Authoritarian Politics and Nuclear Proliferation

Nuclear proliferation remains a serious threat to the future of global peace and security. In the face of this threat, nearly every country in the world has signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Although violations of this agreement are rare, they have exclusively been committed by authoritarian regimes. WZB researcher Alexandros Tokhi investigates why some authoritarian regimes violate the NPT while others comply with it, revealing the role of power dynamics in constraining dictators’ compliance choices.

Authoritarian politics are characterized by commitment issues: Without effective checks and balances, decisions are based on the whims and interests of a select few at the top. Unconstrained dictators value the prestige and security bonus of developing nuclear weapons, particularly if they are unchallenged within their country and feel threatened by overseas powers or nuclear-armed neighbors. On the other hand, pro-trade factions whose incomes rely on international cooperation are likely to seek to contain nuclear proliferation and convince the man at the top to honor his NPT commitments. Against this background, Tokhi theorizes that the probability of NPT violation will rise with the concentration of power in the dictator’s hands, whereas power-sharing with pro-trade factions within the authoritarian elite tips the scales towards NPT compliance.

Examining the nuclear activities of 19 Middle Eastern NPT signatories from 2001 to 2010 with quantitative methods, the study found that compliance levels varied wildly, both across states and within them over time. Correlating these instances with measurements of power sharing and pro-trade preferences, the likelihood of complying with the NPT was higher in authoritarian regimes where the dictator did not have the absolute monopoly on power, but was checked by a select group of elites. As long as pro-trade voices within this group were able to influence and counterbalance the dictator, the regime was more likely to stay in line with the NPT, thus escaping potential economic sanctions that would be disastrous to international exchange. The key here is persistent power-sharing: Only when factions from the ruling coalition have the clout to keep their seat at the table can they effectively constrain political choices by acting as de facto veto players, even if the dictator ultimately has the last word.

This fresh approach to studying authoritarian regimes’ NPT compliance has several important policy implications. The threat of economic sanctions, for example, is less likely to convince dictators to comply with the NPT if pro-trade elites within the country have little influence over nuclear decision-making. When dealing with dictatorships, the international community should support political groups that have the necessary domestic clout to shape the leader’s preferences and sustain treaty compliance.

About the Author

Alexandros Tokhi is a research fellow in the WZB’s Global Governance research unit.

A small wooden figure stands on a platform in front of a crowd of similiar puppets, apparently making a speech to them.
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APIR Event Series

What are the international consequences of authoritarian rule? How do developments abroad affect dictatorships domestically? APIR, a new workshop series organized by WZB researchers Alexandros Tokhi and Alexander Schmotz, gets to grips with these questions once a month on a Tuesday afternoon.