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Belfer Center Home > Events Calendar > Between Power and Pride: Status-Seeking and Nuclear Proliferation in India

Between Power and Pride: Status-Seeking and Nuclear Proliferation in India

An Indian Agni-II intermediate range ballistic missile on a road-mobile launcher, displayed at the Republic Day Parade on New Delhi's Rajpath, January 26, 2004.
Agência Brasil Photo


Between Power and Pride: Status-Seeking and Nuclear Proliferation in India

Brown Bag Lunch
Series: International Security Brown Bag Seminar
Open to the Public - Belfer Center Library, Littauer-369
February 20, 2014
12:15-2:00 p.m.

Speaker: Sven-Eric Fikenscher, Research Fellow, International Security Program/Project on Managing the Atom

Related Projects: International Security, Managing the Atom, Science, Technology, and Public Policy


Past research on the demand-side of nuclear proliferation largely suggests that states cross the nuclear threshold as a result of material cost-benefit calculations. Some older assessments have also highlighted the relevance of "status" or "prestige" for a country's nuclear decision-making, whereas current analyses overwhelmingly agree that the non-proliferation norm—rooted in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—has turned status-seeking into a reason for nuclear restraint. Contrary to that assessment, several indications suggest that even in some NPT-era cases—like Saddam Hussein's quest for the bomb—nuclear proliferation efforts were facilitated by status-seeking efforts.

The speaker will attempt to bridge this gap by distinguishing between two fundamentally different meanings of the notions "status" and "prestige" as laid out in the literature. One of them is based on power, the other one on social esteem. Against this backdrop, he will conceptualize two proliferation models, offering alternatives to the above-mentioned norm compliance hypothesis.

The notion of power-seeking builds on classical realism in which "prestige" is understood as "demonstration of power." The ultimate aim is to impose one's will on others. The notion of social esteem builds on social psychology's emphasis on insufficient recognition. Countries with huge status ambitions that consider the existing social order illegitimate and impermeable are likely to violate norms as they want to teach leading states a lesson.

In both cases, going nuclear is one of several options status-seekers have. The speaker is doing a plausibility probe of both proliferation models by applying them to India's nuclear testing policy, a country equally concerned about its lack of power and social esteem. The first empirical results suggest that India went nuclear because New Delhi's leaders thought that they "required such a demonstration" [to protest against India's exclusion from the nuclear club], as a former leading nuclear scientist put it. This raises the question how a country's desire for social esteem can be addressed.

Please join us! Coffee and tea provided. Everyone is welcome, but admittance will be on a first come–first served basis.


ISP Program Coordinator
International Security Program, 79 John F. Kennedy St., Mailbox 53, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs
HARVARD Kennedy School
Phone: 617-496-1981
Fax: 617-495-8963


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