Michael KreponForecasting Proliferation

Alex George, the much-admired Stanford University professor, wrote Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy (1993) to encourage academia to produce more policy-relevant work. This divide has become wider in subsequent years. Hard-pressed government officials rarely look to academe for help with proliferation. They usually don’t have the time or patience for theorems or quantitative analysis. Bill Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova have tried to bridge this gap. Their new two-volume set, Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century (2010) [Vol. 1 | Vol. 2], brings together academics committed to policy-relevant theories of proliferation and offers country studies. There is much that is admirable in both volumes for students, academics and, yes, practitioners.

The editors place particular emphasis on the work of Jacques Hymans and Etel Solingen, two political scientists strongly committed to applying their craft to nonproliferation issues. Hymans builds a predictive model around “oppositional nationalism”: look for national leaders who rely on “opposition-induced fear and nationalism-induced pride” in states that have “reasonably intense interactions” wih a competitor as well as a nuclear program under centralized control and, in Hymans’ view, you may well be looking at a proliferator. Solingen is a proponent of the “analytical advantages of domestic models of political survival.” Her research suggests that political leaders and ruling coalitions “advocating growth through integration in the global economy” will not be inclined to seek the Bomb. Instead, beware of proliferation where “inward-looking leaders and coalitions” pursue political platforms “rooted in mistrust for international markets, investment, technology and institutions.”

Political scientists working on nuclear issues have successfully de-coded the language of practitioners, but they still speak in their own code. These two tribes are unlikely to commingle more if political scientists speak (and argue) in a language that practitioners have no interest in learning. Academics who wish to influence policy and practitioners are therefore obliged to learn translation skills. Richard Betts wrote evocatively and persuasively about paranoids, pygmies, and pariahs. Hymans uses the typology of oppositional nationalists, sportsmanlike nationalists, oppositional subalterns and sportsmanlike subalterns.

Contributing factors to proliferation are widely recognized. They include domestic drivers, economic and security concerns, as well as regime and leadership types. The academic school of realism and its various branches do not satisfactorily explain the relative paucity of proliferation cases. A “unified field theory” of proliferation, if one can be devised, would include all of these factors in some measure. But the weighting of these factors is different in all cases, and every favored theory has its exceptions. The editors acknowledge that their contributors “do not yield a definitive answer to the question of how best to forecast nuclear proliferation.”

Proliferation theory will always matter far more to political scientists than to government and nongovernmental experts. Reliance on methodology to inform nonproliferation policy clearly has its limits, and other investigative methods are likely to be more fruitful. Hedging strategies that begin with civil nuclear power programs cannot be hidden for very long. And no academic theory is likely to be more suggestive than, say, tracking illicit acquisitions or reading other people’s mail, to use Henry L. Stimson’s quaint formulation. These essays make a strong case for academic inquiry, but not for specific predictive purposes.

The most important policy-relevant conclusion from these essays is a rebuttal of the widely-held assumption of proliferation cascades. Up until now, proliferation has been a relatively rare occurrence, far below projections. The data mined by these authors suggest that, with wise policy choices, this might continue to be the case, even with the current, unsettling Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. The finding that new proliferation cases are likely to be few in number further undermines the presumed value of theoretical pursuits. This quest does no harm, but functional and regional experts do not need theoretical constructs derived from academic methodologies to figure out where to look for new cases of proliferation.

This two-volume set suggests that academic efforts to theorize may be more helpful in gaining insights from the past than in predicting the future. Notably, the editors conclude not with a ringing endorsement of new theoretical excursions, but by calling for a renewed commitment to “empirical research based on a deep understanding of the countries and cultures they analyze.” The field awaits and could make good use of a rising generation of proliferation experts, schooled in regional, country, and language skills.

Note to readers: This is a much-abridged and slightly revised book review that appears in the current issue of the Nonproliferation Review, along with the disclaimer that the publisher of my most recent book, Stanford University Press, has also published this two-volume set.


  1. Mark Pontin (History)

    Thank you. I just ordered both volumes.

  2. magoo (History)

    Thank you for drawing attention to these publications by Potter and Mukhatzhanova, which, unfortunately I am yet to read.

    Forecasting Proliferation is undoubtedly an issue very high on the priorities of policy makers and planners responsible to secure their respective countries in a nuclear environment. The problem lies in the diversity of factors that ‘trigger’ aspirations to generate nuclear potential for military purposes. So far published literature revolves around the imperatives of the United States in particular and Western powers in General. Some of these very imperatives tend to give drive to proliferation policies in the larger global community – each for specific reasons of their own.

    Having said that, I have reservations about your observation – “Up until now, proliferation has been a relatively rare occurrence, far below projections.” In an analysis one carried out a decade ago the number of Nuclear Weapon States, Virtual Nuclear Weapon States, and suspected Proliferates amounted to 38. That was 20 per cent of the existing States. By no means could that number fall into the category of ‘rare occurrences’.

    • MK (History)

      The lower-than-expected proliferation number reflects how few of those states that have the capabilties to cross the line choose to do so. This has been so ever since President Kennedy’s famous and fearful projection in the early ’60s.
      Some of the essays in Volume 1 pick these numbers apart quite usefully.
      Best wishes,

    • Scott Monje (History)

      Randy Rydell, who was a Senate staffer before going to the UN, once said that adminstrations reported to the Senate every year for 40 years that “about 20 countries” were on the verge of going nuclear.

  3. Nick Ritchie (History)


    You’re right, of course, and this is an issue the academic community in the UK (particularly those that self-identify as ‘applied’ social scientists/researchers) has to grapple with in the context of the next major audit of the quality of the sector’s research output in the government’s 2014 Research Excellence Framework. The funding bodies (the Higher Education Funding Council for England, Scottish Funding Council, etc.) intend to use the REF’s assessment outcomes to inform the selective allocation of their research funding to UK Higher Education Institutions from 2015-16. Assessment will be based on three broad categories: outputs, impact, and environment. Impact relates to the economic and social benefit of excellent research and has been given a weighting of 20% (assessment of research outputs will account for 65%, and environment will account for 15% of the overall assessment outcomes). Academics and university departments will therefore have to demonstrate the particular impact/benefit of their research beyond academia and beyond simple evidence of dissemination. This places a premium on effectively translating ‘academic’ analysis into socially useful forms by applying the methodological and theoretical tools of the academy to contemporary political challenges (including those encompassing disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation) in ways that are meaningful, digestible and useable by the many stakeholders in policy debate, not least the policy-makers themselves. Many academics find this challenging and question the validity of doing so. For others (and I count myself among them) it forms the bedrock of the research process, particularly those that maintain strong links with NGOs and think-tanks. Too much academic analysis that could genuinely deepen explanation and understanding in policy-relevant ways is written exclusively for other academics. This reflects systemic incentives in the ivory tower knowledge-production industry that the REF’s ‘impact agenda’ and its 2007 predecessor, the Research Assessment Exercise, have hopefully begun to address.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      I can certainly understand and endorse the desire to link academic research to real-world problems, but I’m not sure that intellectual breakthroughs can be mandated. It’s an interactice process that takes time, and it will entail all sorts of fits and starts. If this procedure in the UK means that all social science research must be evaluated for immediate real-world impact and that funding shall be based on that impact, I think that can only be counterproductive in the long run. Or am I reading too much into it?

    • WFR (History)

      Nick Ritchie is absolutely right. Academics write to impress other academics, and if policy makers don’t “get it” it’s because they are just too stupid to understand the astonishing intellectual depth of what the academics have set before them. Most academics – and Bradford’s peace studies people are some of the least culpable – think that the provision of a brilliant scholarly article will, by the power of its argument alone, convince the recipient inside government to go running to their boss and insist on a change in policy. But is there one scintilla of a shred of evidence that this has ever happened in real life?

      Is anyone really going to read a book on predicting proliferation and somehow use it in a way that overrides existing policy making procedures inside large bureaucracies?

      Maybe humankind has plenty of time in hand to allow social scientists to conduct amusing little intellectual games regarding the profound challenges that confront us. Or maybe such people would be beter off getting their hands “dirty” and start dealing with the world as it really is, and policy makers as they really are. Yes, sorry, some of your principles will get chewed up in the process, but it’s better than spouting incomprehensible, irrelevant jargonistic babble which, if truth be told, is actually only aimed at impressing your mates.

      Maybe the Potter volumes don’t fit that pattern. I hope not. I also hope that each volume has a one-page summary attached, along with a four-page expanded summary, and that every sinle term used in those summaries would be clearly understood by a government official at first reading.

  4. Adil (History)

    Michael, The two volume set is indeed an excellent read. Understanding nuclear motivations through proliferation theories, one can also forecast arms control and disarmament priorities of many countries.

  5. DRP (History)

    Many thanks for this helpful review. I think it is particularly important to highlight the authors critique of the “proliferation cascade” orthodoxy, which is worryingly entrenched and bipartisan in character at present. As the authors point out in their NY Times Op-Ed (a must read: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/23/opinion/23iht-edpotter.html) the “cascade” theories are not supported by historical evidence, nor the overwhelming majority of sound evaluations of the many many factors that feed into proliferation decisions. And yet we are regularly subjected to “conventional wisdom” suggesting that Egypt, Turkey and/or Saudi Arabia would nuclearize in response to an Iranian bomb- just as we were told that South Korea and Japan would have no choice but to respond to DPRK weapons with their own programs. This is stale reasoning- yet it persists among policy-makers of all stripes.

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