Reassessing the Potential for Nuclear Proliferation -- Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities by Mitchell Reiss

By Kincade, William H. | Arms Control Today, September 1995 | Go to article overview

Reassessing the Potential for Nuclear Proliferation -- Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities by Mitchell Reiss


Kincade, William H., Arms Control Today


Mitchell Reiss, Bridled Ambition: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities, Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995, 346 pp. Paper: $16.95.

It is rare to find a specialist concerned with a policy goal whose commitment does not prejudice the analyst's obligation to be objective. The temptation to tailor evidence and analysis to favor one's policy preference is always difficult to resist, particularly if the desired outcome is a worthy one like the reduction of nuclear arsenals and the rollback of proliferation threats.

Mitchell Reiss is therefore to be applauded all the more for his rather contrarian study of nine countries that in the early 1990s limited incipient nuclear weapons programs in various ways. A lawyer and a former National Security Council staff member, Reiss has produced a watershed study indicating that the appeal of acquiring nuclear arms may be diminishing. This finding will not necessarily be welcome, however, to some of his fellow toilers in the cause of nuclear non-proliferation, for whom the starkest depiction of the proliferation problem has been seen as the best goad to preventive action.

Well before the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, nonproliferation advocates tended to overrate the breadth and immediacy of the threat of nuclear dispersion, partly to raise the visibility of the issue on the Western security agenda, where it usually came a distant second to the superpower competition for advantage. With the transformation of the international system in 1989-91, concern for "loose nukes" assumed top billing on the U.S. security agenda. Not only did U.S. non-proliferation policy have to cope with previously suspected proliferators, it now had to contend with ex-Soviet weapons in three former non-Russian republics, plus nuclear expertise and materials that might migrate from the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Reiss' analysis breaks with the doom-and-gloom theme of most proliferation treatments (including those on chemical and biological weapons) and offers a cautiously hopeful picture of nuclear restraint. His account is the more compelling for its exhaustive research and the nature of the nine states--several of which are or were sources of proliferation concern: Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, India, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Pakistan, South Africa and Ukraine.

Five Major Factors

According to Reiss, "Each of the nine countries had varied and sometimes contradictory reasons for slowing, stopping, or reversing the growth of their nuclear weapons capabilities. Nearly all of them, however, were influenced by five factors: changes in the international system after the Cold War and their influence on 'new thinking' about the value of nuclear weapons; a new kind of U.S. 'dollar diplomacy'; U.S. non-proliferation efforts; the quality of political leadership in each country; and the global non-proliferation regime."

The concluding examination of these five factors is illuminating, especially Reiss' finding that the quality of the political leadership is the most important determinant of the behavior of the nine countries studied, a factor rarely considered in strategies for non-proliferation.

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