Deterring Intervention: The Civil Origins of Nuclear Proliferation

With Zachary Taylor

Abstract: Standard nuclear deterrence theory suggests that atomic weapons decrease the probability of conflict between states. We argue that nuclear weapons can have such a chilling effect on civil wars as well, even if their use against a domestic opposition is never credible. Potential rebel groups consider the likelihood of third-party intervention in the decision to revolt. In contrast to civil use, a government on the verge of defeat can credibly threaten to use nuclear weapons against international opponents. Thus, when (1) interventions occur in the absence of nuclear weapons, (2) interventions would not occur against a nuclear-armed state, and (3) rebel groups only wish to revolt with third-party assistance, nuclear weapons stop the onset of civil war. We use Libya’s long-lasting nuclear program and the 2011 uprising to illustrate the mechanism.

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