Stephen M. Walt

A renaissance in nuclear security studies?

Ever since Hiroshima, the role of nuclear weapons in international politics has been a central part of the security studies field. Think of the seminal works of Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, and Thomas Schelling, as well as the somewhat less enduring but still important work of people like Pierre Gallois, William Kaufmann, Herman Kahn, Hedley ...

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Ever since Hiroshima, the role of nuclear weapons in international politics has been a central part of the security studies field. Think of the seminal works of Bernard Brodie, Albert Wohlstetter, and Thomas Schelling, as well as the somewhat less enduring but still important work of people like Pierre Gallois, William Kaufmann, Herman Kahn, Hedley Bull, and others. (If you want a real hoot, try to re-read Henry Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1957), the book that made his early reputation but has — to put it politely — not aged well). Discussions of nuclear strategy were a cottage industry in the 1970s and 1980s (think Robert Jervis, Colin Gray, Desmond Ball, Bruce Blair, Paul Bracken, John Steinbruner, Ken Waltz, etc.), and former statesman and policy wonks routinely weighed in on the issues of nuclear proliferation and arms control.  

Indeed, when I got my first job at Princeton in 1984, I was hired in part to teach a course on nuclear weapons and arms control, and it routinely attracted 50-100 students. The Cold War was still going strong and the Reagan administration was raising the nuclear temperature in various ways, so concerns about nuclear weapons were front and center. Interest in the topic hasn’t vanished entirely since then, but there’s no course of that kind at Harvard these days (or at Princeton, for that matter), and I haven’t detected much student demand for one.  (That may also reflect that fact that there is only one regular faculty member in Harvard’s Government Department whose main research interest is the study of war and peace, but that’s another story).

In recent years, however, scholarly interest in the topic has declined dramatically. One reason is that there hasn’t been that much new to say about the subject; the essential features of deterrence theory are well-established by now, and the infeasibility of any sort of "nuclear war" seems to be pretty well-understood (at least let’s hope so). There have been a few important works on nuclear-related topics in recent years (such as Nina Tannenwald’s work on the nuclear taboo, the policy literature on "loose nukes" and nuclear terrorism, and the many discussions of the Indian, Pakistani, North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs), but the end of the Cold War and the gradual reduction in the Russian and American nuclear arsenals has diminished interest in this question. With some notable exceptions, younger scholars and graduate students have tended to pursue other questions (e.g, ethnic conflict, terrorism, religion, insurgency, globalization, etc.), and interest in nuclear issues has declined.

That situation may now be changing, and a new initiative by the Stanton Foundation could accelerate the trend. Back in the 1970s, the Ford Foundation created university-based research centers in the field of international security and arms control at Harvard, Stanford, Cornell and UCLA, with the explicit goal of "restocking" the intellectual capital of the field, primarily by supporting younger scholars.  The initiative was a resounding success, and a list of alumni from the various Ford centers (which includes the Belfer Center where I work now) reads like a "Who’s Who" of the field (in both academia and the policy world) in the United States and overseas.

Earlier this month, the Stanton Foundation announced a new nuclear security fellowship program, which will offer ten-month stipends of 20,000 USD to pre­doctoral research fellows, and stipends for postdoctoral scholars and junior faculty on a case-by-case basis and commensurate with experience. The Belfer Center’s International Security Program is one of the hosting centers, so if you’re interested (or if you know someone who should be), you can find out how to apply here. (If Harvard is not to your liking for some reason, other participants in Stanton program include Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC), the Council on Foreign Relations, the RAND Corporation, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.)

And while I’m on the topic, let me call your attention to some recent publications that suggest a renewed interest in nuclear topics. I’ve already touted John Mueller’s important book Atomic Obsession, but you should also read University of Texas historian Francis Gavin’s new article "Same as It Ever Was: Nuclear Alarmism, Proliferation, and the Cold War," in the latest issue of International Security.  Gavin shows (convincingly, in my view), that the current spate of nuclear alarmism rests in part on a misreading of nuclear affairs during the Cold War (including the repackaging of "old threats in new clothing"), and that a proper understanding of the past might lead to better policy choices today.  (Gavin also gets bonus points for using a Talking Heads lyric in his title.) The next article, ("Posturing for Peace") by Vipin Narang of Harvard (and starting next year, a faculty member at MIT), suggests that some degree of alarm is still warranted. Narang analyzes Pakistan’s nuclear posture (i.e., its combination of weaponry, command and control, and employment doctrine) and suggests that Islamabad’s efforts to gain political leverage from its arsenal have created a nuclear posture that is much less stable than it should be. If reading Gavin makes you feel a bit more secure, reading Narang will bring your blood pressure back up.

Lastly, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just released volume 2 of a special issue of Daedalus (edited by my colleague Steven Miller and Scott Sagan of Stanford), on The Global Nuclear Future. The Academy has a long history of producing seminal works in this area, and these two volumes are excellent guides to the evolving nuclear environment.  Who knows? Maybe someone will decide that undergraduates ought to be able to take a course on the subject at a place like Harvard.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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