Nuclear Asia: Has the World Gone M.A.D.?

Why are so many eager to join the “nuclear club”? (Dim Sum/Flickr)

Has the world gone M.A.D.?
Or is there a method to the madness?

For half a century, from the 1950s to the 1990s during the Cold War, the phrase “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)” was used to describe the reasoning behind the U.S. and Soviet buildup of nuclear weapons. The idea was that the threat of retaliation with nuclear weapons provides a very good reason for each nation to refrain from detonating their own weapons.

The world’s introduction to the horrific power of nuclear weapons took place in Asia, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, devastating Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and ending World War II. Within a few years, the Soviet Union announced its nuclear weapons program.

The world quickly divided into two blocs, one led by the United States (an advocate of capitalism) and the other by the Soviet Union (an advocate of communism). Having seen the incredible power of nuclear weapons, the two enemies engaged not in the heat of war, but in a “cold” arms race, each trying to outdo the other’s both conventional and nuclear arsenals without firing a shot. This led to many proxy wars between countries from the different blocs across the world from Latin America to Asia.

In 1957 the United Nations, recognizing the need for peaceful development of nuclear power, unanimously passed a resolution to create the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, amid concerns for the security of nuclear materials in the former Soviet Republics, the United Nations asked the IAEA to conduct inspections, assuring the proper use and development of nuclear materials, as well as countries’ adherence to international treaties.

In 1968 the United Nations adopted the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Under the treaty, only the five declared nuclear states of the time (the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China) are allowed to possess nuclear weapons. These five countries also agreed to freeze and eventually reduce the number of nuclear weapons in their arsenals. The other signers agreed to limit themselves to the peaceful application of nuclear technology.

However, some have disagreed with a policy that allows a few countries to possess powerful nuclear weapons but not others. Many question the current effectiveness of the IAEA and NPT, pointing to ambiguities and inconsistencies in enforcement. Several countries that never signed the NPT agreement, including India, Pakistan, and Israel, are all countries with nuclear weapons now.

But why are so many eager to join the “nuclear club”? In 1998, India shocked the world by successfully detonating three nuclear weapons. Neighboring Pakistan, with whom India has had acrimonious relations since that country’s split from India in 1947, responded immediately with successful nuclear tests of its own. The pattern seems to be that if one country masters nuclear technology and announces that it has weapons, its neighbors and enemies will also immediately develop weapons, both for national defense as well as national pride. Keeping up with the Joneses and the Jetsons, so to speak.

As more countries develop weapons, more share technology and resources, enabling yet further nuclear proliferation. Pakistan has been accused of assisting Iran in nuclear development, while Iran and North Korea are suspected by the United States of colluding on weapons development. Recently, North Korea conducted a nuclear test that means they have now joined the nuclear club as well.

So who’s next in line? As North Korea gets bolder militarily, will Japan and South Korea feel the need to develop nuclear arsenals to deter enemy attacks? Is it still possible today to use rules developed during the Cold War to keep the peace, when weapons of mass destruction are becoming more widespread?

Authors: Janie Dam and Heather Clydesdale