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Nuclear Capability: How it alters the “Balance of Power”

Nuclear capability brings about sudden and structural changes in the prevailing ‘balance of power’ between nations regionally and globally. 

In the previous post, I mentioned that the dynamics of nuclear weapons and conventional weapons differ significantly. One of the reasons given for this differentiation was that nuclear capability has a much more pronounced impact on the ‘balance of power’. This post will deal with this impact in greater detail.

What is Balance of Power?

Hans Morgenthau, one of the founding fathers of the realist school of geopolitics in Politics among Nations explains ‘balance of power’ thus:

The aspiration for power on the part of several nations, each trying either to maintain or to overthrow the status quo, leads of necessity to a constellation which is called the balance of power and to policies which aim at preserving it.

A relevant example would be the aspiration of the older members of the nuclear club to maintain the status quo by coming together to advocate nuclear non-proliferation, in order to prevent the nuclear challengers like India, Pakistan and others from gaining nuclear capability. This principle is a reality of international affairs as much as in other aspects of human dealings like national politics. Moreover, since there is no supreme international authority or a strong consensus in international affairs, balance of power becomes a guiding principle on the international scene. In the Indian context, balance of power theory is even more important. With the enormous rise of China which may alter the global equilibrium in its favor, global powers like US and Russia see India as a  potential player that can help balance the dominance of China. Japan in recent times has made significant efforts to align with India in order to match China’s rise.

There are various methods of the balancing process and all of them essentially do one of the two things – either increase the power of the perceived weaker side or decrease the power of the perceived stronger one.

What has nuclear capability got to do with balance of power?

Though widely accepted as a guiding principle for international politics, the balance of power theory has one fundamental problem – the uncertainty of what qualifies as a balance or an imbalance. This stems from the fact that there is no golden method of assessing a nation’s power. Different indices give different weights to a nation’s economic, social, political or diplomatic capital to arrive at a power structure of the world. In this scenario, where the criteria for power itself is uncertain, trying to balance it becomes even more blurry. As a result, nations try to maximize their power hoping that it will put them in the right side of the weighing scale of the the power balance. Particularly when a nation considers military conflict as an imminent threat to its survival due to historic reasons, it is willing to go any lengths to gain a capability that can ensure a Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to its belligerent adversaries. It wants to broadcast a message to the world that an outright war with it will be very costly to everyone. This is the capability that nuclear weapons grant a nation.

This post on the statecraft blog Chaturanga succinctly explains what a nuclear balance of power entails. Most importantly, nuclear capability becomes the ultimate bargaining tool in potential conflict scenarios. Neo-realists like Waltz cite the example of the Kargil war to state that the two nations were forced to prevent a full scale war due to the fear that it might lead to deployment of nuclear weapons. The significance of nuclear capability can also be gauged from the fact that all the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council possess it. Also through the NPT, they try to restrain other nations from possessing it so that the balance of power can be maintained in their favor. A nuclear proliferated world will decrease their leverage and make other nations outside their club equally important in conflict scenarios.

There are various levels of how nuclear capabilities enhance a nation’s power. Possessing nuclear warheads with a credible deterrence is the lowest level of nuclear hegemony. The next level is having a second-strike retaliatory capability. Having the power to deliver it within minutes across the world through nuclear submarines or missiles is the next higher level. The ultimate level is nuclear primacy – a condition where no other state has a credible second-strike deterrent against it due to the sheer size of its nuclear arsenal and its capability to destroy all of enemy’s nuclear warheads. [1]

Nuclear capability also changes power equations regionally if nations are willing to proliferate it through clandestine or apparent means. Pakistan’s policy of arming Saudi Arabia with a nuclear bomb is a case in point. Also, the previous leaks of nuclear technology by the Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan to Libya make it a heavyweight in the Ummah (The Muslim World). A major concern for security agencies across the world is the possibility of nuclear weapons going into the hands of non-state actors like terrorists. Here again, Pakistan has been able to give this perception to the world that terrorists can indeed do so; the rest of the world fears it so much that nations are willing to invest in the state of Pakistan, thus increasing its clout in the process.

What nuclear weapons cannot change?

Let us imagine an international future in a two dimensional plot with economic growth and stability on the y-axis and possibility of war on the x-axis.

Nuclear capability and future scenarios

Nuclear capability and future scenarios

The nuclear capability matters a great deal when the possibility of war is high. Assuming that low economic growth and instability may lead to anarchy or terrorism, nuclear capability is of utmost importance to the world in the fourth quadrant. But if a nation imagines a future with low eventuality of a conflict, nuclear weapons can do very little to increase its social, economic and political parameters of power.


Just like Abraham Maslow’s pyramid of hierarchy of needs, nuclear capability ensures the survival in case of a conflict but in a situation where many nations already have nuclear deterrence against each other, the balance of power then depends on aspects of power beyond the nuclear capabilities.


[1] Policy Tensor Blog: http://policytensor.com/2013/08/11/nuclear-weapons-and-the-balance-of-power/

[2] Chaturanga Blog: http://jaideepprabhu.org/2012/04/06/a-nuclear-balance-of-power/

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