The topic of nuclear weapons - who has them, who might be developing them, and what counts, is a touchy political subject. The power, both political and physical, that weaponized nuclear material holds captivates attention on the world stage. So, who really has nukes? Who says they don’t have them, but might? Moreover, how do we verify each states’ claims to determine which countries have the most nuclear weapons? These questions have been asked since the success of the Manhattan Project in 1945, and are still very relevant today.
Nuclear regulation is a twisty topic, with many nuanced layers of global politics wrapped around the base issue - who is being honest, and who is distrustfully hiding weaponized nuclear material? A number of bilateral and multilateral treaties govern international agreements, but the most important one is the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly referred to as the NPT. Under the NPT, five nations are considered to be “nuclear weapons states”: the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France. Of these countries, the US and Russia by far surpass the estimated nuclear stockpile of the others.
The Non-Proliferation Treaty was created to function essentially as it sounds - an agreement between the signatory states to not grow or proliferate, their nuclear arms caches. Furthermore, the NPT formalized the commitment to disarmament, or reduction, of nuclear weapons. The difference between non-proliferation and disarmament is marked, and the polarized views are exemplified in what’s commonly called the “Waltz-Sagan debate”.
Countries With Nuclear Weapons
Continuing with our list of countries with the most nuclear weapons, we have the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France, that have openly declared their nuclear weapons numbers. Following the 1970 NPT, four more nations have joined the first five: Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. It is worth noting that nuclear weapons programs are heavily guarded state secrets. The veracity of numbers stated are unreliable at best and are mainly the result of educated guesses based on historical information combined with inferences about the ownership of nuclear material, and the technological ability to weaponize nuclear material by creating a delivery system. Current estimates of nuclear warheads by country from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), are the following:
Key Factors For Tracking Nuclear Weapons
There are a few other factors that weigh heavily on our ability to estimate which countries have the most nuclear weapons. Motivations are shadowy on an international political stage, diplomacy is tenuous, and transitions of power complicate nuclear politics. Where there are treaties or agreements, there are loopholes. The international community has worked to close these gaps over the past few decades with increasingly specific efforts like the Treaty Banning Nuclear Tests in the Atmosphere, Outer Space, and Underwater, as well as the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Each of these attempts is a reaction to the leveraging of loopholes in past agreements. Initially, the states participating in the NPT agreed not to develop, therefore test, nuclear weapons. This was taken to mean that testing will not occur on their soil, and nuclear tests were then carried out in international territories, or ungoverned areas. International waters, outer space, and the deep sea are still areas that, while agreements have been made not to, the suspicion is that testing by various states is still active.
Leading In Amount Of Warheads: USA and Russia
You might have noticed the very marked difference between the numbers of nuclear weapons belonging to the US and Russia in comparison to the other nuclear states. This is the result of the nuclear arms race between the two nations during the Cold War. You might also think back to the tragic destruction and consequences from two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and wonder why any country would need thousands upon thousands of nuclear warheads. Practically, a minute percentage of that would destroy the world as we know it, but politically, stockpiling weapons was a means to show global supremacy. Russia and the US remain the countries with the most nuclear weapons due to the Cold War arms race. Decommissioning nuclear material is a complicated and lengthy process, which is one of the reasons why disarmament will take decades.
The United States and Russia vastly outstrip the other seven known nuclear states: China, the U.K., France, Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Each state has committed to disarmament, but it is important to keep in mind that international treaties are not “enforced” in the way that a state government enforces the law. In fact, international law is a bit of a misnomer in some ways, because every state chooses to participate in good faith, or not, in each agreement. There are incentives to cooperate, and certain punishments can be levied, but there is no true enforcement. The international community relies on each other acting in good faith, whether that’s Russia and the US with thousands of nuclear warheads or a country like North Korea with a burgeoning nuclear program - we’re all just relying on the honesty of each other.