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Clearly the possession of a nuclear arsenal - or at least the ability to build one - ensures that a country will be taken seriously on the global stage and will wield a certain amount of influence with major international players such as the US. This can be seen by the constant rumblings from North Korea and Iran.

To what extent are nuclear weapons necessary to ensure influence on the international stage? Is there a distinction on this basis between established states, who may be more economically developed, or with more existing diplomatic relationships, and newer states that may see the only insurance policy against regime change instigated by foreign powers as being a credible nuclear threat?

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I don't think I can answer this question in general (I'm not sure it's even possible) but let me try a partial answer.

First, "global influence" comes in many shapes and forms: cultural, scientific, technological, economic, diplomatic, military, intelligence... Naturally there is a large overlap since a country which is advanced in one domain is usually advanced in the other domains as well. Nevertheless nuclear power clearly belongs to the domain of military power, and so far no country has tried to use their nuclear power in order to gain other kind of influence, for instance blackmailing other countries into an advantageous trade deal.

Most countries also agree that nuclear weapons should actually never be used: it is supposed to be only a deterrence weapon, which means that other countries can't even risk an attack on a country which has nuclear power. This is true even for big nuclear powers such as the US and Russia during the Cold War: neither could have afforded to attack the other since both would have been wiped out as a result (this is called the doctrine of mutual assured destruction). It's also worth mentioning that most countries in the world (but not all) have signed an international non-proliferation treaty (NPT) to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.

As a consequence, nuclear weapons are not exactly a bargaining chip that nuclear powers can easily use to increase their influence. So the only advantage is the status, since countries which have nuclear weapons belong to a very small club:

  • US, Russia, UK, France and China officially have nuclear power and are signatories of the NPT.
  • India, Pakistan and North Korea officially have nuclear power but are not signatories of the NPT (originally North Korea was but withdrew in 2003).
  • Israel is "deliberately ambiguous" about whether it has nuclear power or not and is not a signatory of the NPT.

It's probably impossible to evaluate exactly whether "belonging to the club" really gives these countries more influence, and if yes how much.

To what extent are nuclear weapons necessary to ensure influence on the international stage?

Under a general definition of "global influence", nuclear weapons cannot be said to be a precondition since there are countries which have significant international importance and don't have nuclear weapons (Germany and Japan for instance).

Is there a distinction on this basis between established states, who may be more economically developed, or with more existing diplomatic relationships, and newer states that may see the only insurance policy against regime change instigated by foreign powers as being a credible nuclear threat?

There is a distinction defined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty: it acknowledges the countries which have built and tested a nuclear explosive device before 1967, while the other countries agree not to seek to acquire them:

the NPT non-nuclear-weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear-weapon states in exchange agree to share the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals

The case of "rogue countries", namely North Korea and (to some extent) Iran, is problematic not only because they seek to obtain nuclear weapons but also because they behave in a very threatening way. Their real or potential access to nuclear weapons might give them some bargaining power but it also makes them very isolated on the international stage, so it's not clear whether they really gain any global influence.

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  • Did you mean to put "non officially" next to Israel rather than North Korea? India and Pakistan also officially have nuclear weapons. They are not NPT signatories (and neither is Israel). NK withdrew from the NPT (some years) before announcing their weapons. – Fizz Feb 23 '20 at 4:25
  • @Fizz: I meant to separate the countries into two groups but this was indeed very unclear and ambiguous so I clarified. Thanks! – Erwan Feb 23 '20 at 13:23
  • It is better to talk about reality rather than what US news reflect to the world. In real, these country have the nuclear weapons: Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan, France (I am not sure). But not Iran and never forever. – C.F.G Feb 24 '20 at 12:05
  • Also it is Interesting that US is the only country that has used this weapon. (this is happened, so lets not talk about illusions about Iran nuclear weapons that they have not had and have not and will not have). – C.F.G Feb 24 '20 at 12:13
  • @C.F.G please read the answer before commenting: I didn't say that Iran had nuclear power. By the way: yes, France has nuclear power since the 1960s (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/France_and_weapons_of_mass_destruction). – Erwan Feb 24 '20 at 13:01
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Probably not. It is hard to remember this so much after their decades of recession, but Japan was definitely an up and coming power in the 80s and really "scared" the US quite a bit. Not just in terms of trade balance, but also in terms of an apparently more successful economic model that was taking over. Then they had their financial meltdown and the whole idea seems rather quaint now.

On the flip side, North Korea isn't significant, except as a nuisance and is rather pitiful. The nukes changed things a bit, but not all that much - they were always too close to Seoul and too strong militarily, to just regime change. It could be done, yes, but frankly that's not worth the hassle, nor would SK, China or Western electorates be too keen on it happening unless there was a major issue. So have things really changed for them? It makes them somewhat more secure - they're less likely to be invaded as Iraq was in 2003 - but it also results in extra sanctions and diplomatic pressure on them. In fact, under some conditions, their nukes could become a casus belli.

The same basic idea applies to Iran. But it is definitely a great willy wagging device for insecure dictators.

A country like Germany or Brazil manages to be fairly significant without nukes, especially compared to NK. Or Iran.

Consider also that a nuclear country can't threaten a non-nuclear one with its nukes unless it is willing to risk major diplomatic isolation on the world stage.

Nukes are important, for purely military reasons, if you have significant peer rivals in your neighborhood - India & Pakistan, Israel in the Middle East, and the troika of US/China/Russia wrt to each other.

Having said that, many of the really big players do have nukes, or are part of blocks that have nukes (the EU countries benefit from France's).

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