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The University of Southampton
Economic, Social and Political Sciences

The spread of nuclear weapons

Published: 14 May 2008 Origin:  Politics and International Relations

For forty years, the fear of nuclear war kept East and West from waging World War Three. But the Cold War ended in 1991, the year in which many of Southampton's first year students were born. How will nuclear weapons fit into their new world?

Professor Campbell Craig, a specialist in the history of nuclear weapons and the Cold War, will spend three months in Oslo, Norway, addressing this question. He has been awarded a senior research fellowship at the Nobel Institute in Oslo—the same agency that bequeaths the Nobel Peace Prize—to study, alongside senior scholars from every corner of the world, the problem of nuclear proliferation and danger in the post-Cold War world.

The Nobel Institute's programme for 2009 is entitled “The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: Past Experiences and Future Challenges.” Professor Craig and his colleagues will investigate the reasons why nations have sought to acquire nuclear weapons in the past—and why many nations that could easily build a bomb have chosen not to do so.

They will also debate the issue of nuclear proliferation today, and in particular the heated question of whether the spread of nuclear weapons to states makes for a safer world—by making these states feel secure—or whether it increases the possibility of a catastrophic world war. These questions are hardly academic in light of current tensions in the Middle East, and elsewhere.

A central argument made by Professor Craig is that the lessons of the Cold War can apply only so far to our new international environment. It remains true that rational people and leaders are terrified by nuclear war and will go to extreme lengths to avoid one, but what has changed is stability of the international system.

During the Cold War, the two great superpowers successfully restrained their allies from acting rashly, if for no other reason than to prevent a local war from escalating to a nuclear world war. But now there is no such equilibrium, which portends sustained conflict between dissatisfied states keen to obtain nuclear weapons and a U.S. unable to do much about it. Barring a radical transformation of world politics, Craig argues, we may come to regard the Cold War as a time of blissful nuclear peace.

This Nobel fellowship will allow a small group of scholars to focus intensively upon the problem of nuclear proliferation, in the company of other experts in the field from around the globe. Professor Craig will work with scholars and policymakers from the United States, Egypt, Brazil, and elsewhere. It is the Nobel institute's aim to foster such international collaboration, a vital task for many issues but nowhere more so than on the pressing and global problem of nuclear war.

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