In order to show how the possession of atomic weapons influences the strength of the United States in the world developments and the outcome of many processes in which the United States as a nuclear power state was taking part it is vital to dig a little bit deeper into the prehistory of the United States’ acquisition of the nuclear weapons. It is important in order to understand why it was significant for the state to acquire such weapon in the first place and what international developments led the state to the decision to.
For the foreign policy of the United States the Second World War period was a true period of major perturbations. Before 1941, when the United States was very painfully hit in Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Imperial Navy and was therefore dragged into the most blood shedding war in the history of human kind, the country enjoyed isolationism. After the United States gained independence in 1776 there was a major debate between protagonists of America’s active involvement in the world politics and protagonists of America’s being a reclusive, isolated state. The opinion of these latter prevailed. The status of isolationism is considered to have been embodied in the Monroe doctrine of 1823. According to this document the United States declared its understanding of its right to interfere with every process taking place in any state in the New World and, simultaneously, declared the abandonment of any intention to interfere with any process in Europe. Therefore, the United States decided to go away from the axis of major world political activity – from Europe.
The United States existed in this stance and according to this doctrine all the way to the beginning of the Second World War. Of course, minor involvement in international relations took place starting with 1898, the year of the Spanish-American War in which the United States gained influence over Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. During the First World War the United States provided economic support to Europe and after the war took active part – through diplomatic actions of President Woodrow Wilson, primarily – in the post-war rebuilding processes in Europe, including the elaboration of the Treaty of Versailles based on Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” as well as the creation of the League of Nations. However, such involvement was very limited.
It was not until 1941 that the United States had to leave the idea of isolationism. It is purposefully worded this way – had to leave, not just left. The thing is that the impetus that involved the United States of America in the Second World War and, therefore, made the country stay within the framework of the global politics was external aggression of Japan that assaulted the Navy of the United States located in Pearl Harbor. After this the United States remained fully engaged in world affairs for good.
However, combating enemies in the course of the World War was one thing. Deploying troops in Normandy and fighting the maritime war on Japan in the Pacific was purely military response to being hit in 1941. Quite another thing was a challenge the United States had to cope with when the Second World War ended. Not only America was among the winners, it was also the one towards whom all the glances were directed in the wake of the warfare. There were several reasons for that. First of all, the war never took place on the United States mainland, which made the country far less affected by the war than many European states. Secondly, the United States were far more financially healthy. Thirdly, the post-war reconstruction of the world could not take place without the United States. A major involvement of the country into the world affairs was suddenly looming ahead.
There were also some inner – both economic and political - reasons why America had to open up to the world eventually. What touches upon economic reasons – America badly needed new markets to sell its products. In political terms, apart from needing to establish its position on the international plane once decided to come out of the shadow, the United States had to lead the world in the forthcoming battle against communism that was spreading dangerously quickly throughout the world.
Given all of the above, the United States needed to possess some major clue of its being more powerful than its rivals. Conventional arms competition would not be too much of a convincing step on the part of America to prove its strength. At the same time it was more important than ever to claim one’s firm position at the end of the Second World War – the world was apparently on the brink of a new order, new system of international relations, of a new division of spheres of influence and of new conflicts, not only traditional but also ones of a new nature – ideological.
All of this added up to the understanding among the political circles of the United States that a new type of weapons had to be elaborated. And it was, in Los Alamos, under the title of the “Manhattan project.” By the way, it is not coincidental that officially the new weapon was tested on the 16th of July 1945 – the very day before the opening of the Potsdam conference on the post-war regulations. Apparently, this was to mean that the United States strived to show to the entire world the firmness and adamant nature of its intentions.
Starting from this point and on to understand how vital of an advantage the nuclear arms for the America was – and is - it is useful to compare the United States as a nuclear arms possessing state with the other states of that time. Especially interesting deem the two dimensions of such comparison: the one with those states which did not have nuclear arms back in 1945 but managed to acquire it later – the USSR, Great Britain, France and China (in chronological order); and the one with the United States itself, but prior to the acquisition of the nuclear weapons.
We can see that immediately after acquiring nuclear weapons America felt itself powerful enough to become the center of many nations gathering around it to oppose communism (Hoffman, 12). Due both to circumstances and objective advantages the United States became the core of the Western world leading the rest of democracies in virtually all matters of international relations. This example shows us that nuclear weapons became such a serious acquisition that it strengthened the position of a state in international relations enormously within a very short period of time. Of course, one can say that apart from acquiring nuclear weapons there were other factors that led to the leadership of the United States. For instance, there could be an argument that it was just the post-war economic decay of Europe that disabled the latter to be the first instead of the United States. However, there are two things to say to this. First of all, the United States were also financially drained because of the need to support their own troops in France after the Normandy operation. Secondly, Great Britain was also the country in the territory of which there was no warfare (it was subjected to bombings but no actual battles happened there) just like the United States (Williams, 113). These two factors in aggregate would have made the chances of the two countries for post-war leadership equal – but for the American nuclear weapons which made the United States prevail.
1962 became the revealing year. It demonstrated that the nuclear factor was the key to the success in America’s long-cherished aspiration – containment of communism and preventing it from penetrating into the Western Hemisphere. In 1962 the Soviet Union led by Khrushchev undertook an attempt, having made a deal with Fidel Castro, to deploy nuclear carrying missiles in Cuba. However, the nuclear retaliation the United States threatened the Soviet Union with was more than enough to win the diplomatic (but almost military, in fact) standoff with the empire of evil, even given the fact that the latter had nuclear status too. The example of Cuba missile crisis shows that possessing nuclear arms entitles, so to say, a state to become involved in the most sophisticated and most privileged as well as decisive spheres of international relations. And yes, this diplomatic victory is sure an example of the United States having become a super power namely due to the nuclear arms.
A very obvious thing to say is that nuclear weapons possessing states are less likely to be attacked either by conventional or even nuclear arms. For sure, this is partly the reason why the territory of the United States has not become the arena of a warfare ever since the acquisition of the nuclear arms. Of course, in this respect we can mention the 9/11 assault but that is a very different issue because in that case the country dealt with a challenge of a new type – a disseminated threat, with an enemy with no face. Otherwise, conventional actors have never inflicted any damage on the America in the American territory even once in the history of the nuclear arms possession. Even the Soviet Union that not even once was the closest to direct armed confrontation with the United States never risked crossing the line. Suffice it to draw such a comparison: when in 1990 Kuwait was accused for allegedly having dug for Iraqi oil Iraq chose to invade Kuwait under this pretext. And that was notwithstanding the fact that the “threat” (rather, damage) emanating from Kuwait (even if turning out to be true) was of a non-military nature. At the same time in 1960 a U-2 led by an American officer of intelligence Francis Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union while carrying out an intelligence operation. The pilot survived and was captured. Moreover he admitted to everything he was accused of – spying, primarily. Now, in other circumstances it would have ended up in a much worse way – this would have been enough for a military invasion. But not in case of two nuclear arms possessing states. Raymond Aron, a renowned French sociologist and political scientist once said: “Peace is impossible but war is unbelievable.” Another researcher, Carl Sagan, said: “Nuclear arms race resembles two men standing in oil up to their knees, one holding two matches and the other one – three”(Sagan&Waltz, 4). These phrases can be applied in its full sense to this situation. This is just one example of how the fact of possessing nuclear weapons can serve a permanent saving option for a state. It is like an immune system, not admitting threat to come to close. Therefore, the first benefit the United States has from having this kind of weapons is how much safer it makes the existence of the very state.
The second thing worth mentioning is connected with the Treaty on non-proliferation signed in 1968 and open for signature in Moscow and Washington. In addition to the fact that the United States due to being a nuclear weapons possessing state contributed in a major way to the elaboration of the treaty the latter defined a very special status to the US which can be considered as another way in which the nuclear weapons added up to the power of the United States on the international plane. The thing is that according to the provisions of the treaty and with a view to restricting further proliferation the treaty stipulated that only five countries in the world – namely, the United States, the USSR, Great Britain, France and China – could possess nuclear arms, constituting therefore a so-called nuclear club (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). This gave America – however, as well as four other countries – power, on the one hand, to be better armed than the majority of states which means a good strategic military advantage; and, on the other hand, accorded to the United States a great measure of control over the other states, including the possibility of restricting their aspirations to gain their own nuclear weapons. There are several instances of this that can be cited. For example, in 1994 the United States, along with other nuclear weapons possessing states, signed the Budapest memorandum which stipulated that the three republics of the former Soviet Union (including Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan) would give up on their nuclear arsenal and accept instead assurances of security. The cause for this memorandum to be signed was the fact that the United States did not want to see three more nuclear states in the world than there had been prior to the moment of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991. Therefore, without any questions, the United States managed to use the power it possessed under the Treaty on non-proliferation to exercise its lawful influence and to exert its lawful coercion in order to, on the one hand, not admit the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the word, but, on the other hand, simultaneously, keep the possibly emerging threats to its own national interests and security, low. So that is definitely one of the instruments how possessing the nuclear weapons kept the United States a super power up to this days.
Another example of how the nuclear state status empowers a given state is the fact that the United States became the leading party to the Washington treaty that constituted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Though the United States was known for its military strength it is doubtful that it would have such a leading role in the Alliance but for its nuclear statues. The reason for that is quite simple – Europe is closer to the threat for the defense from which the Alliance was established. If it was not for the nuclear potential of the United States the core of the NATO would have been West European states and the nature of the NATO-USSR confrontation would have been totally different. But the fact that America possessed nuclear weapons meant another nuclear state in the NATO basket, another major clue in the confrontation with the Soviet Union. It must be admitted that the United States used the opportunity to its best – nowadays as well as during the major part of the course of history of existence of this organization the United States is the major contributor of NATO. Up to 80 percent of the NATO budget is reportedly comprised of American money. Also – and this is very revealing, indeed – the United States has a lot of missiles and anti-missile defense systems deployed in Europe while European states don’t have any in America. This is a clear indication that America not only knows how to secure itself by aligning with friendly states but also how to use resources and possibilities of such allies to their most (Rublee 184).
The year of 1991 became a prominent year for international relations. It was not only the year of collapse of the Soviet Union and of the end of the Cold War. It was also a year of the collapse of the existing system of international relations and the year of the emergence of another one. The bipolar system was replaced by post-bipolar system. This fact is very interesting to us in terms of how it relates to America’s possessing nuclear arms.
When the bipolar system ushered there were several ways the world could go. The new system of international relations could become multi-polar. It means that instead of the bipolar system in which the United States and the Soviet Union were the two centers of power the new system would not have any centers, that it would be a system of more or less equal states that, in the absence of the circumstances of the Cold War, would have relative parity between each other. It would be a system with no obvious leaders, neither one, nor several. However, it was namely the existence of nuclear arms in the arsenal of certain states – primarily, the United States, of course – that did not allow scholars call the new system “multi-polar.” Scholars preferred instead to call it “post-bipolar” which intended to underscore that there still were “poles”, centers of power. The United States is primary among them. Of course, this is not exclusively due to the possession of nuclear arms, but due to an array of factors that add up to the strength of a given state but nuclear arms is the “major clue.”
All of the above being said it is obvious that possessing nuclear arms was one of the major advantages of the United States in international politics as well as factors that propelled the United States being a super power. The nuclear weapons is the only type of arms that actually adds up to the security, that gives enough control over the other actors of international relations and empowers states to be more powerful and convincing in the international plane.
Acheson, Ray 2009, “The Conference on Disarmament 2009: Could Do Better,” Disarmament Diplomacy 91.
Allison, Graham 2004, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, Times Books/Henry Holt, NY.
Hoffman, David 2009, The Dead Hand, Anchor Books, NY.
Rublee, Maria Rost 2009, Non-Proliferation Norms: Why States Choose Nuclear Restraint, U of Georgia P, GA.
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute 2011, “World Nuclear Forces,” SIPRI Yearbook 2011, Oxford: Oxford UP, pp. 320-359.
United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.
Scott, Sagan D and Kenneth Waltz. 2010. “The Great Debate.” The National Interest. [pdf] Available at: <http://iis-db.stanford.edu/pubs/23588/Sagan_Waltz_-_National_Interest_-_The_Great_Debate.pdf> [Accessed 06 January 2016].
Williams, Paul D. 2013. Security Studies. An Introduction (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.