Home Lightbox Nuclear Power and the Unstable State

Nuclear Power and the Unstable State

Global powers must protect nuclear states on the brink of collapse to avoid them reaching a point where they feel compelled to seek money for proliferation

by Khaled Ahmed

Security models maintain that a fundamental motivation for acquiring nuclear weapons is that they will improve a state’s security, best ensured through deterrence. The most effective way of achieving said deterrence is nuclearization. Once nuclearization—along with its weaponized delivery system—has been achieved, a state’s stability is ensured not only through deterrence, but also a fear of the nuclear state collapsing and resorting to proliferation to shore up its security.

Ensuring the survival of nuclearized states, thus, becomes essential to prevent their nuclear assets from being stolen, triggering dangerous proliferation. This becomes a more pressing concern when a “nuclearized” state is threatened with collapse and a consequent “spread” of its nuclear assets, leaving global powers with little choice but to protect a weak-but-nuclear state from collapse to avoid the consequent spread of its nuclear assets.

Nuclear weapons are an overwhelmingly destructive force that increase a state’s relative power in comparison to its neighbors, providing a powerful tool in an anarchic system. Realist claims about proliferation events hold sway due to their concern with state survival and security by defining nuclear weapons as particularly effective power-balancing or power-maximizing tools. However, realists are not the only theorists interested in state security; general and constructivist theories can offer their own security-driven explanations for nuclear proliferation, whether it is a hard power solution to secure a vital national interest for liberalism or as a response to a threat to a state’s identity for constructivism.

Regardless of international theory subscriptions, 24 states have crossed the political threshold in pursuit of nuclear weapons, and all but two of those states had a security concern during their periods of nuclear research. Using this empirical evidence, security provides a strong foundational explanation for past nuclear proliferation behavior. Furthermore, for the 10 states that completed the steps required to obtain nuclear weapons, all had significant security concerns of an immediate or historical nature, which indicates that security is a necessary condition for proliferation. Security concerns can be exacerbated by historical rivals, revisionist neighbors which can increase the inclination for a state to proliferate making it more difficult to be influenced by domestic or normative negative pressures. However, security assurances or extended deterrence agreements from a nuclear state to a non-nuclear state can dampen security concerns, which has been a significant goal of U.S. foreign policy.

But once a state has already become nuclearized, the policy shifts to preventing proliferation. Key to achieving this is ensuring that a nuclear power facing collapse does not become vulnerable to “transfer” of its nuclear devices. At this point the attitude of major powers moves towards “protection,” meaning the prevention of the state’s collapse for economic reasons.

American journalist and author Seymour Hersh, writing in The New Yorker on Nov. 16, 2009, strengthened the belief that weak nuclear states vulnerable to proliferation need to be “protected” from collapse. His article—Defending the Arsenal in an Unstable Pakistan: Can Nuclear Warheads be kept Safe?—noted that it was important to prevent Pakistan from becoming economically bankrupt so it would not seek to “spread” its nuclear technology for money. Therefore, it had to first be protected from collapse and then persuaded not to sell its nuclear assets. This is especially relevant for Pakistan, which was accused of nuclear technology sales to North Korea, Iran and Libya. Several greatly detailed books on Dr. A.Q. Khan apprised the world about “this megalomaniac scientist who wants to show off his ability to defy international nuclear embargoes and also make some money on the side.”

Economic stability

It is not a stretch to say Pakistan aroused proliferation fears after becoming a nuclear power, with global powers believing if it was allowed to drift further into isolationism (and resultant economic collapse) it might help some Iran-challenged Arab states to acquire the bomb after enabling Iran. On the other hand, militarily-strong India was not seen as a proliferator, which helped in its “regularization” as a nuclear power.

Out of the global community’s “troublesome trio”—Iran, North Korea, Pakistan—Pakistan is the only state internally threatened with political instability. North Korea is a totalitarian dictatorship with complete political control over its population; Iran is an Islamic totalitarian state with an oppressive hold on dissenters and a population that attaches nationalism to the bomb the state hopes to acquire. In Pakistan, political instability has resulted in an almost spontaneous ascendancy of the Army, which has been known to base its tactical policy vis-à-vis India on nuclear weapons and indulge in risk-taking.

Similarly, of the four states—India joining the trio—with nuclear ambition, Pakistan is the only one with a weak writ of the state. There are regions in the country where the state does not exist, which means that municipal law is not respected. Cities have duplicated this lack of writ by developing no-go areas of their own. In Balochistan, there is an ongoing trend of foreign interference. In the erstwhile tribal areas, the state struggles to re-extend control lost to militancy. Cities like Peshawar and Karachi were—not so long ago—victim to mafias and jihadi groups with strategies of “revenue-collection” through kidnappings and robberies. Some of these mafias were led by warlords capable of fulfilling “contracts,” like “snatching” a nuclear device. They seemed to “practice” this expertise by attacking NATO supply trucks intended for Western forces in Afghanistan.

Pakistan has also nurtured a revisionist nationalism against a much larger and stronger state, India, on the basis of a perceived loss of territory. India could have opted for the same against China, but it eschewed revisionism by front-loading trade with Beijing instead, something that Islamabad is not willing to do with Delhi. By comparison, North Korea is dangerous because of its irredentism against South Korea, but the latter is not a nuclear power. Iran, too, can be indirectly irredentist against the Arab states across the Gulf. But Pakistan’s nationalism is attached to the bomb, making it dangerous because it allows the state to think in terms of an unrealistic strategic parity with India.

In this scenario, no one can afford to let nuclear Pakistan come to grief. That, in actual fact, is the “security” provided to it by its nuclear arsenal. The “big powers” cannot afford to let it go down economically and become a collapsed state forced to sell its nuclear asserts for money. It is much better to help it come out of its crisis and continue as a “responsible” nuclear power.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment