Beyond Emboldenment: The Effects of Nuclear Weapons on State Foreign Policy



Mark Bell, Harvard University

Date and Time

December 11, 2014 3:30 PM - 5:00 PM


Encina Hall (2nd Floor)

Abstract: What happens to the foreign policies of states when they acquire nuclear weapons? Despite its critical importance, this question has been understudied. This paper offers a new typology of the effects of nuclear weapons on foreign policy, and hypothesizes the circumstances in which these effects might be observed. I distinguish between five conceptually distinct foreign policy behaviors—aggression, expansion, independence,bolstering and steadfastness—-and show theoretically how nuclear acquisition may facilitate each of these behaviors. The typology therefore allows scholars to move beyond simple claims of "nuclear emboldenment," and allows for more nuanced predictions and empirical examinations of the ways in which nuclear weapons affect the foreign policies of current and future nuclear states. I demonstrate the utility of this typology using a "hard" case: the United Kingdom. I show that the acquisition of a deliverable nuclear capability in 1955 significantly affected British foreign policy. Britain did not use its nuclear weapons for aggression or expansion, instead seeking to use its nuclear weapons to maintain its forward conventional posture at lower cost and thus postpone retrenchment. However, Britain did use its nuclear weapons to bolster its junior allies in the Middle East, Far East and Europe, and to exhibit greater independence from the United States and greater steadfastness in responding to challenges to its position-—most dramatically during the 1956 Suez crisis.

About the Speaker: Mark Bell is a PhD candidate in Political Science at MIT and a research fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. His research examines issues relating to the causes and consequences of nuclear proliferation, U.S. and British foreign policy, and international relations theory, and has been funded by organizations including the Smith Richardson Foundation and the Tobin Project. He holds a Masters in Public Policy from Harvard Kennedy School, where he was a Frank Knox Memorial Fellow, and a B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from St. Anne's College, Oxford University.


Audio for Mark Bell presentation on "Beyond Emboldenment," Social Science Seminar, 12/11/2014