Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Political Science


College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

Katherine Barbieri


Nuclear weapons hold a strong allure for many leaders. These weapons are more than tools of national security; rather, they represent international normative symbols of modernity and national identity. This symbolic power presents a strong incentive to proliferate. However, beginning a nuclear weapons program (“proliferating”) is a costly endeavor, one that requires a significant amount of resources and time. A leader who chooses to proliferate must balance the preferences of his or her domestic audience with the significant resources required to proliferate in an international system that opposes nuclear proliferation to new states. In order to understand the paradox of nuclear proliferation, it is necessary to explain why leaders seek nuclear weapons in the first place. I seek to answer this paradox through several related questions. Why do leaders begin nuclear weapons programs? How do domestic audiences affect the decision to proliferate? What are the consequences when a leader is unable to acquire nuclear weapons? I seek to answer these questions with a multi-method research design, beginning with large N analyses to determine broader patterns of proliferation and following these with a small n most-similar systems case study to hone in on causal processes. I create an original dataset that spans the timeframe 1939-2013 that both extends existing nuclear data and adds new variables for nuclear sabotage to answer the above questions. I find that there are noticeable differences among leaders of different regime types for both beginning a nuclear weapons program as well as how successful they are at acquiring nuclear weapons. I find that, on average, leaders are less likely to have an active nuclear weapons program and acquire nuclear weapons when they face a divided domestic audience. However, leaders are more likely to begin a nuclear weapons program and acquire nuclear weapons when they face internal conflict. This finding indicates that the diversionary war theory may extend to nuclear decisions and is a novel explanation for nuclear proliferation. There are also noticeable differences in the strategies employed by the international community to influence the reversal of nuclear programs. I find that, on average, positive inducements have a stronger effect on prompting nuclear reversal than negative inducements. This finding is particularly true for personalistic, and to a lesser extent, civilian dictators. These findings indicate that carrots may carry more weight than sticks in inducing nuclear reversal. Overall, the findings of this dissertation are valuable to both academics and policy-makers who are concerned with understanding the causes and consequences of nuclear proliferation and those strategies that may be viable for halting or reversing the nuclear development process.