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There are a lot of perspectives on this one, and in many ways we are lucky that it is so hard to separate one isotope of uranium from another because, if it were easier, we probably would have destroyed ourselves by now.

One thing I didn't hit on in this video is that there are some experts that argue that the world has experienced greater peace and prosperity because of nuclear weapons and that they have done more good than harm. That's a commonly held viewpoint...that the threat of nuclear weapons has prevented major powers from going to war with each other. This has maybe increased the rate of proxy wars, which has been bad for the Middle East, some of Africa, and a particular Asian Peninsula, but it's better, they say, than World War III.

What I want to remember, however, is that this isn't just something that was inevitable...so thank you to everyone who worked to create this more stable world. I hope we can maintain it.

Here's the quick interview I did with Jeffrey Lewis.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twXxENO7nJ4

And here's where the Court System videos are:
http://www.youtube.com/complexly


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Good morning John. 

In your last video you were talking about how sometimes huge shifts in global power structures result in short-term catastrophe, and that made me think about how deeply wonderful it is that we have gotten through the last 73 years as a nuclear species without completely destroying ourselves. 

There are 195-ish countries; only nine of them have access to nuclear weapons. North Korea with a per capita GDP of $1300 has proven that you don't have to have a ton of money to have a nuclear arsenal. 

So why, why, why don't more countries have nukes?! This seems frankly like a tremendous success. One that should be celebrated, and studied, and talked about, and fretted over maintaining. 

So, let's talk about why, more than 73 years after the development of the first nuclear weapons, so few countries have access to them. Caveat. I am NOT an expert in international relations, thought I did talk to some of those, and I recorded one of them as an interview that's on Hankschannel right now. But I will not be going deep into any of this, this is something that lots of people study for their whole lives, the Wikipedia page on Iran's nuclear program by itself is more than 20,000 words. You can, I think, say a lot, with some broad strokes. 

Let's start with the list, in order. The US tested its first nuclear bomb in 1945, the USSR followed in 1949, the UK in 1957, France in 1960, followed by China in 1964. That was a big spurt and it will become important later. Isreal definitely has secret nukes, and may have had them as early as the 1960s, but they've never tested one or admitted to having them. India developed nuclear weapons in the 70s. South Africa built but probably never tested fission bombs in the 1980s before dismantling them. In 1991, three countries briefly had nuclear weapons because when they started existing they already had them: Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, all had nuclear weapons when the USSR collapsed. In 1994, they gave all those weapons back to Russia in exchange for assurances that Russia would never challenge their borders which seems to have turned out just fine. Pakistan surprised the world with a nuclear test in 1998, and North Korea's first test was 2006.

If we look at it in volume, the US and Russia, now Russia NOT THE USSR have the VAST MAJORITY of nuclear weapons. Everyone else is pretty much tied for last, except for North Korea, which is extra last.

And this isn't to say that other countries haven't tried. There have been nuclear programs in Brazil, Argentina, Libya, Iran, Taiwan, South Korea, there are more states that have tried to get nuclear weapons then there are states that have them. The story of why is complicated.

We're gonna start with the 1960's when there was that big spurt in new nuclear powers, ending with China. That was seen, rightfully, as scary. Possibly especially, because it ended with China, a country that was, um, Europeans were like, well, that's not a European country. Those people aren't white and also Mao Zedong is a pretty scary dude. Countries were exploring nuclear programs just because their neighbors were, and if they didn't know their neighbor wasn't, they were gonna do it, and the international community was realizing that this was gonna result in a fully nuclear world.

But a lot of people in the 60's didn't see this as unusual or scary. It was like, okay well, there have been new weapons before, there's a new weapon again and the major militaries are gonna have access to this weapon. But an arms race was going on, and people were realizing that as destructive as the bombs dropped in Japan were, they were only a fraction of what could be done. 

The Cold War started raging, people were building bomb shelters, students were having drills in their schools, and I think the world was kind of realizing what it would be like to have a world war with nuclear powers on both sides.

So some countries got together at the UN to create a treaty that said, "Hey... uhhh... look... STOP." Everyone signing this piece of paper is saying that if you don't already have nukes, you will not pursue nuclear weapons programs, and over the years since, every country has been like, "Actually... Yeah," except for India, Pakistan and Israel, who basically just texted the UN one for those shrugging emoticons. All of the countries, though it took varying amounts of time, subsequently developed nuclear weapons. The only country to have withdrawn from that treaty, North Korea. So if you've signed that treaty, it's literally against international law to develop nuclear weapons. But you don't have to sign the treaty as South Sudan proved when it became a country in 2011 and did not sign the treaty, at least yet.

So why do countries sign it, and why does so few countries have nuclear weapons? Let do a list: One, it's frickin' expensive to purify uranium-235, though is it getting cheaper. Two, it is also expensive to have the whole international community not buy anything from your country and not sell anything to your country, so that raises the price of violating that treaty. Three, it's generally good to be like a productive member of the international community and to just agree with the things that everyone agrees with. Four, international laws against nuclear materials, except in very specific circumstances, have actually been really successful. Number Five, The United States has traditionally had a lot of really good relationships with its allies, and has promised to protect them with its giant arsenal of nuclear warheads. Number Six, the 73 years since World War II have been remarkably prosperous and peaceful. Seven, we got very very lucky. There is no guarantee that, if we somehow ran this experiment again, that we would end up being in such a good situation. And finally Number Eight, for those and also many others reasons including humanitarian ones, most countries don't want nuclear weapons. They just don't want them.

International relations experts talk about a norm against nuclear weapons. They're seen as taboo, as if developing nuclear weapons program is kind of seen as like wading into the muck. And if you look around at the people who are creating these weapons programs in recent years, it is. It's kind of a mucky place. I was surprised when I started researching this video that South Africa had a nuclear program. Why did that happen? Because they were being ostracized by the international community for having an explicitly racist government.

Unfournately, the main tool we have to discourage countries from developing nuclear weapons can sometimes force them even deeper into that muck. A country, whether that's the leader or its people or both, are only gonna want to develop nuclear weapons right now if they are feeling threatened by the international order, and they happens when the country is some combination of unstable, autocratic, or has bad relationships with its neighbors.

I'm not saying that like we should do it a different way. I don't know, but sanctioning countries does hurt their economies and further isolates them from the benefits of being part of the international community. And of course the people who are hurt most by sanctions aren't the leaders and government palaces, unless there's some kind of revolution, it's the poor and the more unstable and disconnected they are, the easier it is to tell a story about how the whole world is out to get them and they need to protect themselves. And that is how countries like North Korea and, it's feared maybe someday, Iran slip through these cracks.

So, then, we end up in a world where all the new entrants to like the 'nuclear club', which is a weird one to be in, not that I'm not, are the least stable countries. Both because sanctions, somewhat maybe, destabilized them, but also because stable countries who are productive members of the international community don't want nukes. 

Why would they? They are expensive, they're illegal, they're hard to maintain, and they don't provide clear benefit. And that one is so important, even though I put it on my pinky finger, which is little, because that's only true, unless, there are clear benefits to having nuclear weapons, like increased legitimacy and access and power, unless the world becomes less stable and citizens of a country feel that they need to protect themselves, unless long-standing alliances that have held the world together for a long long time start to erode, unless international laws becomes less powerful, unless the work of generations of experts is not respected and upheld and continued. 

The barriers to making nuclear weapons are falling, and the penalties for doing it are becoming less effective. So countries that want nuclear weapons, it's gonna be easier for them to get them and so the path forward, maybe, is to do what we've been doing, which is to create a world where there are less benefits to having nuclear weapons.

And so the list of countries that want nuclear weapons is short, not because they're afraid of being penalized, but because there's just not a lot of advantage to having them. Building that world was a complicated process that involved a lot of compromise and a lot of hard work by good people, like lots of them. Lots of people working hard together.

Because like any good relationship, global relationships are lots of work, and while we often only see the failings, these decades of non-proliferation and a world in which nuclear weapons have only been used two times during war, which I recognize was done by my country, that's a remarkable testament to people working together. That's not to say that we didn't screw up at all during those 73 years and it's not to say that we didn't have some terrifying near-misses. That we have gotten this far is one part luck, one part hard work by thoughtful people dedicated to peace and stability, and one part even more luck. And I just want to say thank you to the people who have worked on that, however you worked on it. That's remarkable and also, like dang, thanks.

And I worry that it's been a fairly good 73 years, we may be getting a little complacent, we maybe are forgetting how hard we worked for this outcome, how bad it could have gone and how much we need to keep working to keep this stuff together, because I'm not saying it couldn't have gone better, but we have done remarkably well. 

John, I'll see you on Tuesday. UNLESS... no, kidding! I'm kidding. 

Thank you to Katherine Gill and Jeffery Lewis for consulting with me on this video, you can see my interview with Jeffery over on Hankschannel. It was a good time. It's about half an hour long. We have lots of good chats.

And if you're interesting in learning more about something completely different that is also in the news, we did a series on the US court system over on youtube.com/complexly, which is Complexly's new YouTube channel just for our production company, where we can try out new things and have a bit of a playground. All right, bye bye.