Who Gets to Have Nuclear Weapons and Why?

From: townhall.com,  by Victor Davis Hanson,  on Nov 2, 2017

Given North Korea’s nuclear lunacy, what exactly are the rules, formal or implicit, about which nations can have nuclear weapons and which cannot?

It is complicated.

In the free-for-all environment of the 1940s and 1950s, the original nuclear club included only those countries with the technological know-how, size and money to build nukes. Those realities meant that up until the early 1960s, only Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States had nuclear capabilities.

Members of this small club did not worry that many other nations would make such weapons because it seemed far too expensive and difficult for most.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States adhered to an unspoken rule that their losing Axis enemies of World War II — Germany, Italy and Japan — should not have nuclear weapons. Despite their financial and scientific ability to obtain them, all three former Axis powers had too much recent historical baggage to be allowed weapons of mass destruction. That tacit agreement apparently still remains.

The Soviet Union and the United States also informally agreed during the Cold War that their own dependent allies who had the ability to go nuclear — including Eastern Bloc nations, most Western European countries, Australia and Canada — would not. Instead, they would depend on their superpower patrons for nuclear deterrence.

By the 1970s, realities had changed again. Large and/or scientifically sophisticated nations such as China (1964), Israel (1967) and India (1974) went nuclear. Often, such countries did so with the help of pro-Western or pro-Soviet patrons and sponsors. The rest of the world apparently shrugged, believing it was inevitable that such nations would obtain nuclear weapons.

The next round of expansion of the nuclear club, however, was far sloppier and more dangerous. Proliferation hinged on whether poorer and more unstable nations could get away enriching uranium or acquiring plutonium in secret.

Some nations let on that they were developing nuclear weapons and were stopped by preemptive military strikes, such as Iraq and Syria. Others, including South Africa, Ukraine and Libya, were persuaded to halt their nuclear projects.

Pakistan was the rare rogue that managed to hide its nuclear enrichment, shocking the world by testing a bomb in 1998. Pakistan rightly assumed that once a nation proves its nuclear capability, it is deemed too dangerous to walk it back through disarmament.

Nonetheless, until the official nuclearization of North Korea in 2006, the nuclear club remained small (eight nations) and was thought to be manageable. Why?

First, those nuclear countries that were relatively transparent and democratic (Britain, France, India, Israel and the United States) were deemed unlikely to start a nuclear war.

Second, the advanced but autocratic nuclear nations (China and Russia) were thought to have too much at stake in globalized trade and national prosperity ever to start a lose/lose nuclear war.

Third, any unstable rogue nuclear nation (Pakistan) was assumed to be deterred and held in check by a nearby nuclear rival (India).

The nuclear capability of dictatorial North Korea (and likely soon, theocratic Iran) poses novel dangers far beyond the simple arithmetic of “the more nuclear nations, the more likely a nuclear war.”

Neither North Korea nor Iran is democratic. Neither is a stable country.

Neither has an immediate nuclear rival that can deter and persuade it not to dare use a nuclear weapon. Both started nuclear programs in secret. Both hate the United States and its allies.

More importantly, their flagrant violations of nonproliferation accords and their perceived aggressiveness will prompt relatively powerful regional neighbors such as Egypt, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Taiwan to consider developing nuclear capability.

The club then could get big quickly.

Not all of these would-be nuclear powers are democratic. But they do share a single pro-American outlook.

A frustrated America may feel that China and Russia have encouraged rogue countries such as Iran and North Korea to develop nuclear weapons programs, selfishly assuming that missiles in those countries would be pointed at the West and not eastward. So now the United States is in a paradoxical position. It wants to stop all nuclear proliferation. But America also assumes that the next nuclear powers (for a change) would be pro-American — a payback of sorts to China and Russia for allowing their rogue friends to develop nuclear capabilities.

The United Nations and international nonproliferation organizations, while well-meaning in intent, have thus far proven impotent in deed.

Yet amid the chaos, until 2006 there were implied rules for the eight-member nuclear club. Now, after North Korea’s unhinged threats, those shared assumptions about nuclear poker are null and void. And no one quite knows what to expect next.


This issue had always seemed cut and dried. Only large countries with large armies, large economies, and a major player on the world stage would be “allowed” to become a nuclear power. The big guys would prevent the smaller, perhaps less stable countries, from becoming nuclear states, but that only went so far and the USSR (in particular) wouldn’t play along. Now, we’re faced with two rogue countries, both enemies of the United States, either already possessing or on the verge of possessing the ability to “nuke” another country and there’s little we can do about it – short of “nuking” them first.

Truth be told, who are we to tell other sovereign countries that they can’t develop their own nuclear arsenal? I understand the reasons that we discourage other countries from becoming nuclear powers and they are certainly valid, but from the other country’s perspective, we should butt out.

What worries me even more than a nuclear explosion on U.S. soil is an EMP attack. Sending up a small satellite with a small EMP-enhanced bomb aboard is technically easier and can be accomplished by a less capable country than a large-scale many-megaton bomb designed to lay waste to large cities. 

This genie won’t go back into the bottle and it’s likely that even smaller players will be nuclear powers in a few years.  All of this practically guarantees that we’ll see mushroom clouds somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

We may come to regret that mankind ever developed nuclear weapons.


Categories: Political


4 replies

  1. “….America also assumes that the next nuclear powers (for a change) would be pro-American…”

    I don’t understand what Victor Davis Hansen means by this. Maybe you can explain?

    IMO the problem we face is a consequence of the U.S. not flexing its muscle at the U.N., and THAT is a consequence of Democrats who (1) appease; and (2) weaken our military and economic capabilities. The stronger we are, the more power we have to call the shots with respect to what these rogue nations can get away with. Our weakness allows nations like China and Russia to have an equal say, and naturally they want to keep the U.S. in a position of impotence. So step one is to rebuild the military (the thankless task of every Republican POTUS) and step two is to re-establish dominance at the U.N. Then we demand that N.K. and Iran abandon all nuclear work and capability, and we back this up with the support of the other nations. Refusal to comply would be met with airstrikes that destroy the nuclear infrastructure. But again, it has to be done with the support of the other large nations, so that we don’t bring WWIII upon ourselves.

    That’s my 2 cents.


    • I think what he meant was that in order to offset the nukes already in the hands of anti-American enemies, we’d have to aid/assist Egypt, Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Taiwan (those he named) to develop nukes. I agree that we have essentially “allowed” NK and Iran to develop nukes through our not taking firm enough stand – but remember how wishy-washy our presidents have been for some time. They were afraid of starting a war – even a limited war – and wouldn’t take any position that might lead to military action with either country. That’s my .02 cents worth.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Once the genie is out of the bottle it’s hard to contain it. My guess is we’ll see nuclear attacks in the future and it will be so tragic. We will wish we had taken huge action against those nations. Iran. NK. Just read a headline that said removing NK as nuke threat will require ground troops.


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