Does Nuclear “Prestige” Prevent Nonproliferation Agreements?

In a word, no.

First, a brief background. The main theoretical chapter of my dissertation shows that nonproliferation agreements are fairly easy to establish. Even if a potential rising state proliferates, it will ultimately only be able to receive some amount of concessions from a rival. As such, to deter proliferation, the rival only needs to offer most of the concessions the rising state would receive if it did proliferate. Nuclear investment is no longer profitable, as most of the concessions that proliferation would yield have already been given up. The rising state is happy to maintain the status quo because it is already getting most what it wants. (Building would yield slightly more concessions, but it would not be worth paying the investment cost.) The rival is happy because it can keep a small amount of the concessions to itself, as the rising state is willing to accept slightly reduced offers due to the aforementioned cost savings.

The only obstacle is if the costs of proliferation are very small. Here, the rival cannot scale back very much on the deal, so the value of a nonproliferation agreement is smaller for that rival. In turn, the rival may prefer impatiently hording as much of the bargaining good as possible for as long as possible, forcing the rising state to proliferate. At that point, the rival makes great concessions.

Note that the key comparative static determining whether proliferation occurs is the cost of weapons. If the cost is high, proliferation agreements work. If not, proliferation occurs. Fortunately, nuclear weapons (and their necessary delivery systems) are incredibly expensive. Consequently, nonproliferation prevails most of the time.

However, nuclear “prestige” seems like a hindrance to the nonproliferation regime. Advocates of this theory claim that nuclear weapons bestow international prestige on their possessors, separating the owners from everyone else above and beyond the power nuclear weapons provide. There are many reasons to doubt whether such prestige actually exists–I can’t remember the last time one country was excited to hear that another one was proliferating–but let’s go with it for a moment. It then seems like prestige might sabotage those nonproliferation agreements, as it reduces the perceived investment cost for the rising state.

This has been in the back of my mind for a year or two now, and I have wondered what it meant for the robustness of my dissertation’s nonproliferation argument. Luckily, I had a mental breakthrough a couple of nights ago. The prestige argument is mostly harmless.

The key here is that prestige is zero sum. If nuclear weapons are prestigious, then no country is prestigious if all countries have them. As a result, it is incorrect to think of prestige as affecting a rising state’s perception of the cost of proliferation. Rather, prestige matters for determining the amount of goodies the rising state will receive in the future. Additional prestige means the rising state will receive more, whereas the relatively less prestigious countries (compared to today’s status quo) will receive less.

But this is just a complicated way of saying that nuclear weapons give their possessors additional concessions. Consequently, those who would have to give up the concessions should proliferation occur have incentive to reach nonproliferation agreements for the reasons outlined above. In turn, prestige has little affect on the viability nonproliferation agreements.

Nevertheless, this logic explains the competing beliefs about the existence of prestige. Rising states claim that prestige exists–because, if it does, rivals will have to give them more to reach nonproliferation settlements. Their rivals claim that prestige does not exist–because, if it does not, the cost of reaching a nonproliferation agreement will be lower for them.

If you’d like to see the argument in action, take a look at the chapter. The prestige argument is the first robustness check I run.

One response to “Does Nuclear “Prestige” Prevent Nonproliferation Agreements?

  1. These are interesting thoughts. I do think though that the best way to understand the desire for nuclear weapons capabilities is to recognize their deterrence value. It seems like a simple enough point but people find it hard to admit that certain rogue states would benefit from nukes by decreasing the odds of Western and particularly American aggression.

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