Three Models for Nuclear Weapons Proliferation: Theory and Practice

In Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb, Sagan discusses the three theoretical models that affect a states’ decision to build a nuclear arsenal. Although the three “theoretical frameworks”/models share common features with the well-known international relations theories (i.e. realism, liberalism, institutionalism), it’s interesting to look at and analyze each of them individually.

  • The Security Model: the concept of balance of power is central. Sagan argues that states use nuclear weapons as a deterrent tool or as a coercive tool to force a change in the status quo. Sagan also suggests that “every time one state develops nuclear weapons to balance against its main rival, it also creates nuclear threat to another state in the region” (p.58) causing a domino effect. Is this always true or only when states feel directly threatened? Why didn’t Ukraine or the post-Soviet Union states develop a nuclear weapons arsenal?
  • The Domestic Model: like liberalism, argues that state behavior is dictated by state preferences, in this case by: 1) state’s nuclear establishment, 2) units in the military, 3) politicians. Nonetheless the author fails to identify under which conditions these three actors come together and produce the desired outcome. How do you think these actors come together? Of these three actors who do you think is more decisive?
  • The Norms Model: stresses the importance of “nuclear symbolism”. According to this model states build nuclear arsenals because “they are part of what modern states believe they have to possess to be legitimate, modern states” (p.74). Do you think the same principle could apply to terrorist groups (i.e. ISIS)?

Final questions: Do you think there could be other reasons affecting a state’s decision to build nuclear weapons? How would the international scenario change if every country had a nuclear arsenal? (Consider the Russian military intervention in Ukraine) — Marco

11 thoughts on “Three Models for Nuclear Weapons Proliferation: Theory and Practice

  1. Marco, you raise some great questions that highlight Sagan’s complex and interdependent models on nuclear proliferation and reduction. His analysis of a diverse set of historical case studies shows the reader that to engage in modern day nuclear policy one must take on a multi-dimensional perspective due to the connectivity of the three basic models. The first question- dealing with Ukraine- is a great example at how these models interact. Post Cold War Ukraine was a ‘born nuclear’ nation with a stockpile of approximately 4000 nuclear weapons, yet it decided to engage in nuclear restraint (80). With Russia- a historically aggressive state- at its borders, someone under the modern security model would assume that Ukraine would pursue aggressive nuclear policies. Post Cold War, however, Sagan notes that these ‘nuclear born states’ had close ties with Moscow as well as security guarantees from the U.S (61). Looking at the current situation in Ukraine, one would assume that even under close ties with Moscow they would’ve wanted to pursue a nuclear expansion policy to assure security, as states with close ties to Washington did. This prompts a deeper understanding of the global dynamics at the time and Sagan does a great job under his Norm model to point out the complex issue of Ukraine nuclear restraint. The Ukrainian situation shows that a combination of models must be used to explain nuclear policy.
    For the Domestic Model I believe that the military plays the biggest role in influencing the domestic policy of nuclear weapons. Sagan notes that the scientific-military-industrial complex starts at the laboratory level and gains support once it establishes influence within the higher military establishment.(64) With the power and wealth attached to the military they can heavily shift political support under a promotion of an external threat (64). This could be the case for just the US due to a high military budget, but I would assume that for must countries a disguise of external threat would raise public and political support-although India can be seen as a counter to this statement.
    The question about ISIS prompts an interesting discussion about certain ‘states’ within the modern day international system. People could very much argue that ISIS is a state, however, they don’t have much- if any- international legitimacy. The question as to whether or not a nuclear weapon would give them such is an interesting one. Even if it doesn’t ‘legitimize’ them, it still would generate a much more serious dialogue about their role in regional and international politics (Which for me neutralizes the question of legitimacy). If they were ‘legitimized’, this would be complicated by the fact that they are encroaching on existing states sovereignty and would most likely pose a more serious threat than any other nuclear state. I do believe, however, that ISIS is in a different place than the average terrorist group, including Al-Qaeda, due to it’s structure and large influence. If a terrorist group such as Al-Qaeda gained a nuclear weapon then it would pose a severe security risk, but I do not believe it would ever legitimize it as a state due to a lack of territory and centralized influence.

  2. In response to Marco’s question regarding the “legitimizing” effect a nuclear arsenal might have on terrorist groups, I agree with Jeffrey’s assertion that acquiring a nuclear weapon would not legitimize the average terrorist organization. Assuming that “legitimize” means a state’s international prestige would increase with the acquisition of a nuclear weapon, I do not think any state today receives a legitimacy boost from nuclear weapon capabilities. As Sagan noted, acquiring nuclear weapons does not serve the same symbolic function now as it did prior to the shift in norms driven by the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). To illustrate this shift in norms, Sagan points to case studies of France and the Ukraine. President De Gaulle saw nuclear weapons as a way for France to regain stature as a world power following a miserable showing in World War II (Sagan 79). By successfully acquiring a nuclear arsenal, France would join nuclear powers like the United States and the USSR. Ukraine, on the other hand, decided to give up its nuclear arsenal upon gaining independence in 1992, because retaining its nuclear capabilities would put it in the club of “bad actors” like North Korea. As nuclear weapons have gone from symbolizing power and strength to symbolizing rogue behavior, they no longer serve as a defining characteristic of legitimate, modern states. If anything, restraining from nuclear proliferation better defines legitimate, modern states in today’s world order.

    While acquiring nuclear weapons certainly does not cohere with current international norms, this does not necessarily prevent rogue states or terrorist organizations from working to acquire them. This leads me to a broader question regarding the continued applicability of Sagan’s models today. I believe the models make a lot of sense in the context of state actors that we assume want to act as responsible stakeholders in the global order. For responsible state actors, sticky norms can go a long way in preventing nuclear proliferation, and its effectiveness is reflected in the successes of the NPT. However, Sagan’s models do not really address how we can discourage rogue organizations from acquiring nuclear weapons. I think this is an especially important situation to consider, since these rogue actors would be more likely to use their nuclear weapons if opportunities arise. Is there a way to adapt Sagan’s models for state actors to non-state actors? If not, what are our alternatives?

  3. I really appreciate the thoughtful post by Marco and the discussion generated by the comments thus far. I would like to contribute specifically to the question of how Sagan’s models inform our understanding of the current situation in Ukraine (as this conflict is the focus of my independent work), and respond to some of the interesting questions already raised. My first comment in response to Marco’s question- “Why didn’t Ukraine or the post-Soviet Union states develop a nuclear weapons arsenal? – has already been offered by Jeffrey, who rightly pointed out that Ukraine was in fact, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the site of about one third of the Soviet nuclear arsenal. On Ukrainian territory at the time were 130 UR-100N intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) with six warheads each, 46 RT-23 Molodets ICBMs with ten warheads apiece, as well as 33 heavy bombers, totaling approximately 1,700 warheads (according to literature that I just searched for our of curiosity- Specifically the “Soviet Nuclear Archipelago” by Norris). I find this an important detail to consider while analyzing Ukraine as a country-case of the IR implications of nuclear arsenals because I don’t believe that Sagan did a very thorough job of addressing the historical details of the case. I would argue that greater background information in this case might raise an interesting question: can we actually differentiate Sagan’s “norms model” from his “security model” in this case? Upon achieving independence, Ukraine had physical control of the weapons, but it did not have operational control of the weapons as they were dependent on Russian-controlled electronic Permissive Action Links and the Russian command and control system. In 1994 Ukraine agreed to the destruction of the weapons, and to join the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Additionally, Sagan does not mention the signing of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, which is the actual document that Ukraine signed along with the US, Russia, UK and other Western powers, stipulating that Ukraine’s relinquishment of these weapons would guarantee its territorial sovereignty and security by the signatory powers. This document alone arguably encompasses both the security and norms model: by asserting its independence from Russia, physically and symbolically, Ukraine hopes to ensure the security of its borders. Though I see where a “normative” element, distinct from the “security element,” plays a particular role here, I think we should be careful to recognize the potential overlaps of the security and norms perspectives.

  4. Marco brings up a really interesting point by addressing what would be thought of if non-state actors or terrorist groups acquired nuclear weapons, and I agree with Jeffrey and Lawrence in the fact that acquiring a weapon would not give them much symbolic legitimacy. However, in the process of acquiring the weapon, they will likely have to develop the parts necessary to create a nuclear weapon according to the domestic model, as it would be difficult to gain a nuclear weapon properly without a developed military and science program. So due to the fact that the terrorist group would have to have these aspects in place, they would likely be thought of legitimate by the time they acquired a nuclear weapon.

    This correlation brings up an interesting point about the exclusivity of those models, similar to what Jeffrey mentioned. I think simplifying the reasons to three easy answers is inaccurate, no one would ever think of doing the same for similar momentous actions like political overthrows or changes in social impacts. Ultimately governments make decisions for more holistic reasons that incorporate both international issues, to legitimize against other countries, military issues, for safety, domestic issues, for the people, and personal reasons, because if it is there, there is no reason not to achieve it. Some countries can make it, some countries cannot and that is what makes nuclear weapons such a hot topic and a fear for future possibilities not deterred by mutually assured destruction.

  5. Lawrence, in his comment, brings up a very interesting issue that certainly complicates Sagan’s 3-part model: rogue states that attempt to acquire nuclear weapons. While it may seem to us a glaring omission on Sagan’s part not to discuss rogue states acquiring nuclear weapons, his article was written in 1996/97, before debates about North Korea and Iran – the two most notable attempts of rogue states to acquire nuclear weapons – emerged. However, I think that in many ways different aspects of the three models Sagan puts forth might help explain North Korea’s and Iran’s decisions to pursue nuclear weapons (or, in the case of Iran, possibly just aggressive nuclear energy).

    North Korea, a country isolated from normal international relations, may felt it needed nuclear weapons for security reasons, as it had so many enemies – hence following Sagan’s Security Model. Or, it could have acquired nuclear weapons because politicians, in this case the North Korean dictator, wanted them for other reasons. In Iran, a similar explanation could be made for the Security Model, and we know that Iran’s nuclear program had a lot of popular support, possibly making a case for the Domestic Model. However, both countries could also be explained with the Norms Model, albeit in a backhand sort of way. Both countries seem to see nuclear weapons as conferring international prestige on them, by making them seem like great powers. While there is currently the international norm of not having nuclear weapons, the great powers of the world still have them, which might incite rogue states that wish to be great powers to acquire nuclear weapons.

    In these cases, we can see that a combination of Sagan’s models can be used to explain different parts of rogue states’ decisions to pursue nuclear weapons. I think that since his models do seem to work, this bodes well for our prospects of deterring rogue states from pursuing nuclear weapons, as we can try to follow some of his recommendations.

  6. I think Marco brings up some great points in his original post, and sums things up really well from the reading. I also think the comments on rogue states or groups like ISIS were both interesting and pertinent.

    To me, the most interesting of the three “Models” is the one labelled “Norms.” To answer the question posed by Marco, I would say that it is not likely for rogue type groups like ISIS. What i see as legitimacy in this context is not so much linked to the acquisition of the weapon, and more so the process of creating the weapon and the ability to recreate this process into more and more weapons. Ability to launch one nuclear weapon (or even a few) is obviously powerful but nowhere near as powerful as a true nuclear state. This is slightly different for a non state actor such as ISIS, legitimacy seems to not be the case. However, gaining short term increases in power and destruction that a nuclear weapon provides is obviously very important to a fledgling group.

    However, it is very tough to say exactly what a non state actor like ISIS would do, as their goals and operating procedures completely likely differ hugely across groups and across time.

  7. Marco has done a great job in extrapolating Sagan’s theories to current events to pose some interesting questions. In his Security Model, it definitely makes sense normatively that, when a country develops a nuclear weapons program, it makes a direct threat to another state in its region as to justify the reason for developing the weapons to begin with. It would make the threat towards the regional state since doing so will, in a way, increase the states perceived power without directly antagonizing its rival. But, to answer Marco’s question, I do not believe this is always the case. I follow Lily’s agrument in that Sagan did not include the North Korean and Iranian nuclear developments. In the North Korean case in particular, North Korea did not threat a state in its region before directly threatening its perceived rival in the United States which goes against Sagan’s theory. I believe the reason that post-Soviet states did not develop nuclear programs is due to the lack of threats and lack of rivals in that region.

    In the Domestic Model, I think the three actors Sagan identifies could come together when a developed nuclear state undergoes a change in foreign policy towards a more aggressive militaristic state (such as Putin’s Russia). In such a case, a nation becomes more motivated to develop nuclear weapons but already has the resources in place to further develop these weapons. With this example in mind, I believe that the state’s nuclear establishment is the most important actor. As we have seen with North Korea’s nuclear development, even if politicians and military units come together for nuclear development, it does not necessarily lead to success. North Korea has been able to detonate test bombs (not particularly large) but has not been successful in its deployment methods. Therefore, North Korea is still not seen as a legitimate threat.

    Finally, in the Norms Model, I do not think that it can apply to terrorist groups. Terrorist groups seek to attack the various groups of people that conflict with their ideology, and some do not necessarily seek power. I think that ISIS is a slightly different case in that it aims to form an ideological state. At this point, it has not formed a legitimate and stable state, so it is not at the point that it can, or would, desire to follow the Norms model. I believe ISIS is at the stage that it must become a “modern state” before it can seek to become a “legitimate, modern state” by developing nuclear weapons.

  8. Two hypotheses in Sagan’s article “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?” are that nuclear proliferation is a fait accompli – “[u]nder realist logic, however, U.S. nonproliferation policy can only slow down, not eliminate, the future spread of nuclear weapons” (62) – and that “[e]very time one state develops nuclear weapons to balance against its main rival, it also creates a nuclear threat to another state in the region, which then has to initiate its own nuclear weapons program to maintain its national security” (57-58).

    While these hypotheses appear to be true when considered separately, together they seemingly cancel each other out. In other words, although nuclear proliferation has occurred since 1945 and there have been instances of states developing nuclear weapons in order to mitigate the threat of a “possible nuclear attack” (58), one issue seems to be missing: The states that developed these weapons did not pose a major threat to the world order. For instance, although India “follow[ed] suit” (59) after China and consequently, “it was inevitable that…[Pakistan] would seek to produce a nuclear weapon as quickly as possible” (59), neither Indian nor Pakistan wanted a nuclear war. This also applies to the nuclear program of Israel. Although Israel is an unsanctioned nuclear power, it is clear that the Israeli government would have no desire to use its arsenal unless first attacked. In short, in the eyes of the international community, wanting nuclear weapons is different from wanting to use nuclear weapons.

    Intent, thus, is the largest reason why some states’ nuclear ambitions were and are treated more aggressively. From Iraq to Syria, from North Korea to Iran, all these states, for one reason or another, presented an unstable threat. In other words, these countries signaled their fundamental desire to use nuclear weapons.

    Therefore, vis-à-vis Sagan’s first hypothesis, it appears that if the international community is worried enough, it will attempt to block another country’s access to nuclear capabilities. That is to say that nuclear proliferation does not always have to be a fait accompli in all scenarios. Consequently, because nuclear proliferation won’t always occur, it also won’t always trigger more countries in their respective regions to develop programs.

  9. Hi Marco, great post!

    I’m don’t think that it is always true that “every time one state develops nuclear weapons to balance against its main rival, it also creates a nuclear threat to another state in the region.” I think this mostly depends on the state that creates the weapon as well as the domestic and foreign political climate the state faces. Canada and Mexico may not necessarily be subjected to greater threat if the United States creates another nuclear weapon. Presently, there is no indication that we are enemies with these states or view them as a threat. However, if a state such as North Korea creates a nuclear weapon that could create a threat for its neighboring states because there is a more recent history of ongoing conflict in this area.

    In response to the ideas about the norms model I don’t think terrorist groups are as deeply impacted by “nuclear symbolism” and I don’t think they would necessarily “build nuclear arsenals because they are a part of what modern state believe they have to possess to be legitimate, modern states.” Terrorist groups exist for a variety of reasons but unlike most “modern” states many terrorist groups exist to create fear in other peoples. I think a group such as ISIS would attempt to build a nuclear arsenal to instill fear in Westerners and others rather than to show “modern” states that they too (ISIS) are modern.”

    I think some states may build a weapon out of retaliation or defiance (if that is even the right word). Like the US and other Western states have been allowed to build weapons for decades so why is it fair for these same countries to tell our country that we can’t would be an idea to consider. I think the third model could also be extend for states that are thinking ahead to the future as they become more developed. Maybe they are considering future threats they may face and want the technologies to thwart future attacks.

  10. I enjoy and find the answers given to Marco’s original questions quite fascinating, especially those in response to the question of why certain countries, which are adjacent to nuclear weapon holding nations, choose not to develop their own weapons. De Vann, you pointed out how you believe a nation’s willingness to develop nuclear weapons is dependent on how it perceives another country’s threat towards it’s safety. I could not agree more. The United States has a reason to hold nuclear weapons as a security measure because it is aware that it is vulnerable to and a target for attacks of any form from its enemies because of the great status the country holds among the world governments. However, I would like to suggest a practical reason as to why certain countries have refused to develop nuclear weapons: the cost and the unlikelihood of ever having to use the weapons.

    According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the United States will have spent at least $179 billion on its nuclear arsenal at the end of nine fiscal periods running from 2010 to 2018. In my opinion, this cost is extremely steep and absolutely unnecessary considering the last time nuclear weapons were used in warfare was the U.S. military bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took place in 1945. The next two thousand detonations of nuclear bombs would be done by various countries strictly for demonstration purposes. The existence of nuclear weapons in every country that is likely to attack each other creates a major stalemate, especially with the knowledge that the combined power of all of these nuclear weapons would destroy the earth several times over. Countries like most of those in Africa, Mexico, and Canada certainly must not feel threatened by countries with nuclear weapons, but they are also most likely acknowledging the great financial risk building the weapons would cause. Now, I have no issue with these nuclear weapons-holding countries putting forth funds to further nuclear power research for the purpose of energy conservation and alternatives, but I fail to understand why our world feels the need to flex and flaunt it’s power when it can be using this money to protect its citizens in more direct ways. I can imagine the United States taking several billion dollars from weapons research and pushing forward better education initiatives, because Lord knows that so many of our school districts and colleges need major financial assistance to provide the best opportunities for their students. Unfortunately, potential terrorism is on everyone’s mind at the moment.

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