This project began during my one-year tenure in the U.S. intelligence community, where I analyzed countries with nuclear weapons programs. We focused a great deal of time and effort on these states: what activities they were engaged in, and more important, how we could stop them. However, a few months into the job, a series of questions struck me: What about the 95 percent of states that are not trying to develop nuclear weapons? Why aren’t they? What can we learn from them? In our intelligence work, we were selecting on the dependent variable: examining only the states that wanted nuclear weapons. If we studied states that could develop a nuclear option but chose not to, what could we learn? Could we unearth insights to assist us in dealing with countries that did seek nuclear weapons? Given that almost all states have exercised nuclear restraint, was there a systemic variable at work—one that for some reason lacked influence in our rogue states?
That set of questions fueled the research that led to my dissertation and this book. I began by examining traditional approaches to proliferation and quickly found them wanting. Achieving better understanding of nuclear proliferation and its prevention required two dramatic changes. First, instead of focusing primarily on cases of proliferation, we also need to examine nonproliferation— the states that have considered the nuclear option and exercised restraint. Second, instead of focusing solely on a state’s security environment, we also need to examine the social environment—the norms and ideas shaping how state elites conceptualize “security” and “success.” The common refrain that state decisions about nuclear weapons are motivated by “security” is meaningless. The question is, what do states consider to help or hurt their security? Why do most states believe their security does not require nuclear weapons, while a few believe the opposite? How is it that a state such as Egypt—having lost in conflict against a nuclear-armed adversary and with regional competitors known to be working on nuclear weapons—does not require nuclear weapons for security, whereas South Africa—a state facing few external security threats—did want them?