Michael KreponPredicting Proliferation

Over the years, many experts have predicted proliferation cascades, but worst cases have yet to unfold. The current variation on this theme – reinforced by arms controllers as well as hard liners — is that, once Iran gets the Bomb and North Korea cannot be dissuaded from giving up its nuclear weapon capabilities, other countries in both regions will surely follow suit. I have been known to lend my voice to this chorus from time to time.

The track record of proliferation to date, however, has been both limited and slow. This historical record does not support dire predictions, especially when the presumed proliferators have close ties to the United States and are dependent on Washington for their security.

Dire proliferation forecasts are a dime a dozen; I won’t spend time on them here. Instead, let’s give credit to those with better records of prognostication.

George Quester writes books that matter and that are too-little noticed. The Politics of Nuclear Proliferation was published in 1973 when the NPT’s status was still new and tenuous. This book provides proliferation assessments of key countries that were reluctant to sign the NPT or were likely to remain outliers. While others were offering worst cases, Quester was cautiously optimistic, concluding that, “Even if superpower resolve on India [to join the NPT] is clearly fading, even if Israel elects to be the first member of the nuclear club to accumulate weapons without ever test-detonating one, we may yet see the NPT used to rally the rest of the world into abstinence from further proliferation.”

Hard liners believe in power, not parchment. In contrast, Quester’s equanimity was partially based on the norm-setting value of the NPT: “What was once a neutral or attractive idea is now somewhat tainted and suspect. Nuclear weapons are not just the ‘latest thing’ anymore; they lack respectability.” Quester was right.

Lew Dunn’s book, Controlling the Bomb (1982), provided a similarly level-headed, wise, and restrained analysis of the prospects of proliferation during the 1980s. Dunn was no Pollyanna. He predicted that it was “quite likely …that at least one country will violate a legally binding nonproliferation obligation…in the decade to come,” and that “it probably will not be possible to head off the deployment of at least rudimentary nuclear forces in one if not more conflict-prone regions during this decade.” Nonetheless, Dunn predicted that sensible policies could succeed in “holding the line at no more than a continuation of the first decades’ pattern of slow and limited proliferation.” Dunn was right.


  1. FSB

    If Iran gets the bomb, it will be a particularly bad thing — they will use it for deterrence against the already existing nuclear weapons in the middle east. It will not be a threat to the US.

    The real problem is the huge amount of fissile material available in the “nice” nuclear armed nations, were that to fall into terrorist hands.

    Let’s start at the other end of the NPT bargain: reduce our stockpiles by an order of magnitude.

  2. FSB

    oops…it should say “it will not be a particularly bad thing…” above

  3. scud

    Aw, FSB… Such a great lapsus linguae.

  4. Nick Ritchie (History)

    Jacques Hymans’ 2006 book “The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation” argues a similar case against recurrent nuclear domino theories, asserting that the decision to go nuclear is a ‘leap in the dark’ for a state leader(s) and not predetermined by a seemingly objective, rational, strategic cost-benefit calculus.

  5. Genxin LI (History)

    I am more optimistic than you:1,we now already in the process of reduction,2, nuclear states less and less depend nuclear weapons, 3, goal for nuclear free world get world-wide support, 4, nuclear crises more and more under UNSC control. So my argument is now we need to talk nonproliferation road map, to design mileage mark like 13 steps. Give everyone a clear picture where we go, when get what mileage mark.

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