Among the technologies that transformed the 20th-century, none has cast a longer and darker shadow than the atomic bomb. Even since Sidney Drell and John Lewis founded the Center for International Security and Arms Control in 1983, scholars at CISAC have grappled with how these tools of war have altered global diplomacy and defense.
Current and former CISAC fellows recently took part in a conversation about the state of nuclear studies, which has bridged academia, the public sphere and the halls of power. In a joint forum for H-Diplo and the International Security Studies Forum, which curate book reviews and disciplinary debates for international historians and international security scholars, respectively, as well as the Monkey Cage, where The Washington Post publishes rigorous analysis on political topics, a cohort of historians and political scientists debated the claims and methods that are animating the study of nuclear subjects today.
Recent publications by early career political scientists and the occurrence of what CISAC Senior Fellow Scott Sagan terms “two nuclear renaissances,” prompted the discussions. Since 1991, historians who work on subjects such as nuclear power, crises, proliferation, compellence, and deterrence have vastly expanded the documentary record (nearly always declassified) upon which our collective knowledge rests by mining archives throughout the world. Their efforts have been curated and made available by organizations such as the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Concurrently, political scientists have taken advantage of the prodigious computational power and advanced statistical tools that have revolutionized scientific inquiry to generate important new research and insights using large-N quantitative analysis as well as survey methodology.
Two recent articles in International Organizations, a prominent journal of political science and international relations, one authored by former CISAC fellow Matthew Kroenig and another coauthored by former CISAC fellow Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, endeavor to draw inferences about what leads one state or another to emerge victorious from an international crisis when one or both sides possess nuclear weapons. Intriguingly, though they ask slightly different questions, they come to divergent conclusions. Kroenig contends that crisis outcomes are co-determined by nuclear superiority and “the balance of resolve” (i.e. which side has higher political stakes). Sechser and Fuhrmann, on the other hand, find that nuclear weapons generally fail to furnish a “credible threat,” making them weak tools with which to compel adversaries.
Francis J. Gavin, the Frank Stanton Chair in Nuclear Security Policy Studies at MIT, takes issue with the methodological approach of both articles in a response piece, entitled “What We Talk about When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons,” which grew into a joint H-Diplo/ISSF forum featuring an introduction by Sagan, responses by the two articles’ various authors (individually and collectively), an exposition by former CISAC honors student and current Duke University professor Hal Brands on the importance of archives for studying nuclear politics; an “apology” for quantitative methods in the political sciences by UCSD Professor Erik Gartzke; and a explication of how “large-N methods” can be used and abused when studying nuclear subjects by one of last year’s Stanton Faculty Fellows at CISAC and Gavin’s colleague at MIT, Vipin Narang.
The forum inspired another round of responses on H-Diplo, including a number by former and current fellows at CISAC. Gavin reprises some of his arguments in a response to the forum while also underscoring the professional and institutional stakes at issue. UCLA historian Marc Trachtenberg, Columbia political scientist Robert Jervis, and U.S. Naval War College strategic thinker Tom Nichols also weigh in on when nuclear weapons matter and how scholars can go about figuring out why and how they do.
As the current MacArthur Nuclear Security Fellow at CISAC and forthcoming Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at RAND Corporation, I call attention to the power of ideas and how social scientists embed themselves in the subjects they study. Jayita Sarkar, a Stanton Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center explores how empirical work on case studies of technological assistance and proliferation such as that of France and India call into doubt some findings by political scientists who employ statistical methods. Lastly, former CISAC postdoctoral fellow Benoît Pelopidas, now a professor at the University of Bristol, probes the ethical responsibility of intellectuals and whether scholars ought to serve the policymaking community, or the broader public, when they conceptualize and perform their work.
Pelopidas’ essay points to a core concern about the policy implications of nuclear-security scholarship, which a third group of distinguished panelists delved into for a symposium in The Washington Post. The forum, posted on the Monkey Cage, features thoughts from Yale Assistant Professor of Political Science Alexandre Debs, Duke Professor of Political Science and former Special Advisor for Strategic Planning and Institutional Reform on the National Security Council Staff Peter Feaver, Georgetown Associate Professor of Political Science and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl, and Matthew Connelly, who will join CISAC this year as the inaugural Hazy Senior Fellow in International Security and Professor of History at Stanford University.
Gavin concludes his introduction to the Monkey Cage symposium by reflecting on how the current generation of scholars has taken up the baton from those who participated in the “golden age” of nuclear-security scholarship after World War II:
If brilliant minds like Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, and Albert Wohlstetter could not settle these issues during their time at RAND, we certainly don’t expect to here. At best, we can inspire much needed debate and broaden this crucial conversation. What we do hope to emulate, however, is the earlier generation’s rigorous, interdisciplinary questioning and exchange, while always keeping an eye on how our ideas can help decision-makers better understand and make responsible decisions about these fearsome weapons.
The Center for International Security and Cooperation is gratified that so many of its affiliates—current and former—are contributing to this revival of scholarly interest in how the nuclear revolution has shaped global affairs. We look forward to our nuclear scholars—past, present, and future—continuing to enrich these vital interdisciplinary debates.
Jonathan Hunt was a Nuclear Fellow at CISAC from 2012-2014.