Nuclear Weapons and National Prestige

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Discussion Paper

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Leaders and historians see prestige as important, but international relations theorists have neglected the concept, in part for lack of a clear definition. It is proposed that a party “holds prestige” when group members generally believe that the party has a certain desirable quality, and this situation gives the party perceived power in the group. The definition gains support from a survey of international affairs writings on the sources of prestige. Prestige is strategically important when a party wants support from others who would rather join the side that more of the others are joining. Some general ways of acquiring prestige are discussed. Compared to achieving social progress, building and testing nuclear weapons is better at bearing prestige because it has distinct borders separating success and failure, because it is salient and because it involves the symbolism of power. In some cases when prestige is a factor, one can better demonstrate one’s ability to perform an accomplishment by refraining from doing it. The analysis yields suggestions for reducing nuclear proliferation.

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