In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Nonproliferation and Counterproliferation

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Quantitative Approaches to Studying Nuclear Proliferation
  • The Effect of Nuclear Proliferation on International Relations
  • The International Nonproliferation Regime
  • Biological and Chemical Weapons Proliferation

International Relations Nonproliferation and Counterproliferation
Justin Anderson, Thomas Devine, Rebecca Gibbons
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0026


Across the academic and policy literature on international relations and national security topics, the term proliferation is generally understood to denote the spread or increase of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)—a term that often denotes chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) munitions and their means of delivery (for a comprehensive study of WMD definitions, see Carus 2012, cited under General Overviews). The actual or potential spread of these weapons—which, in even relatively low numbers, are capable of causing many casualties, social disruption, and, in the case of nuclear weapons, widespread material destruction—has long represented a significant threat to international peace and security. In this context, nonproliferation broadly denotes the means and methods for preventing the acquisition, transfer, discovery, or development of materials, technology, knowledge, munitions/devices or delivery systems related to WMD. Counterproliferation is a separate but closely related term; it denotes efforts and initiatives aimed at (1) directly forestalling, rolling back, or eliminating efforts to proliferate WMD, and (2) preventing a WMD-armed actor from realizing any benefit from owning or employing these weapons. These terms are also often used to discuss states that halt or dismantle their WMD programs, a process that Perkovich 1999 (cited under States outside the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons) has labeled “unproliferation.” Neither this nor other suggested terms for this phenomenon have achieved widespread use, but it is broadly recognized as encompassing elements of nonproliferation and counterproliferation (e.g., a state dismantles a secret WMD program to avoid the risk of discovery and sanctions), and the relevant literature is covered in this article. The scope of the threat posed by WMD has led to a number of multilateral efforts within the international system to prevent their proliferation, such as the negotiation of legally binding treaties and formation of institutional mechanisms for compliance. This “international nonproliferation regime” includes the 1967 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). In general, counterproliferation efforts remain more ad hoc and involve fewer states, although the level of cooperation has significantly increased in the early 21st century, largely as a result of initiatives led by the United States. These differences in the depth, breadth, and length of time associated with nonproliferation and counterproliferation initiatives are reflected in the extant literature on WMD proliferation; studies of nonproliferation subjects heavily outnumber those focused on counterproliferation, although, the latter area has received increased scholarly attention in the United States and abroad.

General Overviews

Nonproliferation and counterproliferation are broad subject areas, encompassing elements of international law (e.g., nonproliferation treaties), scientific and technical fields (e.g., the physics, biochemistry, and engineering involved in developing weapons of mass destruction [WMD]), and political science (e.g., political leaders’ motives for pursuing WMD), among other disciplines. Academic courses and professional training addressing nonproliferation and counterproliferation topics often feature diverse sources drawn from different fields; as such, even within institutions with an emphasis on national security (such as military academies), there are no standard textbooks for these subjects. A number of general overviews, however, have become standard references within academic and analytic communities focused on proliferation issues. Larsen and Smith 2005 represents a historical overview, dictionary of terms, and subject bibliography designed to quickly orient academic scholars and professional researchers that are new to proliferation and arms control topics. Carus 2012 analyzesan enduring challenge that continues to complicate academic and policy assessments of nonproliferation and counterproliferation issues: differing definitions—including those within international and national law—of WMD. This study is an updated edition of a comprehensive 2006 research project on the origins and uses of various international treaty and US legal definitions of WMD. Cirincione, et al. 2005 provides a compendium of global WMD programs and has served as an important reference text for numerous academic studies and research institution analyses of WMD proliferation in the early 21st century. Many policy and academic analyses of proliferation topics deal with questions related to whether it is possible to predict (or improve the ability to predict) if additional actors will develop or acquire nuclear weapons in the future. Potter and Mukhatzhanova 2010 is an edited volume whose twelve state case studies together offer a detailed picture for scholars or analysts new to the subject area of key factors—and actors—to consider within proliferation assessments. Pilat and Kirchner 1995 puts forth good definitions of nonproliferation and counterproliferation (and the relationship between the two), while also detailing the key concepts and policies associated with the latter. Ogilvie-White 1996 and Hymans 2006 present surveys of critical debates within academic studies of nonproliferation that serve as good introductions to and overviews of theoretical approaches to the subject area.

  • Carus, W. Seth. DefiningWeapons of Mass Destruction.” National Defense University Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction Occasional Paper 8. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2012.

    Study contains detailed assessment of issues concerning differing definitions of the term (including various legal definitions within US national and state law). The paper argues in favor of using a 1948 definition developed by the United Nations and used in subsequent arms control and nonproliferation treaties.

  • Cirincione, Joseph, Jon Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar. Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats. 2d ed. New York: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005.

    Book provides extensive background information on WMD states and states suspected of pursuing WMD, including maps listing key production facilities, military bases, and other sites of interest.

  • Hymans, Jacques E. C. “Theories of Nuclear Proliferation: The State of the Field.” Nonproliferation Review 13.3 (2006): 455–465.

    DOI: 10.1080/10736700601071397

    Hymans compares the traditionally dominant realist perspective with idealist approaches explaining nuclear proliferation. Realists contend that proliferation reflects security concerns; idealists counter that developing norms and the international nonproliferation regime will dissuade or prevent proliferation. He argues that idealist theories are better at predicting decisions regarding nuclear proliferation.

  • Larsen, Jeffrey A., and James Smith, eds. Historical Dictionary of Arms Control and Disarmament. Lantham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005.

    Reference work includes a chronology of key arms control and nonproliferation developments over time, dictionary of key terms, and subject bibliography for researchers.

  • Ogilvie-White, Tanya. “Is There a Theory of Nuclear Proliferation? An Analysis of the Contemporary Debate.” Nonproliferation Review 4.1 (1996): 43–60.

    DOI: 10.1080/10736709608436652

    Describes the academic debate on nuclear proliferation, illustrating its limitations and suggesting areas for future research. With this ground still fiercely contested, the article remains a useful introduction to subjects such as challenges to studying nuclear proliferation, debates over causes of nonproliferation, and critiques of the dominant theories of proliferation.

  • Pilat, Joseph F., and Walter L. Kirchner. “The Technological Promise of Counterproliferation.” Washington Quarterly 18.1 (1995): 153–166.

    DOI: 10.1080/01636609509550138

    Defines counterproliferation and gives overview of related policies and strategies within discussion of the US Department of Defense’s Counterproliferation Initiative, launched in response to post–Cold War WMD threats, and the technological tools required to identify and defeat chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) arsenals.

  • Potter, William C., and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, eds. Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century: A Comparative Perspective. Vol. 2, The Role of Theory. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

    This edited volume explores twelve potential cases of nuclear proliferation, with each case addressing questions such as, What is the likelihood this state will go nuclear in the next ten years? What events may trigger proliferation? What would be the likely pathway of nuclear acquisition? Case studies include Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Japan, South Korea, Serbia, and Turkey.

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