Proponents in country A which has nuclear weapons support their existence by using the 'deterrence' argument. However, proponents in country A actively attempt to prevent country B from developing their own nuclear weapons.

Think USA and the western world versus Iran, North Korea, and earlier Pakistan, etc.

This seems contradictory, does it not? If the existence of nuclear weapons in country A prevents other countries from engaging in warfare against country A, then the same logic applies to country B: existence of nuclear weapons in country B would prevent other countries from engaging in warfare against country B.

Assuming that world peace and avoiding unjust warfare is what we all want, surely this is a good thing for both country A and B.

Thus we can conclude from country A being opposed to country B's nuclear development plans that world peace and avoidance of unjust warfare is not a priority for country A, and may in fact be counterproductive to their real goals.

Am I correct in my reasoning?


A minor side-argument made by country A may be that if country B develops nuclear weapons, they may give them away to some third-party, who could use the nuclear weapon against country A, such that country B is not a main suspect. This fairy tale seems worrying until you come up with the obvious solution: international oversight. Allow country B to have and control as many nuclear weapons they want, but they must always remain under international oversight, so that any actions taken by country B in regard to those nuclear weapons can be independently investigated. The same would of course apply to nation A and all other holder of nuclear weaponry. Problem solved.

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    Closely related: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/236/… – Alexei Sep 4 '18 at 9:13
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    "Assuming that world peace and avoiding unjust warfare is what we all want, surely this is a good thing for both country A and B." That assumption is incorrect. USA wants to invade other countries, and it does not to be invaded. – Alice Sep 4 '18 at 11:28
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    While I'm in no way trying to make unwarranted implications about parallels between the US and a country's police, your question is very similar to "why don't the police allow all citizens to be armed?" – Flater Sep 4 '18 at 14:16
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    "Problem solved." Wow, I wonder why no one else has thought of this before! – user15103 Sep 4 '18 at 14:25
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    "Am I correct in my reasoning?" No. Attempts to "reason" about politics are almost always futile. The only reason why any entity takes any political action is "because it can," not "because it's the right thing to do", "because it's the logical thing to do", or whatever. – alephzero Sep 4 '18 at 18:46

13 Answers 13


Why don't we allow all countries to have nuclear weapons?

I can see multiple reasons for that:

  • This will increase a global production of nuclear weapons and force neighboring countries into local arms races.
  • Countries engaged in active military conflicts might use nuclear weapons for offensive or defensive purposes.
  • Nuclear weapons will impede any kind of international intervention. For example, in case if a country uses chemical weapons or commits war crimes, other countries want to be able to intervene/retaliate. The possibility of a nuclear counterattack will make it much harder.
  • Nuclear weapons states don't want to lose their leverage against other countries.
  • Some countries refuse to own nuclear weapons. These countries don't want their potential enemies to have nuclear weapons.
  • Some countries are just unstable. No one wants them to have nuclear weapons.

Proponents in country A which has nuclear weapons support their existence by using the 'deterrence' argument.

That's one of the arguments. There're others advantages of nuclear weapons:

  • Nuclear weapons are extremely powerful and can be used for offensive and defensive purposes.
  • The nuclear arsenal is an ultimate safeguard against foreign invasion or military retaliation.

This seems contradictory, does it not?

Yes, the 'deterrence' argument by itself is contradictory and hypocritical. The list of countries, which are allowed to have nuclear weapons, is not justified in any way. Basically, some countries already had nuclear weapons and refused to give them away. It's not like these countries need them more than others.

Assuming that world peace and avoiding unjust warfare is what we all want, surely this is a good thing for both countries A and B [to have nuclear weapons].

No, for the reasons listed above. Also, there is no reason to think that nuclear weapons, per se, will prevent "unjust" warfare.

From that perspective, it makes more sense to reduce A's nuclear arsenal. In fact, nuclear disarmament was included in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Later, some nuclear states (most notably the US and the USSR/Russia) developed a series of arm reduction treaties.

This fairytale story seems worrying until you come up with the obvious solution: international oversight.

This will work great until country B decides to stop cooperating with international authorities. After that, the international community will need to come up with some way to enforce the rules on a malicious nuclear power before things go wrong.

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    I agree and I'd just like to add that every argument one uses to justify a country owning nuclear weapons can be just as well used for another country. One can't simply say "we're good guys, they're bad guys". And to be honest, I'm not sure if I feel safer having nuclear weapons in the hands of some eastern european country or in the hands of someone like Trump. – ChatterOne Sep 4 '18 at 12:15
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    Related to the "Some countries are just unstable. No one wants them to have nuclear weapons.", not only would the broader world community not want the unstable State to have Nukes, but if they're unstable it only increases the possibility of a nuclear warhead/nuclear plans/uranium/whatever of slipping out of "controlled" hands into individual bad actors (terrorists, activists, etc.) and then disappearing. – BruceWayne Sep 4 '18 at 14:09
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    "The list of countries, which are allowed to have nuclear weapons, is not justified in any way." Except that those countries voluntarily agreed not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for peaceful nuclear technology as part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. – reirab Sep 4 '18 at 15:51
  • @reirab Well, not all of them signed the Treaty (India, Israel, and Pakistan did not). My argument is that nuclear states ratified a Treaty after developing their own weapons. Other countries signed the Treaty before doing that. – default locale Sep 4 '18 at 15:57
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    @defaultlocale India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and no one is seriously trying to stop them from doing so. Israel probably also has them, but has been intentionally ambiguous on this point. – reirab Sep 4 '18 at 16:01

If we take a game theory approach, we understand that we mostly want superpowers and wealthy countries only to have nuclear weapons.

Since a nuclear war would probably mean everyone loses everything, we don't want people having little or nothing to lose to have such weapons.

On the other hand those who are already powerful and would lose a lot in case of nuclear war will be very cautious before using such weapons, and would probably try every other solution before.

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  • How do you go from game theory to wanting rich countries having nuclear weapons? What is the benefit to the US (or any other current nuclear power) for there to be one more nuclear power? – JJ for Transparency and Monica Sep 4 '18 at 12:24
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    I think the underlying assumption in this answer is that if there are nukes, which countries should hold them to minimize the threat of them being used. – Communisty Sep 4 '18 at 12:50
  • @JJJ: Many countries have a mixture of strong and weak alliances. If there is only one nuclear power N which is weakly aligned with some other country W, it's possible that a potential "evil" country E which is considering an unprovoked attack on W might not see N as much of a deterrent. If, however, some other nuclear power O has a stronger alliance with W, that other power might be more likely to deter E from attacking it. Further, if W does get attacked, O would be in a better position to justify nuclear reprisal than N would be... – supercat Sep 4 '18 at 17:18
  • ...and thus N would rather be able to let O carry out any reprisals than have to undertake them itself. – supercat Sep 4 '18 at 17:19

This reasoning is flawed because it's conflating the priorities of the different countries.

From Country A's point of view, the ideal situation would be that they, and only they, had a nuclear capability. That way the deterrent effect is optimal. Short of that, they would want the minimum number of potential foes to be so armed to control the threat and the expense of the deterrent.

Now, from Country B's point of view you are correct. They are likely to want a nuclear capability as a deterrent from their potential foes. This is why a number of countries have the capability or are attempting to acquire it.

These two viewpoints are, of course, at odds and leads to the current situation where nuclear countries bribe and/or threaten non-nuclear countries.

As to your point about world peace, again I believe your reasoning is flawed. You're implicitly saying that peace is assured if everyone is at an equal level of capability. But that doesn't follow at all, nor is there much historic basis for that. What does facilitate extended peace is when it's not in anyone's self interest start a war. Historically, this has only really been the case when there has been political stability and economic prosperity and, even then, that's not always sufficient.

And one final point, your fairytale is an established fact. Not so much in giving weapons to third parties (although this may well have occurred) but in giving technology and information on building the weapons. This, famously, occurred between Iran and Pakistan.

International oversight can work but only if all parties cooperate. If a country stops participating, which happens fairly regularly, what do you do? Invade?

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It's not just the US. Nuclear issues are governed by the IAEA. Transfer of nuclear technology to a nation is contingent upon agreeing to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Agreement of 1968, as implemented by the UN. The NPF was originally formed by the first five nuclear states: the US, USSR, Britain, France, and India, as also being the nations that had the advanced nuclear technology needed to operate a reactor, or build weapons.

In order for a nation to acquire nuclear technology, a nation must agree to abide by the NPF. Signing on with the NPF means agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons, and agreeing to regular inspections by IAEA officials to insure that this is not happening. Iran did agree to the NPF in order to get nuclear power plants, and then promptly reneged on the agreement by evicting the inspectors and denying them access. That led to the international sanctions.

Why a nation awash in oil wants an expensive nuclear power plant is another matter entirely.

There is some question as to whether nations like N Korea which obtained nuclear arms, and Iran that may be developing them, have the stability and political maturity to manage such powerful weapons. Both nations regularly issue threats to destroy other nations. With nuclear arms, they might actually be able to do it. One nuclear weapon employed against a major city could kill over a million people, as well as creating a major global economic and environmental crisis.

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    The Shah was quite welcome to buy nuclear power plants and the reasons were well understood in the 1970s. momentmagazine.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/… It makes little sense to burn valuable oil for electricity- the US is down to 3% of total capacity and the plants average around 40 years old. – Spehro Pefhany Sep 4 '18 at 13:06
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    Did you mean China rather than India? – Qmechanic Sep 4 '18 at 18:03
  • Surely, since India (and Israel and Pakistan) has not signed the NPF. China is one of the 5 nuclear weapon states under that treaty. – Nick Brown Sep 4 '18 at 20:03
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    Please specify or link to the claim that Iran evicted inspectors. I can't find any reference to such an event in timelines detailing Iran's nuclear program. – PoloHoleSet Sep 4 '18 at 20:51

The ideal situation would be for no countries to have nuclear weapons. However, a number of countries already do, so that genie is already out of the bottle.

The countries that already have them are not generally willing to give them up, although there have been some treaties on reducing the sizes of their nuclear arsenals, and quite a bit of progress has been made: the US arsenal peaked at about 32K warheads in the 1960's, and is now about 6% of that; the Soviet Union peaked at 45K in the 1980's, and is now at about 10% of that.

If the ultimate goal is the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, there can be little justification for any increase. So the international community prohibits the creation of any new nuclear states. While it may be hypocritical for the existing nuclear states to be the ones enforcing this, who else is going to do it? We're the most powerful nations, so we end up enforcing many international policies. And it's also in our national defense interest to prevent our enemies from gaining nuclear capabilities (AFAIK, none of our allies are trying to develop nuclear weapons).

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Your argument looks a bit theoretical to me.

Nuclear geopolitics is geopolitics with a new added dimension added, but it isn't a new geopolitics altogether.

This new added dimension is hybrid, which means:

  • It is shaped by individual/groups beliefs and biases, not by logic. In this sense, it is a 'classical' dimension of geopolitics. It is shaped by individuals/political groups within countries, and reflects these individuals' biases and beliefs about states such as: rational boundaries, mistrust toward foreign individuals or information asymetry.
  • It has a 'definitive' component. One event - a first strike and a following counterstrike, say - and the current world equilibrium is over, with no way to predict what follows. In this sense, it is a 'new' dimension of geopolitics. It isn't treated as a domain where one is willing to engage in policy experimentation. In an international setting where every nation is nuclear-armed, there is a higher probability of an incident occurring and triggering an uncontrolable chain of events. This knowledge probably overrules your argument's logic in the mind of the dominant agents.

I would consider it more like a multidimensional-players game, with no direct foreseeable round limit, but with some kind of 'endgame' risk/limit on the horizon, known to all players. This game takes place, like classical geopolitics, in a balance of power setting, which is always an evolving dynamical equilibrium and therefore unsuited to definitive conclusion like your argument proposes (indefinite peace and prosperity).

In this way, your argument, while nicely made on a purely logical level, may simply not apply to reality.

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  • Reasons why nations dread experimentation is only peripherally related to the question of a given proposal's potential utility. Re "higher probabability": please be more specific as to why more nukes imply less safety -- the premise of the Q is the world powers own argument that a multitude of nukes is safest. – agc Sep 4 '18 at 10:04
  • Regarding experimentation, this is my point. While there may be ground for countries in general to test policy experimentation, I would say this is not the case in nuclear matters, precisely because they stand to lose far more in case the experimentation goes wrong than in the opposite case. There's a massive reward asymetry there, which is why no one will seriously propose that all countries on earth become nuclear powers. – davidv Sep 4 '18 at 10:46
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    Regarding probability, it is safe to assume that more nuclear capabilities lead to more possibilities for international confrontations - whatever their nature - to include a nuclear component, and hence more risk for these components of being triggered. This without even mentioning non-state actors. My remark challenged the premise you mentioned. – davidv Sep 4 '18 at 10:50
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    On fewer bombs equaling less risk. The question implies it's not safe to assume that. It might seem obvious and be true, but perhaps it's not. Ploughshares.org counts 14,185 nukes. Extreme case: one bomb is fewer than 14K bombs, but perhaps just one bomb in the world might not be safer. – agc Sep 4 '18 at 11:04

Given the premises the reasoning seems valid enough.

The trouble is that the nations concerned are often so internally conflicted about what they want, that those premises are not a universal given. Some factions of conflicted nations appear to:

  • hope to devise better weapons and defenses which will make the whole problem moot.
  • imagine the world might somehow return to conditions analogous to those of 1945 and that they'd be holding the high cards.
  • have religious beliefs that they must be supernaturally favored, and it would be impossible for a truly faithful nation to lose this game.
  • have religious beliefs that a ruinous earthly nuclear war would be in concord with divine will.
  • are full of hate and may prefer to destroy their neighbors more than they wish to preserve their countrymen.
  • are spiteful and may prefer to lose the game to prevent a tie or a neighbor's win.
  • detest the thought of peace that's not on their own provincial terms.
  • depend on nukes as a business model, and are indifferent to their nation's general welfare.
  • believe none of those things, but feel they dare not behave otherwise, so long as anyone else believes those things.
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One thing not mentioned by the current answers is also the balance of terror which requires that the actors are:

  • having controlled access to the weapons. The USA/France/UK have democratic safeguards, Russia/China are dictatorships/hybrid regimes which also have developed their own safeguards for handling.

  • are basing their decisions on the rational and opportunistic reasons. You do not want to hurt someone if the reaction could be equally devastating. You do not want to play poker (If I only sent a few missiles against country X, the befriended country Y will still not attack. Sure, it won't. I am quite sure about that) or base your reactions on emotional outburts (General Ripper). You also do not want to believe that once you have nuclear weapons, you are invincible and can do whatever you want.

I agree that the countries who have nuclear weapons gained their arsenal not for deterrence or high moral ground, but simply on opportunity. But the fact is the more countries nuclear weapons have, the higher is the danger that something will go really, really wrong (emontional retaliation, abuse of power, rebels get hold of part (!) the arsenal and threaten to use the weapons).

The idea of a world government is principially possible, but strongly opposed by unilateralists.

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Assuming that world peace and avoiding unjust warfare is what we all want

Am I correct in my reasoning?

"avoiding unjust warfare" and "world peace" present an incorrect premise as to actual United States foreign policy. U.S. foreign policy objectives are based on U.S. interests, not "avoiding unjust warfare" or "world peace". Nuclear weapons came to be developed because war is a historic political reality. It is not a matter of the U.S. allow ing anything. The U.S. can try to prevent nations from developing nuclear weapons. The only practical way that the U.S. can not allow nations to have nuclear weapons that decide to have nuclear weapons is for the U.S. to engage in warfare against that nations.


Following victory in World War 2 in 1945 by actually using nuclear weapons in Japan for the first and last time (twice) nuclear weapons have been used in war, the U.S. became the dominant military power in the world (for a number of reasons, including immigration of German weapons developers to the U.S.). The U.S. remains the dominant military power in the world in 2018, 73 years after winning the war with Japan by dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To sustain global military dominance, the U.S. has and does actively attempt to prevent nations other than U.S. allies, or nations which the U.S. does not have proxy control of from developing nuclear weapons. Success and failure by the U.S. to prevent nations from developing nuclear weapons is a topic onto itself.

That is a practical political and military policy: 1) maintain global military dominance; 2) actively attempt to prevent nations where policies are contrary to U.S. interests from developing nuclear weapons (which could be used to defend against or directly contest U.S. global military dominance).

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The basic argument I would say to this is that the deterrence argument only works when country A and country B both value their own lives over the complete destruction of their enemies. Unfortunately there has been reason to believe that some groups would launch nukes even if it meant their own destruction. Regardless of this actually being the case it is a theoretical possibility. Think of it as the insanity counter argument. If the other country's leadership is potentially suicidal and completely insane or there are suicidal factions nukes would be a very bad idea to give them. One nuke launched with bad timing and placement could very well lead to the extinction of man. They cannot just be dealt out as if they are candy in the hopes that some ignorant 5 year old doesn't try to eat one.

There's also the possibility that a country with unstable leadership might not understand the impact of launching a nuke at an enemy. They might not realize that it would devastate the entire planet, and they might be deluded into believing that the nukes wouldn't hit them by some kind of defense program.

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Many books have been written about the complicated subject of nuclear strategy. If you want real analysis, you should read them.

As for the question, I'm not so sure your premise is correct: that nuclear countries defend themselves using the "deterrence" argument, saying that they need or want nuclear weapons. I think for almost everyone, the ideal would be to not have any nuclear weapons, but, for instance, the US can't get rid of all her weapons while Russia keeps all hers, and vice versa. The world is "stuck" with them now.

The two main reasons I think the international community and especially the nuclear powers are preventing others from getting nukes is this:

  • We want less nukes total. We're trying to reduce, not expand.
  • Some nations are unstable, unpredictable, and unreliable. When they have nothing to lose, they don't fear destroying the whole world. Advanced and "rich" countries are wary of using hyper destructive weapons because they know war hurts the winner, too, and in some cases it hurts the winner worse than the loser (if the winner has a lot more to lose).
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This has some parallels to the gun debate in the US. You don't want the bad guy to have a gun because they might use it, no matter how long they will go to prison for their actions. They are usually desperate because of a bad economic state and they might think it's worth the risk to obtain or use them to get some benefit.

You also have a hard time taking away guns from potential bad people. You don't know if they will ever use them, but they have them and their isn't any reason to legally take them.

So the best situation would be for no one to have guns, but because people have had them, feel secure with them, and it's logistically impossible to get rid of all of them we are stuck in this state.

You wouldn't want to give the kid making threats to people on Facebook a gun. We at least try to prevent this with nuclear weapons.

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Like most things in politics, the deterrence argument is a lie. That's even moreso true when the argument is used by the only nation in the world who has ever used nuclear weapons against other humans. Civilians, as it happens.

The true reasons, of which there are in my opinion mainly three, are:

  1. A powerful weapon is most useful if you are the only one who has it. It's bad enough that there's half a dozen assumed allies and half a dozen non-allies on the planet already have nuclear weapons -- why yet another one, and a hostile one to make it worse.
  2. There is arguably the somewhat realistic expectation that some parties may use the weapon against their ideologic enemy (which happens to be the USA) on the first occasion.
    While using a nuclear weapon, even moreso without urgent need as the very last option, seems outright perverse from a normal person's point of view, it isn't even necessarily wrong from a strongly ideologically (religiously) driven person's point of view. Much like most "normal" people would object to gunning down a few hundred innocent people going to a concert, setting free a nerve agent in a subway station, or crashing an airplane -- some ideologically-driven people very obviously don't mind doing that kind of thing. Why not smuggle a nuclear bomb into a major city, if you have one. Might as well reserve your place in heaven, but even if it doesn't you sure have reserved your spot in history.
  3. Even assuming problem (2) doesn't exist, there remains the fear that in uncertain conditions under somewhat unstable governments (yes I know, ironically the USA are responsible for exactly that situation) a bomb or two may get "lost" even if there is no malicious intent to destroy the class enemy. That doesn't mean that the weapons in those "better" countries who are allowed to have them are secured any better (they're likely not). However, it's easier to point a finger at someone than to address a problem yourself.
    In my country (Germany), we have a very similar issue with civil use of nuclear energy. A minority which is against most everything has been against nuclear power for 4 decades and successfully instrumented the Fukushima incident to press government into a haste exit. Now, the sad truth is we need that energy, so instead we now buy nuclear electricity from Czech Republic, France, and Belgium, and it's produced in power plants which are older and vastly more dangerous than the ones we shut down. But alas, it's always easier to be against something than to have a solution to the actual problem, let alone a good one.
    So, while I am personally not convinced that nuclear weapons in the USA or Russia (rumor had it you could rather easily buy a bomb for a million or two cash when the USSR broke down) or even in India are secured much better than they would presumably be in Iran, certainly the allegation driven by the fear of the unknown remains.
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