Advancing the Study of Nuclear (Non)proliferation

Clichés such as “good research reflects reality” notwithstanding, academics often find that they must sacrifice pragmatic concerns in favor of analytical convenience when conducting research. As a result, many studies attempt to mimic real-world situations using normative frameworks and analytical tools. Crafted in response to emerging global nuclear threats, contemporary nuclear proliferation research has attempted to balance these pragmatic and analytical concerns.

Until recently, nuclear scholars focused on supply and demand factors separately when exploring the spread of nuclear weapons. However, because this methodology rarely represents reality—in which all actors involved in the proliferation chain interact with one another—scholarly attention has shifted toward the dynamics of conflict and cooperation among states that have a stake in nuclear proliferation. A literature review conducted by political scientists Alexandre Debs and Nuno Monteiro provides context for these changes in scholarship regarding nuclear proliferation, and lays out possible agendas for future research.

Debs and Monteiro break down the trajectory of nuclear proliferation scholarship into three waves. Initial research on the causes of nuclear proliferation centered on the demand for nuclear arsenals driven by security needs. The logic was that an increase in security threats and concomitant concerns imply a higher likelihood of nuclearization. However, many scholars have noted that the singular emphasis on security-driven proliferation has resulted in the over-prediction of proliferation. In reality, the prevalence of nuclear proliferation, given international threats and instability, has remained lower than anticipated. For instance, India has been the only country to nuclearize after China successfully tested its first atomic bomb in 1964, despite the U.S.’s apprehension that many Asian countries would nuclearize.

The second wave of studies attempted to establish why some states (e.g. North Korea and India) have pressed ahead with nuclear efforts while others (e.g. Iraq, South Korea, and Taiwan) have forgone nuclear arms in the face of security threats and international opposition. Particularly, scholars attempted to explore non-security drivers of demand for nuclear arsenals, which Scott Sagan (1996) called “sources of the political demand for nuclear weapons.” Jacques Hymans (2006) has suggested that nuclearization is more likely if the psychological profile of a nation’s political leaders demonstrate oppositional nationalism. Etel Solingen (2007) has explained how ruling elites’ preferences regarding national security and prosperity affect nuclear weapons pursuits. On the international level, Maria Rublee (2009) has argued that international social norms and nuclear nonproliferation treaties have helped mitigate states’ nuclear intentions. However, this wave of studies was inattentive to fundamental security considerations and the ways in which strategic contexts shape states’ nuclear behavior.

While the first two waves of nuclear studies took qualitative approaches based on historical evidence, the third wave of studies—completed over the course of the last decade—utilized data science tools and a more methodological framework to investigate correlates for the odds of nuclear proliferation. This quantitative trend in nuclear research revolved around supply-side explanations, such as determinants of foreign technical and nuclear assistance and their impact on the likelihood of nuclear proliferation. However, as Matthew Fuhrmann (2009) recognized, while nuclear assistance or cooperation pacts may encourage states to embark on nuclear programs, it may also be true that states are more likely to receive nuclear assistance when they are pursuing nuclear arms. Like the chicken-and-egg problem, it is unclear whether assistance encourages proliferation, or whether proliferation attracts assistance: the cause and effect remain uncertain. In addition, Debs and Monteiro point out that given the tremendous influence nuclear arsenals can have on national security and power, the nuclear demand will persist even when the supply of nuclear materials diminishes. Thus, a decrease in foreign assistance or the supply of nuclear materials may not notably dampen the risk of proliferation; it would only drive up the cost of nuclear development. With this information, gauging the risk of nuclear proliferation on the basis of supply considerations alone seems far-fetched.

Debs and Monteiro state that the strategic dynamics of an ever-changing security environment were overlooked throughout these three waves of studies. Recent studies on nuclear proliferation have evolved to feature strategic interactions, including conflict and cooperation over nuclear aims among a potential proliferator, its adversaries, and its allies. These recent studies use game-theoretic models to reflect the dynamic process in which the security interests of the actors intersect. Muhammet Bas and Andrew Coe (2016) posited that there are multiple stages of nuclear development and provided evidence on the role of a preventive attacker’s awareness of a proliferator’s nuclear development progress in the attacker’s decision to use a counterproliferation strike. (See our previous brief on this research.)

Other recent studies focus on the implications of alliances for nuclear proliferation and forbearance. These studies incorporate conflict analysis and aspects of cooperation among actors. Debs and Monteiro, in their recent book titled “Nuclear Politics: The Strategic Causes of Proliferation (2016),” suggested that allies condition strategic adjustments among actors. Weaker states have a stronger intent to acquire nuclear weapons for security reasons, but they are vulnerable to preventive strikes. In response to such a situation, allies could offer protection during their nuclear development. However, if some powerful allies consider their protectorates’ nuclearization to be eventually pernicious to their security aims, they could force the protectorates to forgo nuclear efforts. Conversely, stronger states can independently pursue nuclear weapons unhampered. In this case, coercive measures could hardly obviate their desire for nuclearization. Rather, additional allied security assurances through credible pacts can be more effective in helping to eliminate incentives for nuclearization.

These strategic interaction approaches to nuclear research shed light on why the U.S. utilizes preventive strikes to stymie proliferators’ nuclear efforts while negotiating with others. They also help to explain how the U.S. could induce Taiwan to remain non-nuclear while deterring South Korea’s nuclear ambition with renewed security assurances. To help extend the scope of this research, Debs and Monteiro introduce five promising areas of research pertaining to the strategic dynamics of nuclear proliferation: (1) the roles of non-security factors, (2) the nature of nuclear aims, (3) commitment problems among actors, (4) advanced preemptive measures and defense plans in shaping nuclear proliferation, and (5) how strategic dynamics shape prospective nuclear disarmament. While exploring these areas will not fully capture real-world nuclear dynamics, richer theorization and evidence-based analysis will contribute towards a more complete understanding of nuclear proliferation and nonproliferation.

Article source: Debs, Alexandre, and Nuno Monteiro. “Conflict and Cooperation on Nuclear Nonproliferation.Annual Review of Political Science 20 (2017): 331-349.

Featured photo: cc/(overcrew, photo ID: 542945032, from iStock by Getty Images)

Changwook Ju
Changwook (MPP '18) is a staff writer for Law & Politics. He is interested in political economy, civil-military relations, and electoral politics.

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