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The Role of Nuclear Proliferation in International Relations


Nuclear weaponry has occupied a central place in the international relations debate since their first use in 1945. The application of nuclear weapons on Japan’s Hiroshima and Nagasaki during the Second World War led to its closure. The possession of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union were primary to the bi-polar, strategic alliances that characterized global politics for almost half a century during the Cold War.  While many analysts thought that the influence of nuclear weapons in international relations would end with the collapse of with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which did not happen. The threat of nuclear proliferation reemerged as many other countries such as India, North Korea, and Pakistan started carrying out nuclear trials. The extremist attacks of 9/11 showed that if nuclear weapons are left in the wrong hands, intended to carry out large population attacks, could lead to mass decimation. The ease of which criminals could get nuclear weapons was encouraged by the illegal nuclear proliferation group led by Pakistani A.Q Khan. Thus, nuclear proliferation’s contribution to real-life international affairs has made it a central topic of discussion.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the role of nuclear proliferation in international relations. The primary objective of nuclear proliferation established through Nuclear Peace Proposition, refers to the conception that nuclear peace has a significant role in establishing long-term global peace and stability. The notion of world peace due to weaponry proliferation is based on the realist philosophy about the nature and operation of the international empire. The role which nuclear weapons play in international relations and diplomacy is developing. Critically, the developments are manifesting themselves in two competing forms for different types of countries. For advanced, military able nations, nuclear proliferation is seen as a way of diminishing the role of security planning. On the other hand, other countries that lack military abilities are seeing nuclear weapons as increasingly critical for their safety. Therefore, the competing views have established a contenting ground for international peacemakers to establish the role of these weapons in international relations.

Nuclear Proliferation in International Relations

Nuclear weapons are considered the most catastrophic possessed in the weaponry of the modern world. Since the emergence of nuclear bomb, it has become a common fear that nuclear war could lead to decimation of life on the planet as currently known. The establishment of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has been critical to the fight towards a nuclear-free world and preventing further spread of nuclear warheads (Graham, 2004, p. 235). According to Ford (2007, p. 403), the primary objective of the NPT is to curb nuclear proliferation. There are various reasons why countries might opt for nuclear weapons, and the most obvious reason is that of national prestige and survival. Nuclear weapons are cheaper option for security for weaker nations as they offer instant protection. For the weaker states, possession of nuclear bombs is as a result of perceived threats or distrusts to super-powers. In connection to fear is the desire to have influence and power in the international realm; as with nuclear abilities even a weaker nation could be a formidable rival. The desire to have nuclear weapons for influence and power encourages horizontal and vertical proliferation, and consequently, might motivate domino-effect. The domino effect implies that nations build their nuclear abilities because their neighbors have nuclear capabilities. For instance, in the 1960s, the United Kingdom developed nuclear weapons because her neighbor, France, had their own, simply to ensure that they all possess nuclear capabilities. Therefore, states hold nuclear weapons because their neighbors have them, causing nuclear proliferation to spread in the international realm.

State Survival Theory

Survival theory is a concept that implies that nations have to have powerful weapons to remain powerful and influential in international relations. Nuclear proliferation has been closely related to survival theory, in that some states perceive that holding such arson will give them an upper hand against their neighbors or potential threats to nation’s sovereignty. According to US Department of Defense (2005), nuclear proliferation is a term used to describe the spread of nuclear weaponry and technology applied in production of such weapons, and to the process by which a nation builds and comes to an ownership of weapons. The first nuclear war era ended in 1945 when the United States detonated two nuclear bombs against Japan to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a move that brought to end the Second World War (Carroll, 2007, p. 59). Nevertheless, after the war, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) continued to produce nuclear weapons out of qualms that the United States and their war friends might attack them (Holloway, 1995, p. 271). The production of nuclear weapons by the USSR is an indicator of states making nuclear arms for the fears of their survival, a move which led to Cold War. The ideology of survival within the weaponry sector is a strong rationale for why nations might opt to have nuclear weapons.

Using nuclear weapons has been seen as a positive move for nations. According to Carranza (2006, p. 502), using nuclear weapons for survival tactic is a positive action for nations, as their foreign enemies are less likely to be aggressive and disturb peace of an armed state. Therefore, according to this argument, when several states hold nuclear weapons, then it is likely to contribute to world peace, since nations will be afraid of provoking the other one to cause world chaos. Further, it highlights the significance of proliferation, and promotes the survival theory of state. According to Starr (2011), there is less potential aggression with proliferation because of the fact that a single exchange between nuclear-armed nations could be catastrophic. However, the disadvantage of one state holding nuclear arson makes other nations feel threatened by this and thus pursue nuclear armament as well (Sidel & Levy, 2007, p. 1591). Therefore, while nuclear proliferation might promote international peace, it can also create tension among the other states and thus, disturb world harmony and relations.

The Cold War significantly contributed to nuclear proliferation. Countries sought to have nuclear weapons to protect their survival (Holloway, 2010, p. 379). Out of uncertainty that US offer of nuclear safety to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries could be relied on, France and Britain developed nuclear weapons to protect themselves and to ensure continuity of their states (Pifer, 2011, p. 13). A secondary position is in regard to “super power” status as the rationale for UK and France creating nuclear arms. Due to the uncertainties with NATO, the UK and France advanced with their state nuclear programs to have guaranteed control of their security. However, the need for the UK’s nuclear program has been questioned severally. For instance, Hill (1995, p. 19) posits that the UK’s nuclear weapons did not have any impact during the Cold War and never scared any potential foes. When the country’s nuclear proliferation has been found to lack influence on international relations, then it implies that state’s survival by the means nuclear armament is not at all times needed. At times, state survival theory has been seen as a defense or fear activity to rally international support for nuclear proliferation (Doyle, 2013, p. 10). Therefore, it is not always certain that campaign to have nuclear control is positive move, it could also imply that a state is seeking sympathy to possess nuclear weapons just for its survival.

In Eastern and Southern Asia, the nuclear arson survival debate was started by China against India and Pakistan. During the Korean War and the Taiwan Straits Crisis, China began creating nuclear arms in 1954 (Burr & Richelson, 2001, p. 69). The move by china was perceived as a deterrent for US and USSR. According to Roberts, Manning and Montaperto (2000, p. 55), China is in most cases forgotten in the nuclear arson realm, and that its program led to creation of nuclear arson in India and Pakistan. The survival theory in China’s case is supported by the nation’s No First Use Policy where the country pledged that it wouldn’t use its nuclear weapons unless it was provoked by another state. Nevertheless, it was not certain how far China could go before dishonoring its No First Use Policy, making it possible to question the survival theory in this case.

After first nuclear trials by China in 1964, India accelerated its nuclear arm development, with their program opening in 1967, and giving their first trail in 1974 (Perkovich, 1999, p. 15). There are multiple reasons why India would want to have nuclear weapons, predominantly focusing on state survival. For instance, Riedel (2012, n.p), thinks that the battle between China and Himalaya in 1962 led to India’s decision to start creating nuclear arson. India’s decision to create nuclear arsenal could be seen as a method of self-defense against any potential attack from foreign enemies. Moreover, Pakistan started developing its nuclear programs in 1972, following the India’s nuclear capabilities. Particularly, the 1971 Indo-Pakistan confrontation cost Pakistan a large territory and thus Pakistan was justified to have weapons that would protect it against countries such as India (Haqqani, 2005, p. 91). Therefore, it could be seen that China, India, and Pakistan all had rational points to pursue nuclear proliferation, due to past encounters and ongoing safety issues in the region.

Deterrence Doctrine Strategy

Loosely defined, deterrence is the use of threat by one nation in an attempt to convince the other nation to maintain peace (Zagare, 2006, p. 116; Quackenbush, 2010, p. 741). Deterrence strategy has been associated with nuclear proliferation where nations use threats towards others making them not use excessive force against them. For example, the case of China, development of nuclear weapons and its pledge of No First Use Policy in which it declares that it will only use its weapons upon provocation by another country. However, while the concept has been seen as an underlying requirement for attaining nuclear peace, deterrence has also been intrinsically associated with nuclear prevalence especially during the Cold War. The neorealist arguments of the concept have always been considered a culprit in the international relations field. However, Zagare and Kilgour (2006, p. 5), assert that there should be a distinction between classical and perfect deterrence games among states. However, in order to determine the impact of deterrence in the contemporary nuclear weapon debates, it is critical to understand its contribution and nuclear proliferation, and consequently, international relations.

In an international relations viewpoint, a non-cooperative deterrence is a situation in which defenders and challengers of the status quo are not ready to work together, in a bid achieve a better payoff, and intern the former coerce the latter to retain the status quo. The modern deterrence theory is considered a method of dissuading potential foreign enemies from any adversarial confrontational, and thus an effective survival technique (Quackenbush, 2010, p. 741). The determinants of successful deterrence are determined by the possession of powerful military force, the ability to retaliate with a non-reciprocally cost attack on the aggressor, and the ability to prove to the challenger that retaliatory threat can be certainly achieved. Being advanced in time when the Cold War was at its peak, deterrence exudes an intrinsic connection to realism and the use of nuclear weapons as a critical requirement for survival strategy. Quackenbush (2010, p. 746) posits that all states are rational players, who primary objective is to survive, especially when an unforeseeable provocation can lead to nuclear confrontation and subsequent destruction to both parties. Therefore, the primary objective of deterrence especially through nuclear proliferation is to foster the country’s goal of survival in case of perceived foreign threats.

While deterrence strategy proponents might argue out the role and implications of survival tactics on nuclear proliferation, it is usually taken that if a nation is powerful enough to prove its threat more reasonable, then it will likely lead to success. However, critics have argued that deterrence is ineffective and thus, neither standard nor nuclear containment strategies can guarantee global peace (Velizarov, 2017, p. 8). Most of the critics have expressed doubts towards deterrence and has been arguably opposed by Robert Jervis. According to Jervis (1983, p. 3), deterrence is founded on reciprocal perceptions of defenders and challengers in the international realm, and it is not an objective reality. Further, he claims that deterrence attempts can not fail as well as backfire if the viewpoints on other nations are wrong. Therefore, for deterrence strategy to work, it must be made in such a manner that the deterring nation is able to prove to the challenger that in case they provoke them, casualties are certain to happen.

Accordingly, Jervis (1983, p. 3) highlights several factors that might lead to deterrence failure, including misperception of value, misperception of credibility, and misjudging enemy’s alternatives. The promise to destroy something that is thought valuable is perhaps an integral factor that determines the success of the defender in maintaining the status quo. However, an error might occur when the value of that thing is assumed, such as military composition and a specific resource, or a valueless object, such as political rule or philosophy. Based on conventional deterrence, misunderstanding of the challenger’s valuable thing is detrimental to the deterrence strategy.

However, if the potential enemy is overtly being challenged with an all-out nuclear combat, the importance of correctly understanding value significantly reduces, especially due to the inherent catastrophic ability of nuclear weapons (Velizarov, 2017, p. 10). Further, a threat to engage in a nuclear confrontation due to provocation as a reaction to a significant move can be considered credible, but claiming response under mere incitement might prove ineffective. Therefore, a credibility of a nuclear war threat is significantly influenced by the particular circumstance in which it is given. Jervis (1983 (O’Neill, 2006), p. 13) warns that deterrence can also fail if defenders are taken by surprise, and if the defenders fail to evaluate the possible ways of fighting of their challengers. Even the most effective deterrence strategies are likely to fail if the defenders fail to grasp the main reasons for revisionist tendencies of a particular nation (Smith, 2016, p. 1). Therefore, based on the failure possibilities of deterrence strategies analyzed above, conventional deterrence is not a reliable enough for nuclear proliferation. While deterrence-oriented tactics are prone to failure, they are not vulnerable to the same flaws as non-proliferation and its deficiencies. However, it is always essential to evaluate whether nuclear deterrence plan is challenged by demerits of its own.

National Prestige and Nuclear Proliferation

In most cases authoritarian governments seek nuclear weapons for national prestige as a way of attaining a global player status (O’Neill, 2006, p. 4). For instance, the recent nuclear arsons proliferation and trials by North Korea are seen as a sort of national pride, both locally and in the international realm. According to Kim (2014, p. 218) the local force in North Korea’s nuclear proliferation is a means for Kim Jong-II to prove to the military and citizens of the nation’s power. Further, Ji (2009, p. 8), asserts that the interests of the force and Kim Jong-II/Kim Jong-Un are certainly driven by nuclear weapons system to guarantee the survival of his leadership. His regime’s survival can be perceived to extend to gaining local pride from propagation by retained leadership. Therefore, as in the case of North Korea, nuclear proliferation can be undoubtedly driven by national prestige and puarsuit to appear in international limelight.

However, many argue out the national prestige concept in the case of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. For instance, Faulkner (2010, n.p.), posits that North Korea’s nuclear weaponry is motivated by Military First Strategy and compensating obedient military generals with the money and resources required to create nuclear weapons. Therefore, the North Korea’s pursuit for nuclear weapons possession is centered on the need to maintain power and appease military generals. For this nation, it can be debated that national pride for North Korea maybe an internal pride, one founded in maintaining a regime in control. Further, many see North Korea’s nuclear development as a method of survival. According to Kerr, Hildreth, and Nikitin (2016, p. 20), the position of state survival is aligned to North Korea’s nuclear development policy. The United States and South Korea are seen as the country’s major threat to security. Gebru (2015, p. 350) argues that North Korea’s development for nuclear weapons is anchored on multiple intentions. While it includes national prestige theory, it has also been used as a national government’s public perspective of their state’s world position status to the North Korean citizens.

Great Power Status and Nuclear Proliferation

According to earlier nuclear proliferation theorists, The UK and France developed their nuclear weapons for “super power” status. Greater power is a situation where past powerful nations are looking to regain at least a minimum amount of influence of the historic or present domain. The two world wars terminated the place of France and UK as great powers, and thus both developed nuclear weapons as a factor for both present and future influence. Pifer (2011, p. 6) thinks the doubts about NATO’s reliability were not misplaced, but the desire to retain their influence was also a factor for nuclear proliferation for the UK and France. Further, the United States was seen as dominating in NATO and considering the countries’ previous military position, they were left feeling hopeless and thus had to create nuclear weapons for themselves (Chalmers & Walker, 2002, p. 4). Therefore, the nations had to retain their “great powers” by entering into nuclear arson development; both to save their reputation and for survival purposes.

As earlier mentioned, there have always been contentions on the purpose and effectiveness of the UK’s nuclear development. Constantly there have been arguments that if Britain abandoned its Trident nuclear weapons program, it would lose its international military influence. Further, as Chalmer and Walker (2002, p. 5) argue, the loss of Trident would imply the nation losing its status, which, the country fears, would lead to loss of its great power class. On the other hand, nuclear weapons in France have been cited by the government as a critical factor for its independence. While there has been minimal public pressure on French nuclear disarmament, the nation faced tough criticism both from internal and external forces during their nuclear trials in the South Pacific in 1990s (Siskin, 2014, p. 190). Further, France has recently been receiving pressure to follow the suit of other European Union countries and trust NATO (Siskin, 2014, p. 199). However, despite the efforts to convince the country to surrender its nuclear weapons, there is no indication of a move by the nation towards that direction. Therefore, both Britain and France have adopted nuclear development programs for national greater power retention as surrendering them would imply losing their comparative international influence.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation

There has been success on past attempts to disarm countries of their nuclear development programs, although on limited scale. Nuclear non-proliferation has happened in Kazakhstan, South Africa, Belarus, and Ukraine, with all nations surrendering their nuclear systems (Global Security, n.d.). South Africa had held nuclear weapons were due to the perceived threat from the Soviet Union and her alliances. However, with the removal of the risk, such as withdrawal of Cuban military in Angola, the Soviet Union was no longer South Africa’s threat and thus they stopped their nuclear development. Therefore, the South Africa’s motivation for nuclear development was for survival purposes, and they disarmed once the threat to the nation’s survival was averted.

Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus are all non-nuclear states despite their alliances with USSR. According to Kiernan (2008, p. 18), the reason as to why these nations surrendered their nuclear weapons was due to the economic benefit they received from the West and the need for inclusion in the international community after the Cold War. Additionally, Brazil and Argentina also ended their nuclear arson development after suspicion from both states on the programs. Although the nations never produced any weapons, being suspicious of one another was seen as a good non-proliferation result, through an arbitrary termination of nuclear weapons programs.

The battle for non-proliferation is gaining success in the international realm. The number of nuclear weapons in the world is continually decreasing from 65,000 in 1986 to almost 10,000 in 2014 (“Nuclear Notebook”, 2016). The reduction is a positive move towards non-proliferation, relative to the Cold War times. Although the fight for non-proliferation has been effective to some extent, no other nuclear nations that had developed their own nuclear weapons have entirely surrendered except South Africa (Sidel & Levy, 2007, p. 1592). Therefore, although there is little success on disarmament, there is no likelihood of complete nuclear non-proliferation at global scale.

The possibility of non-proliferation and the total removal of nuclear armory have been considered an impossible task. The primary rationale for that is that all nations in possession of nuclear weapons, such as Russia and the USA, have joined the NPT, yet they still own them (UNODA, n.d.). According to Butcher (2010, n.p.), until these countries significantly reduce their nuclear weapons, an attempt to prevent countries from pursuing proliferation are very dismal. Therefore, there is no other country developing nuclear arsenals would listen to another country in possession of nuclear weapons demanding that they surrender their program. Countries will possibly continue to seek nuclear proliferation as long as the nations which have signed up for Non-Proliferation Treaty has nuclear weapons.

Despite the efforts to reduce the nuclear weapons count between the US and Russia, new developments are still persistent. In 2010, they signed the “New Start” agreement to reduce their nuclear warheads to 1500, although new nuclear programs persist (Shear 201, n.p.). For instance, the US 2012 budget allowed support of modernization of their nuclear weapons warheads (Kristensen, 2012, n.p.). While the treaty shows the attempts being made to reduce the arms, the modernization of the US nuclear arsenals shows the difficulties experienced in the process of non-proliferation. The renewal of the US nuclear arsenals surpasses the efforts of complete nuclear disarmament and reduces efforts to halt further countries seeking proliferation.


In conclusion, nations have pursued nuclear proliferation for various reasons. Events in history have motivated most nations to seek nuclear weapons. The major reason for nuclear armament in most countries is state survival. The Cold War characterized a period within which countries wanted to feel secure against their external enemies, and thus they initiated nuclear programs that would deter other nations from provoking them. Deterrence strategy has been adopted as a way of threatening one nation to maintain a status quo. The strategy has been adopted by nations that want to discourage others from provoking them into using nuclear weapons in war. Deterrence is closely tied to survival strategy, as countries do that to prevent any potential enemy from attacking them. However, deterrence can fail if the countries fail to understand the challenger’s military alternatives, and misperception of values and credibility. Therefore, to ensure effective implementation of deterrence, a nation must check whether the strategy suffers from its own drawbacks. Nations also seek nuclear proliferation for national prestige. For instance, North Korea’s nuclear development has been driven by national prestige and the desire to reward loyal military generals. Another motivation for nuclear proliferation is “great power” status theory where countries such as the UK and France have initiated nuclear programs to retain the international influence and position. While there are attempts for non-proliferation of nuclear arsenals, the modernization of the US nuclear arsenals has overshadowed these activities since nations are closely following what the nuclear-power nation’s do in regard to their weapons.


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