Nuclear Dynamics and Conflicting Effects of Foreign Policy Initiatives

The nuclear threat to the United States from Iraq, North Korea, and Syria is of recent vintage. During the last several decades, the U.S. has undertaken negotiations, as well as made preemptive strikes, to thwart these countries’ efforts to possess nuclear weapons with mixed results. Why does the U.S. tolerate some countries’ efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, but attack in other cases? Why are some actions taken against nuclear proliferation effective while others are not? Political scientists Muhammet Bas and Andrew Coe seek to explain the mechanisms that underlie the interactions between a proliferator nation, seeking nuclear power, and a preventer nation, seeking to prevent them from having it.

In their recently published paper, the authors set up a bargaining model that explores interactions between two nations in these roles: the proliferator investing in nuclear programs, and the U.S. observing the progress and deciding whether to halt it. Noting that the acquisition of nuclear weapons often entails preliminary research, technological advancement, and trial and error, the model illustrates the progress of a nuclear program over time. Under real-world circumstances, the proliferator cannot commit to nuclear forbearance because it can nuclearize clandestinely, and the U.S. relying on intelligence estimates cannot always accurately determine the progress and launch readiness of nuclear weapons. Thus, this model assumes no way to negotiate a nuclear-nonproliferation deal. The two countries are not assumed to be at war, as an ongoing war may significantly reduce the cost of a preventive attack and thereby cause the model to overestimate the number of preventive attacks beyond what should be expected in a peacetime context.

The model highlights each nation’s behavior. A proliferator in the model will always invest in nuclear programs, given that the U.S. will not reward non investment or penalize investment at the onset, and that nuclear weapons will grant it a greater deal of bargaining power. Meanwhile, the U.S. has two choices. If the U.S. decides to tolerate nuclear proliferation, the nuclear program is likely to be successful, and the U.S. will have to bargain with a more generous concession once the proliferator has acquired nuclear arms. If the U.S. attacks preemptively, both nuclear proliferation and subsequent concessions to the proliferator will be avoided, but the U.S. will suffer costs of war, including possible escalation, international condemnation, and civilian casualties.

The condition for launching a preemptive attack is that the implications of deterioration of U.S. bargaining power are more impactful than the costs of war. U.S. intelligence officials make estimates about how long they can put off taking preemptive military action. The U.S. tolerates a proliferator’s nuclear program until it reaches a point of near-completion, in which case they will attack, as long as the aforementioned condition is met.

The authors build upon these conditional patterns by examining a composite dataset from previous literature that contains 219 cases that were estimated to be nearing nuclear proliferation. They either led to preventive attack, or they did not. In considering peacetime data, the authors find that preventive attacks were associated with near-proliferation estimates. The likelihood of a preventive attack was approximately six percent in cases where a program’s success was estimated as being less than four years away (near-proliferation), as compared to 1.9 percent in cases where a program’s success was estimated as being more than four years away (far-from-proliferation). A serious consideration of preventive attack was more than fourteen times more likely to occur in the case of a near-proliferation estimate than a far-from-proliferation estimate.

Considering the model’s prediction and data, the authors suggest that the progress of a given nuclear program and the intelligence estimates about it combine to explain the dynamics of interactions between a proliferator and a preventer over time. The progress of a nuclear program and the intelligence estimates are the primary sources of empirical variation in behavior that explain why the U.S. takes preventative measures in some circumstances but not others.

Extending this further, the authors explain how external policy considerations may sway the dynamics and defeat their own purposes. Specifically, policies intended to hold nuclear proliferation in check, preemptive attacks or improving monitoring abilities, may instead promote nuclear proliferation. For example, improved preemptive strike capabilities, including technology that can spot and damage hidden nuclear facilities, theoretically increase the likelihood of preventive attack because they lower the costs and make it more efficient. However, these capabilities may deter proliferators from pursuing nuclear weapons in the first place, thereby reducing the necessity of actual preventive attacks. This may ultimately lead to proliferation if the U.S. becomes complacent and thus unaware of a proliferator’s stealthy nuclearization.

Likewise, U.S. intelligence capabilities for monitoring a proliferator’s program can also have an unintended impact on the likelihood of proliferation. This logically holds that the U.S., with advanced monitoring, would be more likely to catch a proliferator whose program has made progress, making preventive measures more likely and thus proliferation less likely. On the other hand, the U.S. would also be more likely to recognize when a proliferator’s program has not progressed much, which may render the U.S. complacent and give a proliferator an opportunity to succeed. Better intelligence capabilities can therefore make preventive war less likely and proliferation more likely.

Considering this series of deductions, the authors highlight the paradoxical consequences of U.S. foreign policy. Preventive attack capabilities, improved intelligence, missile defense, proliferator program sabotage, and numerous foreign policy initiatives against nuclear proliferation may produce counterintuitive effects. In this regard, the authors suggest that these unintended effects can ultimately undermine non-proliferation efforts. By extension, a policy that is intended to discourage potential proliferators may actually encourage others. “Targeted” measures rarely mean “perfect” measures that eradicate unwanted spillover effects. Thus, the authors conclude that each policy must be evaluated based on its possible effects on each potential proliferator.

Article source: Bas, Muhammet, and Andrew Coe. “A Dynamic Theory of Nuclear Proliferation and Preventive War.International Organization 70(4). (2016): 655-685.

Featured photo: cc/(Alexander Kuguchin, photo ID: 520741906, from iStock by Getty Images)

Changwook Ju
Changwook (MPP '18) is a staff writer for Law & Politics. He is interested in political economy, civil-military relations, and electoral politics.

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