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Questioning Anarchy: Nuclear Weapons as Leviathan
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The world has enjoyed more years of peace since 1945 than had been known in the century before that—if peace is defined as the absence of general war among the major states of the world. [1] This paper is divided into three phases and intends to analyze this absence of ‘general war’ by asserting that Nuclear weapons to some extent have acted as the Leviathan of international politics. The first phase briefly establishes the situation observed in the Hobbesian states of nature and draws parallels of the same to a ‘pre-nuclear weapons situation’ of international politics. The second phase examines the factors that lead to the Creation of Sovereign and argues that reflections of these factors can be traced in the tendency of States to acquire Nuclear Weapons. The third phase is about the Post-Sovereign stage or the post-acquisition of nuclear weapons stage. Through this phase I will show, that nuclear weapons lead to avoidance of major wars and act as a coercive power in international politics and hence act in the same capacity as that of the Leviathan. Before I dwell into sketching out my arguments, I wish to caution the reader that this paper is restricting its scope to analyzing the effects of vertical nuclear proliferation and does not comprehensively take into account the future of horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In the first phase, I will argue that majority of characteristics of the Hobbesian state of nature are analogous with the situation which existed before the presence of nuclear weapons in international politics. Hobbes in his Leviathan, has argued that in the state of nature[2], the natural goal of man is “to master the persons of all men he can, so long, till he see no other power enough to endanger him”. In the state of nature, men are in a condition of War and in this condition of ‘Warre’ every man is against the other. He then goes onto establish that in state of nature, man has “continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short.” There is no authority to govern or prevent this situation. Reflections of this Hobbesian state of nature can be seen in the anarchic setting of international politics. In the anarchic structure, there is no one universal government which is hierarchically superior or there is no one coercive power which can resolve or prevent disputes.[3] Since there is no hierarchal power, an aggressive behavior of states is observed and a situation of hostility and tensions persists. Every state is skeptical of other’s states actions and hopes to take preemptive measures in order to strengthen its own security.
Hans Morgenthau has adequately summed up this situation. He says:

“In a world where a number of sovereign nations compete with and oppose each other for power, the foreign policies of all nations must necessarily refer to their survival as their minimum requirements. Thus, all nations do what they cannot help but do.”

As Snyder points out, this particular passage written by Morgenthau seems extremely Hobbesian in nature, especially when juxtaposed to Hobbes’ depiction of man in the state of nature.[4] Also in this particular phase, states act with less care as the costs of their actions are low. Due to this low care, the chances of war breaking out are extremely high. This was seen evidently in 1853 and 1854 when Britain and France went to war against Russia. This war saw bundles of vague plans and actions being undertaken by France and Britain. They acted hastily on scant information and were inclined towards testing their own strength rather than bargaining. The benefits of this war was merely some prestige from other states and political popularity at home. Even with such low benefits, the fact that Britain and France decided to go to war, showcases that the chances of war breaking out are extremely high since the costs of war are extremely low.[5] Thus even in international politics just like the Hobbesian state of nature, a situation of hostility exists wherein the chances of war breaking out are extremely high with no authority being present to control or prevent such wars. Hence we start seeing some fundamental parallels between the Hobbesian state of nature and a pre-nuclear weapons scenario.

Now men in the state of nature, with their primary goal of self preservation, agree to come into a social contract with one another in order to protect themselves wherein they give up their natural rights to live in a society governed by the theoretical sovereign called Leviathan who has the absolute power over individuals in the society. On the other hand, states based in the anarchic structure work with the idea of self-help and start acquiring nuclear weapons and other arms in order to protect themselves. Now it may be argued that this notion of acquiring nuclear arsenals is merely a mechanism for self defense or personal gains and hence cannot be equated to the formulation of the Leviathan. As we will see in the next phase, the presence of nuclear weapons does not stay limited to as merely a self-defense mechanism and rather has an international effect. Due to the effect it has on others in the form of deterrence, nuclear weapons can be considered to be acting as some kind of coercive power in international politics hence by extension.

The third phase is that of the post-sovereign phase and the post-nuclear weapons phase. Once the sovereign and the social contract are established, the sovereign is left with the major responsibility of preserving each individual and preventing any form of conflict arising between these entities. In international politics, we can see the nuclear weapons acting in the same capacity as that of the Leviathan by preventing the outbreak of any major war. In order to understand how nuclear weapons prevent the outbreak of wars, we first look at the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction which suggests, the usage of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause complete annihilation and hence states try their best to avoid a war which could escalate to such a magnitude.[6] This deterrence caused by nuclear weapons, prevent the states from initiating attacks against others as the costs of such an attack (possible annihilation) highly outweigh the benefits of the same. As seen above in the example of Britain and France, before the presence of nuclear weapons, states took careless actions as the costs of war were less. From that we have a major transformation, wherein states have to make thoughtful decisions and reconsider their decision of going to war as the costs of war are extremely high. This was verified by the incident of the Cuban Missile Crisis wherein Kennedy and Khrushchev rather than directly engaging into war, decided to cooperate and proceed cautiously and hence avoiding a war or mutually destroying each other even though the Tactical Air Command promised that an American strike against Soviet missiles in Cuba would certainly destroy 90%.[7] Another massive example of the nuclear weapons having the capacity to deter even preemptive attacks was seen during the exercise of Able Archer 83 wherein the NATO simulated a conflict escalation program including the training of how to deal with DEFCON 1 Nuclear strikes as well. Operation Ryan of the Soviets led the Soviets to believe that the Able Archer 83 signified that a first strike on the Soviets was inevitable.[8] Yet the Soviets didn't launch a pre-emptive strike even though the situation seemed to follow the dangers in which anticipatory self-defence can be expected which are highlighted in the Caroline Test of 1837.[9] The Soviets seemed to have understood that even with a pre-emptive attack the chances of Mutual Assured Destruction were inevitable. Hence they chose to avoid the attack due to the threat posed by nuclear destruction. Another example of the same is the Norwegian rocket incident.[10] All these incidents show a transformation from carless decisions in a chaotic system where outbreak of wars were extremely likely to thoughtful decisions and prevention of major wars. This transformation is the result of the presence of nuclear weapons. This also reinforces my earlier point of how nuclear weapons act as an overarching structure in preventing major wars and hence can be considered as the Leviathan of International Politics to some extent.

There might be contentions claiming that Nuclear weapons don't have an absolute power on states due to the stability-instability paradox which allows for low intensity conflicts even with the presence of nuclear weapons and hence the nuclear weapons can’t be considered as the Leviathan due to absence of absolute control. A quantitate research conducted by the Journal of Conflict Resolution on the effects of nuclear weapons verified the presence of the stability instability paradox. But the research added that when a nuclear monopoly exists between two states, where one state has nuclear weapons and their opponent does not, there is a greater chance of war. In contrast, when there is mutual nuclear weapon ownership with both states possessing nuclear weapons, the odds of even low intensity conflicts drop precipitously.[11] Hence it brings about a possibility of reduced number of low intensity conflicts if nuclear weapons are increased horizontally. Empirically this can be shown by Jack S Levy’s data in the War in the Modern Great System which claims that the number of wars have dropped down drastically from 1945-1990 which can be attributed to being as the nuclear weapons era as well. Europe through 1945-1990 saw only one major war between a ‘great power’ and a minor power’ while it witnessed a total of 55 wars from 1792-1945. The assertion that countries do not wish to go to wars with other countries possessing nuclear weapons can be clearly argued using the document, titled “Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence” taken out by Policy Subcommittee of the Strategic Advisory Group (SAG) of the United States Strategic Command. The document acknowledges the Mutual Nuclear deterrence between the United States and Russia and then goes onto claim that if any country (which poses a threat to the United States or its allies) has the capacity to develop nuclear weapons from its nuclear technology, that country will be met with a pre-emptive strike. If we go by the words of the document, we would have seen a pre-emptive nuclear attack on Iran which can allegedly easily possess nuclear weapons at 90% Uranium Enrichment from its current nuclear enrichment or we would have seen a pre-emptive nuclear strike on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As far as the idea of low scaled conflicts goes, the mere refrain which the United States of America has shown by not launching an attack on Iran in spite of the constant threats issued by Iran on blocking the Strait of Hormuz showcases the fear each country has of the possibility of a low scaled conflict escalating into a nuclear war and ipso facto avoiding conflicts as much as they can.

Waltz in his paper, titled “Structural Realism of the System” claims that the presence of nuclear weapons merely is a change in the system and not a change of the system. Through this discourse, we have seen the parallels between the Leviathan and Nuclear Weapons wherein both act as coercive powers preventing conflicts. We have also seen the transformation of a system where carefree decisions could be made, wars could break out without major costs being prevalent to a system where thoughtful decisions have to be made and the chances of major wars breaking out are extremely low. Hence this paper shows that we as a society post the presence of nuclear weapons have undergone a systematic change wherein the nuclear weapons just like the Leviathan prevents major wars from breaking out.

Jibraan Mansoor is currently a sophomore at Ashoka University majoring in Political Science, Philosophy, Economics and minoring in International Relations. He has participated in various Model UN Conferences and won 18 Best Delegates in both international and national MUNs. Mr. Mansoor’s first paper was published in the Supreme Court based journal of India, Practical Lawyer. He was also the Head Boy of the student council in his high school and mentored teams for various debating and MUN based competitions. 


[1] Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better,” Adelphi Papers, Number 171 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981)

[2] For the convenience of this paper, we will refer to the state of nature as a situation without a government

[3] Helen Milner. (1991) The assumption of anarchy international relations theory.

[4] David Snyder, War on Terror: Tensions in the Social Contracts

[5] Kenneth Waltz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Better,” Adelphi Papers, Number 171 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981)

[6] Mutual Assured Destruction; Col. Alan J. Parrington, USAF, Mutually Assured Destruction Revisited, Strategic Doctrine in Question, Airpower Journal, Winter 1997.

[7] The Evolution of Strategic Thought, Class Adelphi Papers

[8] The Dead Volcano: The Background and Effects of Nuclear War Complacency, Stephen J Cimbala p 92

[9] Nichols, Thomas (2008). The Coming Age of Preventive War. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 2.

[10] EUCOM History Office (23 January 2012). "This Week in EUCOM History: January 23-29, 1995". United States European Command. Retrieved 26 January 2016.

[11] Rauchhaus, Robert (2009). "Evaluating the Nuclear Peace Hypothesis A Quantitative Approach". Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (2): 258–277

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