10 January 2018

The World's Next Nuclear Powers

Since the first nuclear weapons were tested and used in 1945, efforts have been underway to prevent the proliferation of this form of weapons.  First, the United States attempted to guard its nuclear secrets, but this succeeded for only a short time as, four years later, the US’ new rival, the Soviet Union, also was in possession of such weapons.  Fearful of losing more ground to their much-larger rivals, former great powers Britain and France developed their own nuclear weapons in the 1950s, followed a short-time later by a power determined to regain its leading position in the world, China.  Since then, five other states have developed and possessed nuclear weapons (Israel. India, Pakistan, South Africa and North Korea), with all of these powers apart from South Africa continuing to possess sizeable nuclear arsenals.  Furthermore, when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, three newly-independent countries (Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus) transferred the Soviet-era nuclear weapons that were based on their territory to Russia.  As a result, there are nine countries today that possess nuclear weapons.

There are many reasons why a country would want to possess nuclear weapons.  At first, the leading combatants of the Second World War wanted to develop and use such weapons to force their enemies to surrender as quickly as possible, while incurring minimal loses to their own forces in the process.  When the United States won the nuclear race, the Soviet Union could not allow its ideological rival to possess such a strategic advantage over it, hence its efforts to develop its own nuclear weapons program.  For Britain and France, their declining conventional military power and fears of a US abandonment of Europe led them to develop their own nuclear weapons programs years later.  Since then, nuclear weapons have been seen as both a deterrent to attacks from rivals with greater conventional military capabilities as well as a guarantee of a country’s strategic independence.  In order to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons programs to even more countries, the world’s leading nuclear powers have made the cost of developing nuclear programs extremely prohibitive, both in economic and political terms, by threatening sanctions, isolation and even war to prevent countries from acquiring such weapons.  Furthermore, most countries simply do not possess the technical capabilities needed to develop an indigenous nuclear weapons program.

Despite these costs, there is a growing fear that the world is on the brink of a new round of nuclear proliferation, as a number of states are known to have a strong interest in developing their own nuclear weapons programs, or at least in acquiring such weapons from current nuclear powers.  Six such countries are: 

  • Iran: It took many years for the international community to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program, and the current deal in place is unlikely to curb Iran’s ambitions to one day become a nuclear power.  Furthermore, Iran still views the possession of nuclear weapons as a guarantee of its security against the hostile powers that surround it.
  • Saudi Arabia: It is widely suspected that Saudi Arabia has an agreement in place with Pakistan for acquiring nuclear weapons from that country should Iran develop its own nuclear weapons.  Moreover, Saudi’s ambitions to dominate the Middle East could lead to it develop its own nuclear weapons program regardless of Iran’s progress on this front.
  • Turkey: The growing divide between Turkey and its NATO allies, combined with the widespread instability in its immediate vicinity, could convince Ankara of the need to develop Turkey’s own nuclear weapons program in order to secure its strategic independence.
  • Japan: Fears over North Korea’s nuclear program, China’s rising military power and the United States’ commitment to Japan’s security could result in Japan developing a nuclear weapons program of its own.  No country currently without nuclear weapons is more capable of quickly developing them than Japan.
  • South Korea: Like Japan, South Korea is spooked by the rapid advancement of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, something that is offsetting South Korea’s growing conventional weapons lead over North Korea.  This could result in an increasingly-advanced South Korea deciding to counter Pyongyang with a nuclear program of its own.
  • Germany: While the German population remains largely against the development of an indigenous nuclear weapons program, a changing security situation in Europe could force Berlin to at least consider the need to develop nuclear weapons, perhaps in concert with Europe’s two existing nuclear powers, France and Britain.

Dreams of a nuclear-weapons-free world are clearly unrealistic, as the past few years have shown.  However, hopes that the number of nuclear weapons in the world, and the number of states possessing such weapons, could be limited and even reduced had been fairly high.  Now, three major areas of concern have emerged that are threatening to lead to a new era of nuclear proliferation.  First, the dangerous security situation in East Asia, centered on China’s rising power and North Korea’s nuclear program, could lead to two more states (Japan and South Korea) developing nuclear weapons in the near-future.  Second, the South Asian nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan could lead to those states, particularly Pakistan, exporting their nuclear know-how to other countries while both sides dramatically increase their nuclear weapons stockpiles.  Finally, the severe unrest in the Middle East, combined with the growing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, could lead to two or more countries in that region developing their own nuclear weapons programs. 

Given the danger posed by these weapons, it is easy to understand why most of the world’s leading powers have worked together to prevent their spread.  However, given the changing geopolitical situation in many areas of the world, it is also easy to see how these weapons could spread to new countries quite rapidly in the years ahead and significantly to the level of geopolitical risk in the world.