The thought of rogue regimes having access to weapons of mass destruction should trouble every thinking person. It goes without saying that despots with little to lose or with questionable sanity shouldn’t be able to threaten the free world. It is therefore regrettable that the Western world is currently incentivizing such regimes to pursue such weapons and the means to deliver them offensively. Whoever first acquires a new weapons technology sets a precedent for its use or disuse through action. Poison gas in the first World War and biological weapons in the Second World War are two illustrative examples. After the Germans introduced poisonous gas as a weapon of war in the trenches of France, poison gas got widespread adoption by both sides. In the Second World War both sides refrained from using biological weapons (for the sake of argument I’m only talking about the European theatre and I’m excluding Japan’s Unit 731) even though they possessed them.
More recently the US has introduced the use of drone warfare. Currently the United States is the only country in the world with a global (or even regional) capacity for strikes. The drones have seen massive use in the War on Terror in many different countries. This use sets a troubling precedent. It is inevitable that other countries will eventually acquire similar capability. Even if it is limited, and only regional it changes the geopolitical ballgame. Drones are relatively cheap and low-risk means of carrying out offensive operations. There is no risk to a human pilot and the unit cost is negligible compared to a modern fighter jet. There is therefore a significantly lower threshold for its use.
We can already see how drone warfare causes blowback. The most obvious example is civilian casualties in drone bombings. This causes resentment, anger and increased extremist and terrorist recruitment. Is it worth the effort to kill one terrorist only to create two? Drone campaigns can therefore reach targets that might otherwise elude you, since they are cheap you can swarm an area with them and linger near where you suspect that your target resides. In some specific instances, they might be an excellent method of carrying out statecraft. They could limit civilian casualties and losses to your own forces. But when they don’t, is their use worth the long-term consequences? What happens when Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia start conducting drone strikes against each other. Could the conflict in the South China Sea escalate if Taiwanese and mainland Chinese drones commit acts of aggression? The policies regarding use have been created by the US, and they remind us of the old saying “if everything you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.
Back to nuclear weapons. It is unfortunately rational for these questionable regimes to acquire nuclear weapons as soon as humanly possible. It is a great method of securing yourself against attack by a stronger military power. Looking back at the antagonistic relationships between different countries, Iran and North Korea pursuing nuclear weapons makes perfect sense. Because countries that are strong militarily have been using their power to do what they want (Soviet Union in Afghanistan, US in Panama, Iraq and so on) acquiring nuclear weapons becomes the preferred method of avoiding the same fate. It is cheaper to pursue this 70+ year old technology than to amass the equivalent deterrent power in conventional weaponry. Following the conventional route would be ridiculously expensive. Having nuclear weapons is an instant ticket to the big-boys table and makes sure that the big powers have to respect you.
There is therefore a predictable blowback from (mis)using new technology and from abusing the disparity in strength militarily that exists between large countries and smaller weaker ones.