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Political Scientists to Speak on Nuclear Weapons and International Relations

Former IOP Executive Director Steve Edwards will moderateThe threat of nuclear war is once again in the news. Fears about the potential use of nuclear weapons have reanimated public debate in ways not seen since the Cold War.

To further understand how decisions about nuclear weapons are made by world leaders and institutions, the Division of the Social Sciences, the Chicago Project on Security and Threats (CPOST), and the Institute of Politics (IOP) are cosponsoring a January 29 panel titled “A Safer or a More Dangerous World? Nuclear Weapons in Today’s Global Community.” The event, to be held in Regenstein Library Room 122 from 5:30-7:00 PM, is an extension of the University-wide Nuclear Reactions series commemorating the 75th anniversary of the first controlled atomic chain reaction.

Organized by political scientist Paul Poast, Assistant Professor of Political Science,

the event joins UChicago international relations scholars to offer different viewpoints on military decisions, the role of nuclear arms in the formation of alliances, and aids and obstacles to non-proliferation efforts. “It’s important to think systematically about the international system, about how countries interact with each other, and what would lead them to think that nuclear weapons are a useful thing to have,” Poast says.

In addition to Poast, panelists will include Austin Carson, Assistant Professor of Political Science; Paige P. Cone, CPOST’s Nuclear Proliferation Fellow; Robert Pape, Professor of Political Science and Director of CPOST; and Paul Staniland, Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Committee on International Relations (CIR). Steve Edwards, Chief Content Officer of WBEZ and former executive director of the Institute of Politics (IOP), will moderate.

Panelists will address various long-standing questions about nuclear politics and policy, from the effectiveness of dropping the first atomic bombs over Japan during World War Two to the latest battles over nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. “All of us have something to say on this topic about the international politics of nuclear weapons,” says Poast. “This session will help to not only give a little historical perspective, but also contextualize the uncertain future of nuclear weapons in the world.”

Poast stresses that despite the daunting scale of the nuclear weapons threat and the global problems it presents, the work of researchers like those on the panel can help people better understand the implications for society today and in the future.  “The goal is to give people a new way to think about things,” he says.

Looking at nuclear weapons from the viewpoint of political science helps reinforce the idea that technology is always political and social, Carson says. “But we have a lot of ways of managing that technology and we better damn well understand what makes it work and what doesn’t,” he says. “Because it’s the seventy-fifth anniversary of an innovation that still vexes us in terms of how to handle it. And I think probably should for a long time.”

Panelists will offer varied perspectives, scholarship 

In a paper published early in his career, Robert Pape challenged the conventional wisdom that dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the key to the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. He suggested instead that Japan’s ability to continue fighting was most threatened by the Soviet Union’s declaration of war (on August 9, the same day as the bombing of Nagasaki), and by the United States’ sea blockade and capture of Okinawa. Pape argued further that while the nuclear bombs’ devastation was massive, the Japanese had already suffered intense conventional bombing and had not surrendered.

“[Pape’s argument] raises all sorts of ethical questions about the whole justification to use it to end the war quickly,” Poast says. “Could we have ended the war quickly just by having the Soviets invade without the dropping of the atomic bombs? That’s a big question and I think that’s going to be something that will be really valuable for the audience to hear.”

In another influential article titled “Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work“, Pape questioned the effectiveness of punishing sanctions to achieve international political goals, like efforts to end specific states’ nuclear weapons programs. Cone says sanctions can appear reasonable to leaders faced with emergent crises. “They think, we don’t want to reward you for your bad behavior, so we’re going to punish you. That might make sense morally, but does it actually work?”

Cone’s research extends beyond sanctions to include other forms of economic or military coercion as well. A recent item she published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists explained her finding that previous uses of so-called “negative inducements” have not produced good results. “If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, insanity is an apt description of US sanctions policy against North Korea,” Cone wrote.

According to Cone, 39 states have pursued nuclear weapons. Of those, Cone determined that offering positive inducements was a more reliable method of intervening to prevent a country from becoming a nuclear power, and was successful in reversing at least 11 countries’ nuclear ambitions. Today, nine countries are considered nuclear states, including North Korea.

“It’s really easy to think everything is terrible right now,” Cone says. “But if you take everything else away and look at the numbers, far more states have tried to begin nuclear weapons programs and failed, than those that have tried and not failed. And a big part of why they start and then reverse is a consequence of the inducements that are being given to them.”

Part of Poast’s research centers around one of those inducements — membership in international security alliances like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Although a key function of NATO was to limit the Soviet Union’s influence in Europe during the Cold War, Poast’s research suggests that the alliance also thrived as a way for the United States to enforce nuclear non-proliferation.

“You can’t avoid the fact that nuclear politics provide the rationale for NATO,” Poast says. “Once you view NATO’s role in the context of nuclear weapons, you realize that the end of the Cold War did not in any way make NATO obsolete.” In fact, Poast believes NATO became even more important as a tool of non-proliferation in the 1990s, when the Iron Curtain fell and Eastern European states might have pursued nuclear weapons.

Austin Carson also examines the influence of international organizations in nuclear politics. The 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its enforcement arm, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), have played an increasingly important role in combatting nuclear programs, particularly since the first Gulf war in Iraq.

Carson’s work looks at secrecy and transparency between states and international organizations. He has previously studied covert military and intelligence operations as a kind of face-saving communication among states. His current project examines why decisions are made not to communicate secret information, particularly when countries have intelligence that could cause an acceleration of nuclear programs.

“We’ve known that…if you tell everyone about [a state’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons], you marshal international pressure that’s going to make that proliferating country or that violator more likely to come come back from the brink and reverse what they’re doing,” Carson says. But examining newly declassified documents from US intelligence archives, he found that there are often situations in which government and military officials did not think publicity would produce a positive outcome.

“Part of what sustains norms and conventions is a lack of awareness about who breaks those norms and conventions and how commonly they do it,” Carson says. “Publicizing information that isn’t widely held about a particular violation could make it more likely that other countries violate and then ultimately that norm or convention or law would sort of fall away.”

Poast says Paul Staniland’s perspective will help the panel address the regional impacts of nuclear weapons programs. Staniland, whose work has been on insurgencies and violence in South and Southeast Asia, has recently shed light on broader South Asian foreign policy questions, including the way nuclear weapons factor into smaller-scale conflicts between Pakistan and India like the resurgent violence in Kashmir last year. Staniland recently coauthored a paper that considers the domestic political implications of India’s nuclear policy and the role played by other regional nuclear powers like Pakistan and China.

Poast says the various questions raised in his and the other panelists’ research reflect the fact that nuclear politics are inextricable from the development of other kinds of international politics and governance, and that their influence may be surprising. “If anything,” he says, “nukes have had this perverse effect of making everyone more conscious of trying to create peaceful relations”

January 5, 2018 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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