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