To what extent do you expect nuclear weapon proliferation to change in the next 20 years? 

This week we round out our consideration of nuclear weapons with the question ‘To what extent do you expect nuclear weapon proliferation to change in the next 20 years?

 There are, of course, no correct answers. But it is interesting to try. If you try, let us know what you think in the comments box.

My main concern is less nuclear proliferation among states, but rather non-state actors. In my view, ISIS, and other groups, represent perhaps the biggest global threat today. While Iran and North Korea certainly remain a threat, they are at least ‘fixed’ and locatable, and we have heard some positive movement coming from North Korea. The real danger however to me is not so much nuclear weapons as it is biological and chemical weapons that are far easier to make and disperse. Given this fact, I fear that bio-chemical weapons may well become the new nuclear bomb. 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

Within 20 years, I would have expected Iran to have gained a nuclear weapon. Considering their regular breaching of previous nuclear deals, I am not surprised at their breaches of the current deal. This is aside from the fact that the current deal does not allow for inspection of military sites, so they could be developing bombs and just hiding them from inspectors well within the terms of their deal. 

For North Korea, I have no idea. If Trump’s surprisingly effective diplomacy actually works we could be looking at a de-nuclearised Korean peninsula. Or, a nuclear war. I don’t think anybody knows what will happen. 

However, because nuclear is such a large threat, I think it is generally pretty well maintained. I am far more concerned about powerful military (or dual-use) technologies proliferation to terrorist groups and other violent non-state actors. There is on predicting how this would play out when motives and operational capabilities of future terrorists cannot be predicted. All we know is that technology is democratising and de-centralising power, and that includes the possibility for violent action. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

Sagan – Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb 

Continuing our look at nuclear proliferation, this week we take a look at ‘Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons?: Three Models in Search of a Bomb’ by Scott Sagan (International Security 21, no. 3 (1996): 54), available here. It is over 20 years old now, but still provides plenty of interesting points and is definitely worth a read. Let us know what you think.


Published now over 20 years ago, this article from International Security gives a good oversight of three key models to assessing the motivations behind nuclear proliferation: the security model, the domestic model, and the norms model. Each model certainly has its pros and cons, and it seems slightly strange to me as a modern reader to find out that just so little work was done prior to this article to consider any option other than the security model. The recent example of North Korea would certainly seem to suggest that nuclear proliferation in some cases is far more skewed towards the domestic and norms approach, rather than security. It is then perhaps testament to the legacy of this paper that examples such as North Korea have essentially demonstrated that the author is ‘right’ and that nuclear proliferation is far more nuanced and complex than the chain-reaction-approach suggested by the security model alone.  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 


What was nice to see in this article was an acceptance that understanding nuclear issues is really hard. Perhaps it is due to my limited reading on nuclear proliferation being focussed on a number of modern papers on nuclear weapons, or that some of the players in the push towards the recent nuclear prohibition treaty presented that argument as relatively simple to make, but it does seem that a lot of thinking on nuclear weapons is fairly simplistic. Perhaps the influence of game theory parsing the discussion down to simplified win or lose terms helped with this, and indeed that is a valid route of enquiry. But I felt it refreshing to read this piece and have someone acknowledge that dealing with nuclear weapon politics is really difficult. I also liked the thorough way in which the author dealt with the troika of reasons states have for wanting to develop nuclear weapons. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University  

Moshirzadeh – Discursive Foundations of Iran’s Nuclear Policy

 This week we continue looking at nuclear proliferation with a specific look at Iran. Obviously the focus of a lot of attention in relation to its nuclear programme, this weeks paper ‘Discursive Foundations of Iran’s Nuclear Policy’ by Homeira Moshirzadeh (Security Dialogue 38, no. 4 (2007): 521–43), available here) looks at Iranian nuclear policy from a few years ago, It is interesting to see the simliarities before the most recent IRan deal and now. Let us know what you think.

This article gives an interesting insight into some of the wider factors surrounding Iran’s nuclear policy, relating it back to three key rationales: independence, justice and resistance. Just as with other readings we’ve addressed / will be addressing on nuclear proliferation, this article presents a complex picture that is far more complicated than a simple security-based approach would suggest. I was particularly interested by the author’s suggestion that a kind of national ‘identity politics’ of sorts is the prime motivator for Iran, and the influence of how they see themselves in relation to others (523).  

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

Reading something on Iranian nuclear policy from inside Iran was really interesting. Indeed, in the post-modern times that we are living in, it seems that nobody is prepared to even consider view points that come from the opposite end of whatever spectrum is under discussion. So it was good to go against this trend in order to learn something from a new perspective. Perhaps it would be good for foreign policy experts to read more of this type of stuff in order to appreciate why Iran keeps cheating on nuclear deals that it, and the P5+1, spend so much time and money negotiating.  

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University  

Dong-Joon and Gartzke – Determinants of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation 

This week we move on from military human enhancement to nuclear proliferation. We begin this topic by looking at ‘Determinants of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation‘ by Dong-Joon Jo, and Erik Gartzke (Journal of Conflict Resolution, Volume: 51 issue: 1, page(s): 167-194), available here. It is a great study using mixed methods to analyse what factors affect nuclear proliferation. Here are our thoughts:

In this paper the authors conduct a statistical analysis of nuclear proliferation and offer some insight into factors influencing proliferation, and trends going forward. While I have little to offer in terms of the practical application of the study itself (I am not a statistics scholar), I find some of the conclusions quite interesting. Most notably perhaps is the fact that the authors claim ‘there is no difference between democracy and autocracy in terms of a tendency to pursue nuclear weapons production programs’ (186). To be honest, I’m not really sure how much we can take from this conclusion, as I would suggest this trend has more to do with the outcomes of the Second World War, and the following Cold War, than it has to do with nuclear weapons per se. I wonder then if perhaps the authors are confusing symptom and cause? 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

I found this paper to be excellent. I love the surety that the quantitative analysis brings to this study, and indeed found the conclusions to be wonderful. It must be disappointing to those who put so much effort in to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and continue to work for its application for it only to result in ‘modest or marginal impacts on nuclear proliferation.‘ The article also looks at reasons for this. But it made me wonder if there are better option for arms control? If the NPT does very little, what options could there be to create a greater impact? As mentioned in previous weeks, soft law might be an option, but is also problematic. I remember in Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature the suggestion that taboo plays a very large role in preventing WMD use, but negative press are hardly going to be of concern to a nation using a nuclear strike as the last hope for state survival. Perhaps, a concerted effort from all angles is required. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University 

Fuhrmann and Lupu – Do Arms Control Treaties Work?: Assessing the Effectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

This week begins a series of discussions on arms control. Whilst we’ve looked at this topic before, this series (and the next two) are all the suggestions of TTAC21 member Maaike Verbruggen. We thank her for the great spread of interesting articles she has found and submitted to the rest fo the group.

The paper this week is ‘Do Arms Control Treaties Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty’ by Matthew Fuhrmann and Yonatan Lupu (International Studies Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2016): 530–39; available here).

Without further ado, here is what we think. Please let us know your thoughts in the comment below.

In this paper the authors outline research that addresses the question of whether the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has limited the spread of nuclear weapons. While the authors point to the range of debates on this subject, with significant studies falling on both sides of the fence, the authors’ study demonstrates that the NPT has had a significant impact on reducing the probability that States will pursue or acquire nuclear weapons.

While this study is of course interesting in its own, one of the other useful contributions it makes is its role in demonstrating that international treaties can indeed make a significant impact on the global landscape. As the authors argue: ‘Policymakers therefore should not be overly dismissive of treaties as a tool for meeting key challenges in the 21st century’ (23). However, while I find the conclusions of the study encouraging, I would still question the wider context surrounding the NPT itself, as the NPT does not exist in isolation, and sits within the context of many decades of Cold War anxiety that has left an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of many people, which may then have fed into the likelihood of State actors ratifying and then adhering to the strictures of the NPT. Can we ever say for certain that the NPT is the defining causal factor behind the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons? I’d argue perhaps not.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster  University


The main thrust of this article is to show that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) works. I would have expected it to for those states who are signatories. Seeing as states cannot be bound by rules they do not consent to in international law, it makes sense that only states who agree with the NPT rules would sign up to abide by them. Considering that nuclear proliferation is in nobody’s interest, this also makes sense from a security perspective. However, North Korea are notable state parties who have left the treaty. We see currently the US, South Korean, and international attempts to get North Korea to dismantle its nuclear warfare capability. Considering this is outside of the NPT, it would seem that the attempted de-nuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula is taking place using pure diplomacy (including altering sanctions). If concerted diplomatic efforts (and possibly even military action) is needed to keep states with WMD ambitions in check, then the NPT alone is not enough. Preventing the spread of WMDs is something which all states have an interest in, and the NPT should be recognised as a part of the solution, as this article claims.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University

UPDATE: Added 29/4/2019, written earlier

The author attempt to assess whether NPT ratification correlates positively with nuclear nonproliferation, controlling for a range of variables such as the side taken in the US-USSR rivalry, membership of an existing rivalry and whether they are a ‘personalist regime’. Not only do the authors discover ‘the strongest evidence to date of a causal relationship between the NPT and nuclear proliferation’, but the use of multiple controls enable them to also find that ‘the size of the effect of NPT ratification on the probability of nuclear weapons pursuit is about 3 times the effect of belonging to an enduring rivalry and about 7 times the size of the effect of belonging to an alliance with the U.S. or Soviet Union’ (although that one’s a binary-encoded value, which rather leaves the Non-Aligned Movement in the cold). The conclusions seem promising for future arms control regimes, although as we shall see in a later paper that may not always be the case.

Ben Goldsworthy, Lancaster University

Let us know what you think!