Last week, the "People's Democratic Republic of Korea" (which is neither democratic, nor a republic, nor is it really for the people) successfully tested another nuclear weapon. Almost on cue, the majority of the nations of the world quickly condemned the test and emphasized the need for peace and stability along the world's most militarized border. North Korea has been a known nuclear power for almost thirteen years, but it's subsequent missile tests (which are designed to carry a nuclear weapon long distances) have made the situation even more tense. Since the end of the Second World War, the entire world has been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. This week, we present a few quick facts about nuclear weapons and the security (or insecurity) they provide.
As most everyone can remember from high school history class, the United States first developed nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. The first nuclear weapons were delivered via bomber airplanes to the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, which resulted in the deaths of at least 200,000 people (mostly civilians) and greatly contributed to the surrender of Imperial Japan days later. But almost as soon as the war ended, American (and soon Soviet) scientists went to work further developing their nuclear technologies. Within decades, missile technology had evolved to the point where multiple nukes could be launched from a single site at many different targets (and the strength of these weapons greatly increased as well). Now, the United States can launch nuclear strikes from bombers, land based missile silos, and nuclear submarines. This is the "nuclear triad" that many military officials say is in dire need of technological upgrades.
As of 2016, there are eight nations that are known to have nuclear weapons. A little over half of these (United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia, and China) are signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This treaty was designed to limit the spread of nuclear technology from current nuclear powers, while also banning other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons (though enforcement of such international law is obviously flawed). Two nations never ratified the treaty and obtained nuclear weapons (India and Pakistan), while North Korea signed and later withdrew just before it went nuclear. Five nations are NATO members who are basically holding onto nuclear weapons for their allies (Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, and Turkey), and four nations had nukes and later gave them up (Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Ukraine). Finally, Israel is widely assumed to have nuclear weapons (though they refuse to confirm or deny this). Many of these nations don't possess a "nuclear triad," but their position as nuclear powers grants them certain privileges.
So what's so special about having nuclear weapons? As we have discussed before, the ability to obliterate an entire city within minutes means that a nation can get away with quite a bit of mischief. Despite many people's vision of nuclear weapons as the ultimate offensive weapon, nukes actually serve as the ultimate defense by deterring attacks in the first place. This is the real reason why nations like North Korea, Pakistan, and India have obtained nukes and why Iran has been spending so much time trying to get them. The leaders of these nations know that no other country will invade them when the response is the potential destruction of the other's major cities! Would the United States have invaded Iraq in 2003 if Saddam Hussein already had nuclear weapons? Probably not. To be fair, most nuclear nations have little ability to strike the United States (or are strong allies), but America's regional allies are much more vulnerable.
Now, what happens when two enemy nations both have nuclear weapons? Essentially nothing. Since either country could destroy the other, the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction takes over to prevent major conflict. But one nuke isn't enough to deter an attack. A nuclear nation needs to have enough weapons on hand to ensure mutual annihilation by stocking up on so many nukes that they couldn't all be destroyed at once by a surprise first attack. This is called "second strike capability" and is the reason why the United States and Russia still possess an almost absurd amount of nuclear weapons (enough to destroy the world many, many times over).
It may seem like a paradox, but there is strong evidence that nuclear weapons have actually helped decrease the number of major conflicts in the world. This certainly seems plausible to help explain the relative global peace of the past several decades, but many scholars of international relations are concerned about what happens to a nuclear state when the "State" no longer functions. One of the primary worries regarding North Korean or Iranian nuclear weapons is that these are inherently unstable regimes. If the regime collapses while it still holds nuclear weapons, what happens? Mutually Assured Destruction assumes that all actors are rational people (i.e. not crazy people who want to destroy the world). Though it remains ridiculously hard for terrorists to obtain nuclear weapons, the thought of a nuclear nation falling apart in a political sense remains a very serious problem.
Still, the reality is that nuclear weapons are not going away anytime soon. Despite the best efforts of many disarmament organizations, the incentives to keep nuclear weapons (and the serious security problems of giving them up) make it all but impossible that the current nuclear powers will give up this privileged position. Nuclear weapons are here to stay, but some steps have been proposed to limit the number of new nuclear weapons being produced. In addition, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has played a critical role in preventing the emergence of new nuclear powers (which can greatly upset the balance of power in a region). This is one reason why the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 may prove to be so significant. If a nation as determined to go nuclear as Iran can be deterred, perhaps there is some hope for a less-nuclear world. Until then, the possession of nuclear weapons will continue to play an essential role in international relations.