NUCLEAR PROLIFERATIONExamining How Countries Go Nuclear — and Why Some Do Not

By Peter Dizikes

Published 14 January 2022

In a new book, political scientist Vipin Narang argues that too often we imagine that all countries pursue nuclear weapons the way the U.S. and Soviet Union did during and after World War II — a swift race culminating in the rapid buildup of arsenals, leaving little room for intervention. But that paradigm applies to almost no other country. Recognizing how different countries choose different paths to proliferation is an essential part of arms control: Grasping how one country is pursuing nuclear weapons can help other countries constrain that pursuit.

Political scientist Vipin Narang’s new book, Seeking the Bomb: Strategies of Nuclear Proliferation, makes sense of the complex history of nuclear weapons programs.

In 1993, South Africa announced to a largely surprised world that it had built nuclear weapons in the 1980s, before dismantling its arsenal. For the first time, a country outside of the elite world powers had obtained nuclear capabilities while keeping matters a secret from almost everyone else.

To this day, South Africa remains the only country to have pulled off that exact trick. Other countries have gone nuclear in other ways. A half-dozen countries with more economic and political clout than South Africa have built weapons on their own timetables. Three other countries — Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea — have developed nuclear weapons while being supported by larger allies. And many wealthy countries, including Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, have chosen not to pursue weapons programs.

Recognizing these different paths to proliferation is an essential part of arms control: Grasping how one country is pursuing nuclear weapons can help other countries constrain that pursuit.

“There’s meaningful variation in how states have thought about pursuing nuclear weapons,” says says Vipin Narang, an MIT political scientist and expert on nuclear strategy. “It changes how we think about stopping them. It changes how we think about managing them. It’s an important question.”

Narang believes that too often, we imagine that all countries pursue nuclear weapons the way the U.S. and Soviet Union did during and after World War II — a swift race culminating in the rapid buildup of arsenals, leaving little room for intervention. But that paradigm applies to almost no other country.  

“We think of proliferators as a stylized Manhattan Project,” says Narang, the Frank Stanton professor of Nucear Security and Political Science at MIT. “But the U.S. and the Soviet Union are really the only ones who had Manhattan projects, and the rest of the nuclear weapons powers look different.”

Narang has detailed these differences in a new book, “Seeking the Bomb,” published today by Princeton University Press. In it, he develops a comprehensive typology of nuclear programs around the world; examines why countries take different routes to nuclear development; and outlines the policy implications.

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