Nuclear opportunism: A theory of how states use nuclear weapons in international politics

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How do states use nuclear weapons to achieve their goals in international politics? Nuclear weapons can influence state decisions about a range of strategic choices relating to military aggression, the scope of foreign policy objectives, and relations with allies. The article offers a theory to explain why emerging nuclear powers use nuclear weapons to facilitate different foreign policies: becoming more or less aggressive; providing additional support to allies or proxies, seeking independence from allies; or expanding the state’s goals in international politics. I argue that a state’s choices depend on the presence of severe territorial threats or an ongoing war, the presence of allies that provide for the state’s security, and whether the state is increasing in relative power. The conclusion discusses implications of the argument for our understanding of nuclear weapons and the history of proliferation, and nonproliferation policy today.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3-28
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Strategic Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
For helpful comments and suggestions, the author thanks Hal Brands, Matthew Bunn, Christopher Clary, Cosette Creamer,?Raymond Duvall, Tanisha Fazal, Peter Feaver, M. Taylor Fravel, Francis Gavin, Gene Gerzhoy, Charlie Glaser, Brendan Green, David Holloway, Keir Lieber, Sean Lynn-Jones, Ron Krebs, Jeffrey Knopf, Martin Malin, Nicholas Miller, Steven Miller, Alex Montgomery, Vipin Narang, Barry Posen, Sebastian Rosato, Joshua Rovner, Scott Sagan, Todd Sechser, Etel Solingen, Nina Tannenwald, Jane Vaynman, Rachel Whitlark, and audiences and workshop participants at Harvard Kennedy School, M.I.T., Monash South Africa, Stanford University, the Tobin Project, the University of Minnesota, the 2015 Nuclear Studies Research Initiative Conference, the 2016 Annual Meeting of the International Studies Association, and the 2016 Notre Dame International Security Center Emerging Scholars in Grand Strategy Conference.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017, © 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group.


  • Nuclear weapons
  • foreign policy
  • nuclear revolution


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