A Theoretical Discussion on Nuclear Proliferation Part 1: Pessimist vs Optimists

This report appears in two parts, the first part will tackle the theoretical basis of this subject and the second part will tackle the South Asian case study. The following is the guiding question for this two-part report: “Are the arguments of the “proliferation optimists” or the “proliferation pessimists” more convincing in explaining and assessing the international security implications of horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation? What light, if any, does the case of South Asia throw upon this question?”


The International Security studies regarding nuclear proliferation have split into two major camps the “proliferation optimists” and the “proliferation pessimists”. These two traditionally hold opposing views of how new proliferators will shape international security. Often the current superpower, USA and its government’s policy have been aligned with the pessimists of this area of study. The arguments made by both of these conflicting theories give an idea of how nuclear proliferation impacts the international security paradigm. Often, it is more plausible in the mainstream thinking that a nuclear proliferation brings with a certain amount of threats.

This is undeniable as the nuclear explosions are at such a large scale and the damage is extremely severe to the infrastructure and the population it’s used on. Hence, it is more likely for majority of thinkers to opt for the pessimist approach to nuclear weapons proliferation. The objective of this paper is to analyse the two conflicting approaches (the pessimist and the optimist) and use the South Asian proliferation case as an example. As the majority of the literature suggests the pessimist approach is more plausible, the optimist view will also be thoroughly explored and analysed and a conclusion will be made to which approach is more applicable in the current international political sphere.

Since the start of the Cold War, international fears over a nuclear war have increased. The World War II saw the first and only use of atomic bombs. The damage caused in Hiroshima and Nagasaki demonstrated the capability of such weapons when used. This brought about the fear of using this sort of weapons in a war. As the Cold War developed, the atomic bombs transformed into nuclear and hydrogen bombs which were many times more destructive than the ones used in WWII.

Subsequently, the Cold War saw a nuclear proliferation of other states including, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel. This added to the pessimist theorists’ arguments of a potential outburst of proliferation that would make a nuclear war inevitable. Whereas more countries started to pursue nuclear weapons, mostly in self-defence, this increased the level of unease among the leading superpowers of the time. The superpowers feared an increased number of nuclear arms increased the risk of nuclear war. During the Cold War the possession of the nuclear warheads assured both of the superpowers to avoid a direct confrontation, as a consequence, they were often engaging in proxy wars. This aversion of a direct confrontation indicates an understanding between the two parties out of self-interest, or otherwise, which was a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).

The ‘Pessimist’ Arguments

The pessimists would argue, as there were history and experience-driven explicit knowledge amongst the USSR and USA, primarily from the WWII experience. They were keen to avoid a direct confrontation with each other with the devastation caused by the potential nuclear war as the deterrence factor. Contrastingly, the new nuclear-armed states lacking that explicit experience-based knowledge being one of the main threats of avoiding a MAD situation. In addition, the pessimists argue the lack of stability in the new proliferated states is a serious concern.

For instance, if the government branch of a certain state does not successfully manage the military branch. It could potentially allow some of the short-sighted military decision makers to justify and eventually carry out a nuclear attack against an enemy. This can be further examined, as the case of Pakistan would further clarify this example later in this paper. Also, the pessimists argue a spread of nuclear weapons is highly precarious with an increasing number of states, also known as, “horizontal proliferation”. Horizontal proliferation is a scenario where a variety of different states pursue nuclear weapons. This is the pessimist perspective increases the chance of a nuclear conflict to take place, mainly because of the availability of nuclear weapons among states thus increasing chances numerically.






The pessimist theorists also hold the view that a horizontal spread of nuclear weapons would disrupt the geopolitical peace around the world and raise tensions between competing states. As many neighbouring countries are often competitors, this would eventually increase the number of nuclear states and destabilise the greater international arena. Many countries have had conflicts with their neighbours, an increase of nuclear proliferation would increase arms race around the region. For instance, if two major opposing countries in a region acquire nuclear weapons, the surrounding countries will feel compelled to invest in its military capabilities.

This is reflected in the case in the South Asian region after India and Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons, countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and modern Afghanistan has started to modernise its militaries. Furthermore, after North Korea carried out its nuclear tests, countries such as South Korea and Japan have had revisions of their traditional passive foreign policy. Japan’s attempts to revise its “pacifist” constitution may indicate the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region is compelling the Japanese establishment to rethink its security concerns. Although, Japan has the American military insurance, in terms of having protection from the “nuclear umbrella” provided by the USA against the Chinese and former Soviet nuclear threat Japan may feel constrained and may want to pursue its own defensive mechanisms from the imminent threat posed by the North Koreans.

The ‘Optimist’ Arguments

The optimists often differ with the pessimists, and generally, argue the spread of nuclear states would not necessarily break out into nuclear war around the globe. The argument is that as more countries acquire nuclear weapons they will be compelled to work responsibly due to international pressure and the threat of a nuclear outbreak. Some have even argued among the optimists that a spread of nuclear weapons would eventually reduce the risks of direct military confrontations between competing states. The primary example of this theory would be the Cold War which never resulted in a direct confrontation between USSR and USA mainly because of the nuclear deterrence each possessed against the other.




The optimists’ theories are an extension of the thoughts and writings of a famous realist IR theorist Kenneth Waltz. From Waltz and his colleagues, writings emerged the traditional optimist views that rely heavily on the “Rational Deterrence Theory” emerging from the Cold War. The primary rationalisation of this theory centres on the Cold War experience of the two superpowers cautiously avoided a nuclear war. However, the critiques of this theory and position of the optimists explain that the example used to illustrate this argument is limited to a specific case which had many more causations than just the mere deterrence.

For instance, the superpowers were invested in gaining influence around the globe with their respective ideologies. Thus, instead of obliterating each other with nuclear warheads they were vesting their resources in other states often through proxy wars or through economic means to expand their sphere of influence.

Additionally, among the optimists especially the contemporary ones have argued that the civil and military relations of the states may influence them to carry out preventive wars on their competitors. For instance, scholars have used the examples of preventive strikes from the Western countries and their allies. This enabled the Israeli Air Force to take out the Osiraq reactor in 1981 (Operation Opera), illustrating the potential proliferation or acquiring of warheads would not be welcomed by the competitor states.

Also, preventive strikes came against Egypt; some argue Egypt’s potential nuclear pursuit compelled Israel to strike Iraq and Egypt in the 6-day war in 1967. Additionally, Israel’s air strike on Syria’s Deir Ez-Zor nuclear site in 2007 is another example. These examples quite interestingly illustrate that the pursuit of nuclear weapons may invite preventive strikes from neighbouring competitors.


Also, the scholars of the neo-optimists have suggested acquiring the nuclear warheads in time would not allow such preventive strikes from neighbouring competitors to be carried out in the first place. This would deter imminent threats from other countries such that, it would ensure a sense of security for countries in a rough neighbourhood. This can also be further suggested, with the case of Israel’s acquisition of nuclear weapons have deterred further Arab-Israeli conflict and have somewhat put Israel in a stronger position against competing states in its immediate neighbourhood. This also brings into perspective the potential preventive strikes from the US on Iran, North Korea; or even between India and Pakistan if situations in South Asia were to heat up again.

Please stay tuned for the second part of this report.

Image Credit: Stanford.edu


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