Jeffrey LewisDisarmament Winners and Losers

Reader Chris Camp, who comments under the name Cthippo, sent me an essay last week that I wanted to share with readers. Camp asks which states would be winners (or losers) if some sorcerer used a magic wand make all the world’s nuclear weapons disappear.

As I read through and found myself agreeing here, disagreeing there, I realized that I was having fun and thinking about an old problem in new way. The essay is deceptive in its simplicity.

Really, try it.

After Global Zero,
Winners and losers in a post-nuclear world

What if we woke up tomorrow and there were no more nuclear weapons? What if, overnight, they had ceased to exist, and no nation could ever build one again. What if the genie decided to crawl back in its bottle?

While it’s easy to say the world would be a safer place, not every state that had formerly possed a nuclear arsenal would feel this way. Some would certainly feel more secure, but others would very likely feel far more vulnerable.

It’s easy to say that we favor global zero, and to encourage everyone else to get on board, but without understanding the role that nuclear weapons play in the perception of security of each nation it becomes difficult to make an argument as to why they should give them up. By looking at how each nuclear weapons state might perceive a world without nuclear weapons we can gain some insight into the role that these weapons play in their security and perhaps identify the concerns that need to be addressed before those who have the bomb might be willing to give it up.

United States – Winner

The United States sees its nuclear arsenal as an expensive tool of limited utility mostly to deter Russia and to a much lesser extent other nuclear states and also states posessing chemical and biological weapons. These lesser considerations can be countered by the US military’s conventional power which far outstrips that of any other nation, and is compounded by the country’s geographical isolation from hostile states.

Outside of a massive nuclear exchange with Russia, America does not percieve itself to be the subject of any real existential threat, and so if the Russian threat were to evaporate then with it would go the utility of the American arsenal.

Russia – Loser

The counterpoint to the American perception of nuclear weapons is Russia, which sees itself as very weak conventionally and surrounded by real or potential enemies. The collapse of the Russian economy coupled with ongoing systemic reforms withing their military and the loss of the Warsaw Pact “buffer zone” between Russia and those who might seek to invade it has left the Russian government feeling that nuclear weapons are their only remaining effective defense against hostile forces. In addition, the possession of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world gives Russia a political relevance and a parity with the United States disproportionate to its economic power and regional influence. If that defense were to suddenly evaporate then Russia would truly feel up the proverbial creek without a paddle.

China – Winner

China maintains a small nuclear arsenal to deter the arsenals of Russia and the United States, and probably to some extent to threaten Taiwan. This small arsenal is backed up by a massive conventional force, and a strong economy to support it, which guarentees China’s conventional security. If the nuclear threat were to disappear then it’s doubtful if China would miss their own arsenal.

United Kingdom – Winner

The UK developed its nuclear arsenal with two goals in mind, independent deterrence against Russia and to prop up its great power status in a post-colonial world. With the end of the Soviet Union and the political changes since the cold war, both of these drivers have lost relevance and yet the nation continues to spend billions on an arsenal that they don’t feel that they need, but are politically unable to get rid of. If that arsenal were to disappear overnight the British government would likely breath a sigh of relief and move on with life.

France – Winner

The origins of the French arsenal are very similar to those of the British, but perhaps more strongly held given their experiences in two world wars. The independent deterrent has played a greater role in the French perception of itself as a sovereign nation than it has for the British, especially since that deterrent was developed domestically. None the less, the French reaction to sudden global zero would likely be the same as the British, if perhaps a little less heartfelt.

India – Winner

India developed nuclear weapons to deter China, and also to burnish their image as in independent regional power in a bipolar cold war era. Since then, the threat from China has diminished significantly, and the ongoing move from bipolar to multipolar geopolitics has increased India’s perception of its security and place in the world. The counter point to that improving security situation is the emergence of Pakistan as a nuclear weapons state in direct opposition to India. Currently India continues to see its arsenal as a deterrent to China and Pakistan and as a point of national pride, though the latter role is probably greatly diminished after almost 40 years. Currently, the Indian arsenal is usually discussed in the context of a Pakistani nuclear threat and so if that threat were to disappear then India would likely continue to feel quite secure.

Pakistan – Loser

Pakistan developed its nuclear arsenal in response to the Indian development of such weapons and continues to see them as primarily a deterrent against Indian strength, both conventional and nuclear. A secondary motivation is that Pakistan receives much recognition as the home of the “Islamic bomb” and has an outsized relevance on the world stage due to its status as a NWS. Unfortunately for Pakistan’s perception of its own security, its arsenal is the only guarantor of this status. Were it to lose nuclear deterrence they would feel themselves under much greater threat without the conventional or economic might to counter Indian or other foreign aggression.

Israel – Loser, sort of

The question of the Israeli nuclear arsenal in a global zero world is probably the most complicated. When the program began Israel faced probably the greatest existential threat of any nation on earth, and also sought an independent deterrence against the Soviet Union. In addition to the deterrent role, these weapons were also intended as retribution weapons in the event that deterrence failed, something not often spoken about in the nuclear doctrine of other nations. However, since those days the world and regional situation has changed dramatically and Israel’s security has been the big winner. Currently the nation does not face a credible existential threat and so it would seem like they should be a winner in a weapons free world.

On the other hand, due to its history both as a nation and as a a people, the “siege mentality” is somewhat built into Israeli politics and security perceptions and so while they in fact would not be less secure without a nuclear deterrent, it seems likely that they would feel significantly less secure.

North Korea – Loser

North Korea is another case where perceptions of security and relevance cloud the issue. On the one hand the massive North Korean conventional military capability provides excellent national security, but their tiny nuclear arsenal contributes little to that security while greatly increasing their international relevance. Were that arsenal to disappear overnight it seems unlikely that North Korea’s security would be diminished in a real sense, but their perception of their security would be greatly diminished. In addition, without nuclear weapons nobody would be talking much about North Korea, much less talking to them.

Summary – What makes winners and losers, and why it matters

The difference between winners and losers in a global zero world is the role that nuclear weapons play in their national security, both real and perceived. The winners are states who see nuclear weapons as having a limited utility in countering other nuclear weapons states and who’s national security is supported by both economic and conventional military power. The losers are states for whom the utility of their arsenals is asymmetric, who depend on nuclear weapons to deter not only other nations nuclear weapons, but also their conventional forces.

A further complicating factor is one of international relevance and prestige. The more that a nation is dependent on their nuclear arsenal for relevance, regardless of their actual security situation, the less likely they are to give up those arsenals.

While this is a theoretical exercise, the practical application comes in understanding the motivations of nations when negotiating arms control issues. When asking a sovereign nation to reduce or abolish its nuclear arsenal, it’s important to understand what role that arsenal plays in their perception of their own security and relevance on the world stage. If we are going to ask them to give up a piece of their security, what can we offer them in return that might improve their security, real or perceived?


  1. Ben D (History)

    All nations relying on nuclear weapons for their ongoing and future security are losers imo. but we may have to wait for WWIII to prove my theory.

    • Carl Lundgren (History)

      Any nation relying on nuclear weapons to deter conventional war is making a serious mistake. If deterrence “works” it only works to reduce the chances of conventional war, but if deterrence fails, the result is a nuclear war. A nuclear war would be far more devastating than a conventional war. The reduction in odds of conventional war would have to be quite significant, and the increase in odds of nuclear war quite low, to render rational accepting this risk of nuclear war.

      The advocates of nuclear deterrence to prevent conventional war have never shown that this strategy passes a simple benefit-cost test for a single nation deciding the matter solely with reference to its own national security. The downside of nuclear war is quite severe compared with supposed gain of reducing the odds of conventional war.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)

    The collapse of the Russian economy coupled with ongoing systemic reforms withing their military and the loss of the Warsaw Pact “buffer zone” between Russia and those who might seek to invade it has left the Russian government feeling that nuclear weapons are their only remaining effective defense against hostile forces

    “within their military,” or “Withering (away of) their military?”

    • Cthippo (History)

      “Within their military”

      I apologize; my spell checker is literally broken and I missed that one.

      I think Russia’s conventional military capability has passed it’s nadir and it heading, albeit slowly, in the right direction. It will be another decade or two, and there are a lot of “if”s, especially around corruption, but they have taken the first steps toward a smaller but more modern armed forces. This may at first appear threatening to the west, but I would argue that if it reduces their dependency on nuclear weapons as their only tool of foreign policy and influence then ultimately we benefit.

  3. Anon2 (History)

    Chris Camp: Good essay. Thought provoking mind experiment.

    Thank you.

  4. David X (History)

    Very interesting essay, thanks for sharing it!

    I was wondering however, in what ways do you agree/disagree with the article. Also, the essay makes no note towards countries which are currently developing/cannot develop nuclear weapons. Would Iran be a winner because the primary justification for their sanctions has disappeared, or a loser because they must drop their ambitions of being a regional power by nuclear means?

    • Cthippo (History)

      Iran is an interesting case, especially since it’s hard to determine the role that nuclear weapons play in their perception of national security when nearly everyone agrees they don’t have any.

      That said, I would tentatively count them as winners. My own feeling, which is as much a guess as anything, is that they’ve gotten themselves trapped between a rock and a hard place on this issue. They probably were actively seeking weapons at one point, but changed their mind either because they got caught or because the decided they weren’t worth the hassle. I put a lot more credence in the supreme leader’s Fatwa than some other people do. My suspicion is that if the nuclear weapons issue disappeared along with everyone else’s actual weapons the Iranian government would breath a sigh of relief.

  5. NAJ Taylor (History)

    Thanks for posting. It’s not an easy task you’ve undertaken, but I think your characterisation of France in relation to nuclear weapons is way off – France will be among the very last to disarm.

  6. Anon2 (History)

    BFRC Alert:

    Any idea what the red poof in the third frame is near the exhaust: (missile pointed horizontally going to the right). It looks like porting the red stoff. Is that normal, or did maybe the side G load during the U-turn cause something to port, or was that an indication of an engine failure causing unsymmetrical thrust and hence the accident. It was also interesting to me how the missile rolled around it’s central axis (nose to tail) throughout. Is that the design?

  7. Kristin (History)

    Enjoyable essay–thank you for sharing. What’s missing is the category of states that rely on extended deterrence like Japan and South Korea. Add some more to the ‘losers’ column.

    • Cthippo (History)

      I agree completely.

      Extended deterrence is the ultimate asymmetrical role for nuclear weapons. You’re using someone else’s nukes to counter your rival’s conventional or political power. Like so much in the realm of international politics, it’s irrational, but it sort of works.

  8. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Comment on Taiwan makes me question his judgment. More importantly, if there were really so many winners and so few losers, there would be more international support for disarmament, and it would be led by the U.S. and China. Clearly, that’s not happening. How would the author account for that?

    • Fred Miller (History)

      This list of winners and losers only counts nations. Within each nation, there are industries, bureaucracies and other special interests, which often have outsized influence. The US is not alone in having a military-industrial complex. When the corporations which stand to profit from expansion of the nuclear weapons budget can influence or guarantee that expansion with a modest investment in campaign contributions, lobbying, or old fashioned bribery, political decisions will be made to the advantage of those corporations, regardless of the advantage, or even the survival, of the nation.

    • Cthippo (History)

      In my mind the theoretical “winners” are going to be the states which are willing to seriously discuss disarmament and who would be more likely to leap, however cautiously, at an opportunity for real progress on that front. We see that in US consideration of unilateral reductions in their nuclear arsenal and in the UK at least discussing drastic reductions or abolishment of theirs. No one wants the be the first, but these are the countries willing to talk about it.

      On the other hand, the theoretical “losers” don’t see themselves as having much to gain by disarmament.

      A frustration I sometimes have in reading about arms control is that I feel we often don’t understand where the nation on the other side of the table is coming from. We fail to understand not only their actual domestic and international security and influence considerations, but also their perceptions of those considerations.

      One of my goals in writing this was to explore what role nukes play in their perception of their security as a starting point to look at what else might meet those security needs if we are serious about asking them to give up their arsenals.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Chris writes:
      One of my goals in writing this was to explore what role nukes play in their perception of their security as a starting point to look at what else might meet those security needs if we are serious about asking them to give up their arsenals.

      I think that this general idea is found elsewhere in proliferation studies, but this was a very good exercise in bringing that to the forefront.

      Let’s take as an example… Iran. They have legitimate security issues (invaded by Iraq in 1980 with little help or sympathy from abroad; bordered by highly unstable Afghanistan, marginally stable Pakistan, and Russia). They have an enemy of choice (Israel) and allies they have developed in the region (Syria, Hezbollah) who are under active attack at some level. Their existence as a modern nation was forged in a rebellion that set them against the United States. The United States has invaded Iranian neighbors in force three times since 1990 (Iraq/Kuwait once in the 90s, Iraq again in 2004, Afghanistan in 2001).

      They clearly have legitimate fears; they also have regional aspirations due to both historical and religious trends.

      They also have played the “Forment external threat to stabilize internal political tensions” game, repeatedly.

      They are not sleeping comfortably at night.

      The dialog about their nuclear weapons capability (optimistic) or program (pessimistic) tends to not acknowledge those facts on the ground. Or to delegitimize them.

      If we look at a near or far future Iran where nuclear weapons were magically out of the picture, what of those fears are heightened? Which ones are assuaged? What of those aspirations are enhanced, which are degraded?

  9. Cthippo (History)

    Thank you for the kind words everyone. I’m greatly honored that so many of you found the piece interesting.

  10. George William Herbert (History)

    I think this was an excellent approach to new ways to think about the problem.

    Variation that might be interesting – extrapolate nothing more than incremental changes to geopolitics and economics the situation in (say) 2040 and 2075; do any of the players’ interests change sign, or magnitude, significantly?

    I think a lot of people’s positions are staked on worst case models for their own situations in 10, 20, 50+ years. Looking at most likely situations for those is probably instructive.

  11. FlamesInTheDesert (History)

    “Extended deterrence is the ultimate asymmetrical role for nuclear weapons. You’re using someone else’s nukes to counter your rival’s conventional or political power. Like so much in the realm of international politics, it’s irrational, but it sort of works.”
    Provided your rival dosnt develop an indigenous nuclear weapons capability.This raises the question of how many potential nuclear weapon states would gain more than they would lose by crossing the nuclear weapons rubicon

  12. kme (History)

    An interesting essay, but I’m afraid I started to flinch at the many incorrect uses of “it’s”. At grave risk of winning the Internet Pedant Asshole of the Week award: “its” is just a word like “his” or “her”, it needs no apostrophe; “it’s” is only a contraction of “it is”.

    On the substantive issue, two of the biggest winners would be Germany and Turkey – the outsize political relevance of the nuclear powers in their local region currently comes at their cost.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I fixed it. Blame a lazy editor.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Ah, the imfamous Montery “it’s”.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Awful. You’re awful.

  13. Tosk59 (History)

    United Kingdom – winner? I disagree on this one. Their “independent” nuclear “deterrent” (the independence is illusory – can anyone imagine them using it unilaterally? And what exactly is it deterring?)> Along with their permanent seat on the Security Council and “special relationship” with the U.S. are the only things giving them political importance on the international scene and allowing them to “punch above their weight.”

    The special relationship can’t always be counted on, and the permanent seat might at some point finally be discarded as an unnecessary artifact of WWII. What remains? It’s position in the “nuclear haves.” Remove this and they finally take their true place in the second tier on the world scene.

    This is why they do NOT want to consider eliminating their nukes. Scale them back, sure, it’s getting expensive to maintain. But zero? Never.

    IMO, if the administration really believes in getting to global zero, the U.S. should do whatever arm-twisting is necessary to get the UK to eliminate their nuclear forces. As opposed to smaller, stepped reductions in the U.S. and Russian nuclear levels (which provide marginal improvements in ‘safety’ at best), this would be a game changer. It would be a “nuclear have” actually giving them up, fulfilling the (largely theoretical thus far) NPT commitment, and would change the dynamics of the entire process. The U.K. would lose nothing in the ‘security’ arena as they would just move seamlessly under the U.S. nuclear umbrella.

    However, the powers that be in the U.K. understand what I have articulated above, which is why while giving lip service to global zero, they have zero intention of giving up their nukes. They ‘support’ the march to global zero as long as the discussion is still only about stepped reductions in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, while proffering increasingly weak reasons why their need their force. I don’t see them ever voluntarily going to zero…

    • Tosk59 (History)

      And sincere apologies to kme for adding to the “it’s” problem!

    • Carl Lundgren (History)

      Nuclear weapons are dangerous weapons of potential mass destruction, not benign tokens for political prestige. If neither Britain nor France have genuine national security reasons for continuing their possession, they should give them up.

      It’s also not clear how mere possession of nuclear weapons allows a country to “punch above its weight” and increase its political importance in international affairs. Absent a threat of war or threat of use, do they improve one’s negotiating position? I think not. Outside a war context, they are irrelevant.

    • Alex (History)

      GCHQ, a carrier navy, SSNs, a deployable army. This seems interesting.

    • Alex (History)

      …especially as there would be more money about for them.

  14. John Maurer (History)

    A very fun thought exercise! I agree entirely on the United States, Britain, and France (although in the real world these states need to be concerned with the state of international affairs decades in the future, so nukes may retain some value as a hedge). I wonder whether China, India, or Israel would count as winners.

    China’s minimal nuclear deterrent does more than deter nuclear attack. The 2nd Artillery Corps also serves to deter large-scale conventional attack on the Chinese mainland. India also employs its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against major conventional attack; many Indian security analysts would disagree that the conventional threat posed by China has diminished since the end of the Cold War. Although the Israeli military is highly competent, Israel is still surrounded by a predominantly hostile Arab world whose population is ~10-20 times that of Israel’s. I would argue that all three of these countries would be in the loser column if nuclear weapons were to disappear overnight.

    • kme (History)

      The Himalayas are a more than ample barrier against any large scale invasion of India from the north.

  15. Peter Hayes (History)

    I enjoyed the essay, not least because it is well written (reminds me of Strunk and Whyte’s Rule 13: Omit Needless Words) but found myself quite skeptical after mulling it over a bit.

    Reducing complexity to a sparse representation can be useful, even necessary for humans who can track only 5 or 7 variables at a time; but in this essay, the attribution of personality to unitary states is problematic, as is the simple phrase “motivations of nations.” By this simple phrase and the selection of unitary states as the unit of analysis, most of the research and experience over six decades of routine and crisis nuclear decision-making related to (non) proliferation, armament, alliances, use, non-use, disarmament, etc, is put aside. If the true historical and theoretical complexity of “states” and “motivations” is introduced, the loser-winner calculus doesn’t just fracture; the nett impact on “national security” becomes indeterminate. In short, a top-down, state-based model obscures the bottom-up, distributed, diverse forces at play.

    In a dynamic, bottom-up (agent-based rather than systems-based) model, the patterned outcome of the interaction of all the entities can’t be captured in a single snapshot. Something more akin to the open-ended array of outcomes in exercises such as the NIC’s Global Trends 2030 is the result, and it isn’t neat nor pretty. (see links at: )

    The comment above relates to the validity axis of the essay.

    On the soundness axis, the obvious refutation of the model is the non-appearance of the non-state actors of all kinds that bear heavily on the threat of nuclear next-use.

    Transnational and networked terrorists and sub-national actors such as religious cults actively seek nuclear weapons capacities ranging from “dirty” radiological weapons to nuclear weapons that may leak out of state stockpiles kept by the great nuclear powers, or acquired from a small nuclear state. If these non-state actors achieve nuclear status, they are likely to use these weapons for coercive threats rather than for deterrence—or may simply detonate them as part of their insurgent strategy against local targets (detested political elites, for example), regional targets (Israel, for example), or global targets (the United States or its allies, Russia, and China).

    No 21st century account of “winners and losers” from nuclear abolition is complete w/o including non-state actors. But, there is no way to attribute “winners and losers” to non-state entities, or to “global” or “local” civil society…

    Ultimately, this methodological question renders the notion of “winners and losers” of dubious value. That said, I also keep asking why one is drawn back to a tantalizingly simple account…

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I had a similar reaction. I disagreed with this and that but found myself delightfully entertained thinking it over.

  16. Peter (History)

    Kme | July 8, 2013

    “The Himalayas are a more than ample barrier against any large scale invasion of India from the north.”

    I’m sure Hannibal would disagree.