Security Studies Program Seminar

Revisiting the Dove’s Dilemma: Conventional Arms Transfers and Nuclear Weapons Development

Jennifer Erickson
Boston College

April 6, 2011

This project represents the meeting of two research agendas: 1) How do states use conventional arms transfers for the purposes of foreign policy, and 2) How do states promote nuclear weapons non-proliferation?

The central question of the project is: How do states resolve the “Dove’s Dilemma”? More specifically, do major conventional weapons-exporting states attempt to buy off potential nuclear proliferators with conventional arms transfers, or do they sanction them by threatening to cut off these same transfers? In other words, do states wield conventional arms as a carrot or a stick with potential nuclear states?

The Dove’s Dilemma is a concept that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, and it was simply that states had to choose between their nuclear non-proliferation and conventional arms non-proliferation goals. A state like the U.S. couldn’t prevent both types of proliferation. Instead, states would have to sacrifice conventional non-proliferation goals to satiate buyer states with conventional weapons if their nuclear ambitions were to be stopped, or vice versa. One could argue that states needed or wanted the weapons for security or prestige, but in either case, they would not be satisfied with neither nuclear nor conventional weapons, therefore “dove” states would have to pick what they considered to be the lesser of two evils.

The logic of buying out states, or using conventional arms as a carrot, is as follows: The seller state can help the buyer state enhance its conventional arsenal, give it access to advanced technology, and perhaps offer a formal or informal security guarantee along with the weapons. In theory, by addressing buyers’ security and/or prestige concerns, these then represent significant incentives to the buyer state to not pursue a nuclear arsenal. Such sales could also backfire, however, by enhancing regional tensions through arms build-up and by potentially providing buyers with technology useful for nuclear weapons programs.

On the other hand, seller states can also seek to punish would-be nuclear states by using conventional arms as a stick. In this case, the logic is that by threatening to deprive the buyer states of access to conventional weapons and advanced technology, these states will be less likely to pursue nuclear weapons. Or, if the seller state follows through on these threats, it could also serve as a signal to other potential proliferators of the potential costs of their actions.

The project hypothesizes that there is a significant relationship between conventional arms exports and nuclear weapons development. It then hypothesizes that the relationship will be one of two types: First, that there is a positive relationship, reflecting the buy-out logic, and second, that there is a negative relationship, reflecting the punishment logic.

The project looks at data on the top 15 major conventional arms suppliers and 182 potential importers from 1960-2001 (SIPRI is the data source for major conventional arms transfer data). The idea was to start analysis at a time before the nonproliferation treaty (NPT) and have analysis continue past the end of the Cold War. The dependent variable is major conventional weapons transfers (not small arms), measured in a standardized dollar figure from SIPRI. The key independent variable is the annual nuclear weapons status of potential importers.

The authors find that, in general, those states with nuclear programs receive far greater conventional weapons transfers than those without. Using regression analysis, they found that nuclear weapon states receive, on average, about 77% more total conventional arms imports than those without nuclear weapons programs. Additional models estimating annual transfers from specific exporters to specific importers reveal similar results. Overall, this supports the idea that states are opting for buy-out strategies over punishment strategies, although preliminary evidence suggests that the United States may behave differently from the other top exporters. However, there are some shifts over time. Buy-out strategies seemed prominent from 1971-1984 and then again in 1989, whereas punishment strategies seem to occur from 1995-1999.

Jennifer has just started to consider states for potential case studies. She is considering analyzing the cases of Taiwan and South Korea, as they are both close allies of the United States, faced a strong hostile enemy, and signed a security guarantee with the U.S. In the case of Taiwan, the U.S. sold conventional arms to Taiwan in the 1970s and beyond as a symbol of support and to help Taiwan deter China. President Nixon may have used a buy-out strategy in 1973 for Taiwan’s nuclear weapons program, whereas in 1978, President Carter may have shifted to a punishment strategy. In the case of South Korea, their plans for a nuclear weapons program began in 1968. The U.S. discovered the program in 1974-75 and pressured South Korea to join the NPT. The threat of punishment was issued before South Korea abandoned its program, followed by a conventional arms buy-out.

What do states do when they find themselves in Dove’s Dilemma? In sum, states use arms to reinforce international rules and norms among nuclear aspirants. Buying out appears to be a stronger, more common strategy than punishment.


Rapporteur: Peter Krause

back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Spring 2011