This chapter explores the reasons why so few states that have been widely believed to be seeking nuclear weapons have ultimately acquired them. It advances two mutually complementary explanations to explain this anomaly. The first is that intelligence estimates and the other types of analysis used at the time (and in numerous studies since) to classify states as nuclear aspirants, and to develop theoretical propositions pertaining to them, have been skewed or even outright biased. Their overly alarmist conclusions ascribed nuclear-weapon intent where little or no genuine desire to acquire such weapons had existed. The second explanation is that this interpretation bias has largely been rooted in the failure to seriously contemplate the possibility that nuclear activity, even actions that may appear to be unequivocally or at least predominantly directed at acquiring nuclear weapons, might be driven by other motivations. Most of these in fact fall far short of determination to obtain the weapons themselves. 

Proliferation analysts have been persistent and creative in trying to unearth the various motivations guiding states to pursue nuclear weapons. Heretofore, however, they have not been equally good at unpacking the various causal paths that may make a state seem to be trying to acquire nuclear-weapon motivations when it has no such ulterior motive. Consequently, and to the general detriment of international security, the proliferation studies undertaken to date have not really examined these possibilities when analyzing known past and present proliferation cases. In an effort to address this major weakness in the understanding of proliferation dynamics, this chapter has laid out and explained some of these understudied causal paths.

In addition to the lack of imagination in understanding causes and motivations, various analytical and collection limitations 38 Nuclear Latency and Hedging: Concepts, History, and Issues and biases complicate the challenge of understanding the real motivations underlying nuclear activity and how they can and do evolve over time. Yet the prolonged incubation and maturation period of nuclear-weapon programs does create important opportunities to better understand what guides them, and opens up chances to try influence their outcome. To seize these opportunities, researchers and analysts must be aware of the mental constructs guiding both the investigation of and policy deliberations on the nuclear programs, and expand these constructs to consider alternative explanations for observable nuclear-weapon activity. Finally, studying nuclear reversal processes is a vital means of generating insights for analytical and policy discourse, but such exploration must be done with considerable attention and care. It depends on the successful acquisition of pertinent high-quality primary data, without which the richness of the proliferation phenomenon will go underappreciated and its potential contribution to both proliferation research and policy analysis will be curtailed severely.

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This chapter was originally published by the Wilson Center in the book Nuclear Latency and Hedging: Concepts, History, and Issues.