Nuclear Proliferation and IR theory

Image source (Dennis Jarvis)

Written by James Lo

This essay is part of a three-part series in analysing how IR theories inform how one should act in terms of nuclear proliferation. Part one introduces the theories that are currently prevalent in the realm of nuclear proliferation, and parts two and three will apply such theories into real life cases of North Korea and Iran. The theories will hopefully provide a different perspective into how international actors can base their nuclear proliferation theories.


This essay will define nuclear proliferation as a process in which the state attempts to achieve nuclear capabilities rather than merely the possession of the end product (nuclear weapon). This definition will allow me to classify both North Korea and Iran as nuclear proliferating countries. In the first part of the essay I will consider three theories that explain why states acquire nuclear weapons (namely realism, domestic theory and individual leadership) and three theories that explain why states renounce nuclear weapons (namely realism, domestic theory and international institutions).

Theories for why states acquire nuclear weapons

Realism’s self-help model

Structural realists believe, under the anarchic conditions of the international system, states whose security are under threat aim to maximise their relative power. Nuclear weapons are considered to be the ultimate material guarantor of security as they generate caution, promote rough equality and clarity of relative power. States view nuclear weapons as effective strategic deterrent weapons due to their immense destructive powers, ability to overcome defences and invulnerable to pre-emption. As states and their leaders engage in rational considerations of costs and benefits of war, the inherent material nature of the nuclear weapon eliminate the likelihood of miscalculation of the degree to which a war will be costly. Thus, once states attain a secure second-strike capability, they are secure because the outcomes of a potential war are clear. Structural realists argue that as the outcome of a nuclear exchange is apparent and can be anticipated, conflict with a nuclear power will not be pursued as it is not rational. In essence, nuclear proliferation decreases the likelihood of major war among the states that possess them. Therefore, states act to acquire nuclear weapons because they believe nuclear weapons are an effective deterrent against external threats.

Solingen’s domestic model

Solingen believes that nuclear proliferation decisions are mainly taken to ensure political survival and that domestic economic and political considerations affect leaders’ decisions to proliferate. Solingen begins with the premise that leaders need the support of a domestic coalition to stay in power and differentiates between inward-looking and outward-looking countries. Inward-looking leaders seek to proliferate as they associate themselves with military-industrial complex. They aim to maintain a closed political system through policies of extensive trade protection, import substitution and state entrepreneurship.

Solingen argues that inward-oriented coalitions are more likely to seek nuclear weapons due to two main reasons. Firstly, a nuclear programme constructs and maintains a military-industrial complex that takes up a large portion of the state budget and reduce the salience of the economic reform section of society. Secondly, the nuclear weapons are powerful devices that allow the leader to invoke an aura of invincibility and modernity to boost domestic appeal. Moreover, the make-up and the autonomous nature of the complex allows the state to absorb the sanctions other states may impose in the proliferation process. Therefore, Solingen argues inward-looking states will choose to proliferate in hopes to boost regime survival, as it enables them to strengthen their inward-looking coalitions and maintain a closed country.

Hymans’ individual leadership theory

Hymans’ theory rejects the state level analysis and looks to individual leaders in his attempt to explain nuclear proliferation efforts. He focuses on the identity conception of the leader and the ‘ongoing process of self-other comparison. He argues that only “oppositional nationalists” – leaders who see their nation as both naturally at odds and are naturally equals if not superior with an external enemy – will seek to proliferate. Fuelled with emotions of fear and pride, oppositional nationalist leaders will develop a desire for nuclear weapons and pursue a nuclear programme due to higher threat assessments…and higher relative potential power perceptions. Oppositional nationalist leaders will therefore aim to allay fear by acquiring symbols of power – nuclear weapons. In essence, the leader’s perception of identity is the key motivator in the pursuit of the nuclear weapon.

Theories for why states renounce nuclear weapons

Realism alliance theory

Realists seek to explain non-proliferation through the use of alliance theory. Alliances allow vulnerable states to renounce indigenous nuclear weapons in exchange for hegemonic protection. Realists argue that alliances with the hegemon are the reason why states renounce nuclear weapons as they can enjoy the deterrence benefits that nuclear weapons provide without the potential costs that the state may incur when developing the weapons. The likelihood of abandonment from the hegemon is low as it may weaken other commitments and negatively impact the relationship between the countries. Bleek and Lorber argue, through a quantitative model, that a security guarantee will reduce a state’s propensity to explore, pursue or acquire nuclear weapons. Alliances with and security guarantees from the hegemon can therefore entice states to renounce nuclear weapons.

Solingen’s domestic model

Contrary to the inward-looking coalitions stated above, outward-looking (internationalising) coalitions will renounce nuclear weapons as they stake their political survival on economic reform and export-led industrialisation. The outward-looking coalition encompasses groups that encourage openness to global markets, including export-intensive sectors and large banks. They therefore hope to create an open global economic and knowledge / technology system and maintain macroeconomic and political stability. Leaders will tend to adopt policies of expanding private economic activities and foreign investment, promoting regional cooperation and controlling military expenditure.

Outward looking countries therefore tend to non-proliferate. Pursuing a nuclear programme is very costly for the leader’s political outlook, as the threat of sanctions will limit investments and other economic exchanges. Nuclear proliferation programmes can impose competing conditions on countries’ attempts to grow their economy through economic sanctions and competing budgets between the military and economic complexes. Renouncing nuclear weapons will enhance international access, diminish regional tensions and help contain inward-oriented forces.

International institutions

Rational institutionalists argue that the membership of international institutions entice states to renounce nuclear weapons as international institutions increase interdependence, manage collective action problems and reduce uncertainty. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are crucial tools that provide transparency and hold signatories to their obligations through inspections, investigations, expert analysis and recommendations to the UN. The articles in the NPT outline the obligations that countries must take up, while the IAEA has carried out inspections in countries such as Iraq, Iran, North Korea and South Africa. The results are usually public and provide credible information for policy making – for example, the JCPOA was built on IAEA’s judgement that Iran had not pursued the development of a nuclear explosive device since 2009. Despite a lack of internal punishment mechanisms, IAEA referred cases of breach to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), who could vote on the policy going forward. For example, UNSC’s authorised sanctions on Iraq in 1991 and Iran in 2006.

So far, I have provided a quick summary as to the various IR theories on nuclear proliferation – why states obtain nuclear weapons and why states would renounce nuclear weapons. The next two parts of this series will use the theories above to evaluate current theories through real life cases, in terms of how they fit with theory and how it informs policy.

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