Political Armament: Non-Military Explanations and Willing Non-Proliferation

One model that Sagan outlines is the security model, where nuclear bombs are a sort of poker chip in international relations: strong states build up their own arsenals, and weak states ally themselves within coalitions that collectively have more bombs. Because this naturally leads to an arms race where power is represented by the quantity of nuclear bombs held, such competitive armament was described as “proliferation begets proliferation”. Next, the domestic politics model purports that politicians manipulate citizens into perceiving a threat, and scientists encourage nuclear development so that their labs receive funding. Finally, the third kind of model is the norms model, where modern countries have come to believe that in order to be considered a legitimate state, they need an arsenal in the way they need a flag or an Olympic team. It has simply become a status symbol and psychological indicator of power. All of these explanations go to show that nuclear weapons do not function simply as military tools, but rather as political levers to exert power and influence domestically and internationally.

I was particularly interested in Sagan’s analysis of South Africa as a country that gave up its nuclear arsenal. Sagan proffered that they did so because the Soviet threat to their regime diminished. I was shocked by this account and explanation, because I could not imagine that a country would give up its strongest defense system simply because an immediate threat had disappeared. It seems short sighted to assume that a country is EVER safe as long as any other country possesses nuclear weapons. Such countries seem to put a lot of faith into alliances which I personally would never assume are set in stone. I wonder, however, how much of my viewpoint has been shaped by the fact that I grew up in the United States during an era where we have viewed so many countries as threats and ourselves as the victim. If, perhaps, one did live in an under-the-radar country, one might never imagine that you might need nuclear bombs because one wouldn’t expect to ever be a target of stronger countries with powerful arsenals.

Generally, I agree with Sagan’s claim toward the beginning of the essay that it is too simplistic to assume that if states do not need to defend themselves with nuclear weapons that they will “willingly” remain non-nuclear states. In an era where nuclear weapons are seen as counterbalances to larger geopolitical power struggles, I find it hard to believe that a lack of need for nuclear weapons exists as long as any nation has access to an arsenal. While I could imagine states unwillingly remaining non-nuclear, such as if they did not have the resources or are afraid of side-effects, from a military standpoint I am jaded enough to believe that if a country could have nuclear weapons, they would. — Sarah

4 thoughts on “Political Armament: Non-Military Explanations and Willing Non-Proliferation

  1. Sarah inspired me to dig a little more into the South Africa example, as I felt that Sagan’s “security” (realist) explanation alone was inadequate. It doesn’t make sense that South Africa would just give up its weapons once one enemy was done. There had to be something else driving this decision.

    As it turns out, this is quite a hotly debated topic. The person who ultimately made the decision to dismantle the program, FW De Klerk, the last president during Apartheid Africa, said the program was ended because it did not make sense to escalate tensions and draw international attention, when the wars relevant to South Africa were bush wars — nuclear weapons were overkill, impractical in this context. This is one plausible explanation…but one other fact, above all, caught my attention.

    The dismantling of the South African nuclear program started in 1989-1990 (pre-dating FW De Klerk) — that’s the year Nelson Mandela and other liberal democratic Africans were released from prison, the anti-apartheid movement hit its peak popularity, and the year before apartheid officially ended. By 1990, it had become clear to many of the white rulers/perpetrators that South Africa could become a democratic black African-run nation. In that context, the domestic politics model might provide a more sensible but sinister explanation as to why the nuclear weapons were dismantled: to disempower the blacks who were bound to succeed the white apartheid rulers, and to strategically “cripple” the next regime, ensuring they would not be so powerful in inheriting weapons. There are many reports that this action was just “dressed up” as an “honorable [nuclear] retreat.” (http://siliconafrica.com/the-dark-truth-about-why-south-africa-destroyed-its-nuclear-weapons-in-1990/)

    Being the skeptic I am, I’m inclined to think it was a vindictive move by the white apartheid regime, to say that they trusted white South Africa with nuclear weapons, but not black South Africa. I could be mistaken, as mentioned before, this is a hotly debated topic. I’d love to hear anyone else chime in on this.

  2. It definitely makes a lot of sense that a country would not feel safe without nuclear capabilities of its own if other countries have nuclear capabilities and could potentially attack it.

    However, I feel that an opposing claim can be made- that it might actually be safer to avoid developing nuclear capabilities. When a country develops nuclear capabilities, especially if the country is run by an unstable regime, other countries usually perceive that as an act of belligerence. There is a common adage, “violence begets violence”. When a country starts creating nuclear weapons, other countries are threatened and are more likely to take a harsher, more hostile stance towards it, making conflict more likely. I don’t think the tensions that currently exist between North Korea and US, South Korea and Japan would exist if North Korea hadn’t created nuclear weapons in the first place.

  3. To add on to others, the question of South Africa and the true reasons for dismantling their nuclear program is very relevant to current international affairs, and brings up some of the complications with the security model. I also did some more research, and found that in an interview in The Atlantic, De Klerk discusses his reasons for supporting the decision to end the country’s nuclear weapons program. De Klerk states it was “meaningless to use such a bomb in what was essentially a bush war” and he was not pressured at all by not domestic opinion to end the program, and only received small resistance by the defense forces to “give away something [the country] ha[s] already.” With this being said, I agree with Aaron it appears that there were other forces driving his decision, including potentially a fear of international response and not wanting to draw attention to the violence and injustice of the Apartheid regime on top of this mistrust of the black majority in South Africa.

    It is interesting to compare this situation to North Korea, who, despite a lack of wealth and resources, devastating poverty, and tremendous sanctions imposed on the country, continues to pursue their program. According to neorealist theory, states exist in an anarchical international system and consequently rely on self-help to protect their sovereignty and national security, and this realist theory, as Sagan suggests, uses leaders and decision-maker’s statements as evidence. But can we use a leader’s statements as true evidence of motivations? Are irrational leaders reliable? Leaders can be biased or influenced by emotion as psychology argues, and therefore when looking at a country’s decision to halt their weapons programs, it’s difficult to ascertain what their actual motivations were, making the security model more complicated, as I think Sagan begins to suggest towards the end of his analysis.

  4. According to Sagan’s norms model, the possession of a nuclear weapons program serves to symbolize a modern and legitimate state. As a result, leaders seek to acquire nuclear weapons in an effort to enhance a state’s status. Norms of what is deemed to be appropriate and modern behavior thus play a large role in shaping a particular state’s proliferation policy.

    We see this playing out in North Korea. Sure, Kim Jong Un seeks to develop nuclear weapons in order to deter an American attack (security model), but multicausality drives the nuclear proliferation problem. I believe that the norms model is also a framework that can explain his behavior. This is why I find Goldstein’s argument compelling. He asserts that the U.S. should ask China, Russia, and Japan to deploy troops on North Korean soil. These troops would render an America or South Korean attack near impossible, as neither country wants to provoke war with China or Russia. This move serves two purposes. First, it convinces Kim Jong Un that his country can deter without having to use nuclear weapons, therefore decreasing a perceived need for nuclear weapons in order to achieve security (plays into the security model). Second, having Chinese and Russian troops increases the prestige of the North Korean state. Therefore, Kim Jong Un no longer needs to rely on possessing a nuclear arsenal to boost his state’s status (plays into the norms model).

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