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date: 01 March 2021

International Security: Nuclear Proliferationlocked

  • Wilfred WanWilfred WanUnited Nations University-Centre for Policy Research
  •  and Etel SolingenEtel SolingenThomas T. and Elizabeth C. Tierney Chair in Peace Studies, School of Social Sciences,, University of California, Irvine


Since the advent of the nuclear age, scholars have sought to provide rationales behind decisions to pursue, forgo, or relinquish nuclear weapons programs. Security, status, cost, technical capabilities, and domestic considerations have played central roles in explaining those choices. Classical neorealism was once the conventional wisdom, advancing that relative power and the logic of self-help in an anarchic world drove states to nuclear weapons. Yet, the analysis of nuclear proliferation has evolved in accordance with broader debates in international relations theory in recent decades, including the incorporation of neoliberal institutionalist, constructivist, and domestic political perspectives. The end of the Cold War and the upheaval of international order in particular marked a watershed for the literature, with scholars challenging the dominant paradigm by examining the effects of institutions, norms, and identities. Those approaches, however, under-theorized—if not omitted altogether—the role of domestic political drivers in choices to acquire or abstain from acquiring from nuclear weapons. Such drivers provide filters that can be invaluable in explaining whether, when, and how state actors are susceptible to considerations of relative power, international institutions, and norms. More recently, scholars have deployed more sophisticated theoretical frameworks and diverse methodologies. The road ahead requires greater analytical flexibility, harnessing the utility of classical perspectives while adding enough nuance to increase explanatory power, greater attentiveness to the complex interaction among variables, and improved specification and operationalization amenable to rigorous testing, all with an eye toward enhancing both historical accuracy and predictive capabilities.

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