• nuclear proliferation;
  • perceived strategic context;
  • operational code analysis;
  • theory of moves

Contributing to an emerging scholarship emphasizing ideational approaches for understanding nuclear proliferation, this work offers a new analytical framework focusing on leaders' perceptions about the international system and how their “perceived strategic context” may influence the decision of “going nuclear.” Rather than being an inevitable occurrence driven by abstract systemic factors, like the security dilemma, this actor-specific, ideational approach offers a narrative depicting the fundamental role played by policy makers' perceptions about the international environment in which their proliferation decisions are made. Utilizing operational code analysis, leaders' unique perceived strategic contexts are identified and expectant strategies for self and other analyzed by using the theory of moves sequential game construct. Initial testing of the framework is performed by examining the debated nuclear proliferation cases of South Africa and India. The results highlight the important role of individuals' views concerning the strategic environment they inhabit when weighing proliferation decisions.