This study presents an account of why nuclear weapons are rapidly becoming less attractive than they once seemed and what factors can motivate a country's leaders to keep nuclear ambitions in check. Written by an arms control expert, Bridled Ambition explains how nine countries—South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan and North Korea—have recently capped, curtailed, or rolled back their nuclear weapons programmes. Among the issues discussed how, when, where and why South Africa built the bomb, how they planned to use it and why they gave it up. There are details of the classified 1992 denuclearization agreement that Russia forced Belarus to sign, setting the timetable for the return of SS-25 ICBMs to Russia. Other previously confidential information is discussed.

Mitchell Reiss is a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a consultant to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.


1. Introduction

2. South Africa: “Castles in the Air”

3. Argentina and Brazil: Rivals, Not Enemies

4. The Former Soviet Union: Managing the Nuclear Inheritance
Ukraine: The Nuclear Hedgehog
Belarus: Pushing on an Open Door
Kazakhstan: Deliberate Denuclearization

5. South Asia: The Zero-Sum Subcontinent?

6. North Korea: Living with Uncertainty

7. Conclusion


“At a time when nuclear proliferation is becoming an increasingly ominous threat to global stability, Mitchell Reiss’s book provides the much-needed perspective. Thoroughly researched, systematic and probing in analysis, and significant in its conclusions.”—Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Adviser, 1977–1981

“Judiciously lays out the wins and draws of recent nonproliferation efforts, drawing our attention to the good policies and good fortune that can play a role in this struggle.”—S. S. Hecker, Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory

“Matching a critical eye with meticulous research, Reiss slices through diplomatic smokescreens and uncovers a wealth of new information about nuclear programs in nine countries.”—Leslie H. Gelb, President, Council on Foreign Relations

“A thought-provoking work—one that offers some useful balm to the fevered discourse over nuclear proliferation.… A valuable and well-written reminder that in fighting the world’s fight we cannot ignore our occasional clear and even partial successes.”—R. James Woolsey, Director of Central Intelligence, 1992–1995

“Reiss worked for the National Security Council on nonproliferation issues and thus brings a wealth of inside information to this study. Reiss examines nine countries that have voluntarily constrained, frozen, or eliminated their nuclear weapons programs. These counties are South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Belorus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.… Reiss has added an important contribution to the research of nuclear nonproliferation and shown us that occasionally deproliferation is a viable policy option.”—Kevin J. Lasher, Presidential Studies Quarterly

“Drawing on hundreds of interviews with officials in several nations and previously classified information, Mr. Reiss explains why nine countries—South Africa, Argentina, Brazil, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan, and North Korea—have either capped, curtailed, or rolled back their nuclear weapons programs.”—Lawrence J. Korb, New York Times

“Michael Reiss’s work is an excellent, detailed and well-documented story of why some states…have subsequently abandoned their nuclear ambitions.”—NOD & Conversion