Friday, February 20, 2009

It's not easy to get nuclear weapons

I've got a section in my book about how it's much harder for terrorists to get nuclear weapons than you might think. Here's some more interesting info, from the New York Times: It's also really hard for countries to become nuclear.

This beautifully-designed diagram (click to see it bigger) shows how countries have influenced other countries' proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Very few countries have developed the bomb by themselves in a vacuum. Most have relied on shared information or espionage. Despite over 60 years of existence, only 9 countries have the bomb (represented by the circles above). Since its creation by the U.S., those other 8 countries relied on scientists that migrated or shared information legally or illegally.

Also, a surprising number of countries have started nuclear programs and then stopped: South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil, Iraq, and Libya. (And former soviet republics Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine voluntarily gave up their weapons and transferred them to Russia.) These are the hexagons in the chart. Very few countries, in fact, even want nuclear weapons - they're expensive and draw too much heat from the international community.

The threat of nuclear proliferation is real - the boxes in the chart are Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Syria, which are all possibly working on weapons programs, and Iran is a major threat - but it's not an epidemic, as press articles may sometimes imply.


Marc V. said...
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Marc V. said...

That is a cool graphic. I definitely take your point that there are not dozens of countries working on a nuclear program. And I know that you acknowledge that a threat does still exist. But I think you are, to some extent, making a straw man argument. I don't think it is highly relevant at all that there only a few countries trying for a nuclear program right now. The concern is that the MAD power balances cannot be counted on anymore. If you look at the timeline the larger concern is that, over time, countries with less and less rational or stable governments are pursuing nuclear capabilities. China, Israel, India and Pakistan have created enough of a powder keg, and they are still relatively stable countries. If one of the four aspiring states has any kind of success, previous experience with nuclear negotiations are virtually useless. Bottom line is that it only takes one of them succeeding to make the world exponentially more complicated and dangerous.

Jesse Richards said...

Hey, thanks for responding. I totally admit the newer, uncertain dangers that are popping up. I was trying to show that very few countries desire nukes, but of course the ones that do want them (or got them recently) are some of the world's most dangerous countries - the countries we least want to have them.

It's definitely a more complex mix than the bipolar past, but I think MAD still holds up in many cases. Perhaps even better, surprisingly ... because the new countries dueling are often closer to each other. So, if North Korea attacks South Korea, for example, even if no one responds with nukes the fallout can hurt North Korea. Same is true of India/Pakistan, and Israel and some of its neighbors. These are smaller regional conflicts that pale in comparison to what was the global US/USSR danger.

I remain worried only about Pakistan and Iran. They both have unstable governments (in different ways). But Saudi Arabia, for example, and like China and India, has been shown to act very rationally, calmly, slowly, and deliberately in its international affairs. Their government is not likely to be overthrown anytime soon - neither is Iran's. Israel, though, has been shown to act impulsively. But Pakistan and its neighboring Afghani regions remain the real threat - and even more because of terrorist nukes than government nukes.

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