Nonproliferation Trends. What’s News, What’s True?

October 6, 2020
William Potter

The following was originally published in

It should be possible for the United States and Russia to reiterate in one fashion or another the basic tenet that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. If they are unable to lend their support to this fundamental principle, any comments they might make about the enduring value of the NPT at the next Review Conference will have a hollow ring, writes William C. Potter, Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS).


Forecasting nuclear proliferation has a long but very poor record. Since the first nuclear weapons detonation 75 years ago, journalists, government officials, and scholars have incorrectly predicted innumerable instances of nuclear weapons spread, often employing rhetorical flourishes about nuclear chain reactions, cascades, waves, dominoes, and tipping points. Today, prognoses of proliferation doom and gloom are again in fashion. This essay briefly takes stock of the current proliferation scene and explores what of significance has changed that might alter the balance of proliferation incentives and disincentives. It also examines the challenges facing the delayed Tenth Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) Review Conference. It concludes by proposing several steps that might help to restore a modicum of US-Russian nonproliferation cooperation in the interests of retarding the further spread of nuclear weapons.

What’s News, What’s True?

Many of the early pessimistic forecasts about nuclear proliferation, including those by the U.S. intelligence community, falsely assumed that the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons was tantamount to a decision to exercise that capability. In fact, almost every country that in the past pursued civilian applications of nuclear energy, also conducted activities consistent with a military program, although most abandoned those activities long before they yielded a weapon. Possession of the technical capacity to “go nuclear,” therefore, is a poor predictor of nuclear proliferation.

The prevailing view among both international relations scholars and government practitioners is that external security threats are the principal drivers of national decisions to acquire nuclear weapons. This “realist” perspective leads some analysts to hypothesize an action-reaction process in which proliferation begets more proliferation. While international security considerations certainly have played a significant role in some countries’ nuclear weapons calculations, they fail to explain why countries facing similar external threats have responded very differently to these challenges or why some states that previously possessed nuclear weapons subsequently chose to forego them in favor of joining the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states.

One explanation for these counterintuitive actions—from a realist perspective—is the possible mitigation of the security dilemma by securing guarantees from other nuclear weapons possessors and/or legal and political assurances regarding the intentions of regional rivals. Such assurances have taken the form of international treaties such as the NPT, regional treaties in the form of Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones, and the introduction of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

Some analysts also acknowledge the positive impact on nonproliferation of normative restraints related to the non-use of nuclear weapons since 1945 and the development of related norms regarding international humanitarian law. In addition, other scholars attribute the diminished interest in nuclear weapons on the part of some countries due to the perceived costs associated with their development and the political economic burdens they impose for states seeking greater integration into the global economy.

Finally, one should acknowledge the view, albeit a minority one, that the most interesting aspect of the nonproliferation puzzle is not the relatively small number of nuclear weapons possessors, but the fact that nine states have actually acquired nuclear arms. This view, most closely associated with the scholar Jacques Hymans, suggests that a particular “national identity conception” is associated with a small set of leaders who undertake the quest for nuclear weapons. These leaders possess what he refers to as an “oppositional nationalist” identity, characterized by a deep fear of an external enemy along with extreme nationalism.

A quick review of the current scene suggests that while major underlying proliferation disincentives remain powerful, some have eroded, and others may be in jeopardy.

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