale, peace may be achieved. Obviously, in a world where there is no authority to settle international disputes, disarmament gives way to a security dilemma. Any state that is "left to its own resources" perceives a real or would-be threat (that is, defence weapons in a neighbouring state) and is thus faced with the security dilemma. Then, lacking international guarantees, it may decide to keep its stockpile - nuclear or conventional as it may be.

Control over arms build-up involves a different approach. It is based on the assumption that the causes and the very nature of conflicts are so strong they cannot be eliminated. The existence of stockpiles may be not a cause but rather a consequence of international pressures. Nuclear or conventional weapons are not the cause of wars, but they increase the security dilemma. An uncontrolled armament increase may contribute to turn a crisis into a war. Control over arms build-up aims at keeping the crisis level below the threshold likely to end up in a war.

In this respect, non-proliferation is a commitment towards control over arms build-up. As discussed earlier, nuclear non-proliferation refers to the ways and means by which the spread of nuclear weapons is prevented or deterred. Given the extreme destructive power of the atomic bomb, it was a logical assumption that a world of fewer, rather than more, nuclear states would be safer because the likelihood of nuclear conflict would be reduced. It was a conclusion initially articulated in a report commissioned by the American government in the weeks prior to Hiroshima to assess the likely impact of the atomic bomb on international relations.

Having first developed and used nuclear weapons, America assumed the responsibility of trying to institute measures aimed at controlling the spread of the bomb. Yet the extent to which Washington could practise effective non-proliferation was tempered by the realities of the developing Cold War. In an environment in which nuclear weapons rapidly assumed not only military but also political value, negotiations for their control were stymied by suspicions fostered as a result of a changing geo-political world.

Nevertheless, the remaining worries are about nuclear proliferation (the dispersion of nuclear weapons, capabilities and technologies). It is undesirable because it can:

• feed expansionist ambitions of regional hegemons;

• heighten regional tensions and exacerbate regional crises;

• raise the human and material cost of regional wars;

• increase the ability of rogue leaders to threaten to spill conflict outside the region;

• constrict the ability of outsiders to impose peace; and

• multiply the risk of accidental or inadvertent war, and undermine other regional and international arms control regimes.

Analysis and Assessment

Some states are proliferating, or are capable of proliferating nuclear weapons of mass destruction ("W.M.D."). Proliferation is defined here as the intent to acquire, or the possession of, W.M.D. The original five declared nuclear weapons states - the United States of America, the U.S.S.R./Russia, Great Britain, France and China - are not considered proliferators, although some activities by these countries have promoted proliferation among various developing states, for example, North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, and so on.

Some states are going for nuclear weapons in spite of export control regimes, N.P.T., international sanctions and pre-emptive strikes and air campaigns by adversaries. Leonard S. Spector argued in 1992 that "Israel has not signed the N.P.T. and is estimated to have between 75 and possibly 300 undeclared nuclear weapons".9 Israel's decision to develop its nuclear weapons programme was brought about by its geographic position and by the Arab states’ open hostility. North Korea, while hiding within the N.P.T., developed nuclear devices and has sufficient plutonium to fabricate nuclear devices. Hopefully, the 21 October 1994 Washington-Pyongyang Agreed Framework will prevent those devices from becoming weaponised and, indeed, will see them destroyed.

Why do nations go nuclear? Political scientist Scott D. Sagan identified three causes (or models) to explain why they do so: national security, national prestige and domestic politics.10 The national security model argues that a nation goes nuclear mainly by reason of a perceived threat to its national security, and because the nuclear bomb is the best answer to the security threat from adversaries with substantial conventional military capabilities and especially an enemy with nuclear weapons capabilities. The national prestige model notes that the nuclear decision is not only driven by cold calculations on national security but also by the belief that nuclear weapons acquisition would serve as a symbol of national prestige and identity in the international community.11 Different from the national security and national prestige arguments, the domestic politics model contends that the bomb decision is the result of a tug-and-pull between domestic political forces and policy competition among government agencies. And the bomb is often used to advance the parochial interests of political parties and forces in domestic politics.12

The factors driving these states to acquire nuclear inventories are therefore insecurity, nationalism and prestige. In addition to these factors, profit is also considered a factor to explain motivations behind the decision for a nuclear program. Lawrence E. Grinter argued in 1996 that when a government believes that the incentives to acquire W.M.D. outweigh the costs, risks or disincentives, proliferation begins.13 Although the incentives are powerful and have tipped some of the scales toward Asian nuclear proliferation, each W.M.D. proliferator has also faced risks and disincentives. North Korea and Pakistan, for example, obviously chose to accept the relevant risks, although each went about proliferation in different ways. Pakistan refused to sign the N.P.T. or to deny that it wanted nuclear weapons. Legal and illegal means were used by Islamabad to acquire the necessary technology. Insecurity has been the principal factor driving Pakistan's nuclear W.M.D. proliferation because it borders India, a hostile, dominant military power and nuclear weapons country.14 India has several times made Pakistan very nervous with large conventional military exercises close to Pakistan's borders, and recently new levels of confrontation have emerged.

North Korea, however, signed the N.P.T. in 1985 and then delayed agreeing to an inspection regime for seven years, permitting secret enhancement of its nuclear capabilities. In October 1994, it finally bargained a termination of its nuclear programme for billions in alternative Western energy assistance. This could set a dangerous precedent because, in a sense, the Agreed Framework was a multi-billion-dollar "sale" of North Korea compliance with the N.P.T.

In this context, it is important to glean quickly U.S. policy and action on this issue. It is argued that one policy does not fit all. Indeed, flexible U.S. proliferation policy is already in place - with Israel. As noted here already, Israel's decision to resort to nuclear power was brought about by its geographic position and by the Arab states’ open hostility. Washington is essentially unconcerned about Tel Aviv's nuclear weapons programme. It is widely believed that Israel has several hundred nuclear weapons. These facts have in no way jeopardised U.S. aid to Israel; the issue evidently never comes up. By contrast, Pakistan, also friendly to the United States and a previous formal partner of the United States in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation, remains under punishment by a congressional law aimed solely at it for having become a nuclear power at least four and probably eight years ago. Facts such as these do not square with a rational nuclear counter proliferation policy.15


The proliferation of nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan was precipitated by an intensifying South Asian security dilemma. Both India and Pakistan began their nuclear programs as civilian based, but eventually both changed course in view of strategic developments they perceived as affecting their national security and survival. Therefore, these events validate the prevalence of a nuclear security dilemma over the efficacy of non-proliferation regimes in the case of South Asia. They also provide a strong indication of realism's prevalence over liberal institutionalism in the state-centric conduct of national security when security dilemmas are especially acute.

Thus, while the South Asian nuclear tests clearly demonstrated the need for non-proliferation, they did, at the same time, question the validity and effectiveness of the non-proliferation regime. Although the N.P.T. has been signed by almost all states in the world, the world balance is still unstable, threatened by nuclear proliferation. Nuclear weapons technology is spreading; and, as a result, the threat of proliferation is further increasing. The South Asian nuclear tests underscored the fact that nuclear weapons were still desirable and that the need for nuclear weapons was intrinsically linked to the degree of insecurity a nation felt. Obviously, the non-proliferation regime had not alleviated the need for nuclear weapons where it was needed most. Moreover, the extent to which America supported non-proliferation was limited by the nature of the international environment and its own interests.

The fact was that in the post-Cold War environment, the United States was not without its enemies, and as those appeared and disappeared, Washington had to continue to emphasise the benefits of strategically important allies. Friend or foe, empathy or hostility, location and environment, all influenced the United States’ attitude to non-proliferation during the Cold War, but more importantly, continued to do so during the early stages of the post-Cold War. In an environment that was defined less by its known and more by its unknown characteristics, Washington practised a non-proliferation policy aimed more at preserving American interests and less at rectifying the legacy of a compromised non-proliferation policy.


1. J. Mohan Malik, "Recent Security Developments in Asia-Pacific", A.U.S.-C.S.C.A.P. Newsletter, No. 7 (October 1998), page 6.

2. Sharif M. Shuja, "International Systems and Problems of Stability in the Nuclear Age", Pakistan Horizon, No. 3 (1974), pages 32-42.

3. Paolo Tripodi, "Nuclear Non-Proliferation and the International System", Contemporary Review, Vol. 268, No. 1562 (March 1996), page 134.

4. Theodore A. Couloumbis and James H. Wolfe, Introduction to International Relations, 3rd ed., New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1986, pages 231-233. Also see Colin S. Gray, "Arms Control Does not Control Arms" Orbis, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Summer 1993), pages 333-348.

5. William R. Van Cleave, "Strategic Deterrence, Defence, and Arms Control", in Annelise Anderson and Dennis L. Bank (eds.), Thinking About America: The U.S. in the 1990s, Stanford, California: Hoover Institution Press, 1988, page 40.

6. Jack C. Plano and Roy Olton, The International Relations Dictionary, 3rd ed., Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 1982, page 204. For a detailed study see Charles L. Glaser, "The Flawed Case for Nuclear Disarmament", Survival, Vol. 40, No. 1 (Spring 1998), pages 112-128; Jonathan Schell, "The Folly of Arms Control", Foreign Affairs, Vol. 79, No. 5 (Sept-Oct 2000), pages 22-46; Gerald M. Steinberg, "Non-Proliferation: Time for Regional Approaches?", Orbis, Vol. 38, No. 3 (Summer 1994), pages 409-418 and Robert G. Joseph and John F. Reichart, "The Case for Nuclear Deterrence Today", Orbis, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Winter 1998), pages 7-19.

7. Couloumbis and Wolfe, International Relations, supra, note 4, page 234.

8. Donald M. Snow, National Security: Enduring Problems in a Changing Defence Environment, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991, pages 278-280.

9. For some useful discussions of these issues, see, for example, Leonard S. Spector, Deterring Regional Threats from Nuclear Proliferation, Carlisle Barracks, Pa: Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College, 1992, page 23.

10. See Scott D. Sagan, "Why do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb", International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Winter 1996/97), pages 54-86. There have been numerous works on nuclear proliferation. See, for example, Peter R. Lavoy, "The Strategic Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation: A Review Essay", Security Studies, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Summer 1995); Zachary S. Davis and Benjamin Frankel (eds.) "The Proliferation Puzzle", special issue of Security Studies Vol. 2, No. 3/4 (Spring/Summer 1993).

11. See Sagan, ibid., pages 73-80. Also see Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989.

12. A selected list of the literature on the domestic politics model includes: Peter B. Evans, Harold K. Jacobson, and Robert D. Putman (eds.), Double-Edged Diplomacy: International Bargaining and Domestic Politics, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993; Etel Solingen, "Political Economy of Nuclear Restraint", International Security, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Fall 1994); and Graham Allison, Essence of Decision, Boston: Little, Brown, 1971.

13. For an analysis of motives and incentives of proliferation, see Lawrence E. Grinter, "Northeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and U.S. Policy", in Edward A. Olsen and Tae Hwan Kwak (eds.), The Major Powers of Northeast Asia: Seeking Peace and Security, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publications, Inc, 1996, page 169.

14. Sharif M. Shuja, "An Overview of Regional Strategic and Military History", 1999 Visiting Lecture on South Asian Program, Bond University, 10 November 1999.

15. For a detailed study on America's non-proliferation policy, see Rebeca Craig-Smith, America, Nuclear Non-Proliferation, and the Cold War, unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Queensland, 1999.

National Observer No. 54 - Spring 2002