06/26/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Mantra of 20 nuclear Weapon States -- Why 20?

Even one more nuclear-armed nation is too much. But since the 1960s statesmen, officials and politicians have used the number 20 - as in "there may be 10 nuclear powers instead of 4, and by 1975, 15 or 20." (President John F. Kennedy on March 12, 1963).

And in 1996, Mikhail Gorbachev, the former Soviet president, said, "There are at least 20 countries which may have nuclear weapons."

More recently, Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, told the Guardian newspaper: ( "Pretty soon ... you will have nine weapons states and probably another 10 or 20 virtual weapons states." He pointed to the spread of uranium enrichment technology and was concerned about the Middle East.

Today there are eight nuclear weapons states. North Korea, which just tested its second device, makes nine.

Why 20? Visual acuity because 20/20 indicates perfect vision? Or because 20 questions is a popular party game? But it seems that a line or two once inserted into a speech can evolve into a cliché and become the foundation for a policy or an international strategy.

Between Kennedy in 1963 and ElBaradei in 2009, the "rule of 20" has been repeated on end, according to ia compendium by a former U.S. Senate staffer, who asked that his name not be disclosed. The number 20 is used not just in reference to nuclear-armed states but nations harboring all weapons of destruction--nuclear, chemical and biological arms and the ballistic missiles to deliver them.

Said the staffer: "I have to assume, and have no reason to believe otherwise, that the 'rule of 20' was cooked up for noble reasons: namely, to snap the public out of their general complaisancy about serious global threats posed by all weapons of mass destruction. Yet it also follows that if this threat is in fact always 'growing', why is it still at only 20 after 40 years?"

"The 'rule of 20' also serves to cheapen the actual value of the various multilateral treaties that exist to eliminate such weapons," he said. "It draws attention away from the abhorrence of the rest of the world for such weapons. Day to day observance of these treaties by the vast majority of states doesn't attract much attention of the media."

Former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, an expert on nuclear threats, in a June 14, 2007 lecture to the Council on Foreign Relations, was more precise on the spread of nuclear technology. Like ElBaradei after him, Nunn warned of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and Asia. But he too said that "a world with 12 or 20 nuclear weapons states will be immeasurably more dangerous than today's world."

The number 20 (and sometimes 25) is also used in reference to weapons of mass destruction in general.

"Currently, we believe that as many as 20 countries may be developing chemical weapons..." CIA director William Webster told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1989. Two years later, his successor, Robert Gates, told the House Armed Services Committee: "More than 20 nations have or are acquiring weapons of mass destruction..."

And seven years later in 1998, Defense Secretary William Cohen told the National Press Club, "Iraq is one of at least 25 countries that already has, or is in the process of developing, nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, and the means to deliver them. "


There are five recognized nuclear weapon states: the United States, Russia, France, Britain and China. Three other nations - India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons and Israel is widely assumed to have a nuclear arsenal. Iran is pursuing a uranium enrichment program that may lead to nuclear weapons and North Korea has now tested two nuclear devices.

South Africa had developed but then dismantled a small number of nuclear warheads. Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program but no bomb prior to the 1991 Persian Gulf War. United Nations inspectors supervised its destruction. Libya voluntarily renounced secret nuclear weapons efforts in December 2003. Argentina, Brazil, South Korea, and Taiwan also shelved nuclear weapons programs.

According to the Arms Control Organization, a non-partisan Washington-based group, estimates for nuclear warheads are as follows, with the United States and Russia dwarfing every other country in sheer numbers alone:

United States: 5,914 strategic warheads, approximately 1,000 operational tactical weapons, and approximately 3,000 reserve strategic and tactical warheads
Russia: 4,237 strategic warheads, approximately 2,000-3,000 operational tactical warheads, and approximately 8,000-10,000 stockpiled strategic and tactical warheads
France: Approximately 350 strategic warheads.
China: 100-200 warheads
United Kingdom: Less than 160 deployed strategic warheads.
Israel: Between 75 to 200 nuclear warheads.
India: up to 100 warheads
Pakistan: Up to 60 nuclear warheads