Why do states build nuclear weapons? The dominant theory has been focused on national security. Nuclear proliferation occurs when conventional forces and diplomacy cannot extinguish a threat to a state’s survival. This belief that nuclear proliferation occurs strictly as the result of security dilemmas was challenged in 1996, when Scott Sagan presented alternative models in his piece, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?” Scholars have since adopted numerous independent explanations for why states nuclearize, including for international prestige and domestic political favorability. However, little effort has been exerted to create an encompassing framework that explains nuclear proliferation as a multicausal phenomena. Moreover, studies regularly neglect an analysis of governmental structures and critical actors that either enable, constrain, or entirely block proliferation efforts. I combine Scott Sagan’s theory on proliferation with theories relating to the essence of decision making to create a more robust paradigm that argues states will build and maintain nuclear weapons if all three of the following conditions are met: (1) if the state’s national security is threatened, (2) if having nuclear weapons aligns with or strengthens a state’s identity, and (3) if nuclear weapons can serve to satisfy parochial bureaucratic objectives. I use four countries as case studies: Pakistan and France, both of which are current nuclear weapons states, and Egypt and South Africa, both of which had numerous incentives to build (or in South Africa’s case, maintain) nuclear weapons, but ultimately decided not to. My findings support my hypothesis by showing that each model is important, though insufficient on their own to explain nuclear proliferation.
It is commonly said that states build nuclear weapons to strengthen national security. The United States built the first atomic bomb fearing that the Germans would acquire nuclear weapons during the Second World War. Stalin in turn nuclearized the Soviet Union, which prompted France and the United Kingdom to acquire their own nuclear weapons, and the list goes on. While analyzing the proliferation puzzle is an important component to stabilizing the global nuclear order, it is surprising how little effort has been exerted to create a multicausal framework that better explains why states build and maintain nuclear weapons.
Scott Sagan was one of the first to engage with this concept in 1997 when he conjured two alternative models to explain why states nuclearize. The ‘domestic politics model’ visualizes nuclear weapons as tools to advance bureaucratic interests while the ‘norms model’ envisions nuclear weapons as providing an important symbol of a state’s modernity.1 Sico van der Meer more recently adopted and expanded on Sagan’s models, factoring the constraints compelling a state to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons, including meeting logistical requisites.2 Kenneth Waltz’s theory of international relations brings together Sagan’s and van der Meer’s arguments well by focusing on the anarchic system. In a self-reliant structure that forces states to become power seekers, creating nuclear weapons can be a necessary enforcement of national security and a bolster for autonomy.3
Each of these scholars offer compelling viewpoints on proliferation by expanding the narrative beyond security concerns, though each has structural issues. In both Sagan’s and van der Meer’s pieces, alternative explanations are presented as independent models that maintain the idea that states build nuclear weapons for a singular cause. Meanwhile, Waltz’s analysis of nuclear politics is both fairly incomplete and outdated. Whereas van der Meer discusses the possibility of nuclear proliferation as a catalyzer for arms races and accounts for secretive networks that have transferred critical knowledge and tools towards developing countries, such as Pakistan and North Korea, Waltz does not. However, combining Sagan’s and van der Meer’s models under a multicausal theory framed by costs and benefits and contextualized with the self-help nature of the international order provides a more complete explanation for the existence of nuclear weapons states (NWS).
Rethinking Nuclear Proliferation: Question and Significance
Current leaders of NWS are playing a game of nuclear chess that is hardly void of error. The United States and Russia have been pulling out of important arms control treaties while simultaneously designing and building exotic nuclear weapons. China is expected to double its nuclear arsenal in the next decade. And the blending of conventional and nuclear warfare is now adopted by Russia via an “escalate to de-escalate” strategy. Indeed, the behaviors of current NWS are increasing the desire for non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) to seek nuclear power. This is most considerable in the Middle East and South Asia.4
Why do states build and maintain nuclear weapons? Rethinking nuclear proliferation is crucial for anticipating future proliferators as the global nuclear order continues to unravel. Failing to understand more fully why states want nuclear weapons risks allowing for the continuation of arms races and nuclear disasters, the consequences of which are not limited to nuclear war, but include all aspects of nuclear power. The 1986 Chernobyl disaster is a case in point.
States will build and maintain nuclear weapons if three conditions are met: (1) the state’s national security is at risk, (2) nuclear weapons can confirm and strengthen a state’s identity, and (3) nuclear weapons can serve as a political tool to advance parochial bureaucratic objectives. Because building a nuclear arsenal can occur over decades, some factors of influences are more pronounced at different stages than others, which means the degree of interconnectivity between the models can vary significantly or might be absent for a period of time. But all three conditions need to be present and recognized as motivational factors to acquire nuclear weapons by those holding authority of their country’s nuclear program.
I demonstrate this through the lens of four states. Two of these states, Pakistan and France, have been consistently portrayed as unicausal paradigms for nuclearization, falling in line with the security model and the norms model, respectively. I challenge this by demonstrating that all three conditions influenced each state’s decision to turn nuclear. To provide further evidence, I examine South Africa and Egypt, both of which had incentives to build and maintain a nuclear arsenal, but ultimately decided not. I argue that at least one of the conditions was not met.
I. Case Selection and Evaluation
Scholars have tended to argue the absence of prestige in the Pakistani case and security concerns in the French case. Moreover, South Africa and Egypt have been argued to possess the three conditions I present as necessary for a state to nuclearize, though they decided to adhere to nonproliferation standards. To demonstrate the validity of my claim, I evaluate these countries roughly between the first few decades leading up to their nuclear program and the first few decades following the actual testing of the bomb. I identify and analyze the most critical figures shaping nuclear policy and determine the internal and external conditions that motivated them to acquire or forgo nuclear weapons.
The security model is evaluated by determining the level of vulnerability of each state relative to both their neighbors and the international community. While accounting for security changes in the long process of building the bomb, I study how various authority figures reacted to evolving external threats using archival accounts including personal journals, interviews, and speeches. I then determine whether or not nuclear weapons, as opposed to conventional forces and diplomacy, were believed to effectively address their security concerns.
I evaluate the norms model by assessing my case studies’ soft and hard power capabilities relative to their neighbors and global superpowers. I then determine whether or not nuclear weapons were believed to enhance their status to a level unobtainable by conventional means. I use archival data on defense expenditures, gross national product, and availability of manpower to relay economic and military might.
Lastly, I use historical data on election campaigns, including public opinion polls, to assess if nuclear weapons enhanced political objectives. I determined crucial actors and evaluated how nuclear weapons served their bureaucratic interests, which ranged from seeking reelection to bolstering domestic status.
II. Decision-Making Evaluation
I use Graham T. Allison’s organizational process model and governmental politics model to evaluate how a constellation of people and organizations within a government come to a value-maximizing decision. The former model envisions foreign policy as the result of organizational output formed by members of bureaucracies with varied interests following standard procedure. The latter views decision-making as the result of actors within a government bargaining for their desired courses of action. Referencing these models allowed for a line of consistency between my case studies as I pieced together both the roles of actors who shaped nuclear policy and their individual interests regarding nuclear proliferation.
Security assurance, increasing status, and achieving bureaucratic objectives are three widely agreed upon incentives for building nuclear weapons. Weighing these against the disincentives for building the bomb is critical in assessing whether or not a state will move forward with a nuclear program. In all future cases of nuclear proliferation, states will have to risk destabilizing regional power balances and invoking international legal and moral condemnation. In addition, states will have to satisfy logistical requisites to build a robust nuclear arsenal. Unlike incentives, in which I argue all three need to be present, any one of these disincentives could deter a state from turning nuclear.
Pakistan’s Nuclear Arsenal was more than a Deterrent
The standard explanation as to why Pakistan turned nuclear rests on India’s activities: a nuclear-armed and hostile New Delhi created a dire military environment that could not be adequately handled using conventional military force and diplomacy. The declaration of this has left absent a discussion on whether or not norms and domestic politics factored into Pakistan’s decision to turn nuclear.
I. Clashes with India created Pakistan’s Insecurity, the Bomb Neutralized it
Richard K. Betts argued that Pakistan had “the most compelling positive incentives for a bomb, and the fewest and weakest negative incentives.”10 Pakistan’s security environment saw various changes from the onset of its nuclear program in 1965 to the actual testing of a nuclear weapon in 1998. In the same period, various leaders, including Presidents, Prime Ministers, and military personnel, had a hand in shaping Pakistan as a nuclear power. Due to oscillating geopolitics and leadership, I will focus on the period between 1965 and the mid-1970s particularly on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who is said to be the “father” of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, and the military which shaped Pakistan’s nuclear policy.
One of Bhutto’s major goals was to seek parity in armaments with India. From the 1960s through the 1970s, the gap between Indian and Pakistani conventional military capabilities was increasing, which Bhutto tried to address by allocating about 50 percent of Pakistan’s total national budget to defense expenditures.11 Yet, even that was not enough to level India’s forces with those of Pakistan’s. Shortly after another war with New Delhi in 1965, in which the United States banned the supply of weaponry to Pakistan,12 Bhutto wrote “The Myth of Independence.” In it, he vehemently argued for a bolder foreign policy that would meet the India challenge head on.13 This could not be done without addressing the sharp decrease in foreign support for wartime efforts in the 1970s, which was exacerbated by a new Carter administration that favored New Delhi.14
No other moment made Bhutto and the military seriously consider building nuclear weapons more than Pakistan’s devastating defeat in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and the successful May 1974 Indian nuclear test.15 Just days following the explosion at a news conference at Lahore, Bhutto said: “The people of Pakistan would never accept Indian hegemony or domination in the sub-continent.”16 He then followed this by vowing to acquire nuclear weapons even if it required that his people survive on eating grass.17 Conventional forces could not meet the Indian threat: consistent skirmishes against a nuclear-armed India that was better equipped militarily, economically, and had forged stronger alliances with the West was growing. Bhutto and the military agreed that the strength they needed could only be afforded by nuclear weapons.
II. The Bomb Became a Symbol of Autonomy as Much as a Tool for Security
International security expert Thomas W. Graham argued that nuclear proliferation in Pakistan with the aim of balancing India’s superior conventional forces is only partially true. He claimed that if Pakistan wanted to deter only one country and its “entire military, industrial and research complex, hold its major cities at risk, and be prepared to fight using nuclear weapons on the battlefield, it will require at least 300–500 nuclear weapons.”18 At present, Pakistan only has about 160 operational nuclear weapons. Interestingly, despite early conflict, India and Pakistan saw moments of cooperation during the Bhutto era, albeit weak and provisional, that have caused critics to claim that Pakistan’s relationship with India at the onset of Islamabad’s nuclear program was not as dire as conventional wisdom portrays.
As I have argued, the security environment was indeed dramatic from the Pakistani perspective and was the driving force behind Pakistan’s nuclear acquisition. Where the counterargument holds salience, however, is that it opens a channel for investigating other casualties. Betts claims that prestige was a “compliment” to Pakistan’s security justification. The nuclear weapons program challenged India’s predominance over the region by projecting Islamabad as a modern, technologically-abled power. Similarly, Bhutto viewed America’s acquiescence towards a nuclear India as a discriminatory double standard in the application of the NPT, which was led by the US-UK alliance and favored countries who fell under their security umbrellas. Betts argues that nuclear weapons to Pakistan were a symbol of national sovereignty in the same way that a degree of economic autonomy for India, as a formerly-colonized state, became a symbol of independence.19
The prospects of using the bomb as a symbol for independence became especially clear in 1977. The Carter Administration attempted to prevent Pakistan from becoming a nuclear power by repressing its uranium reprocessing abilities,20 with Henry Kissinger expressing discontent over Prime Minister Bhutto’s vehemence in building a Pakistani nuclear arsenal.21 In July 1977, Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq ousted Prime Minister Bhutto and reimposed martial law, an event Bhutto claimed was a joint US-Indian effort to intervene in Pakistan’s nuclear activities. Though Bhutto’s popular base was eroding, he was still one of Pakistan’s most favored politicians, and Pakistani citizens viewed the military coup, which led to Bhutto’s hanging, as an American-led regime change operation. With Bhutto gone and the military holding more authority over nuclear decisions, their officials recognized important knowledge: nuclear weapons could be used as a symbol for national sovereignty.22
The public rallied behind Pakistan becoming nuclear after believing that foreign intervention was once again shaping the trajectory of the nation. Public favorability in Pakistan for nuclear weapons remained high throughout the following decade, despite the NPT coalition strongly denouncing nuclear proliferation. A 1996 public opinion poll indicated that only 6% of respondents renounced nuclear weapons while the rest either supported it (61%) or were indifferent (23%).23 Recognizing the favorability of Pakistan becoming nuclear, the military high command pushed for a countervailing nuclear force using the Indian threat, now made worse by an American benefactor, to offset domestic opposition for the coup d’état.24
India and the Western-led world order actively shaping Pakistan’s geopolitics threatened its image as a powerful and sovereign state. Nuclear weapons changed this course, and regardless of whether or not prestige came second to security concerns, status was an important factor carrying on the nuclear program.
III. Imagining the bomb as a Tool for Political Gain
Samina Ahmed ties these ideas together nicely by looking at the crossroad of Pakistan’s security dilemma, customs, and domestic politics. Throughout the 1960’s, growing hostility and mutual suspicion between Indian and Pakistani leadership increased domestic unrest. This was made worse when the military failed to make concessions regarding Kashmir. With support from the civil bureaucracy and the military, the President built a nuclear weapons program in 1972 to create a new identity for both a depleted-military and a traumatized nation.25
Referring back to Allison’s government politics theory: Pakistani political and military actors had different and competing interests for using nuclear power, which required them to bargain with each other over their objectives to execute a decision. Interestingly, this rivalry made the nuclear program stronger. By this point, citizens understood the numerous benefits nuclear weapons could offer Pakistan. Bhutto felt he needed to leverage that to retain public favorability as he was up for general elections by the end of 1976. Bhutto declared that “normalization of relations to peaceful coexistence between India and Pakistan could be achieved only after a settlement of Jammu and Kashmir dispute.”26 On the topic of territorial encroachment, Bhutto not only presented the public with what he believed to be legitimate security concerns posed by India, but he offered the solution using nuclear force. His desire to demilitarize, but nuclearize Pakistan helped to retain an image of a strong and rational leader who would not allow for another decade of crumbling Pakistani autonomy.27 The result was increased funding for their nuclear program.
Meanwhile, the military needed to redefine itself as a strong offensive force following their inability to defend Pakistan’s borders and uphold democratic elections regarding Bhutto’s ousting. Citing imperialist concerns as justified reasons to overhaul the military increased defense expenditures and advanced partnership between the armed forces, civil bureaucracy, and, by extension, nuclear establishments.28 This alliance helped the military to withhold political authority over nuclear decision-making at a critical juncture when Bhutto was previously successfully challenging the military’s authority which was immediately followed by declining favorability for the military after his hanging.
The 1979 US invasion of Afghanistan provided another crucial turning point for leveraging the bomb in domestic affairs. America needed Pakistan for its strategic location. Recognizing this, the military requested weapons supplies from America to maintain primacy in Pakistani politics in exchange for showing restraint using a no-test pledge. When Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister in 1988, she similarly took a tougher stance on America, claiming “we will protect Pakistan’s nuclear program and will not allow our national interest to be sacrificed.”29 Bhutto remarked that a drying channel of American resources necessitated Pakistani nuclear weapons, as it did in the 1970s.30
French Proliferation Was Not Just a Status Symbol
France is a more challenging case study. Like Pakistan, the French decision to turn nuclear was cradled by a network of individuals operating on piecemeal decisions that merged to form France’s nuclear doctrine. Interests and ambitions, which ranged from creating nuclear energy to restoring great power status, were negotiated to form a web of possibilities that nuclear weapons could offer France.
The following groups held the most influence in developing France’s nuclear weapons: administrative, military, and legislative.31 The early stages of the French nuclear program rested largely in the hands of the Commissariat a l’Energie Atomique (CEA), the atomic energy commission headed by High Commissioner Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie and Administrator General Raoul Dautry.32 Meanwhile, Charles de Gaulle remained an outspoken advocate for nuclear power. Over time, the military had a heavier hand in shaping France’s nuclear arsenal.
Paris emerged from four years of Nazi occupation during World War II having suffered economic depletion and psychological trauma. The 1956 Suez Crisis has been said to be “the final push” towards nuclearlization. However, some scholars have argued against the applicability of the security model and instead claim that the Fourth Republic’s nuclear acquisition falls in the norms and political models. The belief that nuclear power signaled prestige was apparent as early as 1951.33 It is hardly surprising that French leaders sought nuclear weapons to restore France as a great power starting in 1952 amid decolonization.34 The puzzle France poses is whether security concerns contributed to the emergence and maintenance of their nuclear weapons program.
I. WWII Depleted France, Nuclear Weapons Restored it
France pursued a nuclear research program immediately following World War II ostensibly for peaceful purposes.35 As decolonization took place, it was clear that France could no longer restore its status as a global leader with an overseas empire, which meant that the government had to replenish their reputation using other mechanisms. Joliot-Curie and Dautry, who would later become the Director of CAE, cooperated with Charles de Gaulle in forging a compelling argument that the bomb was a critical tool to restore France as a great power and accelerate economic recovery.36 Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France likewise argued that building the bomb was a “good idea … because [nuclear weapons were] capital for France’s international influence.”37
The bomb was thought to serve many purposes: a) it would help erase the humiliation of being occupied by the Nazis for four years, b) it would liberate the country from the client relationship it had with America and the United Kingdom, c) it would bolster France’s autonomy and international status, and d) the program offered nuclear energy to facilitate greater industrial growth, which also helped to restore France’s legitimacy in the global trade arena (see more about economic benefits in subsection “II”).
President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had serious worries about de Gaulle’s pursuit of the
force de frappe, or France’s nuclear deterrence force, while they were facing political turmoil and had known communist physicists leading their nuclear program. The Eisenhower administration was also preoccupied with preventing a nuclear cascade in Europe, which De Gaulle risked by becoming the third NATO member to build nuclear weapons. Eisenhower and Dulles offered a joint-NATO stockpile plan in exchange for France withdrawing from their nuclear program. De Gaulle rejected the offer. He, leaders in his party, and military personnel saw the joint nuclear arsenal as cementing France’s status as a second-class power in NATO. After all, why should America and the United Kingdom be distinguished by autonomous nuclear weapons programs and not France? As Gabrielle Hecht declares: “the fundamental premise of discussions about a future technological France was that, in the postwar world, technological achievements defined geopolitical power.”38 France would eventually look towards West Germany and Italy for economic support on weapons development.39
French Prime Minister Felix Faillard declared at a NATO summit that “control over weapons in France was political necessity,” and regarding the issue of hosting foreign intermediate-range ballistic missiles, claimed that “in agreeing to stationing IRBM’s in [France’s] territory we must be assured that [France] will have voice in decision as to their use.”40 The government was not satisfied with merely having access to nuclear weapons, but craved the power and esteem that came with control. Directing an autonomous arsenal and having authority over NATO stockpiles by being a NWS was thought to be the tool that would recapture the radiance of France and distinguish it among fellow European countries.
Conventional military force and diplomatic measures could not revive the reputation France had prior to the war. And because Pairs was a strategic ally against an emerging Soviet threat, American sanctions were not placed on France nor was European condemnation strong. The absence of economic condemnation created an opportunity for France to build nuclear weapons without hindering their industrial growth.
II. Scientists Gained Political Power
Van der Meer argues that security concerns came second to the idea that nuclear weapons could reinvigorate national unity under a strong government. Local unrest over the failure to quell the Algerian insurgency was in part nullified after de Gaulle resumed the role of prime minister and championed a nuclear arsenal. In the same fashion, humiliation over the failed 1954 battle at Dien Bien Phu and decreasing economic and militaristic aid from the United States forced the French government to find means of restoring their political image. Unfortunately, stripping the narrative to its core is incredibly difficult in 1950’s France: domestic politics and foreign policy cannot easily be separated in a system where the government mirrored parliament and all of its political divisions and mass policies. There was no singular purpose for the bomb, nor was there a singular group that created, implemented, and projected nuclear power. But we can look at the most important players: de Gaulle and a body of nuclear engineers.
A series of governments proved incapable of reversing France’s steady decline of power in their colonies, which allowed Charles de Gaulle to market on using nuclear power to fill the power gap created by decolonization during his political career. Following the domestic crisis over the war in Algeria, de Gaulle became obsessed with the bomb’s ability to fuel domestic and global grandeur, remarking that if France did not have nuclear weapons, “will France remain France?”41 He would cooperate with the military to increase defense expenditures and partnered with foreign governments to fund for the atomic bomb, which he thought would expedite political favorability.42
His options for doing this were limited. De Gaulle could not regain the territory nor the lives lost during WWII. France’s economy was utterly depleted. And, France’s government, having seen a revolving door of leadership, was in ruins. Funding a nuclear program using foreign investment addressed many of French citizens’ worries: nuclear energy would service France’s industries, which would help restore social order; the bomb was a display of great power capabilities; and investing time and diplomatic efforts to build an arsenal would signal to citizens that de Gaulle would see his leadership through.
The political utility of France becoming nuclear was understood by a wide body of politicians. Only the Communist party, which was politically-ostracized, outright opposed nuclear proliferation. While the Socialist party believed that France did not need nuclear weapons, they reserved that France had the right to build an arsenal considering both sides of the iron curtain were engaging in a nuclear arms race. Over time, more Socialists overtly supported France turning nuclear.43
While government officials received a steady level of political benefits from nuclearization at its onset, this began to decrease over the years. In January 1946, fifty-six percent of the public believed that France needed the atom bomb while thirty-six percent believed the bomb was not necessary.44 Just over a decade later, after radical demonstrations against French nuclear arms, the number of those who responded positively to building the bomb dropped to under one third of the country’s citizens.45 This suggests that the government did indeed benefit from nuclear prestige in the early years following WWII, but over time the potency decreased. Instead, members of the scientific community ended up using the bomb for bureaucratic interests.
Parliamentary deputy Felix Gaillard, an important political ally of the CEA, convinced his fellow deputies to approve building two reactors, arguing that nuclear energy, which would expand France’s industrial base─a long time goal as the country suffered from a lack of natural resources─conferred prestige and glory. Parliament agreed and funded the program, leaving its implementation to the CEA scientists and engineers.46
The unstable political environment forced politicians to focus on reestablishing their authority which allowed CEA officials to lead France’s nuclear program. An interservice rivalry with the Électricité de France (EDF)─the nationalized electric utility company that would make up the other half of the French nuclear program─is how the bomb became a political tool among the scientific community. Each agency was eager to establish its role as the facilitator of France as both a nuclear weapons state and an industrial powerhouse.47 The planners remarked that “in a few years the energy sources put at the disposition of people would so profoundly and radically transform their economic activity that the nations that do not have it will appear as helpless.”48 They envisioned France as achieving unmatched international power made possible by the very weapons they were strategizing and creating. The two agencies, while working together, actively tried to differentiate themselves from the other while marketing nuclear power to buttress their claim to national importance and obtain the necessary political and economic backing to fund their projects under their name.
Gabrielle Hecht reminds us that “developing an atomic bomb was a process, not a decision.”49 We might think of this complex network of politicians and engineers as a supply chain when trying to understand how each extracted political benefits: different actors contributed to obtaining the necessary capital abroad to develop the bomb for great power politics, while others contributed to its technological blueprints and finesse, and lastly, others contributed to marketing the bomb to citizens and the international community, strategizing foreign policy to avoid unwanted adversarial consequences, and working with the military who would come to control France’s nuclear arsenal.
III. Security Concerns Reevaluated
While some scholars have devalued the importance of the security model to France’s nuclear ascent, that does not mean the project was entirely void of security concerns. Indeed, most scholars do recognize the security model’s contribution to France’s decision, but have argued that status and political desires were more critical in shaping nuclear policy. Take Sagan, for example: “Deterrence of the Soviet Union was a justification, and never the primary purpose of its arsenal.”
Scholars who fall in this camp have tended to debunk two security concerns: one is the fear of a Soviet attack and the other being a fear that America would fail to protect France under its security guarantees. For instance, Sagan shows de Gaulle had expressed confidence that the Soviets would not attack their country during the Berlin crisis in 1958 and amid the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.50 Nicholas L. Miller also argued that the fear of Washington not protecting France under its nuclear umbrella was not strong enough by the 1950s to warrant building nuclear weapons.51
These arguments suffer from a few problems. Focusing on the Soviet threat, a dwindling American support system, and de Gaulle’s seemingly indifferent reaction to these concerns diverts necessary attention away from other government officials, nuclear scientists, and military personnel, all important figures in French foreign policy, who were concerned over regional instability and sought mechanisms to secure France. It also is not entirely clear as to why wavering American security commitments were not substantial enough by the 1950s, given the US had shown its reluctance to intervene on behalf of France during WWII and Eisenhower and Dulles ousted critical French communists working in their nuclear program.
As Waltz reminds us: the world is an anarchic system. States can never fully trust one another and must rely on self-help mechanisms to protect their national security and sovereignty. Given the complicated relations between France and its American and British allies during the second world war, compounded by an emerging Soviet threat and a possibile resurgent Germany, the security model should have factored into France’s development of their nuclear program.
To reevaluate the security environment at the onset of France’s nuclear program, I find Georges Bidault’s analysis of the world order as a credible argument in favor of the presence of critical security concerns. Bidault served as the Prime Minister of France twice, the foreign minister of France thrice in different governments, and he was a leader in the French Resistance during World War II. His perception, though not a critical one in nuclear decision-making, should nevertheless be received as invaluable insight into French foreign affairs. Importantly, his views provide guidance to understanding decision makers who viewed the bomb as a necessary deterrent against foreign aggression.
Convinced that the Soviet threat targeted specifically French national security, Bidault endorsed German rearmament as a necessary addition to a strong and collective western European defense system.52 French foreign minister Robert Schuman remarked in 1950 that “the coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany.”53 Schuman, like Bidault, saw a Franco-German détente as necessary for greater European integration amid escalating Cold War tensions.
Accounting for France’s negative security guarantees, limited military power, and stagnant economy, Bidault became a staunch advocate for preparing the Fourth Republic for an increasingly aggressive Soviet threat, going so far as formulating an alliance with the Germans at a time when advocating for such a relationship threatened his social standing. This suggests that the Soviet threat did not only exist at the onset of the Fourth Republic’s nuclear program, but it was strong enough to encourage mass regional mobilization to offset a strategic imbalance.
However, the decision to work with the Germans was fraught with tension, of which a significant amount came from French armed forces. Lingering fears of a resurgent Germany prompted French military chiefs to terminate the 1950 European Defence Community that sought a collective western European army. While Bidault was preoccupied with the Soviet threat, the military, who resided over nuclear policy and helped plan for its strategic implementation into military affairs, held equal worries about the German threat. This was exacerbated by the Paris accords which led to the development of a national German army. The military’s fear of a resurgent Germany is logical considering the army was depleted in large part after suffering four years of occupation under the Nazis.
The scientific community provides yet another argument in favor of the security model, but this time as nuclear weapons were being maintained rather than blueprinted. Political interests and status aside, nuclear engineers were legitimately concerned with the post-war environment that villainized communist ideology. It is not often remarked on that many of the French scientists were openly communist. Eisenhower and Dulles believed a militarily-integrated Europe would be severely undermined by a communist-led French nuclear program, which prompted Eisenhower to purge French communist engineers.
One important communist was the CEA’s high commissioner, Jean Frédéric Joliot-Curie. American leaders actively protested against his leadership over a sensitive nuclear program.54 By 1950, the same year that Bidault was calling for a Franco-German alliance, Joliot-Curie was replaced by Francsi Perrin. Dismissed alongside Joliot-Curie were the many communist engineers who worked on the early gas-graphite designs.55 To Eisenhower and Dulles, France was a faltering ally plagued by communist misfortune. As mentioned, the engineers and scientists played just as crucial a role in implementing French nuclear policy as politicians did.
The nuclear engineers feared that they would ultimately lose control of a vital tool for French security and would continue being a pawn in the US-Soviet standoff. Even socialist leaders who were known to actively denounce the bomb started to change their perception, such as Prime Minister Guy Mollet. This growing fear of American intervention occurred against the backdrop of intensifying wartime affairs in Algeria and the Suez Crisis that saw a humiliating French defeat in large part due to America’s intervention and threats.56 Mollet began to discuss the nuclear option in June of 1956.
French security concerns certainly pose a striking puzzle to the nuclear proliferation equation. It is not entirely clear what threats factored into the rationale of the many individuals leading the nuclear program and to what extent. But scholars agree: France was under the pressure of external security threats that did, to some extent, satisfy the requirements of my hypothesis to turn nuclear. Whether or not security concerns were a justification for maintaining the bomb or whether they were a salient force contributing to its manifestation, dangers posed by the Soviets, the Germans, and the Americans, among others, were present enough to factor into France’s decision to build and maintain nuclear weapons.
States That Renounced The Bomb
Not all states who commenced nuclear programs are nuclear weapons states today. This requires an analysis on the incentives to not just build, but to maintain nuclear weapons. Like Pakistan and France, South Africa and Egypt have been cited as having numerous incentives to build and maintain an arsenal, though their leaders decided to forgo their programs.
In the 1980’s, South Africa had constructed six nuclear weapons and was on track to build a seventh. But in 1989, South Africa became the first and only country to have built and voluntarily dismantled nuclear weapons. South Africa’s nuclear rollback remains relevant, with former Secretary of State Colin Powell citing the South African model when addressing Iraq’s nuclear ambitions in 2003. Assessing the three conditions within South Africa reveal that Cape Town’s national security was no longer under threat by the late 1980s, nuclear prestige could not be offered under their circumstances, and their domestic politics did not allow for the continuance of nuclear weapons.
I. The Security Model Reimagined
In March 1993, President Frederik Willem de Klerk explained in a speech to Parliament that “the buildup of the Cuban forces in Angola from 1975 onwards reinforced the perception that a deterrent was necessary, as did … the fact that [South Africa] could not rely on outside assistance should it be attacked.”57 The South African nuclear doctrine was said to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent against the Soviets and as a bargaining chip against the United States. While South African leaders initially cited external threats as a justification for building the bomb, Peter Liberman makes a compelling argument that the danger of invasion or nuclear blackmail “remained remote.”58
The Soviet Union was largely absent of logistical means to invade South Africa; even if they were to utilize Cuban forces stationed nearby, immense mobilization and resources would have been required to defeat the South African Defence Force.59 A more pressing threat was its ongoing war with its neighbor, Namibia. Yet, the utility of nuclear weapons meeting this threat was insubstantial given the diplomatic costs and the risks involved of using nuclear force against a NNWS that was close to their own territory.
While the 1975 Soviet-backed Cuban military intervention in Angola is said to be one of the most compelling factors influencing South Africa’s nuclear program, it came four years after South Africa’s Atomic Energy Board started research on nuclear devices in 1971 and one year after a gun-type explosive device was tested in May 1974.60 Sagan convincingly argues that South African scientists originally started a nuclear program not because of security threats, but to produce peaceful nuclear explosions for practical matters, such as mining.61
This suggests that security concerns were not the initial impetus for South Africa’s nuclear program. But nonetheless, it is fairly clear that despite existing evidence that Soviet threats remained remote, President de Klerk did believe that South Africa would benefit from having a nuclear arsenal to deter Soviet aggression, as he explained in his 1993 speech to Parliament that he saw a growing “Soviet expansionist threat to southern Africa” and the stationing of Cuban forces nearby in the 1970s as necessitating a South African deterrent.62 But if one were to reimagine the applicability of the security model in a country where security threats subsided, then analyzing South Africa’s decision to dismantle its arsenal in 1991 becomes clearer.
President de Klerk in his speech cited three alterations to external threats as the source for dismantlement. The first was that Angola had signed a tripartite agreement that granted Namibia its independence, which forced Angola to send all Cuban troops out of the region in 1988.63 Secondly, South Africa requested that Angola commit to cease all aid to the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia.64 Lastly, and most importantly, the Cold War had ended, which severed all Soviet channels of logistical aid to South Africa’s neighbors. While the security threats were minor to begin with, the maintenance of nuclear weapons outweighed the justification of deterring against a diminished threat. De Klerk commented: “a nuclear deterrent had become not only superfluous but, in fact, an obstacle to the development of South Africa’s international relations.”65 The ultimate decision to dismantle occurred the same year that the Cold War had come to a close.
II. Norms and Domestic Politics
A compelling counterargument against dismantlement due to the diminishing security threat is that South Africa’s nuclear program was relatively cheap, so why destroy it? Changes in South Africa’s sensitivity to international sanctions provides an answer.66 South Africa was nearly excommunicated from the West due to its nuclear activities and, importantly, its apartheid system that was growing increasingly unfavorable among the international community. Organizational politics and pressure from the United States cultivated a growing anti-nuclear and anti-missile movement, which was prominent by the time de Klerk became Prime Minister in 1989.67 De Klerk was clear in his ambitions to abandon apartheid, which was part of his larger plan to normalize South Africa’s international relations. In tandem with pledging to cultivate better domestic racial equality, de Klerk vowed to have South Africa join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapons state, which it did in 1991. De Klerk remarked that the decision to end its apartheid system and join the coalition of responsible nuclear states “further helped to strengthen our international capability,” and added that the nuclear program “would never have [been] undertaken had it not been for our growing isolation and sense of confrontation with the international community.”68
Because the program was largely shielded from the public─and what little information was made available was ambiguous in order to curtail international condemnation domestic backlash for denuclearization did not occur. There were no political risks for dismantling its nuclear arsenal, but there were risks to maintaining it. Signing the NPT was thought to alleviate South Africa’s international isolation, which de Klerk cited as one of the contributing factors for South Africa’s decision to build the bomb. Rolling back its nuclear weapons program was believed would forge stronger strategic alliances as Cape Town was attempting to redefine itself as a responsible democratic country. Soon after, South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha addressed other nuclear-capable countries, encouraging them to “follow our example to take this decision voluntarily without having any obligation to do so, for the sake of making the earth and the world a safer place and avoid conflict in the future.”69
Egypt began a nuclear energy program for peaceful purposes in the mid-1950’s. Certainly, Cairo has strong incentives to build the bomb. For one, Egypt and Israel have had numerous major military confrontations since 1948.70 This became worse when Israel commenced a nuclear weapons program around 1966. At the same time, the importance of nuclear prestige remained strong. Egypt’s military power, cultural dominance across the MENA region, and strong political influences made it a leader in the Arab world. Egypt’s status was not only challenged by Israel’s nuclear superiority, but was threatened by possible Iraqi and Iranian nuclear programs.71 Bahgat claims that security and prestige alone should have made Egypt “vigorously” desire nuclear weapons.72 Yet, Egypt has not developed nuclear weapons.
I. Domestic and International Politics Revised
Bahgat suggests that nonproliferation in Egypt’s case served as a more powerful political tool and an enforcer of national security. Egypt under Anwar Sadat sought support for a Middle East nuclear weapon-free zone (NWFZ) not only to prevent economic sanctions, but for the domestic benefits of positive regional cooperation.73 Sadat’s “grand strategy” for a triumphant Egypt required foreign capital at a moment of diminishing state revenue. While Egypt was facing declining oil prices, a ballooning population, and bureaucratic mismanagement, regional cooperation with socioeconomic benefits proved to be a politically-potent strategy to market on. This objective was an important complement to its proposition of a NWFZ: a restrained nuclear posture can generate international economic and political benefits, such as foreign aid and debt relief.74 These efforts marginalized local opposition to Sadat’s regional politics and brought legitimacy to Egypt as a responsible partner.
II. The Egyptians Used Conventional Diplomacy to Amend Logistical Shortcomings and Domestic Opposition to an Egyptian Nuclear Program
The Egyptian nuclear doctrine ping-ponged between threats and diplomacy. In December 1960, President Nasir claimed that if Israel produced nuclear weapons, Egypt would not only do the same, but would also use its chemical weapons stockpile against the Israelis.75 But the Six-Day War in 1967 rendered Egyptian threats of a preemptive attack using other weapons of mass destruction essentially void. When the Chinese denied funding Egypt’s nuclear program, talk about matching Israel’s arsenal also lost credibility. Nasser and a coalition of Arab states then sought alliance with the nuclear nonproliferation regime to counterbalance Israeli threats by committing them to international legal standards of denuclearization.76 When Sadat became president, he resurfaced threats of nuclear deterrence but, like Nasser, found his country to lack the prerequisites to build a robust nuclear arsenal.
Recognizing the danger in having a weak nuclear program, Sadat carried Nasser’s push for a NWFZ for fear that an Egyptian nuclear arsenal would stimulate a regional arms race. The conclusion followed the Yom Kippur War which was yet another costly and lengthy military escalation. While the struggle against the Israel’s was thought of as a collective Arab experience, many Egyptians felt that their country was shouldering most of the burden.77 The mass exertion of resources, the evolving threats of WMD usage, and the destructive nature of nuclear confrontations, now compounded by domestic unrest, made nuclear acquisition too militarily and politically-costly for Sadat and his constituents to maintain. The less costly and safer option, it was believed, was to use conventional diplomacy to advocate for an Israeli nuclear rollback, which offered an added benefit of opening a channel to forge stronger alliances with great powers.
Discussion and Further Suggestions: Rethinking Nuclear Proliferation
Current explanations for nuclear proliferation are incomplete. My findings demonstrate that all three models are important components for assessing why states want nuclear weapons, though each individually is insufficient to explain nuclear proliferation. The Pakistani case demonstrated this clearly. While security concerns were at the forefront of decision-making, social and political capital offered by nuclear weapons were used by various heads of state and military personnel to bolster Pakistani autonomy and forge stronger domestic political favorability. The Pakistani model is a warning for future proliferators who a) may be placed in regional security entanglements, b) may have weak soft power capabilities, and/or c) has a government system where political survivability depends on satisfying domestic policy concerns. These future cases might be Syria or Iran.
Moreover, claims that external threats did not contribute to the French case prove inadequate when evaluating nuclear proliferation beyond personalities like Charles de Gaulle. The French case, more than anything, demonstrated that building nuclear weapons is a relational process. It is negotiated by numerous actors, not all of which are transparent to the decision-making process. This should encourage future scholarship to first identify important bodies in shaping nuclear policy and then assess their motivations and/or hesitations for nuclear proliferation.
Discussions of nuclear proliferation have similarly left out important analysis on states that had incentives to build nuclear weapons, but decided to adhere to nonproliferation standards. South Africa and Egypt relay critical knowledge on a) how to reinterpret and adapt the three models under different circumstances and b) how the costs of nuclearization can work to outweigh the benefits. South Africa and Egypt are two countries that should encourage policy makers to think critically on how the motivations to adhere to nonproliferation might be replicated in future circumstances where states may seek nuclear power. Scholarship has tended to paint nuclear proliferation choices as black-and-white when in practice, factors that influence country decisions are more complex and varied.
My research showed that nuclear proliferation can and should be addressed more fully using not just the narrow focus of nuclear scholarship, but incorporating broader ideas from international relations and political theory. All future policy makers will be challenged with the uniqueness that each future proliferation case will present. My findings demonstrate that connections can be drawn between different countries, in different times, and facing different internal and external conditions. Using security, status, and domestic politics as a framework to understanding nuclear proliferation offers the right amount of breadth so that this paradigm can be analyzed case-by-case, while adding international relations theory provides needed support to be a durable and reliant means of assessing possible future cases of proliferation during a time when addressing such phenomena could not be more important. As Scott Sagan reminds us: “the best theories are those that explain the largest number of cases.”78 I hope that scholarship continues to forge, expand, and test multiple theories under an encompassing model to better understand why states do and do not build and maintain nuclear weapons.
1. Scott D. Sagan, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb.” International Security, Winter, 1996-1997, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Winter, 1996-1997), pp. 55
2. Sico van der Meer, “States’ Motivations to Acquire or Forgo Nuclear Weapons: Four Factors of Influence.” Journal of Military and
Strategic Studies. Clingendael Institute. Volume 17, Issue 1 (2016)
3. Kenneth Waltz, “Theory of International Politics.” McGraw-Hill, 1979. pp. 104, 107
4. Toby Dalton and Ain Han, “Elections, Nukes, and the Future of the South Korea–U.S. Alliance.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 26 October 2020.
5. David Albright, “South Africa’s Secret Nuclear Weapons.” Institute for Science and International Security, 1 May 1994.
6. Van der Meer, pp. 225
7. If two adversaries both have weak nuclear arsenals, strategists predict that these states are more likely to engage in preemptive behavior in order to avoid a devastating adversarial attack that would destroy entire regions and likely demolish their entire nuclear arsenal. Whereas the United States and Russia, for example, could not guarantee that an initial attack would destroy their opponent’s entire nuclear arsenal, which means the targeted state could retaliate in kind using whatever nuclear forces remain.
8. Robert J. Einhorn, “Egypt: Frustrated but Still on a Non-Nuclear Course,” in The Nuclear Tipping Point, Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2004. pp. 46-47.
9. David Albright, “South Africa and the Affordable Bomb, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” Taylor & Francis Group, 1994. pp.37, 38.
11. Global Security, “Pakistan – Defense Spending.” GlobalSecurity.org, May 2019.
12. The United States similarly banned weapons supply to India as punishment for both countries engaging in war with one another. Given Pakistan’s economic and military inferiority to India, the former shouldered a greater burden in terms of defense preparedness and military prestige.
13. Richard K. Betts, “Incentives for Nuclear Weapons: India, Pakistan, Iran.” University of California Press, Asian Survey, Nov., 1979, Vol. 19, No. 11 (Nov., 1979), pp. 1059
15. Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, “Anatomizing Pakistan’s Motivations for Nuclear Weapons.” Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, Pakistan Horizon, April 2011, Vol. 64, No. 2 (April 2011), pp. 5-6
16. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, “The Myth of Independence.” Oxford University Press, 1969. pp. 141
17. A. H. Nayyar, “A Pakistani Perspective on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-proliferation.” FES Briefing Paper, August 2008. pp. 2
18. Thomas W. Graham, “Nuclear Weapons Stability or Anarchy in the 21st Century: China, India, and Pakistan,” Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, June 9, 2011. This conclusion was based on the situation between Pakistan and India alone and was not intended to be a general guideline for assessing whether or not other nuclear arsenals are adequate to be victorious in a nuclear standoff.
19. Betts, pp. 1061
20. While America sought to repress Pakistan’s uranium reprocessing abilities needed to create nuclear weapons, US officials remained passive in addressing India’s nuclear program.
21. Stanley Wolpert, “Zulfi Bhutto of Pakistan: His Life and Times.” Oxford University Press, 1993, pp. 273.
22. Samina Ahmed, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons Program: Turning Points and Nuclear Choices.” International Security, Spring, 1999, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Spring, 1999), pp. 185
23. David Cortright et al, “Public Opinion and Nuclear Options for South Asia.” University of California Press, August 1998, Vol. 38, No. 8 (Aug., 1998), pp. 729
24. Ahmed, pp. 186
25. Ibid., 183
26. Bhutto, pp.141
27. Ibid., 141
28. Ibid., 179
29. Edward A. Gargan, “Bhutto Stands By Nuclear Program.” New York Times, Oct. 21, 1993.
30. Samina Ahmed, pp. 189-191
31. Lawrence Scheinman, “Atomic Energy Policy in France under the Fourth Republic.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. pp. 203-204
32. Gabrielle Hecht, “Political Designs: Nuclear Reactors and National Policy in Postwar France.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, October, 1994, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Oct., 1994), pp. 658
34. Lawrence Scheinman, “Atomic Energy Policy in France Under the Fourth Republic.” Princeton Legacy Library. pp. 497 and Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better,” London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981. pp. 171
35. Nicholas L. Miller, “Stopping the Bomb,” chapter: The French Nuclear Program (1954–1960). Cornell University Press 2018, pp. 163
36. Hecht, “Political Designs,” pp. 660
37. Miller, pp. 150
38.Gabrielle Hecht, “The Radiance of France, new edition: Nuclear Power and National Identity.” Cambridge, Mass., 1998, pp. 39
39. Ibid. pp. 157
41. Wilfrid L. Kohl, “French Nuclear Diplomacy.” 1971 pp. 150, quoted in Bundy, Danger and Survival, p. 502
42. Keith W. Baum, “Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd: The Eisenhower Administration, France, and Nuclear Weapons.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, Spring, 1990, Vol. 20, No. 2, Eisenhower Centennial Issue (Spring, 1990), pp. 314
43. James L. Richardson, “Review: Controls over Peaceful Nuclear Programs.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Dec., 1967), pp. 497-503
44. Binyamin Pinkus and Moshe Tlamim, “Atomic Power to Israel’s Rescue: French-Israeli Nuclear Cooperation.” Indiana University Press, Spring, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 1, Spring, 2002, pp. 107 – 108
46. Hecht, pp. 664
47. Ibid., 685
48. Scheinman, pp. 75
49. Hecht, “Political Designs,” pp. 685
50. Sagan, pp. 79
51. Miller, pp. 167
52. Talbot Imlay, “Review: A Success Story? The Foreign Policies of France’s Fourth Republic.” Cambridge University Press, Contemporary European History, Nov., 2009, Vol. 18, No. 4 (Nov., 2009), pp. 501
53. Emmanuel Mourlon-Druol, “Rethinking Franco-German Relations: a Historical Perspective.” Bruegel, pp. 4
54. Hecht, “Political Designs,” pp. 662
55. Ibid., 664
56. Binyamin Pinkus and Moshe Tlamim, “Atomic Power to Israel’s Rescue: French-Israeli Nuclear Cooperation.” Indiana University, Spring, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 1, Foreign Relations (Spring, 2002), pp. 108
57. F. W. de Klerk, March 24, 1993 address to the South African parliament as transcribed in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), JPRS-TND-93-009, (March 29, 1993), pp. 1
58.Peter Liberman, “The Rise and Fall of the South African Bomb.” International Security, Fall, 2001, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Fall, 2001), pp. 15
59. Ibid. pp. 16
60. Sagan, pp. 69
62. De Klerk, March 24, 1993 address to the South African parliament, pp. 1
63. “S. African, Cuban, Angolan Forces Declare Cease-Fire,” the Los Angeles Times, 8 August 1988.
64. James III, W. Martin (2011) . A Political History of the Civil War in Angola: 1974-1990. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. pp. 207–214, 239–245.
65. Maria Babbagem, “White Elephants: Why South Africa Gave Up The Bomb And The Implications For Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy.” Princeton University Press, 2004, pp. 2
67. Helen E. Purkitt, Stephen F. Burgess and Peter Liberman, “South Africa’s Nuclear Decisions.” International Security, Summer, 2002, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Summer, 2002), pp. 186-190
68. F. W. de Klerk, March 24, 1999 address to the South African parliament as transcribed in Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), JPRS-TND-93-009, pp. 274
69. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Text of relay of international news conference held by President F.W. de Klerk in Cape Town. Source: SABC-TV, 42 March 1993
70. Gawdat Bahgat, “The Proliferation Of Weapons Of Mass Destruction: Egypt.” Arab Studies Quarterly, Spring 2007, Vol. 29, No. 2 (Spring 2007), pp. 10, 12-15
71. Ibid., pp. 15
72. Ibid., 12-13
73. Etel Solingen, “The Political Economy of Nuclear Restraint.” Fall 1994, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Fall, 1994), pp. 139-140
74. Yahya M. Sadowski, “Scuds Or Butter? The Political Economy of Arms Control in the Middle East.” Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1993, pp. 41
75. “Egypt,” Hatzav, 29 December 1960.
76. Khalil Shikaki, “The Nuclearization Debates: The Cases of Israel and Egypt.” University of California Press, Summer, 1985, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Summer, 1985), pp. 85, 87, 89
77. Dan Sagir, “How the Fear of Israeli Nukes Helped Seal the Egypt Peace Deal.” Israel News, 26 November 2018.
78. Sagan, pp. 85