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Do Nuclear Weapons Promote Peace and Stability?

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Relations
Wordcount: 2929 words Published: 10th Apr 2019

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Does the existence of nuclear weaponry increase peace and stability in the international system?

1.    Introduction

In which ways does the existence of nuclear weaponry increase peace and stability in the international system? This essay argues both for and against the nuclear peace hypothesis, otherwise known as the nuclear deterrence theory. It will draw on quantitative dyadic-based evidence from Robert Rauchhaus’s’ study published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution in 2009, which finds support for the existence of the stability-instability paradox. This in term explains that while nuclear weapons do in fact provide a nuclear peace in some examples, which promotes strategic stability and prevents major wars, it also allows for more frequent, lower intensity conflicts. Included will be the arguments and point of views from both deterrence optimists, pessimists and on-the-fence scholars, as well as providing specific examples and case studies, predominantly the Cold War.

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2.    Nuclear Peace Hypothesis

The Nuclear Peace Theory is an international relations theory that argues that the presence of nuclear weapons induces stability and decreases the chance of major conflict under some circumstances. The lack of a third war following the second was said to have been induced by nuclear stability during the Cold War. This was said to have been caused by the mutual possession of second strike retaliation by the two powers of that war, the United States (US) and the Soviet Union (USSR), which eliminated the possibility of victory for either side because of Mutually Assured Destruction, or the MAD doctrine (Lieber & Press, 2016). Second strike ability is considered vital to nuclear deterrence, as otherwise the opposition could attempt to win the war by striking first. Mutual second-strike capabilities generally cause a mutually assured destruction defense strategy but is possible that one state has a lower minimal deterrence strategy. Lower minimal deterrence is when a state possesses only what is necessary to be able to reciprocate second strike (Long & Green, 2014) . This doctrine was pursued by China and India when the US and the USSR were developing powerful first and second-strike abilities during the Cold War (Jones, 2001). The Nuclear Peace Hypothesis is criticized by scholars as proliferation of states increases the chance of low-intensity interstate conflict, but also the chance of nuclear material being procured by violent groups such as terrorist group Al Qaeda, who are exempt from the threat of nuclear retaliation as they are stateless (Sagan S. , 1994).

2.1. Proliferation optimists and pessimists

Why have there been no major wars between great powers in the last 6 decades? The three leading theories in IR have offered their own answers and views on this question. Neoliberalism is most cited- Advancing Kant’s perpetual peace theory (1795), neo liberals have surmised the foundation of this peace to be built upon democracy (Moaz & Russet, 1993), trade (Keohane & Nye, 1977) and international organisations (Keohane, 2015) (Rauchhaus, Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis, 2009). Constructivist point of view is somewhat in line with that of the (neo) liberalist’s, but it credits the Long Peace to the social constructs within a state and society, such as normative behaviour and actions. Neorealism, the third leading theory, has a completely different approach and attributes the peace to nuclear deterrence and bipolarity (Seepersad, 2011) (Waltz, 1990). Even though nuclear deterrence is one of the main facets of realist consideration for Long Peace, not much research has been done into proving why exactly it does. Most of the studies done have been focused on nuclear weapons and crises, or nuclear weapons and conflict escalation (Rauchhaus, 2009).

There is no debate about whether nuclear weapons decrease the chance of war, as when both states posses’ nuclear weapons they do decrease the chance of major war. However, what has not been widely discussed is that they do not decrease the chance of civil, periphery and small wars, which still causes the expenditure of wealth, resources and lives.

Proliferation optimists, such as Kenneth Waltz (1990) and John Lewis Gaddis (1992), hypothesise that the reason that there has not been a third world war, despite the second following the first within twenty years, and the Cold War right after that, is because of the Nuclear Deterrence Theory. Because of the absolute destructivity of nuclear weapons, even the least intelligent of leaders can understand that using them would be disadvantageous for everyone involved, thus there are no wars.

Proliferation critics are described as those who hold diametrically opposed views. They do no deny that nuclear deterrence discourages major wars but safety, rational and moral critics believe that the deterrent value outweighs the possibility of negating war. The shared view is that nuclearizing states, such as the South of Asia, could lead to inadvertent escalation, or further proliferation on unstable nations (Sagan S. , 1994).

Safety critics such as Scott Sagan (1993), argue that the possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorist stateless groups or accidental detonation or exchange during the war, are too big of a safety concern, and so overwhelm the positive presence of them possibly averting WWIII (Sagan S. D., 1993). Rationality critics such as Bob Jervis are not being critical of the underlying logic nuclear deterrence, but rather of deterrence failure as people are not perfectly rational beings, and mistakes can be made (Jervis, 1989). Moral critics such as Richard Falk (1991) argue that nuclear weapons violate international law, and are immoral, but do not argue against whether nuclear weapons actually make war less likely.

One of the scholars viewed as being the most opposed to the nuclear peace theory is John Mueller, however, if the reader were to go through his books in detail, they would learn that they haven’t denied that nuclear weapons do not help enforce the current peace. He says that the lack of World War III and the cause of Long Peace is attributed to education, changing norms and interdependence (between states), and that he believes that WWIII would not have happened, despite nuclear weapons, but he does not deny they helped enforce peace (Mueller, 1988).

As the reader has possibly gleaned by now, and will realise by the end of this essay, Nuclear Peace is not a simple matter and as we continue, proliferation pessimists and optimist’s groups have some of each of their claims verified. In favour of proliferation optimists, the possession of nuclear weaponry by both states does decrease the possibility of major war, and this can possibly be explained in Snyder’s essay on the stability-instability paradox. However, pessimists can justify most of their claims hereafter, as if there is an imbalance with one state possessing and the other not, there is an increased likelihood of war. Additionally, looking at this holistically, the possession or creation of nuclear weapons are closely associated with increased conflict, casualties and clashes, however all at a lower intensity. This supports Snyder’s previously mentioned stability-instability theory, which suggests a link between nuclear perceived peace and increased lower-intensity conflicts, which is further supported by Rauchhaus’s Nuclear Peace Hypothesis (2009).

3.    Stability Instability Paradox

Neither pessimistic nor optimistic of proliferation, there is a group of scholars who believe that nuclear weapons tend to promote peace between states that both have Nuclear Weapons, but do not create peace overall. The international relations theory behind their belief is the stability instability paradox (Krepon, 2005), that two states understand that if they had a major war between them, then it would be the previously mentioned Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). However, because either state is aware that the other state is aware of this, and there is an unspoken threshold that they won’t go beyond in terms of aggravation, then the collective agreement leads to small wars, proxy wars or periphery wars, and not allowing any of these conflicts to escalate to nuclear warfare. An example of this is during the Cold War, the powers of that war (US and the USSR) never engaged directly through warfare, but engaged indirectly through proxy and minor wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan among others, and used large amount of resources and manpower to regain the upper hand over one another.

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Support of this theory was seen in Robert Rauchhaus’s quantitative study in 2009, Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis, which builds on the dyadically analysed Democratic Peace Theory, and includes controls to search for nuclear only inclusive conflicts. Working in symmetrical and asymmetrical variables (asymmetrical being one state has nuclear weapons, and the other being symmetrical) he includes regression analysis[1] that controls the study for nuclear weapons only, so the results only show conflicts between states that include nuclear weapons. His results are quite interesting, as they show that in every case where nuclear weapons are included, they are associated with an increase in all types of conflict; militarized, aggressive force used and fatalities between all countries, and war between asymmetric dyads (one state possessing nuclear weapons and the other not). Although the results state that nuclear weapons bring conflict, they do include the exception that there are no direct wars between the two countries involved if they both possess nuclear weapons, although there is a high probability of minor or indirect conflicts between them.  

The assumptions of the connection between MAD and the stability instability paradox is that as a consequence of this truce-like behaviour, actors will be rational and will apply that rationality to how they manage conflicts and the ultimate goal being the avoidance of nuclear warfare, and thus, destruction. However, although logical, this might not be the case on the international relations stage, as some nations could have the belief that life after death is a big improvement than the current life we are living and will attempt to aid a swift transition to the ‘afterlife’. This would then be perfectly rational to them, but not to many other nations, who are predominantly atheist (Harris, 2005).

4.    Conclusion

Nuclear weapons went from being viewed as instruments of Apocalypses, to a form of reassurance, deterrence and negotiation. They have been viewed as either a good or a bad force for a long time, but the reality of the situation as seen in the discussion above, is that nuclear weapons are in fact a very complex and bipolar topic. Although they do encourage a sort of peaceful truce between countries both holdings nuclear weapons in regard to major wars, there is a proven increase in lower intensity wars between those states, and so can one really call that peace? Do the smaller war casualties get counted towards this truce or are these numbers disregarded in comparison to the damage that would be done by nuclear bombing? In comparison, if there is an asymmetry then there is a great chance of dispute and war from the side with the nuclear weapon. When these theories are combined, the stability instability paradox has been explained and supported.

This essay has demonstrated my beliefs that although nuclear weapons prevent major wars, it does not create peace in the typical sense, as the peace described is rather a tense and precarious agreement to cease fire, with many smaller and still detrimental wars still occurring. If one had to really call this type of truce peace, then it would be peace built on fear, distrust and hatred, which is not really peace at all.

It would be interesting to have further research done in nuclear weaponry and peace having a correlation.  It would be intriguing to examine potential intended consequence when states try to acquire nuclear weapons, and the possibility of their opposition (or other concerned states) going to war with them to prevent that. More simply put, if the proliferation process itself has the possibility to drive further conflict. A modern case study would be Iran trying to access/research nuclear weapons, and states negative response to that. Another interesting direction a study could take could be theoretically discuss what the outcome would be if nuclear weapons were to be banned, and if humans would invent a new horror in the form of DNA affecting biological warfare?


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[1] These are described by him as Control Variables and include trade independence, distance, continuity, power/capabilities, alliance partners, major power status, democracy, trade/interdependence and IGO membership. These are used to isolate the effects of nuclear weapons and come to as accurate an answer as possible (Rauchhaus, 2009).


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