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Why Do States Share Nuclear Secrets?

- December 10, 2008


[Source: Nuclear Weapon Archive.]

This piece, in yesterday’s New York Times, is subtitled “Atomic insiders say that the weapon was invented only once, and its secrets were spread around the globe by spies, scientists, and the covert acts of nuclear states.” Regarding the latter, the piece notes China’s willingness to aid in proliferation, as well as France’s. But the authors of the two books the piece focuses on can only “speculate” on why they do so.

Here is a more systematic answer, from Georgetown political scientist Matthew Kroenig. He asks why would states share their nuclear secrets, noting that it seems puzzling to do, since the resulting nukes could one day “threaten the supplier’s existence.”

He finds that states do so for strategic reasons:

bq. First, because nuclear proliferation constrains states’ ability to use conventional military power to their advantage, the more powerful a state is relative to a potential nuclear recipient, the less likely it is to provide sensitive nuclear assistance. States do not wish to impose constraints on themselves.

bq. Second, precisely because nuclear proliferation constrains states’ military freedom of action, however, states are more likely to provide sensitive nuclear assistance to states with which they share a common enemy. By providing sensitive nuclear assistance to these states, a nuclear supplier can impose strategic costs on rival states.

bq. Finally, because superpowers, states with global force projection capabilities, are threatened by nuclear proliferation anywhere in the international system, they pressure other states in an attempt to prevent sensitive nuclear transfers. States that are vulnerable to superpower pressure are less likely to provide sensitive nuclear assistance.

International institutions also matter; signatories to the Nuclear Non-Prolilferation Treaty are also less likely to supply assistance. By contrast, economic motivations appear to matter little, which counters the speculation in the NY Times piece that France helped Israel because of “substantial commercial ties.” These findings come from a large-scale dataset that tracks nuclear assistance from 1951-2000.

There are lots of interesting implications:

bq. …as China modernizes its military forces and begins to think about projecting force abroad, it is likely becoming more concerned that nuclear proliferation in distant regions could constrain its military might. This consideration may be contributing to the decline in sensitive nuclear exports from, and a heightened attention to nuclear nonproliferation in, Beijing.

bq. …policymakers should beware of the end of security alliances. States that depend on a superpower to provide for their security are less likely to export sensitive nuclear materials and technology. The collapse of the Soviet Union left a number of states without a superpower patron. North Korea, for example, may be at risk of providing sensitive nuclear assistance in part because it can do so without antagonizing a powerful protector. Officials must recognize that nuclear umbrellas can reduce the supply of, as well as the demand for, nuclear materials and technology.

The piece, forthcoming in the American Political Science Review, is here.