Got Nukes, Mr. Dictator? You Hold On to Them!

Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq – two dreadful dictators who are no longer with us largely because they didn’t get to go far enough in the nuclear weapon development process. Photos: Wikipedia

Are you the feisty dictator of a rogue state? Or the troubled leader of an aspiring democracy with big, bad neighbors? And you’ve gotten your hands on some nukes?

Well, if you want to hang on to your regime, you probably should hold on to them.


One of the saddest lessons in recent world history is that it’s a bad idea for a dictatorship, a “rogue state,” or even an aspiring democracy to give up its nuclear weapons or program if it wants to ensure the survival of its regime.

This sounds horrible for the international nuclear non-proliferation regime enshrined into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) – and, by implication, for international peace.

The cases of an ever-more-aggressive nuclear-armed North Korea and an assertive Iran potentially seeking to develop nuclear capabilities, or at least the Western perception of its aspirations, are looming as large as ever in the past decade, and even the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal hasn’t changed that much.

However, some cases, as those of Israel and some former Soviet republics, indicate that for certain countries nuclear capabilities may/would have actually provided greater stability and therefore more lasting peace.

These conclusions likely mean that, especially if the international order keeps inching toward greater chaos, more and more states, both dictatorships and democracies, might start seeking nuclear weapons.

Under the NPT

Nuclear proliferation and its political implications are probably the potentially most destructive issues in international politics today, so its start is worth reminding.

In response to the nuclear efforts of Nazi Germany, the US started the Manhattan Project, which yielded the first three nuclear bombs as World War II was still raging on.

Toward the end of the war, as it became clear the Nazis were never going to get the bomb, some of the scientists working on the project, such as Joseph Rotblat and Leo Szilard, either decided to leave it or began to question the need to complete it.

Before that they had joined it out of fear that Nazi Germany might acquire nuclear weapons before the Allies did.

Perhaps if these scientists had had their way, today there would be a nuke-free world.

If the US hadn’t developed the bomb, chances are the Soviet Union would not have made it, either, since the Soviets got it largely thanks to its “atomic spies.”

If at that moment in history (1945–49) nuclear weapons hadn’t become a trend, they never might have.

Of course, without the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is possible that both the US and Imperial Japan might have lost even more people if the former had been forced to invade the latter with ground troops.

Or not – some recent research suggests that, horrifyingly destructive as they were, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs didn’t have much of an impact on the decision of the Japanese leadership to surrender; its overall inability to fight anymore did.

That said, in the world of 2017, nuclear weapons are still “enjoyed” by a handful of countries: the five UN Security Council members – the US, the UK, France, China, and Russia—which have them legally under the NPT; India, Pakistan, and Israel, which are not signatories of the treaty; and North Korea, which was a signatory but dropped out.

And, don’t forget that Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Turkey are still sitting pretty on tactical US nuclear bombs stored there since the height of the Cold War.

The history of some of these countries, plus a handful of others which either never acquired nuclear weapons despite seeking them, or which somehow ended up having them but gave them up, provides plenty of evidence of the political implications of the nukes for rogue states as well as some emerging democracies.

The cases of Nazi Germany, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and North Korea as well as those of Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Israel, all point in a single direction: acquiring nuclear weapons is the only (almost 100%) certain way to prevent regime change through an outside intervention (by the US / the West, Russia, or other great powers).

From Nazi Germany to the Arab Spring and the Korean Peninsula  

Evidence about this is aplenty starting early on with Nazi Germany. In a nutshell, Nazi Germany failed to acquire nuclear weapons despite its best attempts and was completely destroyed. It’s hard to imagine the outcome if it had succeeded, so… let’s not.

Former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was “robbed” of his nuclear program when Israel wiped out its nuclear reactor in Osirak back in 1981 with air strikes (Operation Opera).

Subsequently, in 1991, his occupation of Kuwait was beaten back by the US-led coalition in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and in 2003, George W. Bush’s neocons convinced America to attack and topple him.

Would Bush have invaded Iraq if Saddam was known to have nukes?

Probably not. But Saddam didn’t and ended up hanged. Ironically, the invasion was justified precisely with the Iraqi regime’s alleged possession of WMDs.

Before that Saddam had used chemical weapons extensively in the Iran-Iraq War and against Iraqi Kurds, so he would not have shied away from using nukes if he had them.

Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear program (which was never officially acknowledged) in exchange for lifting of Western sanctions sometime in 2002–03.

A few years later, in 2011, his regime was toppled in an Arab Spring civil war in which NATO air strikes turned the tide in favor of the rebels, and he was beaten and killed (seen on live video footage) in the streets of Sirte.

Would NATO have launched air strikes on the Libyan regime if it had had nukes?

Probably not. Libya’s territory would have made a “magnificent” launch pad for striking Western Europe.

Syria, another Middle Eastern dictatorship, not unlike Iraq, appears to have had its nuclear program killed off by an Israeli air strike (Operation Orchard), in 2007.

Not unlike Libya, the Syrian Civil War (ongoing since 2011) would have hardly seen outside intervention if the regime of President Bashar al-Assad had had nuclear weapons.

The Assad regime would have used them, too, judging by its use of other WMDs – it is known to have employed chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels and civilians.

(This was precisely what led President Obama in 2012 to “draw a red line” which Assad trampled so many times making both Obama and the US a laughing stocks for the “illiberal democracies.”)

The dark communist dictatorship in North Korea has been way more successful than any of those other rogue states. It has had nuclear weapons for more than a decade now, and it has recently been testing more and more ballistic missiles with the stated goal of even being able to strike the US mainland.

As a result, the regime of Kim Jong-un seems insured against outside (US) intervention and regime change. Otherwise it would wreak havoc in South Korea and Japan.

If North Korea hadn’t gotten the nukes, it would probably never have survived the neocons of the Bush administration.

Is the present regime in North Korea ever going to up its nukes, drawing lessons from Iraq, Libya, and Syria?

That’s like asking if Kim Jong-un wants to end up hanged, beaten to death in the streets, or spending years fighting a civil war in constant fear for his life.

The Former Soviet Space

Then there are the cases of nuclear possession by potential, aspiring, or emerging democracies, or even mature democracies, which are faced with hostile authoritarian neighbors.

After the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union, which had a ridiculously enormous stockpile of nukes (like it makes much difference if you launch 10,000 or 20,000 of them), Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th most important Soviet successor states, respectively, suddenly inherited the largest nuclear arsenals in the world after those of the US and Russia.

Then in the mid-1990s, they agreed to give them up, and have either been subjected to Russian encroachment (Ukraine) or have lived in fear of it (Belarus, Kazakhstan).

Funny story: turns out that if you (Ukraine) are part of an artificial totalitarian hyperstate (USSR), it breaks up, you inherit lots of its nukes, and then voluntarily give them up in exchange for security guarantees (the 1994 Budapest Memorandum) by the largest successor state (Russia), that state can nonetheless decide to annex your territory (Crimea 2014) and potentially stir an insurgency in it (Donbass since 2014).

Would Russia have annexed Ukrainian territory and sought “regime change” against the post-Euromaidan Revolution government in Kiev if Ukraine had had nuclear weapons? Probably not, especially since Ukraine is extremely close to Russia’s European heartland around Moscow.

The same goes for Belarus and Kazakhstan. While the regimes of Alexander Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev have been friendly to Vladimir Putin’s, they seem increasingly nervous about Russia’s potential actions, having been first-row witnesses to what happened to Ukraine.

If they had kept their nukes (assuming that was possible, given their weakness and the international pressure in the early 1990s), they would not have to worry about Moscow’s whims that much today.

So while the US efforts under the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act for decommissioning of “loose” nukes in the Soviet successor states outside Russia were extremely successful at the time, and it was the most sensible thing to do (recall that “loose nukes” were precisely the reason the George H. W. Bush administration didn’t desire the breakup of the Soviet Union in the first place!), Putin’s adventurism targeting Ukraine since 2014 does give a new perspective of the past.

Israel’s Telling Case

The Jewish State of Israel, a conditional Middle Eastern democracy and a special case in so many ways, is known to have a sizable nuclear stockpile, although it has never acknowledged its nuclear program.

It seems to have developed nuclear weapons not just to ensure its survival among mostly hostile neighbors but also to provide for normalcy in its economic development, since before getting the nukes it had to fight constant conventional wars.

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, Israel and its Arab neighbors would fight brief wars every few years, and while Israel usually had no difficulty prevailing, given its size every time this happened, it had to shut down its entire economy for weeks in order to mobilize its forces.

Of course, numerous other factors have been at play since the 1980s to deescalate the tensions between the Jewish State and its Arab neighbors, but the former’s possession of nuclear capabilities does seem to have become one of the major preconditions for that.

Is Israel going to ever give up its nuclear program (that doesn’t even officially exist)? Highly unlikely, unless it wants to open its survival to foreign threats.

The Ugly Lesson

While the establishment of nuclear or nuclear-conventional balances on the global and regional level may have brought certain stability, for the most part the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a deadly threat to all humanity.

The Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD) did prevent an all-out conventional war between the United States and the Soviet Union; even the Stability Instability Paradox is not that high of a price to pay for that.

By no means does this article argue in favor of proliferation. Rather, it is pointing out the ugly lesson that “illiberal regimes,” outright dictatorships, rogue states, and even some mature and aspiring democracies are getting from nearly a dozen relevant cases so far.

The essence of this lesson is such that it is extremely hard to deal with its consequences. If a rogue state leader gets all kinds of guarantees for their (or “his” – I can’t think of any female dictators so as to use gender neutral pronouns here) survival in exchange for giving up a nuclear program, chances are that a few years later he might end up hanged, shot, or stranded in a rump state of his chaotic country.

And if you are an aspiring democracy, and even a mature democracy (think about South Korea and Japan, which are sitting pretty on piles of plutonium, in the event that US nukes are no longer safeguarding them vis-à-vis North Korea, and possibly even China and Russia), chances are you might want to reconsider your nuclear situation if faced with a powerful and assertive neighbor.

That’s not even discussing the possibility raised by some analysts that already existing nuclear giants such as Russia or China might descend into regional enmities and even disintegrate.

If that ever happens and new states emerge with a large nuclear inheritance, the lesson for them would be pretty clear: hold on to the nukes.

That is why North Korea won’t be giving up its nuclear weapons, and Iran has not given up its nuclear program, while insisting it is for peaceful purposes.

Iran could still acquire nuclear weapons relatively easily, with only the West making a fuss about it, and other major powers such as Russia and China turning a blind eye to that, or even cheering on the side (more trouble for the West, you know).

Should it firmly set its mind on developing nukes, Iran could only be stopped by a full-scale US intervention, and it is highly doubtful that the benefits of that would outweigh the fallout (pun intended).

In a confrontation with a superpower, regardless of whether it’s the United States, Russia, China, or any other, a rogue state or even a democracy armed with nuclear weapons can either strike the superpower if it has the needed capability, or it can strike the superpower’s allies (US allies are convenient targets all over Europe and Asia), or it can hand out the nukes to terrorist groups that will only have to figure out how to “deliver” them.

All of these options would be suicidal, of course, but what does a failing rogue state or even a democracy under major attack have to lose?

Of course, having nukes is no guarantee that your rogue regime or fledgling democracy would survive for sure since it could be brought down by domestic factors—take the example of the apartheid regime of South Africa. (Such a conclusion could be a boost for covert regime change efforts worldwide.)

But it does seem like an almost rock-solid insurance against an all-out outside intervention.

Since the hope that only the “good guys” will have nukes is long gone, perhaps the best hope is that there will be stable nuclear parities between the “good” and the “bad guys.”

In any case, the ugly lesson that nuclear weapons guarantee the survival of rogue regimes and dictators against foreign intervention, and can help emerging democracies fight off big “illiberal” bullies is out there.

The world is yet going to have to deal with those who’ve learned it.

Ivan Dikov


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