Peace Through Nuclear Proliferation

US Nuclear Non-Proliferation policy seems to make sense: the US does not want other countries to obtain nuclear weapons because of the potential dangers of nuclear war. The advent of a nuclear war between world powers would be devastating. It is in this context, that some in the political science community have suggested that nuclear proliferation may aid in the prevention of nuclear warfare.

Robert Putnam’s two-level game is a well-known theory in the field of Political Science. The basic idea is that international negotiations involve two levels. One level consists of  the negotiations between international actors trying to find a bargain that satisfies both sides. However, those bargaining must find a compromise that will also adhere to domestic pressures, the second level. For example, assume a hypothetical scenario wherein the president of the United States is negotiating with another government. He goes into talks keeping in mind that he needs to please two sets of actors, his people and the government of the other state. As in most situations involving bargaining , neither party leaves with all that they wanted.

This theory can help explain why having more than one world power with nuclear weapons might be a good idea. Leaders at the bargaining table, who have nukes as an outside option, have more of an incentive to compromise. Due to the potential costs of nuclear war, each side is willing to compromise more because they do not want their populations wiped out. Domestically, the political actors are under pressure to reach a compromise. Internationally, there is a pressure from the bargaining partner to acquiesce because of the costs that nuclear weapons represent.

A world where there is only one nuclear power only benefits that respective government in negotiations. That country can use the the threat of nuclear war as a way to pressure other governments into an all or nothing situation. This dynamic makes it more dangerous if things go wrong in a negotiation. Warfare without nuclear weapons can be devastating, but a country can recover from the damage. Nuclear weapons make the areas they devastate uninhabitable for very long periods of time and can cripple a country.

A world where nuclear weapons are the outside option on both sides of the negotiating table can be dangerous if things go wrong as well, but there is much more incentive for compromise because the costs of nuclear warfare are much higher than they would be otherwise. If two actors are entering talks to negotiate a treaty, no matter what it is about, they have to think about the consequences of being unable to reach agreement. Governments use many resources as bargaining tools, but in the international arena, war is always a form of pressure.

This is where the domestic level of the two-level games theory comes in. Jeffery Knopf points out that during talks, governments can make an effort to shrink their win set domestically by persuading their constituency to support their point of view. For example, a government can assure its people that they are well equipped to handle a nuclear threat, but there are still vast costs to nuclear warfare. It is not in the interest of a leader to use nuclear weapons because the repercussion of nuclear war can result in the mutual assured destruction of both states, so his people back him in this decision.

Then he enters the international arena and he makes sure to convey that he has only a few options because he must go back to his electorate with an acceptable option or he loses his  job. Odds are this first bargaining level is happening on both sides of the table. Even a dictator with a relatively small group of people keeping him in power faces this kind of two-level game. Through this kind of game, both parties can find a way to compromise and please both their constituencies, so that nuclear war will not occur.

An example from history is the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union both possessed nuclear weapons. Whenever political scientists discuss the Cold War, the phrase “mutually assured destruction” is usually thrown around. Both countries had pressure from their people and the rest of the world to avoid nuclear warfare at all costs after WWII. Tensions were high for over four decades, but fortunately neither government decided on a nuclear strike.

Up until now, the US policy of nuclear non-proliferation has been somewhat successful, but that may not be in the future. China, Russia, France, United Kingdom, and the United States have nuclear weapons allowed by the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty. However, India, Israel, and Pakistan, three non-NPT countries, are believed to have nuclear weapons. There are even more states that may may have a nuclear arsenal. Now that an increasing number of countries are building up their nuclear programs, it is important to think about the US’s role as something other than the world police. The two-level game framework provides defense analysts with an alternative understanding as the world continues to evolve.


Works Cited
Knopf, Jeffrey W. “Beyond Two-Level Games: Domestic-International Interaction in the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Negotiations.” International Organization 47.4 (1993): 599-628.Web. 19 July 2014.
“Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance.” Arms Control Association. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 July 2014.
Putnam, Robert D. “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-level Games.” International Organization 42.03 (1988): 427. Web. 19 July 2014.