American nuclear policy, world politics and group dynamics – a discussion

A recent news headline caught my eye – ‘India is finding it more and more difficult to import oil from Iran because of the increasing US sanctions against the country.’

For those who don’t already know, US has been very strongly condemning the nuclear policies of Iran. While Iran claims that its efforts are aimed at the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, America, and a lot of the rest of the world believes otherwise.

This brought to the fore a question I have had in my mind for quite some time – How does the US justify itself about having hoards of nuclear weapons but asking others not to have them?

Also, it intrigues me how the dynamics between nations and large groups closely resembles the behavior of individual people in groups. With this post, and the subsequent one, it is my intention to highlight this analogy.

To facilitate better understanding, I think I should first give a brief historical account of the development of nuclear technology and the politics related to it. This post is entirely dedicated to this explanation. I will take up the analogy with group dynamics in the follow up post.

The history

During the Second World War, America started its research on nuclear weapons(they started in 1939). They were the first to create an atom(fission) bomb in 1945. They soon put it to use against Japan which, as claimed by the US Gov, put an early end to the War. Till date, they happen to be the only country that has used a nuclear weapon.

America is also the country that has carried out the maximum number of nuclear tests in the world. At 1054 tests, they comfortably outrun the runner ups, the Russians at 715 tests. Post the World War, and in the wake of the Cold War, they enthusiastically carried on with their nuclear program and military development. Currently, American military, even for a non-nuclear, conventional war, is by far the most dominating force the world has ever seen.

Towards the early nineties, after the USSR broke up and the Cold War was over, the arms race also ended. Having more nuclear weapons(which were already in the thousands and, as claimed by some, enough to end all human life many times over) seemed pointless. So they shut down the production of new nuclear weapons and focused on maintaining their existing stockpile. They have reduced the number of weapons(which numbered over 31,000 at it’s peak in 1961) to about just over 5000 in number today. The collective of its delivery systems – land based missiles(both within America and those on friendly foriegn soil), long range bombers, aircraft carriers, and submarine based forces, bring the entire Earth within their range.

The beginning of nuclear non proliferation and test bans

The US initially didn’t share their technology with other nations. The aim was to stall the production of a Russian bomb. But Russians took up the work in earnest post the World War and, owing considerably to some good espionage, they were ready with their first bomb in 1949. Once the Russians developed nuclear capability, the US changed its policy and started promoting the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. They knew Russia didn’t have enough resources towards nuclear development and pressurizing them to use their Uranium for peaceful purposes was to America’s advantage.

Meanwhile, the British, the French and the Chinese also carried out nuclear tests and developed nuclear weapons of their own.

As technology has improved, and since America had a lot of data from tests already done, it has become possible for them to do much of the testing without actually detonating a nuclear device. This has enabled them to maintain their arsenal without conducting tests.

Even as the cold war and nuclear arms race was carrying on, the US supported the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty) that was aimed at ‘preventing the spread of nuclear technology and weapons’. According to this treaty, America, Russia, UK, France and China are designated nuclear powers and are allowed to possess nuclear weapons but other nations are not. This is leading to, as India claims, a group of nuclear haves and nuclear have nots.

Also notable is CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), that came later in the nineties and that disallows all participants from carrying any form of nuclear tests.

When India and Pakistan conducted their nuclear tests in 1999, America imposed sanctions against the 2 countries. The sanctions against India were lifted quickly but not against Pakistan. The military takeover in Pakistan, the US claimed, made their possession of nuclear technology dangerous. Later, after the 9-11 attacks on the US, these sanctions were lifted because America needed Pakistani help in attacking the Taliban.

Towards their friend Israel, which is widely known to pursue nuclear technology and own nuclear weapons, America has taken a policy of silence, while being very vocally against similar policies of Iran and North Korea.

Most countries(except India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel) have signed the NPT. Same goes for CTBT, that has been signed by most countries(except India, Pakistan and North Korea).

Recent developments in the US policy

The Bush administration seriously considered implementing policies to create better, more maintainable nuclear weapons and for further nuclear testing, despite having signed an international agreement against it. In 2005, America also revised the ‘Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations’, hinting that they could use a nuclear device preemptively against an adversary with WMDs or overwhelming conventional forces, should it found the same necessary. This is against the no-first-use policy that I feel should be the bare minimum that a nuclear power promises the rest of the world.

The Obama administration has cancelled a lot of such policies as far as general information goes. The current US policy promises that America will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear, NPT compliant states.

The 2012 American defense budget includes plans to maintain and modernize existing nuclear weapons.

Do these treaties assure disarmament?

The NPT just asks the nuclear powers to discuss disarmament in good faith. There is no binding obligation, no final date of disarmament for these countries. There seems to be a general consensus among the non nuclear signatories that these powers are responsible and will not use their power irresponsibly.

One argument that is sited in favor of the continued possession of nuclear weapons by responsible nuclear powers is that, even if there was complete disarmament, the nuclear weapon technology would not go away. It would still be possible for some one to build a nuclear bomb. Right now, the strategic importance of a nuclear bomb is less because there are certain responsible states that all have it. This creates a balance. If there were to be complete disarmament, the strategic advantage of having even one fission bomb, by any country, would be huge. There would be a huge incentive, especially for weaker countries with little conventional forces, to try and get a nuclear weapon.


This is where the state of things stands today. The nuclear powers are promoting proliferation and ban on tests. Most of the world seems to accept this. There are some defiant countries that have rejected the idea of a few nuclear countries maintaining monopoly over nuclear weapons technology and their possession.

In the next article, I will try to draw an analogy between the attitudes of countries in an international setting and the behaviors of people in smaller groups and societies.

Image: Wikipedia

One comment

  • Bibek
    February 15, 2012 - 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Clear and precise.

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