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Understanding Why Nuclear States Provide Sensitive Nuclear Assistance


In his upcoming book, “Exporting the Bomb: Power Projection, Sensitive Nuclear Assistance, and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons,” IGERT Public Policy and Nuclear Threats (PPNT) trainee and Georgetown professor Matthew Kroenig examines why states transfer sensitive nuclear materials and technology. These transfers are an important cause of nuclear proliferation, but their cause has never before been systematically explored.

Traditional analyses and media reports have examined the demand side of nuclear transfers and chiefly assume that they are driven by only by economic motivations. In contrast, Kroenig argues that state decisions to provide sensitive nuclear assistance are the result of a coherent, balance of power logic.

Kroenig has often said that without the intellectual nurture provided by the interdisciplinary examination of nuclear issues characteristic of the IGERT PPNT program, his research interests would have headed in another direction. However, with each passing year of his involvement in the PPNT program, his interest and holistic view of all aspects of the nuclear issues was broadened and his research took shape. In fact, the quantitative analysis and case studies presented in his forthcoming book began with IGERT supported PhD dissertation, “The Enemy of My Enemy Is My Customer: Why States Provide Sensitive Nuclear Assistance.”

In a recent article published in the American Political Science Review, “Exporting the Bomb: Why States Provide Sensitive Nuclear Assistance,” Kroenig describes the three hypotheses that shape his strategic theory of nuclear proliferation. Kroenig performed exhaustive case studies as he developed this theory. He also developed an original data set of nuclear suppliers (nuclear states and those states that have mastered parts of the nuclear fuel cycle) and recipients (all non-nuclear states) he developed for the years 1951-2000.

Kroenig findings suggest economics and trade dependence have only a small influence on a states potential to provide nuclear assistance. While in some cases, states do provide nuclear assistance for economic gain, they do not do so when it undermines their own security. Kroenig advances a new theory of nuclear proliferation founded upon three principles. First, the more powerful a state is relative to a potential nuclear recipient state, the less likely it will be to provide sensitive nuclear assistance to that state. Second, Kroenig’s findings suggest that states will be more likely to provide sensitive nuclear assistance to states with which they share a common enemy. Third, states that are dependent on a superpower patron will be less likely to provide sensitive nuclear assistance to other states.

While the threat of nuclear proliferation has remained at the top of the list of security threats to the United States for decades, changes in the world threaten to increase its priority level even further. The decline of the Soviet Union as a superpower means there are many states, such as North Korea, without a “patron” superpower who are more willing to take steps towards nuclearization because they do not have to be concerned about upsetting the aims of a protective superpower. There are also states who feel increasingly threatened by US power and antagonized by its military actions abroad that appear more than willing to provide assistance to enemies of the United States in order to limit its “military freedom of action.”

Matthew Kroenig’s work has the potential to develop a deepened understanding of the causes and consequences of nuclear proliferation and contains important implications for nuclear nonproliferation policy.

Address Goals

The new perspective of this research contains important implications for nuclear nonproliferation policy. Without understanding the motivations of states that provide sensitive assistance to other states, the United States cannot lead in the effort to stop nations from forming alliances of defiance that threaten to begin a new cold war. The importance of advancing a true understanding among policy makers and intelligence analysts of why states proliferate is probably best summarized in the words of Kroenig himself, “Correctly understanding the conditions under which states provide sensitive nuclear assistance matters not only for the scholarly study of nuclear proliferation, but also for efforts to prevent the further spread of the world’s most dangerous weapon.”