US president Donald
Trump.Jim Lo Scalzo – Pool/Getty
US President Trump has reversed his stance on a number of foreign
policy issues, including NATO, Russia, and China.
This leaves citizens in the United States and worldwide more
unsure than ever of what to expect from the coming months and
Nuclear bombs have a strange quality: They are a type of weapon
that countries spend enormous sums of money to develop but don’t
actually intend to use. While chemical weapons have been
frequently used in war, no country has detonated a nuclear bomb
since the end of World War II.
Nuclear weapons are in their own category. Their efficacy comes
from their ability to deter aggression, as the potential for
massive devastation forces countries to rethink moves that
threaten an adversary’s essential national security interests.
States, therefore, are unlikely to use nuclear weapons against
However, the risk of a nuclear attack would increase if they were
to fall into the hands of non-state actors that follow a
different set of calculations that don’t necessarily take into
account the defense of a predefined territory.
Nine countries currently have nuclear weapons with an assortment
of delivery systems. The following graphics outline which
countries possess or have possessed nuclear weapons, as well as
some states capable of producing them. They also show how these
weapons have reshaped the constraints that countries face in
their geopolitical calculations.
Current nuclear powers
This map highlights three aspects of the global nuclear arsenal.
The first is a distinction between deployed and reserve weapons.
Deployed nuclear weapons are already attached to a delivery
system and ready to use. Warheads in reserve still require this
final attachment step before they can be delivered.
The second aspect is the three delivery systems that comprise the
nuclear “triad”: land-based missiles (usually ballistic missiles
but sometimes also cruise missiles), submarine-launched missiles
(SLBMs), and weapons carried by aircraft (usually bombers but
sometimes air-to-surface cruise missiles loaded on fighters or
Land-based ballistic missiles—especially intercontinental
ballistic missiles (ICBM)—provide long-range strike capability
within a short period. SLBMs have retaliation capabilities in the
event that a country’s land-based ballistic missile arsenal is
destroyed in a first strike.
Warheads on aircraft are more flexible, since bombers can be
recalled after a strike has been ordered, but they are slower to
reach their target than missiles (except in the case where
bombers are already in flight and their target is nearby). Each
nuclear country has a different mix of delivery capabilities, but
only the Uni ted States and Russia are known to definitively
possess a full triad, while China and India are suspected to have
The third aspect is the large portion of global nuclear arms held
by the United States and Russia. Currently, the US has
approximately 4,480 warheads, and Russia has 4,500. These figures
include both strategic warheads (which are meant to strike sites
located far from any hypothetical battlefield) and nonstrategic,
or tactical, warheads (which are intended to be used near a
battlefield, and as a result, are usually less powerful).
The size of these arsenals, however, pales in comparison to each
country’s peak inventory during the Cold War: The US had 31,255
in 1967, and the Soviet Union had 40,159 in 1986.
Throughout the Cold War, the doctrine of mutually assured
destruction required a sufficiently large force that would allow
for a massive retaliation even if a first strike eliminated a
large portion of a country’s nuclear arsenal.
Additionally, during most of the Cold War, delivery systems were
not particularly accurate, which required that nuclear weapons
have very large yields to reliably strike a target that might be
located miles away from the point of detonation (many hydrogen
bombs were in the several megaton range).
As the accuracy of delivery systems improved, fewer nuclear
warheads were required to maintain a credible deterrence threat,
leading to a decline in both countries’ arsenals.
Nuclear weapons fundamentally alter the relations between
countries because each country is forced to think more pointedly
about its adversaries’ security imperatives. Developing a strong
understanding of those imperatives is critical to avoiding a
nuclear retaliation. While several “hot” wars and other tense
moments occurred during the Cold War, none escalated to a direct
confrontation between the Soviet Union and the US.
For a more recent example, consider the case of North Korea,
which has received a lot of attention in the last week due to a
recent missile test and the expectation of another nuclear test.
It is a poor country whose nuclear program has allowed it to
punch above its weight internationally and force superpowers to
approach it with great caution. North Korea’s deterrent
capability would be eliminated the moment it uses a nuclear
weapon, which would be akin to committing certain suicide. While
many fear the irrationality of North Korea’s leadership,
Geopolitical Futures’ current understanding of the regime is that
it has persisted for decades throughout the Cold War and after
the fall of the Soviet Union because it is able to make cautious
calculations and has continued to choose not to inflict
destruction on itself.
Former nuclear states
Note: While Iran appears to have discontinued its nuclear program
in accordance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we
chose to include it in the third map to discuss the geopolitical
ramifications of an Iranian nuclear breakout.
Several countries had nuclear weapons or weapons programs that
were subsequently abandoned.
Three factors contributed to these forfeitures: changes in
geopolitical circumstances that decreased the need for nuclear
deterrence, pressure from a major power that provided a guarantee
under its own nuclear umbrella, and outside intervention that
resulted in destruction of the weapons programs.
Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine all inherited nuclear weapons
when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Belarus was left in
possession of 81 warheads and an assortment of nonstrategic
nuclear weapons. Kazakhstan had 1,410 nuclear-tipped missiles.
Ukraine was left with 1,900 strategic warheads and between 2,650
and 4,200 nonstrategic nuclear weapons, making it the
third-largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
All three countries signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
(NPT) and returned the weapons to Russia by the mid-1990s to be
South Africa is the only country that independently developed its
nuclear weapons and subsequently forfeited them. The
pro-apartheid government pursued nuclear energy and weapons
development from the 1960s to the ’80s, eventually producing six
nuclear weapons. In 1989, the program was stopped as apartheid
came to an end and the government of F.W. de Klerk handed power
over to the African National Congress. The weapons and associated
facilities were dismantled, and South Africa signed the NPT in
Two developments influenced South Africa’s decision. A 1988
agreement between Cuba, Angola, and the US resulted in the
withdrawal of 50,000 Cuban troops that had been stationed in
Angola during the Cold War and supported by the Soviet Union. The
risk of Soviet intervention posed by these troops in the ’70s was
one of the main reasons South Africa developed nuclear capability
in the first place.
Second, South Africa weighed the costs and benefits of joining
the NPT and realized that improved relations with the world more
than offset the decreasing deterrent utility from the bomb since
the Cuban forces had been withdrawn and the Soviet Union no
longer posed a threat.
Argentina and Brazil are two of the seven other countries that
abandoned their nuclear programs before acquiring nuclear
They both secretly pursued nuclear weapons capability beginning
in the late ’60s to early ’70s. By the early ’90s, both countries
had given up their weapons programs and signed the NPT.
South Korea and Taiwan had secret nuclear programs in the ’70s
that were discovered by international intelligence. Both programs
were subsequently disbanded—South Korea’s in 1975 when it signed
the NPT, and Taiwan’s in 1988 as a result of diplomatic pressure
from the US.
In the Middle East and North Africa, Iraq, Syria, and Libya all
had active nuclear weapons programs. Iraq’s nuclear program was
forcibly dismantled after the Gulf War, and Libya voluntarily
gave up its secret nuclear program in 2003 under the direction of
Syria’s nuclear ambitions never progressed as far as those of its
neighbors, but it is believed to have possessed enriched uranium
and built a research reactor with the aid of North Korea. In
2007, Israeli airstrikes took out Syria’s reactor, suspending the
nuclear program indefinitely.
When a country does not currently have nuclear weapons but has a
peaceful nuclear program that could be used to produce nuclear
weapons, it is said to be in a state of “nuclear latency.”
To build a nuclear weapon, a country must have technical
knowledge and capabilities, access to materials, and a
well-developed industrial sector.
Of the 31 countries that possess nuclear power plants, we have
identified five important countries for which the acquisition of
nuclear weapons would radically impact relations with both their
regional neighbors and global powers.
These countries have both the technological and economic
resources to develop nuclear weapons and are likely to play
pivotal roles in major geopolitical events within the next
Iran’s nuclear ambitions led to intense negotiations with the
West. In 2015, the negotiations resulted in the signing of the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which saw Iran shelve
its nuclear program for a set period of time in exchange for
benefits including sanctions relief.
However, if Iran were to continue enriching uranium in secret and
develop a nuclear weapon despite the JCPOA, it would alter the
balance of power in the region. Iran would have a new, asymmetric
power relative to its Sunni rivals and force Israel to reconsider
strategies that incorporate pre-emptive strikes.
Japan has large stockpiles of plutonium from civilian uses and
already possesses uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing
Estimates of Japan’s breakout time range from six months to
several years. Japan’s alliance with the United States has thus
far deterred it from developing nuclear weapons because it knows
it can rely on the US for defense.
However, North Korea’s progress in its nuclear program could
drive Japan to reconsider.
A nuclear Japan would threaten China’s desired hegemony in the
region and force it to proceed with greater caution in its
actions in the South China and East China seas.
South Korea and Taiwan have advanced civilian nuclear programs
and technical knowledge that could be redirected into a weapons
program. They also have the need to defend against regional
threats. As North Korea appears to move closer to possessing a
deliverable nuclear warhead, the South Korean government has
debated acquiring a nuclear weapon. Taiwan is in a similar
position. Its sovereignty is threatened by mainland China, which
possesses nuclear weapons.
Taiwan could consider developing a nuclear weapon to discourage
Chinese aspirations to fully reclaim the island. South Korea and
Taiwan are concerned about escalation, however, so instead choose
to rely on the nuclear guarantee provided by their alliance with
On the other side of the world is Germany. Germany is a highly
industrialized state with civilian nuclear capabilities. It is
currently protected under the NATO nuclear umbrella by the US and
the European nuclear powers (France and the United Kingdom). It
also is bound by international treaty not to pursue weapons
However, it is not inconceivable that Germany would consider
developing nuclear weapons to deter Russian aggression if it
questioned America’s commitment.
Every country has a red line, past which its security imperatives
will be threatened and it will be compelled to respond with
force. Without a sufficient deterrent, potential adversaries
incur less risk when they test where exactly that line is.
Introducing nuclear weapons into these calculations, however,
forces the aggressor to proceed with caution because the risk of
massive retaliation is great. This is a difficult balance to
strike when the addition of nuclear weapons by one party is
itself the act that breaches the security imperatives of the
The world’s eyes are now set on North Korea for this reason: The
United States is in the process of deciding whether recent
developments in North Korea’s nuclear program have crossed this
boundary and, if they have, what force constitutes an appropriate
response. Though the US is not directly threatened by North
Korea’s nuclear weapons (based on the current understanding of
its ballistic missile technology), the safety of its allies would
be jeopardized by a North Korean bomb.
British and French fears that the US would not make good on its
nuclear guarantee led to proliferation in Europe. Similarly, if
the US’s Asian allies question the credibility of its guarantee,
the risk of nuclear proliferation in the region will grow.
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