To be or not to be a nuclear weapon state

By: Katja van Hoorn*

IKV Pax Christi has organised a student Crash Course on Nuclear Diplomacy and I am one of the lucky few to participate. Together with 7 other students I will participate in four workshops designed to prepare us for the Preparatory Committee (PrepCom) for the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) in Vienna in May this year.


The first workshop took place at Clingendael, where the issue of nuclear arms control was introduced to us. Dr. Niels van Willigen explained to us how the rising security threat from countries such as Iran and North-Korea has once again put the issue of nuclear arms control on the international agenda. Because of the broadening consensus on the importance to take measures on effective nuclear arms control, a number of treaties have been created with the Non-Proliferation Treaty. As a landmark treaty the NPT aims to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to achieve nuclear disarmament and to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

But if there is consensus on the fact that nuclear weapons are a threat to the world, and that there is a need for effective nuclear arms control, then why do some States still want nuclear weapons?

International norms
Sico van der Meer, a researcher at Clingendael, explained to us why States would want nuclear weapons or not. He distinguishes four categories of motivations which can be used both to explain why States would want nuclear weapons and why they wouldn’t: capabilities, security, international norms and perceptions and the domestic political context.

Pointing to the position of Iran, he explained that their motivation mainly has to do with the category of international norms and perceptions. As only a few States in the world possess nuclear weapons, by becoming a nuclear weapon state a country becomes part of an elite group of States that is often regarded as ‘superpowers’, thus gaining prestige. Moreover, for Iran, nuclear weapons would be a way to stand up to the United States and the Western world. On the other side, this category of international norms and perceptions might for other States be the reason to not become a nuclear weapon state. Instead of gaining prestige, nuclear weapon States are also seen as political liabilities and violent, which is not an image most States want to have.

Powerful tool
The workshop provided us not only with a good and clear introduction to the issue of nuclear arms control, but also highlighted the complexity of the issue. Because why would States want to give up their nuclear weapons if it such a powerful tool in the political arena? Next up, a workshop on the Dutch approach to non-proliferation. Let’s see if we can find out the Dutch position on being or not being a nuclear weapon state.

* Katja van Hoorn is an intern at the No Nukes team and is also participant of IKV Pax Christi’s Student Crash Course on Nuclear Diplomacy 2012. Katja is a Master student in International and European Law at Amsterdam University.