More is Not Better – Why Kenneth Waltz is Wrong on Nuclear Proliferation




Kenneth Waltz, a pre-eminent International Relations Theorist and the father of the school of Neo-Realism. Regrettably he passed away in May last year leaving behind his legacy of a long and successful academic career at University of California Berkley and Colombia University. Source: Google Images

Liam Maddrell*

Brisbane, March 26, 2014 (Alochonaa)  – Kenneth Waltz is his 1981 paper The Spread of Nuclear Weapons:  More May Be Better proclaimed that as nuclear weapons ‘make the cost of war seem frighteningly high and thus discourage states from starting any wars that might lead to the use of such weapons’ (Waltz 1981, p3), the spread of nuclear weapons should not be discouraged as a result.  While nuclear states remain rational actors, as the Cold War superpowers were, this remains essentially true.  Unfortunately ‘this argument however assumes that the complex dynamics of the nuclear relationship between the superpowers can be unproblematically duplicated’ (Griffiths 2011, p128) between all states and into the newly emergent multipolar world (Zakaria 2008, p3).

Nuclear proliferation itself comes under two major categories: Vertical and Horizontal proliferation.  Vertical proliferation is the expansion of existing nuclear states’ nuclear forces. Horizontal proliferation conversely describes the spread of nuclear weapons to new states (Williams ed. 2008, p363).

‘The development and acquisition of nuclear weapons is also restrained by a range of treaties, including the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’ (Armstrong et al 2007, p142). These treaties seek to ensure that the continued development of new nuclear weapons is slowed.

‘Of course the most significant [treaty] is the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which 187 states are party, and which was renewed in 1995 indefinitely’ (Armstrong et al 2007, p142, parenthesis added).

The NPT sought to contain both vertical and horizontal proliferation, and has done so with varying degrees of success. While the nuclear states of Israel, Pakistan and India remain outside the treaty, and North Korea withdrew in 2003, the NPT has slowed the growth of nuclear states from the 5 in 1968 to the 9 we have today (of which the additional 4 are the selfsame 4 states mentioned before) (Snow 2008, p190). Despite this success there is a growing dissatisfaction with non-nuclear states within the NPT due to the lack of disarmament which is placing strains on the non-proliferation regime (Blinx 2008, p45).  ‘The delicacy of the situation comes from rationalizing why it is all right for some states to have nuclear weapons whereas other states should not’ (Snow 2008, p190).

Waltz’s Argument

Waltz however argued that such a rationalisation need not be made, claiming ‘nuclear weapons induce caution, especially in weak states’ (Waltz 1981, p15). While maintaining that in essence the international community is anarchical, Waltz uses neo-realist thought to argue that nuclear weapons garner a new type of balancer in inter-state relations.  Indeed Waltz argues that the massive destructive potential of nuclear weapons makes war ‘less likely as the cost of war rise in relation to possible gains’ (Waltz 1981, p4).

Waltz goes further in calling for the global acquiescence in the spread of nuclear weapons stating that a strategy of deterrence ‘makes it unnecessary for a country to fight for the sake of increasing its security, and thus removes a major cause of war’ (Waltz 1981, p6), while maintaining diplomatic attempts to prevent proliferation is counter-productive (Snow 2008, p190-191).  It is thus theorised that if more states were to possess nuclear weapons, more would benefit from the theorised ‘nuclear peace’

Waltz advocates for the spread of nuclear weapons, stating that more nuclear weapons meant more peace and stability globally, given their deterrent value.

Waltz advocates for the spread of nuclear weapons, stating that more nuclear weapons meant more peace and stability globally, given their deterrent value.

Why Waltz is Wrong

This reliance on theory to justify the spread of nuclear weapons is dangerous. ‘Waltz himself argues that the assumptions on which theories are built are radical simplifications of the world and are useful only because they are as such.  Any radical simplification conveys a false impression of the world’ (Molloy 2006, p127). While Waltz argued that a limited nuclear war would not end the world if it didn’t threaten the central balance (Waltz 1981, p16), it must be concluded that ‘an exchange of nuclear weaponry would probably eliminate all involved states as viable societies and most likely, a number of innocent neighbouring states would also face destruction and disarray’ (Burns 2009, p198).

Waltz uses the absence of war between great powers, the so-called Nuclear Peace, as justification for the proliferation of nuclear weapons (Waltz 1981, p11-13). However the actual reasons for the general peace that has prevailed since World War Two are more readily described by the concepts of collective security and Democratic Peace Theory (Griffiths 2011, p27-29). Thus it is a requirement in understanding the security-insecurity trade-off to understand that it is relationships between the actors that is paramount. (Williams ed. 2008, p6). It is due to this fact about the need for good relations that the school of ‘the democratic peace, has established impressive empirical support for the thesis that democracies do not go to war against one another’ (Griffiths 2011, p39).

Furthermore Waltz’s own statement that ‘miscalculation causes wars, [where] one side expects victory at an affordable price, while the other side hopes to avoid defeat’ (Waltz 1981, p7), adequately explains why the general peace has been maintained in a bipolar or unipolar system that includes non-democratic nations. It is not because of the threat of mutual suicide that prevented war, but rather in a bipolar or unipolar world such grand miscalculations required to incite a general war are highly improbable (Molloy 2006, p125).

A Changing World

The leaders of the ‘BRIC’ nations and South Africa at the most recent ‘BRIC Conference’ in March 2013, the 5th annual such conference. Brazil, Russia, India and China are all emerging powers and are clear examples of the emerging multipolar world order. Source: Google Images.

The leaders of the ‘BRIC’ nations and South Africa at the most recent ‘BRIC Conference’ in March 2013, the 5th annual such conference. Brazil, Russia, India and China are all emerging powers and are clear examples of the emerging multipolar world order. Source: Google Images.

However, ‘the system has changed dramatically with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of one pole of the structure, the Soviet Union’ (Griffiths 2011, p128). This was something with which Waltz has had to address as a major shift in international relations that was not adequately predicted by the models of neorealist theory (Molloy 2006, p124).  However his post-Cold War calls for the emergence of a responsible nuclear multi-polar world (Sagan & Waltz 2003, p24-26) contradicts much of his earlier thinking when giving praise to the then prevailing bipolar international order (Waltz 1981, p14-15).

The unipolar structure of the American-dominated post-Cold War international order is again changing towards one of a more multi-polar nature.

 ‘Currently at the politico-military level, we remain in a single-superpower world. But in every other dimension – industrial, financial, educational, social, cultural- the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American dominance (Zakaria 2008, p4-5).

However as Waltz suggests this very situation brings about the possibilities for miscalculation, that one again makes war possible (Waltz 1981, p14-15). While this shift to multipolaritiy is evident, the horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons will only cause further issues in what is an increasingly politically unstable world. ‘With nuclear weapons more widely available, deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous’ (Shultz et al 2008, p77).

Waltz has further acknowledged that ‘all nuclear countries live through a time when their forces are crudely designed… unbalanced… and presumably hard to control (Sagan & Waltz 2003, p21). In a multipolar world where the possibility of political miscalculation leading to the potential for conflict is greater, such states will have to manage these often competing factors. However according to Scot Sagan, one of Nuclear Peace’s largest detractors, the absence of a catastrophic accident due to the spread of nuclear weapons, merely represents the ‘lull before the storm’ and is a reason with itself to halt their further spread (Sagan & Waltz 1995, p85).

Rogue and Unstable Nuclear States

Thus it is the quality rather than the quantity of states that are aspiring towards, or have recently attained nuclear weapons that gives pause to the international community, and shows the inherent dangers in Waltz’s thinking in ‘More May Be Better’  (Snow 2008, p193).  Furthermore while these states may remain rational, from their own political perspectives, ‘a rational state will always seek first to maximise its short term military security from potential rivals, even if this has negative long-term repercussions for other state priorities’ (Brooks 1997, p450).  Further complicating matters non-proliferation efforts are being undermined by the difficult relationship between the global military hegemon, the United States and several of the emerging nuclear weapons states (Griffiths 2011, p99).

This undermining was further emphasised by the fact that ‘in 2003 a North Korean diplomat told an American envoy that his destitute country might transfer its weapons to others’ (Chang 2006, p xx). North Korea, an impoverished country that is reliant on food and energy aid is the world’s newest nuclear power, after a successful test in 2009 (BBC, 2009). ‘Pyongyang asserts that deterrence and retaliation against a prospective U.S. unilateral attack constitutes the DPRK’s primary security pre-occupation’ (Tellis & Wills, eds. 2005, p139). However this state developing nuclear weapons at first defies many of Waltz’s arguments for the need for political and economic stability (Waltz 1981, p14), but also has not diminished its almost seasonal aggressive posturing to garner world attention, as evidenced by its continued rocket launches (Wright, 2012) and the shelling of the South Korean Island of Yeonpyeong in 2010 (Korean Times, 2012).

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the world’s newest nuclear state and perhaps its most troublesome for the concept that nuclear weapons force rationality onto political leaders. Source: Google Images.

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the world’s newest nuclear state and perhaps its most troublesome for the concept that nuclear weapons force rationality onto political leaders. Source: Google Images.

Another relatively new nuclear state, Pakistan, also defies the 1981 Waltz pre-requisite for political or economic stability to develop nuclear weapons. While Pakistan, facing a nuclear-armed India has many reasons to gain nuclear weapons, that it has, has not increased international security as Waltz would have you believe (Waltz 1981, p14). As internal security has broken down and terrorism becomes an everyday fact of life in Pakistan ‘it’s not the mystical ‘ideology of Pakistan’ or even religion that guarantees its survival, but two other factors: its nuclear capacity and the support it receives from Washington’ (Ali 2008, p3).  However these conditions are regrettably not conducive to the long term security of the region, or indeed the world, largely in part due to the nuclear weapons at stake.

These conditions exist because ‘for more than two decades the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] has sponsored Islamic militancy to carry out its secret wars’ (Hussain 2007, p12). Due to even the most elaborate and robust system of nuclear weapons controls struggling to deal with events such as large-scale social unrest or even ‘coups d’état’, the possibility for less than rational actors to receive control of nuclear weapons, are all cogent reasons that argue against Waltz’s assertion that ‘More May Be Better’ (Sagan 1993, p9-11).

Nuclear Terrorism

nuclear terrorism

It is due to these fears that ‘in the twenty-first century the spectre of nuclear terrorism surfaced’ (Burns 2009, p198). While it can be argued that terrorist organisations would need state-based support to ensure production of effective WMD (Richardson ed. 2006, p24), with the factitious nature of a few nuclear weapons states and the growing sophistication of terrorist networks ensures this remains a possibility (Snow 2008, p192). It is an unfortunate fact that ‘a terrorist has to be successful only one time in terms of acquiring the material and acquiring the nuclear device and detonating that device’ (Ali 2008, p210), in being successful in sowing widespread death, destruction and disorder.

‘Terrorist horror scenarios centre on clandestine shipment of assembled bombs via cargo ship and the like to places like New York or the dispatch of so-called suitcase bombs or dirty bombs’ (Snow 2008, p191). This scenario is the greatest argument against Waltz’s proclamation that ‘More May Be Better’ as terrorists being non-state actors lack restrictions and cannot be deterred through the same means when compared to their state-based counterparts.  Furthermore ‘global treaties did not help to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States,’ and are unlikely to do so should they acquire a nuclear warhead (Blix 2008, p10).

As a result of these developments, Mikhail Gorbachev, former and last General Secretary of the Soviet Union wrote in 2007 that:

‘It is becoming clearer that nuclear weapons are no longer a means of achieving security; in fact with every passing year, they make our security more precarious (quoted in Shultz et al 2008, p77-78). However despite these calls we have been faltering on the global process of arms control with ‘several nuclear states no longer providing pledges against first use of nuclear weapons’ and development of nuclear weapons are continuing (Blinx 2008, p7).


‘We live in a world full of hazardous technologies and some risk of catastrophic accidents is therefore ever present’ (Sagan 1993, p4). In order to limit these risks, especially as the move to multipolaritiy gathers pace (Zakaria 2008, p3) it is thus prudent to continue to support the non-proliferation regime that currently exists despite Kenneth Waltz’s theoretical-based objections.

It is because that ‘nuclear weapons are arguably the only unambiguous weapons of mass destruction’ (Snow 2008, p191), the possible effects of a nuclear exchange and the quality of states obtaining the bomb that continues the calls to dismiss Waltz’s argument that ‘More May Be Better’ as short-sighted and dangerous.  Even as Waltz himself concedes that nobody would know the nature of a nuclear conflict or the consequences once the first city was hit (Waltz 1981, p15), it has become apparent that there is still much potential truth in Robert Oppenheimer’s words upon the success of Trinity, the world’s first nuclear test on the 16th of July 1945:

‘A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. There floated through my mind, a line from the Bhagavad-Gita… ‘I am become death; destroyer of worlds’ (as quoted in Hutchinson 2003).


*Liam Maddrell, in addition to being on the editorial board of Alochonaa, is an International Relations scholar and is currently undertaking an internship at the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA). His personal research interests revolve primarily around the United Nations, Machiavellian politics, unmanned vehicles, military interventionism, nuclear proliferation, North Korea and the rise of India.

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at


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  17.   Snow, D. 2008, ‘Cases in International Relations – Portraits of the Future,’ Pearson Education, New York City, United States of America.
  18.   Shultz, G., Perry, W., Kissinger, H. & Num S. 2008, ‘Toward a Nuclear Free World,’ Wall Street Journal, 15th January, p. 77 – 82.
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Categories: Nuclear, Politics

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