Magazine article Chicago Policy Review (Online)

Nuclear Dynamics and Conflicting Effects of Foreign Policy Initiatives

Magazine article Chicago Policy Review (Online)

Nuclear Dynamics and Conflicting Effects of Foreign Policy Initiatives

Article excerpt

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. …

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