How do states act after they get nuclear weapons?

by James Fearon on January 29, 2012 · 50 comments

in Foreign Policy,International Relations,International Security,War

All this talk about a possible US and/or Israeli preventive war against Iran got me wondering about the historical record concerning the conflict behavior of states after they acquired nuclear weapons.  Does the rate at which states are involved in serious international disputes tend to go up, down, or see no change after they get the bomb?

Advocates of preventive war on Iran like Matthew Kroenig expect Iran to become much more aggressive if it gets nukes.  “Proliferation optimists” like Ken Waltz, by contrast, argue that we have repeatedly expected terrible things from nuclear-armed adversaries but repeatedly found, if anything, the opposite to be the case.  For example, both the Soviets and the US contemplated preventive strikes to prevent Mao from getting the bomb, as they considered him, not without some evidence, to be aggressive, dangerous, and fanatical.  But the Chinese bomb was arguably followed by a more status quo oriented Chinese foreign policy.

Especially in the last 5 years, a number of IR scholars have started to look for patterns concerning nuclear weapons and international disputes in the available quantitative data (see in particular work by Erik Gartzke and Dong-Joon Jo, Robert Rauchhaus, and Michael Horowitz).  Various interesting findings, but looking around I didn’t see exactly what I wanted:  Just a simple country-level examination of dispute involvement before and after nuclear acquisition.

So I put it together myself, using Zeev Maoz’s version of the Correlates of War’s militarized interstate dispute data.  The following graph shows, for each of the nine states that acquired nuclear capability at some time between 1945 and 2001, their yearly rate of militarized disputes in years when they didn’t have nukes, and the rate for years when they did.  Note that for the US we have no data on dispute rate without nukes in this period since we got them in 1945; the rate for non-nuclear years for Russia/USSR is only for 1945-1948; the rate for South Africa (SAF) is for 1982-90; and the dispute data only goes to 2001.

China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, and the UK all saw declines in their total militarized dispute involvement in the years after they got nuclear weapons.  A number of these are big declines.  USSR/Russia and South Africa have higher rates in their nuclear versus non-nuclear periods, though it should be kept in mind that for the USSR we only have four years in the sample with no nukes, just as the Cold War is starting.

Now it could be that getting nukes means that other states become more likely to initiate a dispute with you, rather than you becoming more aggressive.  So maybe we should restrict attention to disputes initiated by the state in question.  This is shown in the next graph (using the coding in the Maoz data called “primary initiator”).

 

Same pattern, maybe a little less pronounced, but you still see all but USSR and South Africa decreasing their dispute initiation after they get nukes.

What happens if you control for other stuff, like aggregate GDP (a proxy for total military capability) or secular change over time for all states, in a statistical model?  I’ve done some of this, with a panel data approach using country and year fixed effects and clustering the errors by country.  I get that states see on average about one half fewer disputes per year when they have nuclear weapons, an amount that is close to “statistically significant” at p = .10.  For various reasons I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on this but it does suggest that the patterns seen above don’t go away, and in fact might be somewhat strengthened, when you control for aggregate capabilities and time trends.

Obviously the fact that the other members of the nuclear club generally didn’t get much more aggressive in their foreign policy behavior after they tested doesn’t mean that Iran won’t.  But I think it’s astonishing how weak a case for this we are hearing from the preventive war advocates like Kroenig, or politicians contemplating it like Ehud Barak as reported in the Times article.  Barak says he is worried that Iran would threaten nuclear attack if Israel were to strike at Hezbollah or Hamas in response to rocket or other attacks.  That is not a credible threat.

If Iran had some long and deeply held territorial claim on one of its neighbors I might be worried that its temptation to invade would go up (had Saddam had nukes in 1990, getting him out of Kuwait would have been much harder, or impossible).  But I don’t think it does, and that wouldn’t be a major concern for Israel anyway.  Iran’s Sunni-dominated neighbors are worried that a nuclear Iran would be in a better position to foment Shiite discontent in their countries.  But the fear that the Saudis and others would seek to acquire weapons in response to Iranian nukes will likely weigh on the Iranian leadership (whoever it is).  In fact this could be a consideration leading them to want to stay short of weaponization.  And even if they go to weapons, the risks of nuclear balancing could favor a more status-quo oriented Iranian foreign policy in this area.  That is what has happened in a couple of other cases of nuclear acquisition.

To be clear, I’d strongly prefer that the Iranian regime not get the bomb, mainly because of the risks of further proliferation in the region and attendant risks of preventive war and loss of control of weapons.  But attacking Iran seems likely to guarantee pursuit till acquisition, to more effectively license future attacks on Israel, and to greatly increase popular support for the current Iranian regime and a course of nuclear self-defense.  (Netanyahu is reported in this NYT article to believe that an attack might actually “be welcomed by Iranian citizens.”  If that’s his true view and not purely strategic talk, then sheesh, it looks delusional in light of the historical record on that one.)  On the other side of the ledger are vague, weak, or barely developed arguments and claims about terrible things Iran would do if it got nukes.

We’ve heard these same concerns before, regarding Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, Kim Jong-il’s North Korea, and about the mortal mutual enemies of India and Pakistan.  All these cases have been very scary, and it’s understandable that the prospect of a nuclear Iran is incredibly scary for Israelis.  But so far, in none of these prior cases do the more extreme fears look historically justified.

{ 50 comments }

Robert R. Stieglitz January 29, 2012 at 10:49 am

Your assertion that the USSR and Chinese foreign policies, after they acquired nuclear weapons, sought a pre-nuclear status quo is, quite frankly, absurd. The Russians and the Chinese wanted, and still want, to challenge and surpass if possible US global dominion.

The main flaw in your graphs is that your “militarized disputes” do not include proxy and unconventional wars sponsored by nuclear nations (USSR/Russia, Pakistan, US)thus the correlations shown by your charts are not meaningful.

David Joslin January 29, 2012 at 11:02 am

Good analysis. But…

A single exception to the statistical case would involve a horrifying cost. If you did a decision-tree analysis with 99% probability Iran won’t use the bomb against 1% it would, the costs of a nuclear strike would be so high as to make the 1% still prohibitively expensive.

The target of a low probability event will not be sanguine, if the event is sufficiently horrific. A nuclear strike is exactly that horrific.

In any case Israel is an exceptional nation, and–given the track record of history–ought not view itself as just another national instance, as your analysis also presupposes.

Derek Scruggs January 29, 2012 at 1:32 pm

The 1% case is more like 0.01% in a MAD scenario. The cost to Iran of dropping a nuke on Israel is the destruction of Tehran.

Only one country has ever dropped a nuclear weapon, and it arguably resulted in a net saving of lives compared to the alternative.

arin February 1, 2012 at 3:59 am

Maybe US students are subject to learn as you have stated. But your claim (a net saving of lives compared to the alternative) is undemonstrated and indeed it is proven wrong by many historical studies.

JR June 25, 2012 at 7:35 am

Well, in any case, it’s a net saving of US lives.

Whatever we come up with now, after the fact, is irrelevant. They had to make a decision at the time to keep sending US citizens to their deaths, or not. They chose the latter, sucks for Japan, but they are the ones who decided to start a war.

albatross January 30, 2012 at 1:39 pm

There’s one more piece of data here: Since the invention of nuclear weapons, they’ve been used by only one country that had them, to end a war it was already involved in. Even countries that were surrounded by enemies and under all kinds of pressure (Israel, South Africa, North Korea, to some extent Pakistan) have not, yet, used their nukes. That does seem like some level of evidence that even pretty nasty governments (SA, NK, Pakistan, China, USSR) and even ones in very hard circumstances don’t generally use their nukes, once they have them. Though obviously, this is drawing on a very small dataset in circumstances that mostly don’t track too well with the circumstances a nuclear Iran would find itself in, in (say) 2015.

Andrew F. E. January 31, 2012 at 10:36 pm

The fallacy in your argument is that when this above assumed possibility of 1% is multiplied by the chances of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon (surely short of 100%), it in no way justified a preventive war that may not even effect the desired results (i.e. Iran not getting nukes).

seth edenbaum January 29, 2012 at 11:21 am

It would be more useful if you would discuss the details of this specific situation. That would force you to abandon your prentions as a “scientist” but it would make you more engaged as a citizen.

Wil W January 29, 2012 at 11:41 am

The threat from Iran may be different if the religious extremism would overcome the more rational reaction to having a nuclear bomb that other countries appeared to have in your analysis.

Among other concerns, the question is are we willing to take that chance?

EvdM January 29, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Over 30 years of experience with the Islamic Republic should lead us to conclude that the Iranian regime is perfectly rational.

Ian A. Well January 29, 2012 at 4:50 pm

Rational, sure, but their utility function is supernatural. The highest levels of the state concern themselves with the imminence of their saviour’s reappearance. MAD doesn’t work with people who want the D.

EvdM January 29, 2012 at 5:12 pm

I am yet to see a single piece of evidence in support of this common assertion, whereas 30 years of experience with the Iranian regime suggests the contrary.

Ian A. Well January 29, 2012 at 7:41 pm

You mean you don’t want to see it. Here’s a single piece:
http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=9004190642

But that aside, Iran’s a theocracy, and that’s all we need to know.

tylerh January 29, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Good point: political leaders meeting to discuss and invoke the supernatural is clear evidence of political irrationality.
http://articles.cnn.com/2001-09-14/us/bush.terrorism_1_prayer-service-camp-david-president-bush?_s=PM:US

Religious leaders have no role in the governance of properly functioning polity
http://articles.latimes.com/2011/dec/20/news/la-pn-vander-plaats-endorses-santorum-20111220

Ian A. Well January 30, 2012 at 5:57 am

On your broad point, I couldn’t agree more. America’s peculiar obsession with public religiosity depresses me. I think there’s a difference, though, between leaders of secular democracies (give or take) attending religious services commemorating the victims of a (religiously motivated) terrorist attack and church leaders endorsing candidates (it’s a free country, is it not?) on the one hand, and on the other, clerical dictators discussing sectarian eschatology.

arin February 1, 2012 at 4:09 am

Oh yes, a friend of mine told me that when he was in US he did know several people praying for president Bush and his imperial wars, so I believe to understand when you write about “religious services commemorating the victims of a (religiously motivated) terrorist wars”. I presume that there is a similar faith about president Obama, like the one that makes him a Nobel prize winner just before the Lybia attack.

nyongesa January 29, 2012 at 10:01 pm

The article does very little to support your argument of Irrational behavior. One of the bloggers central themes is that Historically we have misread the outcome. Demonization of the opponent, and investing heavily in arguments that reinforce that demonization are in fact irrational behavior, and one easily displayed in the statement that “Iran’s a theocracy, and that’s all we need to know”. What we do know is that Preventive warfare is a slippery slope.

Ian A. Well January 30, 2012 at 6:01 am

Why would it, when I never claimed they were irrational? I said quite the opposite. Nor am I demonizing them. I’m just pointing out they believe in an end game that would not be welcomed by most of the population of Earth.

And, sure, preventative warfare gave us Iraq, but then appeasement gave us World War II. Whatcha gonna do?

Gene Callahan January 30, 2012 at 10:46 am

“But that aside, Iran’s a theocracy, and that’s all we need to know…”

So Ian believes that because Iran is an irrational, aggressive theocracy, we get to preemptively attack them before they have acted against us at all.

Project much, Ian?

Ian A. Well January 30, 2012 at 11:40 am

“So Ian believes that because Iran is an irrational, aggressive theocracy, we get to preemptively attack them before they have acted against us at all.”

Read much, Gene? I haven’t once said that I believe Iran’s government is irrational.

And you have a pretty odd definition of Iran’s not having “acted against us at all”. It doesn’t, for instance, count all this stuff http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_and_state_terrorism

James January 30, 2012 at 9:25 pm

Wikipedia is hardly a good source it isn’t peer-reviewed. Still one could argue if Iran sponsors terrorism it may be as a defensive measure against more aggressive nations, after all terrorism (i.e. asymmetrical warfare) is a tactic of the weak against the strong.

As for your assertion that Iran is a theocracy. It is only partially true. Khomeini molded his form of government on Plato as much as he did sharia.

Ian A. Well January 31, 2012 at 8:52 am

“Wikipedia is hardly a good source it isn’t peer-reviewed.”

Wikipedia’s not perfect, but I’ve participated in the peer review process enough to take that stuff with a good spoonful of salt, too. If you think that page is wrong, go fix it.

“Still one could argue if Iran sponsors terrorism it may be as a defensive measure against more aggressive nations, after all terrorism (i.e. asymmetrical warfare) is a tactic of the weak against the strong.”

You could make that argument, but I cited this terrorism issue specifically to rebut a claim that Iran had not “acted against us at all”. That said, Iran has a population of 78 million, and spends most of its time terrorizing a state of 7.8 million people. Asymmetric indeed.

“As for your assertion that Iran is a theocracy. It is only partially true. Khomeini molded his form of government on Plato as much as he did sharia.”

I did not know that. Finding out Iran is only a ‘partial’ theocracy has given me a warm, fuzzy feeling. Since Khomeini’s been dead for two decades (my condolences for your loss), I’m not sure how much it now matters that he was a Plato fan. But while he was in charge, what of Plato’s ideas did he borrow? You haven’t said, so I’ll take a guess. I assume he wouldn’t have been too keen on Plato’s endorsement of homosexuality. But it seems he did like Plato’s ideal of a know-it-all dictator, which Khomeini interpreted as a ‘veleyat-e faqih’, that is, totalitarian rule by a theocrat.

Davin February 1, 2012 at 4:18 am

I think you’ll find that Iran has acted against us, just not openly. There is compelling evidence that many of the IEDs used against troops in Iraq and Afghanistan came from Iraq, that openly hostile militias are armed by Iran, and let’s not forget the series of low intensity kidnappings, show trials etc. Then of course (and I am not suggesting this is reason for an attack, just an indicator of the regime’s beliefs and behaviours) there is the Holocaust denial and 9/11 conspiracy mongering.

arin February 1, 2012 at 4:02 am

God bleass america. Uhm, who says this?

albatross January 30, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Is there evidence that more religious countries, or countries with more religious leadership, are in general more likely to start wars in modern times?

B. Dohotsky February 8, 2012 at 6:23 pm

These claims also seem to evidence a lack of historical knowledge.

During the decade following WWII, both internal and external communication about the Soviet Union from the U.S. government played up the irrationality of the impulse toward world revolution in Communist countries, even as Stalin’s government abandoned the idea.

History very rarely bears out accusations of irrational behavior at the highest levels of contemporary states – and certainly they do not apply against a state that has maintained itself for 30 years.

Scott Monje January 29, 2012 at 12:28 pm

The comments mainly adhere to the “This time will be different” scenario (just as the previous instances were expected to be different) without much explanation as to why it will be different. Nor does anyone explain how bombing Iran is going to make our situation better. (I remember when invading Iraq was going to make our situation better.)

Regarding Netanyahu, not only was he delusional in his expectation that an attack might be welcomed, but I couldn’t help noticing that he interpreted all (real and presumed) Iranian threats that justified an attack as authentic and all Iranian threats that argued against attack (such as the prospect of retaliation) as bluff. That’s a bit convenient, isn’t it? By the way, as far as I know, no one has ever found the actual quote in which Ahmadinejad threatened to wipe Israel off the map (except by means of elections in which Palestinians participated). We’ve fallen into the trap of believing our own propaganda.

MIMS January 29, 2012 at 1:02 pm

A serious assessment of a preventive strike on Iran’s nuclear program must take into consideration dozens of potential costs and benefits of a strike and compare them to the dozens of potential costs and benefits of a nuclear-armed Iran. An analysis of one potential cost of a nuclear Iran, dispute behavior, barely begins to address the question.

Ivo January 29, 2012 at 1:31 pm

I think you can more simply conclude that the amount of disputes has dropped with time. To distinguish between that hypothesis and this one, you should probably graph the number of disputes per decade and include some non-nuclear powers.

Fixed Effects January 29, 2012 at 2:49 pm

“I’ve done some of this, with a panel data approach using country and year fixed effects and clustering the errors by country.”

The fixed effects approach described here takes into account any overall change over time.

seth edenbaum January 29, 2012 at 2:33 pm

The majority of Iranians of every stripe are in favor of Iran having a nuclear energy, and Iran does not now have a weapons program. If you don’t believe me ask Leon Panetta.
turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/2012/01/secretary-panettas-remarks-on-iran.html
Iran is playing games regarding the capacity, but there have been proposals for a nuclear free ME and Israel has refused to take part in negotiations.

“Helen Thomas: …do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?”
Obama: I don’t want to speculate…”
husseini.org/2009/02/obama-trying-to-take-shortcuts.html

Iran is a signatory of the NPT. Israel is not.
Trita Parsi: “Former senior Israeli official told Americans nuking Japan secured US leadership & 50years of grandeur. Now repeat it on #Iran. Jaws dropped”
inagist.com/tparsi/155958388428251137/

“First comprehensive study in a decade also shows that 70 percent of Israelis believe the Jews are the ‘Chosen People.”
haaretz.com/print-edition/news/survey-record-number-of-israeli-jews-believe-in-god-1.409386

The US is supporting Wahhabis and Salafists and the SCAF.
amnesty.org/en/news/usa-repeatedly-shipped-arms-supplies-egyptian-security-forces-2011-12-06

FP “Obama administration using loophole to quietly sell arms package to Bahrain”
thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/01/27/obama_administration_selling_new_arms_package_to_bahrain

Ted Koppel: “The Israeli government is so concerned that America’s adversaries may miscalculate U.S. intentions that it is privately urging Washington to make it clear that the U.S. would intervene in Saudi Arabia should the survival of that government be threatened.”
spme.net/cgi-bin/articles.cgi?ID=7965″

The US is backing the Saudis, Salafists and the funders of Al Qaeda, all Sunni, against Hezbollah, Iran and Shiites. Koppel refers to a Shia “minority” in Bahrain. That’s quite a slip. And there are of course far more Jews in Iran than in Saudi, where neither Jews nor Christians officially are permitted.

All the same… “Mossad chief: Nuclear armed Iran not an existential threat to Israel”
warincontext.org/2011/12/29/mossad-chief-nuclear-armed-iran-not-an-existential-threat-to-israel/
Livni admitted the same a year ago.

RAND: “Forecasting the Future of Iran. Implications for U.S. Strategy and Policy”
rand.org/pubs/rgs_dissertations/RGSD290.html

On the IAEA report and Iran’s “Soviet nuclear scientist”
atimes.com/atimes/Middle_East/MK11Ak02.html
arabist.net/blog/2011/11/10/on-the-iaeas-report-on-iran.html

I don’t know what’s more dangerous, the opinions of the neocons or the refusal of academic experts to admit and state opinions. The post is interesting less for its argument than for its form, as an evasion of the moral responsibility that comes with citizenship. Democracy is founded on adversarialism; disengagement is passivity.

Cheryl Rofer January 29, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Let me go back to the post itself and the graphs in particular.

Because the time period begins in 1945, the United States is represented only a “nuclear years” bar. But I suspect that this US involvement is much larger than the pre-nuclear involvement. Because the time periods are different, it may be legitimate not to compare this with the other nations’ histories.

But if that number increased with nuclear possession, as did the Soviet Union’s, was that because of the Cold War, which was the environment of the time, or was it because they both held nuclear weapons? That’s a question that can’t be answered with the data in this post, and probably not with a lot of additional data, although people are likely to have strong opinions on it.

The South African exception to the tendency to decrease dispute initiation after the acquisition of nuclear weapons is also bothersome, although the same sort of question can be asked. Much in Africa was changing at about the time South Africa acquired nuclear weapons. So was it the weapons or the circumstances? Again, we can’t tell from this data set.

It’s sometimes useful to use broad numerical measures like this to determine if there’s a trend. But drawing conclusions really needs more data, particularly when there are notable exceptions to the trend.

Sam Gardner January 29, 2012 at 3:50 pm

There are so many explanations possible. Perhaps the threat form a nation capable of nuclear warfare is so high that countries yield without a fight, so lowering the amount of armed conflicts?

B. Dohotsky February 8, 2012 at 6:29 pm

I think this is a likely factor, myself.

evilado January 29, 2012 at 9:34 pm

[i]But the Chinese bomb was arguably followed by a more status quo oriented Chinese foreign policy.[/i]

But what’s the cause-effect relationship on that? China gets UN recognition, a seat on the Security Council, and a visit from Nixon within a decade of their successful detonation. Was China changing its foreign policy or was the rest of the world simply accepting a new status quo? Didn’t the moderation only come in ’76 after Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution? I’d say that China’s moderation had nothing to do with their nuclear program, and the world essentially got lucky that China’s batshit internal strife eventually produced better leadership.

B. Dohotsky February 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm

I think it is likely that other states do accept a new status quo regarding nuclear states that allows them to operate with less direct conflict.

I don’t think there is an argument in the post above that nuclear states are better states, merely the suggestion that a nuclear-armed Iran might have different avenues to exercise power than a suicidal nuclear attack on its rivals.

LFC January 29, 2012 at 10:33 pm

I agree with the post’s closing sentences, though I have only read the post quickly and not yet closely examined the graphs.

Re Ivo’s suggestion, above, that the total number of militarized disputes has dropped with time: it’s fairly clear that the overall amount of armed conflict has dropped over recent decades and (more relevantly) it’s very clear that the number of interstate wars has declined, so perhaps it’s not much of a leap from there to the conclusion that the total number of MIDs has also dropped over time. Presumably that is not hard to check using “Zeev Maoz’s version of the Correlates of War’s militarized interstate dispute data,” which James Fearon says he used in this post. (Could Pr. Fearon perhaps give a link to Maoz’s version of the COW data?)

LFC January 29, 2012 at 10:42 pm

“The fixed effects approach described here takes into account any overall change over time.”

Ok, I just saw this comment. That answers that. Perhaps it would not be out of place to suggest that not every reader of TMC will know what a “fixed effects approach” means or grasp its significance? That sentence about fixed effects went right by me (and even if it hadn’t I’m not sure it would have meant very much).

seth edenbaum January 29, 2012 at 11:27 pm

“Let me go back to the post itself ”
Is the subject of this post Iran or statistical modeling? Are we looking at statistical models to learn about Iran or at Iran to learn about statistical modeling? The distinction as I’ve said is not only formal but moral.
I’m a carpenter. I use tools, but they are not my primary interest. My primary interest is problem solving.

“…Sixth, the world is not computable. It is far more sensible to think in terms of irreducible uncertainty than computable risk. This fundamental point made by John Maynard Keynes was lost in the subsequent so-called ‘neoclassical synthesis’.”
http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/2012/01/what-future-for-economics/#axzz1kuG8sGBe

Anonymous Coward January 30, 2012 at 10:14 am

had Saddam had nukes in 1990, getting him out of Kuwait would have been much harder, or impossible

I have to admit I’ve never understood this magic-talisman thought about nuclear weapons, especially what would, for a good while, be a small number of unboosted fission warheads instead of anything remotely like a thermonuclear MAD capability.

I mean, say Iraq in 1990 had, say, 10 or 20 such weapons.

On the one hand, they could fire them at troops entering Iraq or Kuwait, if they don’t mind nuking what they claim is their own territory. Congratulations! Each bomb you drop on yourself will clear the mile or so around the detonation point of invading enemy. Less than that if, knowing Iraq has nukes, they’ve invaded mostly under their NBC-protective protocols. Double congratulations! There are still several hundred or several thousand square miles full of a few hundred thousand really pissed off enemy pointed at you, and a few hundred million Americans (and/or others) howling for blood.

I suppose the response is that nuclear weapons would have deterred the invasion, but in real life Iraq had nerve agents that it had actually used against its own civilians, and that didn’t deter the invasion.

c.l. ball January 30, 2012 at 7:44 pm

The Wikileaks cables provide a more nuanced view of Israeli concerns, at least in 2009. Amos Gilad, head of MOD Political Military Bureau, in a Nov 2009 meeting with a US delegation, as summarized by a US embassy official, “explained his view of the repercussions of an Iranian nuclear capability stating that it would give Iran a free hand in supporting “HAMAStan” in Gaza and “Hezbollahstan” in Lebanon. Gilad also argued that Saudi Arabia would definitely react to a nuclear Iran by obtaining a weapon (with Pakistani assistance) and Egypt would almost certainly follow. He was less sure about whether Turkey would respond by pursuing a nuclear weapon. Regardless, the security situation in the region surrounding Israel would be dramatically altered should Iran acquire a nuclear weapons capability.” [09TELAVIV2482]

It is the credibility of any Israeli threats against Iran that are endangered by a nuclear-armed Iran. But I think Fearon is correct — Iran has more to gain from an “almost nuclear” status than not.

B. Dohotsky February 8, 2012 at 6:35 pm

I think this is a useful perspective. The real threat from a nuclear-armed Iran is not to any city or group of people, but to the freedom of Israeli and U.S. policy in the region.

This doesn’t play well in the newspapers, of course.

moderateGuy January 31, 2012 at 6:36 pm

Of course what you fail to mention, because it would clash with your inane “argument” is that once a state acquires nuclear weapons there will be far fewer challengers willing to risk a “dispute” that can result in being on the receiving end of such weapons.
Thus nuclear weapons bestow on their holder an aura of “untouchability”. South Africa, which never had credible delivery system, and Russia/Soviet Union, which was hell bent on world domination, being exceptions to the rule.

B. Dohotsky February 8, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Fearon doesn’t go deep into theorizing about causes, but really, nothing that you’ve written here conflicts at all with the post above.

The accusation that gets bandied about is that the way Iran will exercise its nuclear power is through an irrational and suicidal nuclear attack on some city or another, and all study of IR suggests that this is pure propaganda.

A weaker but still dubious claim is that nuclear capability translates into a greater willingness to engage in non-nuclear warfare. Fearon hasn’t disproved this, but he’s questioned it as an assumption.

If you think that it is a bad thing that Israeli and U.S. policy will be constrained by a nuclear-armed Iran, you will think that a nuclear-armed Iran is a bad thing, because that may very well happen.

Just don’t pretend that a nuclear-armed Iran will necessarily be a more warlike Iran on the world stage.

Tom Nichols January 31, 2012 at 8:30 pm

And this is why graphs and the formalized study of international relations just don’t tell us much about international relations: because they lack historical and political context.

Aside from the fact that the graph makes no provision for the end of the Cold War — kooky nitpicking, I know — it also is completely insensitive to things like decolonization, technological advances, economic ability, and a scad of other things more important than the pre-/post-nuke gateway. Britain got the bomb in 1952; what are we comparing? The seven years between 1945 and 1952 with everything that came afterward? We’re really comparing French foreign policy before and after 1960 with Russian foreign policy over 45 years, including a massive regime implosion? Yikes.

Whether regimes are more likely to be aggressive requires study of the regimes and their environment, not a chart that violates basic rules of comparability. I know it’s harder to learn Farsi, Russian, French, etc., than it is to mill numbers, but this is the kind of formal analysis that not only doesn’t tell us anything, but maybe obscures more than it explains. (For the record, I hope Iran doesn’t get the bomb either, but I also don’t think we ought to go to war with them. I reached that conclusion without any math.)

B. Dohotsky February 8, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Perhaps both your and Fearon’s approach are useful?

Ward Wilson February 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm

When you’re trying to measure something that is quite susceptible to short term change then perhaps it makes sense to use a short time scale. When you’re measuring something like propensity to go to war, the first thing you have to do is to think about the length of the time scale. Propensity to go to war is probably almost at the level of human instinct. There’s no final agreement on the point, but it appears to be relatively deeply ingrained in human nature. Human nature seems to change only very, very slowly. Euripides wrote movingly about the injustice of slavery. Two thousand years later there are still modified forms of slavery around the world.

To find out anything useful about something that only changes slowly, you’ll have to measure on a very long time scale, say, thousands of years.

The question as posed presumes that nuclear weapons are such remarkable technology that they can change human nature. That is a view that many people hold, but it strikes me as doubtful. Can you name some other technologies that changed human nature within sixty years of their introduction?

It is interesting and suggestive work. I wish I were persuaded. I’m not.

B. Dohotsky February 8, 2012 at 6:26 pm

You erroneously assume that human nature tends toward the conflicts in question.

It is perhaps more likely to conclude that such conflicts are only pursued when viewed as the best means to various ends, and that possessing nuclear weapons changes the circumstances.

For one, nuclear states invite nuclear retaliation on the world stage when they pursue aggression.

B. Dohotsky February 8, 2012 at 6:24 pm

As the author implies, claims that Iran behaves irrationally compared to other states seem to evidence a lack of historical knowledge – not just of Iran, but of how we thought about some of the states on the graph in earlier years.

During the decade following WWII, both internal and external communication about the Soviet Union from the U.S. government played up the irrationality of the impulse toward world revolution in Communist countries, even as Stalin’s government abandoned the idea.

History very rarely bears out accusations of irrational behavior at the highest levels of contemporary states – and certainly they do not apply against a state that has maintained itself for 30 years.

B. Dohotsky February 8, 2012 at 6:49 pm

For more examples of Cold-War-lens myopia, visit Tom Nichols’s blog for some staggering leaps of logic – from culturally distinct behavior by the Iranian military concerning an image of their religious leader, to the conclusion that the Iranians are irrational on the world stage.

If the leaders of the United States in the 1940s and 1950s had reacted this way to veneration of images of Stalin, we might all be typing these missives as letters from craters.

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