The emergence of nuclear weapons has been a source of big impact on the international power structure. As Michael Horowitz states “for reasons related to their magnitude relative to conventional weapons, nuclear weapons have changed the character of warfare”. Initially the United States monopoly over the atomic weapons definitely made it the most powerful nation in the world.
However, this powerful new weapon also led to a certain fear and mistrust of the United States, as other nations were unaware and fearful of what Americas intentions were with the development of nuclear technology. This fear and mistrust therefore led to an imbalance of power, and to a change in United States foreign relations as many nations would now try to ensure they didn’t interfere with Americas interests abroad due to this new nuclear threat they would potentially now face.
However, after 1949 the United States no longer held the atomic monopoly after the USSR successfully detonated their first atom bomb. It has been argued by many historians that “This event ends America’s monopoly of atomic weaponry and launches the Cold War.”. This successful nuclear detonation changed the balance of power again and United States and USSR relations. This also changed international relations by leading to even more fear, because previously the possibility of nuclear war was highly unlikely as the USSR wouldn’t risk starting a war they couldn’t possibly win; therefore, meaning that the nuclear threat was fairly low.
However, once the USSR also had nuclear capability it meant they were more likely to have the confidence to challenge the United States if the two powers were ever in opposition over an international issue. Which could have potentially lead to the threat of a nuclear war that could destroy the earth, this led to panic and fear from nations such as Britain and France.
This nuclear arms race that emerged between the United States and USSR during the 1950’s and 1960’s also effected international relations as other nations around the world began to develop programs to develop their own nuclear weapons. In the case of China, it was to strengthen their own position in the world power balance; as China from 1949 onwards after the communist revolution emerged as a new world power, their rise to power has been described by Yafeng Xia as “The year that proved pivotal in changing the dynamics of post-world war II international relations”. Initially they had the support of the Soviets as they were a new great communist power within the world; however, China and the Soviets alliance was always strained from the very beginning as many in the USSR at the time didn’t view the Chinese Revolution to be a true legitimate communist revolution because it had its origins in Chinese peasantry.
Therefore, with these difficult relations from the start it was never surprising that the alliance between the two communist powers had come to a holt by the 1960’s. But this so called “Sino-Soviet spilt” also led to nuclear implications, because without the Soviet alliance China no longer had the promise of defence from the USSR in the case of threat. Therefore, this encouraged them to form better relations with the United States which disrupted the balance of power again, and also to them beginning to develop their own nuclear weapons program which added further threat to world peace and power.
However, there were also countries such as Britain and France who also began to develop nuclear weapons programs this was mainly due to their close alliance with the United States. As the United States would have had an interest in their ally nations having nuclear capability in case of war. However, for the countries themselves their main interest in developing nuclear weapons was to ensure their own safety in case of nuclear threat. This spread of nuclear technology across the world effected international relations, as relations became about taking sides.
Nuclear weapons do however still have their place in international relations in the modern day. Even after the so called ‘First Nuclear Age’ ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which was arguably the most peaceful period in recent history it also raised new questions about national security, particularly the place of nuclear weapons in international relations.
As even though the cold war had ended and international relations were considerably better than previously. There was still the issue that several nations around the world still possessed nuclear capability, and there was the question of what should be done about these weapons. As we are now in a so called ‘Second nuclear Age’ and the role of nuclear weaponry is still debated, should they be retained or should they be destroyed, and is the deterrence that was used during the ‘First Nuclear Age’ still a plausible strategy in the modern day. These questions are often debated by politicians, military commanders and theorist’s worldwide, therefore implying that even though the cold war has ended the nuclear threat and issue is far from over and will effect international relations for many years to come.
Yafeng Xia, “The Cold War and Chinese Foreign Policy”, July 16th 2008 – http://www.e-ir.info/2008/07/16/the-cold-war-and-china/
Paul Bracken, “The Second Nuclear Age” – https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2000-01-01/second-nuclear-age
Michael Horowitz, “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons and International Conflict: Does Experience Matter?” – http://belfercenter.hks.harvard.edu/files/uploads/Horowitz_The_Spread_of_Nuclear_Weapons.pdf
AtomCentral.com, the atomic bomb website, “The Cold War” – http://www.atomcentral.com/the-cold-war.aspx