Skip to main content

A Dynamic Theory of Nuclear Proliferation and Preventive War

  • Muhammet A. Bas and Andrew J. Coe

We develop a formal model of bargaining between two states where one can invest in a program to develop nuclear weapons and the other imperfectly observes its efforts and progress over time. In the absence of a nonproliferation deal, the observing state watches the former's program, waiting until proliferation seems imminent to attack. Chance elements—when the program will make progress and when the other state will discover this—determine outcomes. Surprise proliferation, crises over the suspected progress of a nuclear program, and possibly “mistaken” preventive wars arise endogenously from these chance elements. Consistent with the model's predictions and contrary to previous studies, the empirical evidence shows that the progress of a nuclear program and intelligence estimates of it explain the character and outcomes of most interactions between a proliferant and a potential preventive attacker. Counterintuitively, policies intended to reduce proliferation by delaying nuclear programs or improving monitoring capabilities may instead encourage it.

Hide All
Baliga Sandeep, and Sjöström Tomas. 2008. Strategic Ambiguity and Arms Proliferation. Journal of Political Economy 116 (6):1023–57.
Bas Muhammet A., and Coe Andrew J.. 2012. Arms Diffusion and War. Journal of Conflict Resolution 56 (4):651–74.
Beardsley Kyle, and Asal Victor. 2009. Winning with the Bomb. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (2):278301.
Benson Brett, and Wen Quan. 2011. A Bargaining Model of Nuclear Weapons Development and Disarmament. In Causes and Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation, edited by Rauchhaus Robert, Kroenig Matthew, and Gartzke Erik, 4562. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Bleek Philipp C., and Lorber Eric B.. 2014. Security Guarantees and Allied Nuclear Proliferation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 58 (3):429–54.
Brands Hal, and Palkki David. 2011. Saddam, Israel, and the Bomb: Nuclear Alarmism Justified? International Security 36 (1):133–66.
Brown Robert L., and Kaplow Jeffrey M.. 2014. Talking Peace, Making Weapons: IAEA Technical Cooperation and Nuclear Proliferation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 58 (3):402–28.
Burr William, and Richelson Jeffrey T.. 2001. Whether to “Strangle the Baby in the Cradle”: The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960–64. International Security 25 (3):5499.
Coe Andrew J., and Vaynman Jane. 2015. Collusion and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime. Journal of Politics 77 (4):983–97.
Debs Alexandre, and Monteiro Nuno P.. 2014. Known Unknowns: Power Shifts, Uncertainty, and War. International Organization 68 (1):131.
Fearon James D. 2011. Arming and Arms Races. Paper presented at the 2010 Annual Meetings of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC.
Feaver Peter D., and Niou Emerson M.S.. 1996. Managing Nuclear Proliferation: Condemn, Strike, or Assist? International Studies Quarterly 40 (2):209–33.
Fuhrmann Matthew. 2009. Spreading Temptation: Proliferation and Peaceful Nuclear Co-operation Agreements. International Security 34 (1):741.
Fuhrmann Matthew, and Kreps Sarah E.. 2010. Targeting Nuclear Programs in War and Peace: A Quantitative Empirical Analysis, 1941–2000. Journal of Conflict Resolution 54 (6):831–59.
Gavin Francis J. 2012. Politics, History and the Ivory Tower-Policy Gap in the Nuclear Proliferation Debate. Journal of Strategic Studies 35 (4):573600.
Jackson Matthew O., and Morelli Massimo. 2009. Strategic Militarization, Deterrence and Wars. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 4 (4):279313.
Jo Dong-Joon, and Gartzke Erik. 2007. Determinants of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 (1):167–94.
Kahl Colin H. 2012. Not Time to Attack Iran. Foreign Affairs 91:166–73.
Kroenig Matthew. 2009. Importing the Bomb: Sensitive Nuclear Assistance and Nuclear Proliferation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (2):161–80.
Kroenig Matthew. 2012. Time to Attack Iran. Foreign Affairs 91:7686.
Kroenig Matthew. 2013. Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes. International Organization 67 (1):141–71.
Meirowitz Adam, and Sartori Anne E.. 2008. Strategic Uncertainty As a Cause of War. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 3 (4):327–52.
Miller Nicholas L. 2014. The Secret Success of Nonproliferation Sanctions. International Organization 68 (4):913–44.
Montgomery Alexander H., and Mount Adam. 2014. Misestimation: Explaining US Failures to Predict Nuclear Weapons Programs. Intelligence and National Security 29 (3):357–86.
Montgomery Alexander H., and Sagan Scott D.. 2009. The Perils of Predicting Proliferation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (2):302–28.
Narang Vipin. 2014. Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
National Intelligence Council. 2007. Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities. Accessed 28 February 2016.
Nuclear Threat Initiative. 2011. Iran Nuclear Chronology. Accessed 28 February 2016.
Powell Robert. 1993. Guns, Butter, and Anarchy. American Political Science Review 87 (1):115–32.
Powell Robert. 2015. Nuclear Brinkmanship, Limited War, and Military Power. International Organization 69 (3):589626.
Rabinowitz Or, and Miller Nicholas L.. 2015. Keeping the Bombs in the Basement: US Nonproliferation Policy toward Israel, South Africa, and Pakistan. International Security 40 (1):4786.
Sadot Uri. Forthcoming. Osirak and the Counter-Proliferation Puzzle. Security Studies.
Sechser Todd S., and Fuhrmann Matthew. 2013. Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail. International Organization 67 (1):173–95.
Singh Sonali, and Way Christopher R.. 2004. The Correlates of Nuclear Proliferation: A Quantitative Test. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (6):859–85.
US Central Intelligence Agency. 1974. China's Strategic Attack Programs, NIE 13-8-74. Available at Accessed 28 February 2016.
US Department of State. 1964. Memorandum of Conversation, November 23, 1964. In Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Vol. 11, Arms Control and Disarmament. US Department of State, Office of the Historian.
Waltz Kenneth N. 2012. Why Iran Should Get the Bomb. Foreign Affairs 91:25.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Bas and Coe supplementary material
Bas and Coe supplementary material 1

 Unknown (79 KB)
79 KB
Supplementary materials

Bas and Coe supplementary material
Online Appendix

 PDF (322 KB)
322 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 41
Total number of PDF views: 705 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1524 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 13th September 2016 - 24th February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.