On October 27th 1962, the penultimate day of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a 13-day period of extreme tension between the US and the USSR, the world came as close as it has ever been to nuclear war.
On the 14th it was discovered that Soviet nuclear weapons had been placed on Cuban soil, only 485 miles from Florida.
On the 27th the threat rose to a head when an American spy plane was shot down over Cuba, killing its pilot.
The next day the tension was diffused through secret deals and the residual unease about a nuclear apocalypse led to a plethora of treaties to control the Cold War arms race, starting with the Test Ban Treaty in 1963. At the time, it seemed obvious to everyone involved that more nuclear weapons were not a good thing.
However, despite the best efforts of these treaties, there are still several nations with nuclear capabilities.
According to statistics from 2017, Russia boasts a whopping 4,300 nuclear warheads, closely followed by the US with 4,000although these numbers have nothing on the 1986 peak: The Soviet Union had just over 40,000 warheads at that point.
France, China, the UK, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea also have nuclear arsenals. Iran, has been intentionally kept out of the bomb club, which raises questions about the rationale behind the nuclear landscape.
Fear of proliferation is a commonly cited reason why some countries are not permitted nuclear weapons. The more countries have them, the more countries want them, increasing the risk of nuclear war. This all seems very logical but is it true?
According to Michael Shellenberger, the presence of nuclear weapons in the world has exerted a downward pressure on international conflict; no nation with a nuclear weapon has ever been invaded, for example.
In 1981, Kenneth Waltz controversially argued that a proliferation of nuclear weapons could actually improve international security. This is mainly because nuclear weapons are a huge deterrent and an especially useful one for countries with relatively weak defences.
A nation may be stronger in terms of conventional weapons but will be deterred from launching an attack on a weaker nation with a nuclear arsenal for fear of repercussions.
Even when countries are quite evenly matched, as the US and the Soviet Union were during the Cold War, nuclear weapons act as a deterrent as long as the sophistication of weapons continues to rapidly increase.
Moreover, if proliferation is such a great concern, why have existing nuclear powers not taken denuclearisation more seriously? Their nuclear arsenals are an incentive for other countries to want their own. It seems like somewhat of a double-standard to disallow this.
Another argument against more countries obtaining nuclear weapons is that brutal regimes cannot be trusted with them. This issue is particularly pertinent for Iran. Since the collapse of its nuclear deal in 2018 Iran has made progress in its uranium enrichment and will soon be able to create a nuclear weapon.
However, regardless of Iran’s repressive domestic policies, its foreign policy is largely defensive: the US has invaded two of its neighbours and made military interventions in the Gulf and relations have only worsened during Trump’s administration.
Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, is a US ally and long-time antagonist of Iran. An Iranian nuclear capability would arguably improve the balance of power in the Middle East.
The issue of nuclear weapons is complex, too complex to be understood through the lens of ideological assumptions about which states are more deserving of nuclear weapons.
If peace is the goal of international relations while, as Waltz contends, “states coexist in a condition of anarchy”, then it is important to understand each nation’s self-interest. Perhaps then we will discover that nuclear weapons are not as frightening as the movies suggest.