Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

The Secret Success of Nonproliferation Sanctions


Building on the rationalist literature on sanctions, this article argues that economic and political sanctions are a successful tool of nonproliferation policy, but that selection effects have rendered this success largely hidden. Since the late 1970s—when the United States made the threat of sanctions credible through congressional legislation and began regularly employing sanctions against proliferating states—sanctions have been ineffective in halting ongoing nuclear weapons programs, but they have succeeded in deterring states from starting nuclear weapons programs in the first place and have thus contributed to a decline in the rate of nuclear pursuit. The logic of the argument is simple: rational leaders assess the risk of sanctions before initiating a nuclear weapons program, which produces a selection effect whereby states highly vulnerable to sanctions are deterred from starting nuclear weapons programs in the first place, so long as the threat is credible. Vulnerability is a function of a state's level of economic and security dependence on the United States—states with greater dependence have more to lose from US sanctions and are more likely to be sensitive to US-sponsored norms. The end result of this selection effect is that since the late 1970s, only insulated, inward-looking regimes have pursued nuclear weapons and become the target of imposed sanctions, thus rendering the observed success rate of nonproliferation sanctions low. I find support for the argument based on statistical analysis of a global sample of countries from 1950 to 2000, an original data set of US nonproliferation sanctions episodes, and qualitative analysis of the South Korean and Taiwanese nuclear weapons programs.

Hide All
Robert Axelrod . 1986. An Evolutionary Approach to Norms. American Political Science Review 80 (4):1095–111.

David A. Baldwin 1985. Economic Statecraft. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

David A. Baldwin 1999. The Sanctions Debate and the Logic of Choice. International Security 24 (3):80107.

William D. Berry , Matt Golder , and Daniel Milton . 2012. Improving Tests of Theories Positing Interaction. Journal of Politics 74 (3):653–71.

Hal Brands , and David Palkki . 2011. Saddam, Israel, and the Bomb: Nuclear Alarmism Justified? International Security 36 (1):133–66.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita , and Alastair Smith . 2007. Foreign Aid and Policy Concessions. Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 (2):251–84.

Vesna Danilovic . 2001. The Sources of Threat Credibility in Extended Deterrence. Journal of Conflict Resolution 45 (3):341–69.

Daniel W. Drezner 1998. Conflict Expectations and the Paradox of Economic Coercion. International Studies Quarterly 42 (4):709–31.

Daniel W. Drezner 1999. The Sanctions Paradox: Economic Statecraft and International Relations. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Daniel W. Drezner 2003. The Hidden Hand of Economic Coercion. International Organization 57 (3):643–59.

Jason D. Ellis 2003. The Best Defense: Counterproliferation and US National Security. Washington Quarterly 26 (2):115–33.

James Fearon . 2002. Selection Effects and Deterrence. International Interactions 28 (5):529

Ernst Fehr , and Urs Fischbacher . 2004. Third-Party Punishment and Social Norms. Evolution and Human Behavior 25:6387.

Benjamin Frankel . 1993. The Brooding Shadow: Systemic Incentives and Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. Security Studies 2 (3–4):3778.

Matthew Fuhrmann . 2009. Spreading Temptation: Proliferation and Peaceful Nuclear Cooperation Agreements. International Security 34 (1):741.

Erik Gartzke , and Dong-Joon Jo . 2009. Bargaining, Nuclear Proliferation, and Interstate Disputes. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (2):209–33.

Francis J. Gavin 2009. Same As It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War. International Security 34 (3):737.

Douglas D. Heckathorn 1988. Collective Sanctions and the Creation of Prisoner's Dilemma Norms. American Journal of Sociology 94 (3):535–62.

Rebecca K.C. Hersman , and Robert Peters . 2006. Nuclear U-Turns: Learning from South Korea and Taiwanese Rollback. Nonproliferation Review 13 (3):539–53.

Jacques E.C. Hymans 2006. The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Jacques E.C. Hymans 2011. Proliferation Implications of Civil Nuclear Cooperation: Theory and a Case Study of Tito's Yugoslavia. Security Studies 20 (1):73104.

Dong-Joon Jo , and Erik Gartzke . 2007. Determinants of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 51 (1):167–94.

Gary King , and Langche Zeng . 2007. When Can History Be Our Guide? The Pitfalls of Counterfactual Inference. International Studies Quarterly 51 (1):183210.

Dean Lacy , and Emerson M.S. Niou . 2004. Economic Sanctions and Issue Linkage: The Role of Preferences, Information, and Threats. Journal of Politics 66 (1):2542.

David J. Lektzian , and Christopher M. Sprecher . 2007. Sanctions, Signals, and Militarized Conflict. American Journal of Political Science 51 (2):415–31.

Pierre Lellouche . 1979. International Nuclear Politics. Foreign Affairs 58 (2):336–50.

Ariel E. Levite 2002. Never Say Never Again: Nuclear Reversal Revisited. International Security 27 (3):5988.

James M. Lindsay 1986. Trade Sanctions as Policy Instruments: A Re-examination. International Studies Quarterly 30 (2):153–73.

Suzanne Maloney . 2010. Sanctioning Iran: If Only It Were So Simple. Washington Quarterly 33 (1):131–47.

Stephen M. Meyer 1984. The Dynamics of Nuclear Proliferation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nicholas L. Miller 2014. Nuclear Dominoes: A Self-Defeating Prophecy? Security Studies 23 (1):3373.

Alexander Montgomery . 2005. Ringing in Proliferation: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb Network. International Security 30 (2):153187.

Joseph S. Nye 1978. Nonproliferation: A Long-Term Strategy. Foreign Affairs 56 (3):601–23.

Scott D. Sagan 1996. Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb. International Security 21 (3):5486.

Scott D. Sagan 2011. The Causes of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation. Annual Review of Political Science 14:225–44.

Sonali Singh , and Christopher Way . 2004. The Correlates of Nuclear Proliferation: A Quantitative Test. Journal of Conflict Resolution 48:859–85.

Branislav L. Slantchev 2011. Military Threats: The Costs of Coercion and the Price of Peace. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Etel Solingen , ed. 2012a. Sanctions, Statecraft, and Nuclear Proliferation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Bradley A. Thayer 1995. The Causes of Nuclear Proliferation and the Utility of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime. Security Studies 4 (3):463519.

Manohar Thyagaraj , and Raju Thomas . 2006. The US-Indian Nuclear Agreement: Balancing Energy Needs and Nonproliferation Goals. Orbis 50 (2):355–69.

Taehee Whang . 2011. Playing to the Home Crowd? Symbolic Use of Economic Sanctions in the US. International Studies Quarterly 55 (3):787801.

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

Miller Supplementary Material

 Word (168 KB)
168 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 34
Total number of PDF views: 484 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1733 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 17th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.