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A-Bomb for the People? When Leaders Cue the Public in Nuclear Decision-Making

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In building indigenous nuclear weapon programs, leaders have incentives to keep their plans secret, and several have. Domestic populations may limit the flexibility of the program, and international scrutiny could lead to sanctions or even military strikes. And yet, many leaders have cued the public to their nuclear ambitions. Why do leaders cue these audiences to their nuclear intentions when doing so could lead to both internal and external constraints from public awareness and foreign pressure? Using qualitative evidence from past cases of elite cueing, this article offers a theoretical examination of why some leaders choose to involve the public despite—or sometimes because of—the constraints that attention can impose. We describe six types of cueing logics based on the level of development of the nuclear program and the intended audience. Understanding the rationales behind such cues is not just of historical significance; these cues remain relevant as several states continue to pursue nuclear technologies—capabilities that can be used for peaceful purposes or repurposed for nuclear weapons. In other words, nuclear cueing is an important and overlooked aspect of research on nuclear proliferation.

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