In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Proliferation

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Journals

International Relations Proliferation
Carol Turner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0003


Proliferation describes growth by the rapid multiplication of parts. In science this is the process by which an organism reproduces others of its own kind. In the latter half of the 20th century, however, this term has been co-opted to mean the rapid spread of deadly weapons. In its politico-military context, proliferation most commonly refers to nuclear weapons, and sometimes covers all weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, and radiological as well as nuclear. Nonproliferation, the obverse, is a key security concern today—how to reduce existing arsenals and prevent the development of new weaponry. Abolition is a less frequently—some would argue inadequately—addressed alternative. Works on proliferation are grouped both thematically and chronologically. In the latter case, three distinct periods are identified, each characterized by overlapping theoretico-legal approaches that reflect changes in the international security environment. These are (1) Cold War—from 1945 to 1989–1991, when attention is focused on the arms race between the capitalist and Communist worlds and proliferation is concerned with establishing a nuclear balance between the United States and Soviet Union; (2) post–Cold War—from 1989 to 2001, when the collapse of the Soviet Union shifts attention to the potential acquisition of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction by nonnuclear states; and (3) asymmetrical threats—from 2001 onward, when concentration refocuses on acquisition by so-called rogue states and nonstate actors such as terrorist groups in the post-9/11 period.

General Overviews

This bibliography begins with a small selection of works that address the overarching issues raised by nuclear weapons in particular. Citations here represent only a tiny fraction of what is available and are divided into classic texts (Classic Approaches), underrepresented or unusual viewpoints (Alternative Perspectives), and historical background (Background). The last of these includes narratives about the human impact of the atomic bombs, because proliferation discourse is too frequently sanitized, the human consequences removed. These texts remind us where proliferation leads because, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, peace cannot be achieved through violence; it can only be attained through understanding.

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