CISAC Alum Vipin Narang returns to CISAC to discuss Strategies of Nuclear Proliferation

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Before policymakers can combat proliferation of nuclear weapons they need to know how states choose to go about pursuing them, Vipin Narang told a Stanford audience at the Center of International Security and Cooperation.

“I wanted to go back to a more fundamental question which I think hasn’t really been explored by political scientists very much which is about strategies of nuclear proliferation. How do states that are pursuing nuclear weapons go about doing so given the constraints they face both domestically and in the international system?” Narang said, presenting an outline for what will be his second book on nuclear weapons.

Vipin Narang is an Associate Professor of Political Science at MIT and member of MIT’s Security Studies Program. He previously was a junior faculty fellow at CISAC, and he received his bachelor and master degrees from Stanford where he was part of the first class of CISAC Honors students.

Professor of Political Science and CISAC Senior Fellow Scott Sagan was Narang’s undergraduate thesis advisor. This time around Sagan led commentary on Narang’s presentation.

“I was Vipin’s undergraduate thesis advisor and one of the great pleasures of my job is to see former undergraduates do extremely well and experience the transformation of someone being a student of yours to becoming a colleague and friend,” Sagan said.

Current thinking on nuclear proliferation tends to focus on why states pursue nuclear weapons, Narang said. It’s only recently that scholars have started thinking about the process question. Narang hopes to take aim at two overriding assumptions: that pursuers seek a functional nuclear weapon and that they seek to acquire it as quickly as possible.

“I think both of these assumptions may not be accurate and it gives rise to strategic logic of pursuit where we can disaggregate the political strategies of acquisition. States may be pursuing in different ways and pursuing different ends. I think the ‘how’ question is really important because it helps us think about different strategies and points of vulnerabilities in those strategies, and it helps us think about nonproliferation in different ways,” Narang said.

Narang is attempting to build a theoretical model of varieties of political strategies states choose to use to acquire nuclear weapons. Narang sees roughly four types of strategies–hedging, sprinting, sheltered pursuit, and hiding–with some varied sub-categories for each.

Hedging is putting a state in a position of acquiring nuclear weapons, but deferring the decision to weaponize. Sprinting is acquiring a nuclear capability as quickly as possible using any means necessary. Sheltered pursuit is using superpower protection from other states to proliferate. Hiding is maximizing secrecy with the aim of presenting a nuclear weapon as a fait accompli.

States choose a strategy based on whether or not they face an acute security threat, have superpower protection, and have domestic political consensus.

Narang argued that differentiating the types of proliferating strategies can help non-proliferation policymakers. “I think one of the big policy takeaways for this is that a complete roll back may not be a realistic objective, but pushing a state from an active strategy of pursuit to an inactive one can be realistic and can be a win for nonproliferation policy,” he said.

Overall, Narang’s efforts were warmly welcomed and encouraged.

“It’s always great to be back here,” Narang said afterwards. “CISAC is where it started for me. I was in the first honors program group in 2001 and I got into security studies and kept going. So, this is where my career started. It was nice to be back here as a Stanton fellow to finish my first book. It’s one of the few places where science, engineering, and social science are brought together. This where I was trained and it will always be home.”