Michael KreponWar and Proliferation

After twelve years as the Co-director of Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Scott Sagan is stepping down, ostensibly to have more time for writing. Given how prolific Scott was during his Co-directorship, I think he’s just trying to embarrass the rest of us.

Scott’s essay, “Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb” (International Security, 1996/7), is a must read for aspiring wonks. He takes issue with explanations of the Bomb’s spread that dwell too heavily on national security. Scott acknowledges that the “security model” matters greatly, but it doesn’t explain why states in rough neighborhoods, like Ukraine or Egypt, haven’t sought or stopped seeking the Bomb. In Scott’s view, “multicausality… lies at the heart of the proliferation problem.” Other key drivers, he argues, are “more parochial and less obvious,” including domestic politics, internal bureaucratic struggles (“the domestic politics model”) and how states define their quest for symbols of modernity and identity (“the norms model”).

Domestic politics and norms can result either in bomb programs or restraint. For example, domestic politics and economics greatly delayed India’s nuclear weapon-related milestones before interest group pressures and security concerns tipped the scales in favor of the Bomb. In contrast, domestic politics and norms in Japan continue to militate against acquisition of nuclear weapons, while Tokyo remains in a position to do so. The NPT has had a profoundly positive effect by establishing and shoring up norms against proliferation. (Likewise, the CTBT, even without entering into force, now turns states that test nuclear weapons into outliers.) A multi-causal view of drivers and constraints offers a far less bleak and one-directional view of the proliferation dynamic.

The security model still dominates the field, and with good reason. The prospect or conduct of war has quickened existing bomb programs, just as crises have propelled states past restraining red lines. The U.S. and Soviet atomic bomb programs were spurred by World War II. The use of mushroom clouds to end this war had a profound demonstration effect and impetus on subsequent bomb programs. The pursuit of H-bombs was accelerated during the Korean War. Israel rushed to ready nuclear weapons during the 1967 War. Pakistan started its nuclear weapons program after a devastating defeat to India in 1971. Pakistan crossed U.S. red lines for enrichment during a harrowing crisis with India in 1990, a crisis that also accelerated India’s bomb program. Iran became far more serious about nuclear weapons after its brutal war with Iraq in the 1980s.

Domestic and bureaucratic politics matter greatly for proliferation outcomes, as do norms. When these factors divide powerful constituencies for and against the Bomb, wars, the prospect of wars and severe crises can tip the scales to proliferation, unless the state under duress has a powerful, reliable and protective patron.


  1. ZeeKay (History)

    If we create a ‘prestige’ model and see the list of states spending the most on military power – we can make the list states in this essay wholesome 🙂

    • MK (History)

      Prestige may be part of the reason why a state acquires nuclear weapons, but other factors are usually far more important. With respect to your neighbor, India, there was the non-trivial matter that Pakistan’s nuclear weapon program was more advanced, China already had a demonstrated capability, and the NPT’s indefinite extension and the CTBT’s negotiation seemed to be closing doors.
      As for today, I’d say the ‘prestige model’ applies mostly to France and the UK.

  2. yousaf (History)


    Patrick Disney offers us a case study on the subject of your post, and in the process has written one of the most even-handed treatments of the Iranian nuclear program that I’ve seen in the Western media — I think he has nailed this issue:


  3. Mansoor Ahmed (History)

    Pakistan’s nuclear emergence is widely attributed to the security model and the threat perceived from India. However, the manner in which the nuclear program in Pakistan evolved through the decades, and the shape, scope and direction of the program can be clearly seen through the prism of the domestic and bureaucratic-politics models.

    These are particularly relevant in understanding the drivers and dynamics of the nuclear decision-making process in Pakistan as a product of bureaucratic politics within the nuclear establishment wherein individuals at the head of institutions such as PAEC, KRL etc, determined how and why various projects were developed. The constant factor in all this was the political support of successive political and military governments.