Exploring the linkages
“What happens to the foreign policies of states when they acquire nuclear weapons?” This question has grown in importance as new nuclear powers have emerged and some other states have moved closer to joining the nuclear club. Indeed, determining the costs the world should be prepared to pay to prevent nuclear proliferation hinges on assessing how nuclear weapons affect the behaviour of the states that acquire them and how dangerous those effects are. If states expand their interests in world politics or act more aggressively in the aftermath of nuclear acquisition, preventing nuclear proliferation should be a higher priority. Crafting deterrence strategies for new nuclear states also requires understanding of the foreign policy effects that nuclear weapons are likely to have in a given case.
There are basically three assumptions that help us understand the role of nuclear capability in the formulation of the foreign policy of a country:
1. First, nuclear weapons affect a state’s foreign policy because they provide capabilities that the state previously lacked. This assumption suggests that nuclear weapons should begin to affect a state’s foreign policy at the point at which they can be used in the way the state intends to use them. For example, if a state employs a catalytic posture that aims to compel outside intervention by threatening a nuclear test, only the ability to conduct a nuclear test is required for nuclear weapons to affect calculations about foreign policy. If, however, a state anticipates using nuclear weapons to hit strategic targets in an adversary’s homeland, then nuclear weapons should affect a state’s foreign policy at the point at which the state can deliver nuclear weapons to those targets. For example, Britain envisioned delivering nuclear weapons to the cities of the Soviet Union, so nuclear weapons should have begun to affect British foreign policy once Britain possessed the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union.
2. Second, the threat of using nuclear weapons is credible under at least some circumstances. The literature on nuclear deterrence also relies on this assumption, because the deterrent power of nuclear weapons depends on the possibility of nuclear use.
3. Third, states seek to use their nuclear weapons to protect and pursue their interests. In other words, states are strategic actors that do not spend time and resources acquiring nuclear weapons only to ignore the benefits that they offer.
With these assumptions as a starting point, we can identify six foreign policy behaviours that nuclear weapons can facilitate.
First, nuclear weapons may facilitate aggression — Aggression is defined as the more belligerent pursuit of goals in preexisting disputes or in pursuit of previously articulated interests. Nuclear weapons may reduce the price of this behaviour because they add a layer of military capability that can be called upon, or that might be used inadvertently by leaders enveloped by the fog of war. As a result, nuclear weapons raise the risk of escalation for the state’s opponents in responding to aggression, which must now reckon with both the conventional forces the state previously possessed and their nuclear capabilities. Hence, the threat of nuclear escalation can act as a shield behind which aggression can be undertaken. Nuclear weapons can, therefore, make more attractive opportunities to escalate conflicts or revise the status quo.
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