Tag: nuclear weapons (page 2 of 3)

Observations from Day One of 3MSP-CMC

At multilateral “Meetings of States Parties (MSP)” conferences, delegates are there to review progress made since the establishment of some treaty standard or another – in this case the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CMC) three years ago (3). In the plenaries, therefore, diplomats praise one another’s efforts to implement the treaty with fancy prepared speeches, congratulate their hosts for a beautifully organized event, call on non-signatories to join the treaty, and generally take stock of how to strengthen adherence to the rules.  But just like at academic conferences, all the really interesting stuff happens outside the plenary, in the corridors, in the bars or in “side events” organized by NGOs. In these informal mini-panel discussions, civil society pitches its ideas about how to trouble-shoot the implementation process, but also – importantly for my research – they incubate ideas for new norm campaigns in related areas.

These conversations are very early steps on a road that may (though won’t always) lead to later multilateral framework conferences designed to create rather than implement international norms. At the 3MSP-CMC Conference this week in Oslo, 80% of the side events have to do with implementing provisions of the CMC, particularly the victim assistance provisions. But the other 20% has to do with other, emerging weapons issues. (I include here break-out sessions at the pre-conference Youth Seminar as well as a side event in the regular conference entitled “Looking Back to Look Forward: The CCM and What it Means for Limiting the Impact of Other Weapons Systems.”) The latter will cover the new explosive violence campaign as well as the now very-much percolating issue of autonomous weapons. In the Youth Seminar the topics covered included nuclear weapons, explosive weapons, and incendiary weapons. The nuclear weapons group drew by far the most youth participants, though whether this was due to the issue’s relative salience or to the fact that it was the only session to be held in Norwegian is unclear. Explosives drew a medium-sized crowd and the incendiary weapons workshop, which I attended, drew the smallest. This variation in salience of these emergent issues is interesting to me because of these three campaigns incendiaries has in objective terms the most ingredients of agenda-setting success, including a) prior adoption by a human security “heavyweight” (Human Rights Watch), b) grounding in existing international law (the Incendiary Weapons Protocol to the Convention on Conventional Weapons), c) ample documented historical evidence of human suffering and d) a recent “trigger event” provided by Israel’s use of white phosphorus in Gaza. (These four factors together seem strong indicators of the likelihood that a civil society campaign has legs.) The other two campaigns each have some of these ingredients but neither yet has all four, yet both are also causing a buzz at the conference.

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The Triumph of Liberal Internationalism?

Robert Golan-Viella reflects on a tectonic shift in partisan foreign-policy debate, i.e., the fact that the Democrats have the upper hand. He chalks this up to campaign politics: the key to a Republican victory runs through the economy. I agree that there are “strong critiques” of Obama foreign policy and that “leading Republicans aren’t making them.” But I don’t think this is “politically smart,” insofar as leading Republicans are making attacks on Obama foreign policy–just not very good ones.

As Blake Hounshell noted on twitter of the latest broadside from the Romney campaign:

I expect that I will return to this theme on a number of future occasions, but I should note that this is something quite similar to what’s been happening on the domestic politics front.

While there’s plenty of room to eviscerate Obama, the Republicans have painted themselves into an ideological corner from which they’re forced to make a lot of deeply questionable claims. This is what happens when you’ve convinced your base that the label “socialist” is broad enough to include a center-right President whose major domestic initiatives — national Romneycare, a tax-cut and infrastructure oriented stimulus, a cap-and-trade approach to reducing carbon emissions — were mainstream Republican positions only four years ago.

Indeed, the fact is that Obama foreign policy doesn’t look that much different from what Bush was doing in the later part of his second term. Sure, the Obama Administration cancelled an inferior BMD program and replaced it with a better one (props to Sean Kay for that phrasing). But on Iraq and Afghanistan Obama largely followed the path developed toward the end of the Bush administration. Even its position on Iran is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Obama’s more explicit offer to engage with Iran  highlighted Teheran’s intransigence; to the extent that it “worked,” it did so by generating greater international support for tougher sanctions — it convinced other countries to get behind preexisting US policy. Even the “Israel” issue is often more about style than substance (cf. Erik Voeten on the status of Jerusalem).
In that sense, it isn’t surprising that Russia has become a focal point. The “reset” policy really was a break from Bush foreign policy. On the one hand, though, that “break” has worked to secure Bush administration objectives, such as expanded transit routes to Afghanistan via Russian territory. On the other hand, we can imagine that McCain administration might have been much more aggressive on Georgia and not have pursued New START. I can see a case for recalibration of the US policy toward Tbilisi, but August 2008 pretty much revealed the limitations of full-throttle support for Georgia.
Nuclear-weapons policy, however, provides an opening for real attack on the Obama Administration. But once again, we’re not getting substantive criticism about nuclear doctrine but rather blog-serious level discourse about selling out US interests to Moscow on BMD and the aggregate size of the US nuclear arsenal. Recall that US-Russians relations have deteriorated lately precisely because Washington won’t capitulate to Moscow on matters such as Syria policy or EPAA.

One lesson of this, I think, was that we didn’t need all of that “security Democrat” handwringing during the first five years after 9/11. Remember all those people who were in a tizzy about how liberals and progressives needed to come up with “new thinking” to respond to the neoconservative challenge? That all looks pretty silly now. The Obama Administration’s foreign policy fits pretty squarely within the broad liberal-internationalist tradition, albeit with, on some issues, a significant lean toward its “pragmatic realist” variant. Indeed, with a few exceptions — such as the aforementioned disaster that was US policy toward Georgia — the Bush administration basically abandoned neo-conservativism after the 2006 midterms.

That’s not to say that we won’t get another taste of neoconservative crusading bluster if Romney wins. My guess is that his impulses aren’t in that direction, but foreign-policy novices often go where their advisors take them. But I think what the record of the past two decades suggests is pretty clear: Republican and Democratic foreign-policy centrists never needed to “rethink” anything. Their ideas have acquitted themselves quite well. Neo-Reaganite foreign policy? Not so much. 

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Why N Korea Gets Away with its Stunts: a Response to Jennifer Lind

NKl trajectory
Jennifer Lind has a good piece up on Foreign Affairs this week on why NK seems to regularly get away with with hijinks like last week’s rocket test (which directly contravenes UN Resolution 1874). She notes, correctly, that NK has been pulling unanswered, wild stunts like this for years – shootouts in the Yellow Sea, nuclear tests, kidnappings, etc. Further, the US particularly tends to hit back when hit. Indeed, looking at the GWoT, America’s problem is over-reaction rather than passivity. If we look at the Israelis, it’s similar. They have a well-established reputation of hitting back, hard, when provoked. So why don’t the democracies of the Six Party Talks (Korea, Japan, US) do the same here? They easily out weigh NK.

Her argument is that NK manages to deter counter-strikes through a bizarre mixture of the ‘madman theory’ (what will the loopy, hard-drinking, megalomaniacal Kim family do next? so let’s just not provoke them), regional fear of what would follow a NK implosion (après moi le déluge), and traditional nuclear deterrence (if Saddam and Gaddafi had nukes, they’d still be alive, so we’ll never give them up!).

None of that is wrong, but I think she’s missing the big factor – SK domestic politics. Lots of countries and other international actors do wacky, crazy stuff; the question is whether the target wants to counterstrike and risk escalation. So it is SK ultimately (not the US or Japan) that decides whether or not to hit back. And SK doesn’t want to, because 1) South Korean population centers are extremely vulnerable to Northern aggression, and 2) South Koreans just don’t care that much about NK anymore.

I’ve written a lot before on the issue of SK’s extreme vulnerability and how this ties the Korean military’s hands (here is the full write-up, also here; this, picked up on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, is a long discussion thread of my argument). 50% of South Korea’s population lives northwestern SK, in the extremely dense Seoul-Kyeonggi-Incheon corridor. The southern most tip of this massive agglomeration is less than 70 miles from the DMZ. The extreme demographic concentration of the Seoul area is worsening too. Busan, the second city, where I live, is shrinking, even though we are a paltry 3.5 milllion, and Incheon, the site of a super-fancy new airport, is growing. This corridor is huge, proximate, defenseless city-hostage to the North. NK does not need nuclear weapons to jeopardize these inhabitants, which is why I remain skeptical of the hawk/neocon line that NK’s nukes change the balance in big way. (Lind herself has a made a similar point.)

I have brought this point up again and again at conferences here, and I have gotten no real response. Does it make any sense to hyper-centralize a country in a direct competition with a dangerous neighbor and place the grossly overpopulated national capital just 40 miles from the border? Who thought that would be a good idea? Look at what the West Germans did. But decentralization never happens because of the cost and resistance of Seoul-based elites who like the convenience.

Remember how Cold War planners used to say that the US had an advantage over the USSR, because its many federal layers of government and widely dispersed population meant it could absorb a Soviet strike better? By contrast, because the Soviets centralized everything in Moscow, they were very vulnerable to a decapitation strike. The logic is the same here. The ROK is extremely centralized (a legacy of the Park Chung Hee dictatorship), not just politically, but in just about every way – culturally, economically, demographically. And it’s all but impossible to shield these people from a NK rocket and artillery bombardment (even non-nuclear). That Korean urbanites live in towering apartment blocks vulnerable to World Trade Center-style collapse if bombarded only worsens the vulnerability. This dramatically ties the hands of the SK government. Even if none of Lind’s three variables applied, this huge risk alone is enough to prevent SK escalation/response (as is likely the case in the foregone retaliation after the Yeonpyeong incident in 2010).

Next, Lind does not address the growing disinterest in SK for retaliation, or even otherwise engaging NK. Several Korea-based western analysts (me, Brian Myers, Brendan Howe) have made this point. In a post-Yeonpyeong analysis for the Korean National Defense University, I argued that the most likely way to end the Korean stalemate is get greater South Korean commitment to ‘win’ rather than simply manage-when-necessary-and-ignore-when-possible, today’s current ‘strategy.’ And at the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis last year, I argued for a significant effort to ‘harden’ South Korea to withstand this competition. When Brendan and I suggested raising SK defense spending, which is a paltry 2.3% of GDP, the room roundly said it’s politically impossible.

In IR lingo, SK is not really a revisionist anymore; it is a status quo power. De jure, (i.e., in its constitution), the ROK is committed to unity, but as anyone who’s lived here for just a little while can tell you, most South Koreans are genuinely frightened of NK’s collapse – not of NK, mind you, but of its collapse: the huge amount of money it will cost, the massive, generations-spanning reconstruction it will require, internal ‘refugees’ from the north decamping in southern cities, loss of the hard-won OECD lifestyle in the name of national sacrifice, etc. South Koreans would much rather buy iPhones, travel, study in the West, move to Seoul, and get a cool job with Samsung.

I see this in my students all the time. We talk about reunification in class a lot naturally. It’s an unnerving abstraction to them; they certainly don’t get fired up about it. I have never seen a Korean get passionate, angry, or intensely patriotic about unification, even though they are a very nationalistic as a people. In my experience, South Koreans get more angry and emotional over the Liancourt Rocks dispute with Japanor or the Dongbei/Mt. Baektu flap with China than over NK . Just look at the lack of interest and care shown to North Koreans who make it here (a terrible moral failing, IMO). Or, I’ve had students tell me that my discussion of the 1990s famine in NK that killed maybe half a million people was just American propaganda I picked up from the US military in Korea.

If you’re wondering if this really strange, yes, it is. North Korea has probably the worst long-term human rights record of any country in the world, yet South Koreans don’t want to talk about it. I guess a parallel is Germans under 40 years old by the mid-1980s. They too increasingly saw the inter-German border as a real border, not a temporary division. Divide a community long enough, and I guess it slowly becomes two. That’s not too surprising. It’s rather uncomfortable that outsiders, usually Americans, are the ones who seem to push the NK issue and worry about NK human rights and nutrition. I am continuously mystified and moral discomforted that NK doesn’t dominate SK politics.

But that’s how it is. And if we believe in democracy and self-determination, we have to respect Southern public opinion. We can’t get in front our own ally who will carry most of the costs if there’s a war or collapse. When I came to SK I shared the typical American hawk/neocon thinking regarding NK – on the axis of evil, the worst country on earth, run by power-mad lunatics, deserved to get punched in the face at the earliest opportunity, etc. All of that is still true of course, but the longer I live here, the more I have moderated on what that means for policy. South Koreans really don’t want a war or escalation, no matter how many times western IR and think-tank types tell them that NK is dangerous, erratic, terrifying, etc. (I’ve seen this so debate so many times here); they don’t want to risk much for regime change; they don’t want to ally with democratic Japan against communist NK and China, regardless of what structural realism and democratic peace liberalism say; SK is very vulnerable and neocon-John Boltonism looks reckless and scary to them; most don’t really believe in their hearts that their ethnic compatriots to the north will nuke them. Yes, there are demonstrations sometimes against NK, but look closely and you’ll notice that most of the demonstrations are small and the participants elderly. Washington may not like this (I don’t either), and it may feel morally uncomfortable, in that it effectively abandons North Koreans to the brutal status quo, but this is where Southern public opinion is.

So South Koreans seem increasingly comfortable letting NK go its own, bizarre way. I think this is why the conservative, anti-communist press here comes off so unhinged; they’re terrified that South Korea is effectively a status quo power now (which is true). President Lee’s post-Sunshine Policy return to confrontation is very unpopular here (even though lots of western analysts I meet here [me included] think it was a good idea to give it up). Even the conservatives in this year’s elections here are running as doves now. Lots of Koreas thought that the 2010 Cheonan sinking was a plot by the government or the even Americans, or that it illustrated the incompetence of the Lee administration; there was no post-9/11-style national outburst against NK. And a similar shrug greeted the 2010 Yeonpyeong shelling; there was no nation-wide outburst for war or even counterstrikes comparable to how, say, Americans would have responded to such an attack.  In the parliamentary elections that just concluded, NK wasn’t an issue, even though the rocket launch preparation was making global news during the campaign.

I don’t think I would call this appeasement of Lind’s ‘madman.’ That would imply a level of interest, if only to duck or hide from the North, that isn’t there. Appeasement would also suggest that SK would eventually spend more on defense so that it would have more choices against the madman next time. But as Brendan noted, SK isn’t doing any of this. The military is shrinking, the defense budget is astonishingly, irresponsibly low, and there’s no effort to generate force totals with the requisite skills even close to what Lind says is needed to pacify a unified Korea. And that’s because a unified Korea isn’t really on the public radar.

To my mind, the real reason SK doesn’t respond is simple disinterest; they don’t want to make the sacrifices and run the risks.  K-pop, climbing the social ladder, learning English, moving ‘up to Seoul,’ reducing the Gini-coefficient, going to school in the US, playing golf, Yuna Kim, the scandals of the Lee administration, etc. are far more common topics of conversation with my students, family, and colleagues. I am the one who brings up NK, and the answers just aren’t that passionate.

More than anything else, South Koreans just want NK to go away. The most scary implication of this is that if NK can hang on a few more decades, the South won’t even want unity.

Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.

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Seoul 2012 Nuclear Security Summit


This week is the big nuclear security summit in Seoul, with something like 60 attending countries and over 40 heads of state or government. A friend from a Korean expat magazine here in town asked me for a brief write-up. Here are the issues as I see them from Korean IR and the local media. For full-blown think-tankery on the summit, try here.

1. Obama’s personal commitment to de-nuclearization: I can’t think of any president since Reagan who seems as personally offended by nuclear weapons as Obama. Back in the day, Reagan watched ‘The Day After,’ ‘Wargames’ and other nuclear war movies and came to dramatically oppose mutually assured destruction as it had underpinned US policy since flexible response. This helped Reagan achieve the first nuclear stockpile  reduction in history (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty – a point anti-New Start neocons conveniently forget). But Obama is going beyond that, talking about ‘global zero’ – the complete elimination of all nuclear weapons everywhere. Wow. This is why there have been two of these summits in three years, but nothing like this under Bush. To be honest, I don’t think the complete elimination of the American nuclear deterrent is probably not a good idea (although we can go pretty low); nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of US sovereignty and democracy, and many US allies, like SK, rely on our extended deterrence. In any case, Obama’s personal interest in this issue is a major driver for this thing.

2. NK, always and again: It takes absolutely no imagination to realize that NK is, inevitably, the big focus on these sorts of gatherings. The placement of the summit in SK is to make that pretty clear. NK is easily the most dangerous nuclear-weapons state in the world. (Even Israel’s most dire opponents would probably accept that; well, ok, maybe they wouldn’t.)  Not only is its policy process incredibly opaque and its leadership capricious, NK has no declaratory policy on use (such as NATO’s ‘no first-strike, but reserved first-use’). So we have no idea what NK’s redlines are (which is probably one reason why no further retaliation for Yeonpyeong was approved). Beyond that, NK is a well-established proliferator with known involvement in the programs of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan. To boot, it is a delivery system (i.e., missile) proliferator too. They’re so desperate for cash, it seems like they’ll sell anything. With Kim Jong Il deceased, a new push to move NK toward denuclearization is likely, and this summit is part of the pressure to get NK back into the Six Party Talks to deal for real this time. Similarly, it is likely that the Summit will strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which is also aimed primarily at NK. (On the problem of retaliation and the risk of out-of-control escalation in Korea after Yeonpyeong-style incidents, try here; on nuclear first-use in a Korean war scenario, try here.)

3. Heading off a Nuclear Arms Race in the Middle East: To everyone’s relief, India and (less so) Pakistan are managing their nuclear stockpiles pretty well. There will be little pressure on South Asia. The US interest in nuclear materials safety within Pakistan probably won’t be mentioned publicly, because we so desperately need Pakistani cooperation in the war on terror. Instead, the geographic focus, after NK, is almost certain to be Iran, and possible cascading Sunni nuclearization (Saudi Arabia and Egypt particularly) if Iran weaponizes. As Obama noted at AIPAC, there is a lot of ‘loose talk’ floating around about war with Iran. So this summit will probably be yet another venue for the administration to blunt the Likud-neocon demand for airstrikes. If Obama can get some global commitment, particularly from Asian states like Japan and Korea, for sanctions against Iran, that buys him time to defuse the war he’s partially backed himself into.

4. Materials Security: In the early post-9/11 years, there was a lot of talk at the conferences about the so-called ‘hand-off’ – a rogue state would hand-off a nuke to a Qaeda-style group who would then use it in a western city. This threat thankfully seems to have been overblown, but there’s a lot of nuclear material floating around. About 2,000 tons to be precise. That’s actually pretty terrifying if even just one-third of that were in corrupt, semi-dysfunctional states like Russia, NK, and Pakistan. In fact, I gotta agree with Graham Allison that it’s fairly amazing there’s no been nuclear use since the Cold War’s end, given how much processed plutonium and uranium there is in weak Eurasian states and how big the black market for it is now. Inevitably, the conference will emphasize security at the source. It’s obviously far easier to prevent proliferation than to rein it in once material is out the door. This also means more funding and inspection capabilities (also informally pointed at NK) for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

5. Fukushima and Nuclear Power: This isn’t technically a weaponization issue but a production one. And under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, states have the right to pursue nuclear power for energy (weaponization is a different story). But clearly the catastrophe of last year hangs over all this. In East Asia, it’s gotten, lots of press as you might imagine. Ironically, nuclear power is fairly safe, but the public has taken an especial fear to it. (My guess is that this fear comes from too many scary images in movies and TV and because if nuclear plants do meltdown, the potential catastrophe is enormous and unusually unpredictable because of the fallout). So there will be long-term commitments to find alternative energy sources.

Bonus Silliness: Finally, it wouldn’t be a global conference of consequence in Korea without some cringe-inducing, gratuitously inappropriate K-pop addendum to trivialize it all. Really, who vets this stuff? ‘Enjoy’ that uber-cheese vid above if you can actually make it through to the end. I sure wish the ROKG would stop looking at these sorts of conferences as a marketing gimmick for Korea (don’t miss the daily countdown marker in the top left corner of all Arirang broadcasts now and the relentless advertising blitz) and stay focused on the weighty issues at hand. Just as CNN International blew its credibility by re-cycling Demi Moore (?), complete with drug problems, as a wholly unconvincing ‘anti-slavery campaigner,’ I can think of no better way to drain the gravity of nuclear disarmament than to pointlessly shoehorn in a Korean soap opera actress and boyband with orange hair. Good grief – who thought that would raise the level of discussion? Just a few more rads of gamma rays, boyo, and that hair really will be orange. God save us from Hallyu shallowness…

Cross-posted at Asian Security Blog and Busan Haps.

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Scholarship and Advocacy: Bomb Iran Edition (UPDATED)

My colleague, Matt Kroenig, has generated a ton of buzz (and not a little vitriol) for his Foreign Affairs piece in which he advocates imminent US military action against Iran. What’s probably less well known, however, is that Matt and Mike Weintraub, a graduate student at Georgetown, have a working paper in which, as they write:

We argue that nuclear superiority, by increasing the expected costs of conflict, improves a state’s ability to deter potential adversaries. We then show that states that enjoy nuclear superiority over their opponents are less likely to be the targets of militarized challenges. Arguments that contend that a minimum deterrent posture is sufficient to deter militarized challenges do not find support in the data.

As I’ve been discussing with Matt on Facebook, I see a real tension between these findings and claims that a nuclear Iran poses such a grave danger to US national interests that Washington must, as soon as possible, launch a military strike against Iranian facilities. After all, if Matt and Mike are correct then we should expect both that the massive asymmetric nuclear advantage enjoyed by the US will deter Iran, and that Iran’s possession of a few nukes will not greatly alter its behavior.

If I am right, then Matt joins a long line of international-relations academics whose policy advocacy doesn’t entirely cohere with their scholarship. For example, a significant number of offensive realists signed letters opposing the Iraq war, even though their theories suggest that states should, and will, maximize power in the international system.

Given all this, I’m curious what other Duck readers and writers think should be the relationship between academic scholarship and policy advocacy.

Do we have an obligation to be completely consistent across both domains, or do the real differences between our political and academic roles suggest otherwise? How much “policy weight” we should give to any particular academic finding? If we are skeptical of extrapolating too much from one or more pieces of international-relations scholarship, does it matter if that scholarship is our own and we are making the policy recommendations? Does the methodology of the work matter, e.g., if the piece involves a linear regression such that we expect individual cases to be outliers? And what is the comparative “truth value” of our policy advocacy?

UPDATE: Matt weighs in below on the substantive merits. Someone also pointed to a draft of Matt’s forthcoming piece, which I think reinforces the questions I raise, insofar as it is an example of an academic paper with policy recommendations. For example:

Given that the most likely conflict scenarios between these two states would occur in the Middle East, the balance of political stakes in future confrontations would tend to favor Tehran. The brinkmanship approach adopted in this paper concurs that proliferation in Iran would disadvantage the United States by forcing it to compete with Iran in risk taking, rather than in more traditional arenas. On the other hand, the findings of this paper also suggest that the United States could fare well in future nuclear crises. As long as the United States maintains nuclear superiority over Iran, a prospect that seems highly likely for years to come, Washington will frequently be able to achieve its basic goals in nuclear confrontations with Tehran.

As we all agree, Matt’s model points to increased risk. But do such conclusions really support the notion that the United States must strike immediately or face apocalyptic consequences?

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Is Herman Cain Angling to Defeat LBJ?

At about 13.10 GOP poll-leader Herman Cain reveals the shocking news that the People’s Republic of China is seeking nuclear-weapons capability.

Watch Monday, October 31, 2011 on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

Next interview: Cain discusses the threat posed by UK, French, and Russian nuclear proliferation. George Will swoons.

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Presidential Reading List: (After you probably get through the ones with ‘Bacevich’ on the cover)

Dan Drezner has issued a call to arms!… or to your library card:

“I therefore call upon the readers of this blog to proffer up their suggestions — if you had to pick three books for an ambitious U.S. politician to read in order to bone up on foreign affairs, what would they be?”

I have a gut feeling that all of the answers are going to be grand strategy, grand strategy and some war on terror/Afghanistan. (Although, maybe I’m not being generous enough… but looking at the comments on Drezner’s post, I don’t think so.) So I’m going to suggest three books that touch on issues presented by ethical and political leadership as well as the war on terror, with a little bit of history thrown in on the side. Oh yeah – they’re all very good reads – Senators are going to be reading these things on planes, right?

(And for comparison, with an American IPE guy, Kindred Winecoff’s take is here.)

1. Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea.

I think this book actually deserves its own post, let alone a mention here. It won (and very much deserved) the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize in 2010. Basically Demick interviews North Korean defectors who now live in South Korea about their experiences north of the 38th Parallel. But it’s not just a book about North Korea – most of the individuals in the book lived through the famine that struck the country in the 1990s. And gradually, as the story of the expats unfold, you learn what it is like to live through a famine – bonuses slowly disappear, soon the shelves aren’t stocked, and people begin to sell off their possessions to buy food on a dangerous black market. It gets worse – seeing increasing numbers of abandoned children at the train station, walking overtop of people literally starving to death – but in such a way that you’ve become numb to the suffering, so as to not be overwhelmed buy it. And eventually to see your family and friends die.

“From the outside, Chongjin looked unchanged. The same gray facades of the Stalinist office buildings stared out at empty strtches of asphalt… But Mrs. Song knew better. It was a topsy-turvy world in which she was living. Up was down, wrong was right. The women had the money instead of the men. The markets were bursting with food, more food than most North Koreans had seen in their lifetime [in the black markets], and yet people were still dying from hunger. Worker’s Party members had starved to death; those who never gave a damn about the fartherland were making money.” (p. 157)

It’s a powerful book and a brilliant insight into a country which we know little about. In short, learn about North Korea, but also what it is like to live through starvation and suffering and how people cope and survive. And I’m sure there’s a lesson in there for dealing with North Korea for the aspiring policy maker.

2. Peter Hennessy, The Secret State: Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010

This is a book by one of the UK’s foremost historians of the Cold War. Effectively, it is about how governments counter threats – whether it is through intelligence agencies or nuclear deterrence. It is on this later topic, nuclear weapons and nuclear politics where Hennessy’s book is really chilling. How would a society cope with the ultimate worst case scenario – nuclear war? How can governments plan for the unthinkable? One of the most unsettling chapters is about Exercise INVALUABLE – a simulation for UK government officials in 1968 of a weeklong countdown to WWIII. According to the exercise at 1200 hour ZULU:

“Today’s newspapers give particular prominence to Soviet advances into West Germany and of the fighting in Northern Norway and on the Jugoslav/Italian border. Radio programs were interrupted this morning to report the amphibious attack against the Danish Islands. In leading articles, the ‘Times’ and the ‘Guardian’ urge that the West should not initiate a tactical nuclear exchange.”

Beyond this, it is a useful look back at how government looked at ‘subversive’ organizations, managed intelligence and threats to the nation. It’s a useful reminder of where we’ve been with regards to national threats that provides good insight as to where we might be going.

3. Conor Folely, The Thin Blue Line: How Humanitarianism Went to War

An excellent book by a former (recovering?) humanitarian. In short. Folely looks at the real consequences of good humanitarian intentions. How, for example, the international community’s intervention in East Timor completely distorted their economy – raising prices in local communities; and how the Timorese saw little of the billions of dollars spent on the peacekeeping mission there.

“A sudden, large influx of resources will invariably distort the local economy and the arrival of an international mission will have a destabilizing effect. However well-intentioned, the intervening participants will almost always be inadequately informed regarding specific local politics and culture. Even the worst-paid international aid workers are likely to earn several times more than the average local salary. …” (p. 143) 

Or while the intervention in Kosovo helped to protect the Kosovar Albanians, it failed to preent a reverse population expulsion as the Serbs were forced to leave Kosovo. It’s a very good critique – and a useful reminder that every humanitarian action seems to have an equal and opposite reaction. Additionally, it’s a useful examination of what happens when bodies established to alleviate human suffering and put an end to war end up making a case for just that.

So there you are – three books that have done well in the UK which may have some lessons for US policy makers (and none with Bacevich on the cover!)

Cheeky honourable mention: I realize that I have no IPE on this list. Not my area – but I like the writings of Michael Lewis. I’ve just started The Big Short and I’m looking forward to Boomerang.

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No Nukes: Arms Division

In February, Bill Clinton’s second Secretary of Defense, William Perry, spoke at Harvard’s Belfer Center and continued his ongoing campaign against nuclear weapons. With former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn, Perry has for many years been seeking a “world free of nuclear weapons.

After describing his personal experience working behind the scenes during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Perry recounted another nuclear scare:

16 years later, when he was Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. He was awakened at 3 a.m. by a phone call from the watch officer at North American Aerospace Defense Command.

“The general got right to the point, telling me that his computers were indicating 200 missiles were on the way from the Soviet Union to the United States. I immediately woke up, “ Perry said. “The computer alert of course was a false alarm. The general was calling me in the hopes that I might help him help him figure out what the hell had gone wrong with his computers so that he’d have something to tell the president the next morning.”

Perry said that was one of three false alarms he knows of in which Soviet missiles were thought to be screaming toward the United States, “and I don’t know how many more might have occurred in the Soviet Union.”

“So I had a close personal experience with the possibility of a nuclear catastrophe that could have resulted in no less than the end of civilization,” Perry said. “And to this day, I believe that we avoided nuclear catastrophe as much by good luck as by good management.”

In other words, Perry does not apparently believe that nuclear deterrence had much to do with the “long peace” of the cold war.

I’ve previously blogged about my academic work in this area. In my view, these former US officials are acting as norm entrepreneurs, contesting the norm of nuclear deterrence by calling for nuclear disarmament. Perry’s Harvard address specifically asks if “we” have “reached the nuclear tipping point.”

That’s norm life cycle-talk 101.

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Some NPT Reading… if you’re out of summer novels.

International Affairs – the (increasingly policy oriented) official journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (aka Chatham House) has published a “virtual” issue of articles on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) dating back to 1968 and going up to the present. It includes one by Hedley Bull published in 1975 which (although very much dated) highlights the dilemmas of nuclear diplomacy during the period of detente and when India shocked the world by conducting a nuclear explosion in 1974 and China re-emerged as a major player on the world stage.

Not exactly beach-y kind of summer reading, but an interesting collection nevertheless – and possibly of use to some readers.

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Relieved? Why HEU should still worry.

Even if the new sanctions against Iran prove effective at stopping an Iranian bomb, security analysts will not be able to breathe a sigh of relief. Eben Harrell in Time, April 8, 2010, explained the global distribution of highly enriched uranium:

All told, over several decades, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council distributed some 44,000 lbs. (20,000 kg) of HEU — enough for 800 nuclear weapons — to around 50 countries as diverse as Australia, Jamaica and Vietnam. Although that figure is a drop in the bucket compared with the estimated 4.4 million lbs. (2 million kg) of HEU in weapons and storage in the U.S. and Russia, the Atoms for Peace HEU is of particular concern because it is used in civilian reactors that are often poorly guarded and vulnerable to theft. As William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at California’s Monterey Institute of International Studies, points out, “If you are a terrorist, you don’t necessarily go where there is the most material. You go where the material is most accessible.”

The story quotes Graham Allison hyping the threat and John Mueller downplaying it.

Today, reading this piece, I’m leaning toward Allison’s view over Mueller’s (who nonetheless supports reducing HEU stockpiles around the world). Unfortunately, the National Nuclear Safety Administration, a US government agency, has met some difficulties in achieving its task of reducing HEU globally:

So far, the NNSA has removed a total of 5,935 lbs. (2,692 kg) of fissile material from 37 countries and has its sights on 4,190 lbs. (1,900 kg) more….But many countries see HEU-fueled research reactors as symbols of prestige and don’t necessarily share U.S. and Russian concern that fissile material may fall into terrorist hands. Canada and South Africa, which both have large stockpiles of HEU, argue they need it to make medical isotopes profitably. Politics comes into play too: poor relations between Ukraine and Russia have hampered efforts to move Ukraine’s large stocks of HEU to Russian facilities.

Anecdotal evidence suggests those states should be worried:

[I]n November 2007… two teams of armed attackers stormed Pelindaba, a supposedly secure facility that houses hundreds of kilograms of weapons-grade uranium in South Africa. The attackers gained access to the facility’s control room and shot an emergency-services officer in the chest. They fled without making any effort to steal the nuclear material, and the reason for the break-in and the attackers’ identity remain a mystery.

So, don’t break out the champagne just yet.

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The downsizing of WMD

What does the term “weapon of mass destruction” mean to you? A few years ago, I was part of a team of academics involved in a project examining the implications of the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of preventive use of force. The editors of the book we produced, William Keller and Gordon Mitchell of the University of Pittsburgh, wanted us to avoid using the phrase “WMD.”

In their introductory chapter, Keller and Mitchell noted that the phrase WMD misleadingly linked together chemical and biological weapons with nuclear weapons:

This semantic leveling obscures the fact that each class of weapons falling under the “WMD” umbrella varies significantly with regard to potential lethality and destructive power; the feasibility of protection and defenses; and potential missions. When dimensions of threat are blurred in this fashion, inaccuracies are easy to introduce. For example, the rhetorical flexibility afforded by the omnibus category “weapons of mass destruction” enabled Bush administration officials to support claims of an Iraqi “WMD” threat (replete with ominous “mushroom cloud” imagery) by pointing to evidence of possible Iraqi chemical weapons development. Obviously, chemical weapons lack the capacity for nuclear destruction, yet as Wolfgang Panofsky points out, “Linking these three classes of weapons in a single WMD category elevates the status of both biological and chemical weapons.”

Yet, despite this reasonable critique, federal law enforcement officials are even now stretching the term WMD to a point well beyond the breaking point.

I refer specifically to the arrest of the so-called “Hutaree militia” in late March. Time, April 12:

federal authorities charged nine alleged Hutaree members with seditious conspiracy and attempted use of weapons of mass destruction.

Did the Michigan Christian Fundamentalist group have chemical or biological weapons — or perhaps nuclear materials to build a “dirty bomb”?

No.

The group planned horrible crimes, but none involved what any reasonable person would consider “weapons of mass destruction,” unless you are the kind of person who would consider even a simple weapon like a machete a WMD:

The group’s alleged plot appears to have required killing a cop at a traffic stop, or after a faked 911 call. Then, the group planned to attack the funeral of that officer — in order to wreak further havoc by killing even more government and law-enforcement officials who would have gathered to mourn.

As Nina Tannenwald has recently argued, the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” was intentionally created as a category to render entire classes of weapons illegitimate. As such, the phrase has been vital to building taboos against use of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. Tannenwald’s work on the nuclear taboo demonstrates the value of that taboo (though I have challenged the logic of the biological taboo).

Keller and Mitchell accurately note that the phrase was used in a 1948 UN resolution, but Tannenwald’s research reveals that the term was used by policymakers in 1945 to refer to new terrible, horrible, hideous weapons, which were biological and atomic.

The distance between those origins and the Hutaree charges seems vast. If the gap is obliterated, I worry that the phrase will be rendered meaningless and the taboos against genuine WMD will be weakened.

Incidentally, someone writing at Wikipedia found that the term was used in 1937 by Cosmo Lang, the Archibishop of Canterbury, to describe aerial bombardment in Guernica, Spain. In that instance, the phrase directly followed a description of “the appalling slaughter, the suffering, the manifold misery” brought by brutal acts of war.

That too seems different from the current usage — and it obviously didn’t “stick” as World War II, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and other wars involved horrendous conventional bombings that were not described as WMD.

I fully support prosecution of potential domestic terrorists for criminal conspiracies, but I do not believe in inflating these threats by using terms like “weapons of mass destruction.” Does anyone remember how the Bush administration handled a case where a domestic terrorist was actually arrested with chemicals?

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Iran’s setbacks: Buying time?

According to Gary Samore, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program has had some important recent setbacks. The AP, last week:

Setbacks in Iran’s uranium enrichment program have significantly delayed its progress toward building a nuclear weapon, President Barack Obama’s top nuclear adviser said Tuesday.

…On Iran’s enrichment program, Samore said that Tehran had been set back by problems with its centrifuges and by disclosure of an enrichment plant near Qom that the United States alleges was part of a secret nuclear program.

Samore said that because of the setbacks, “the nuclear clock is not ticking as quickly as some had feared.”

Samore’s lengthy title is “Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for Arms Control and Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism.” So he should know, right?

Samore seems to be saying that this threat is not yet technologically imminent. The statement is not quite as precise as the 2005 NIE, which reportedly said that Iran’s nuclear bomb was at least a decade away, but it’s still good news.

The comments seem to be directed at Iran hawks, of course, and also at the policy wonks who have recently been upset by Iran developments. For example, in a February blog post, my go-to source for proliferation information Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, emphasized the very bad news in Iran’s just-announced plans to enrich uranium to 20%.

If Iran enriches a significant amount of U235 to 20 percent — and that’s a stated goal right now, not yet an actual achievement — then Iran would be able to “top off” the enrichment [at] a small, clandestine facility like the one revealed near Qom.

In a comment to the Lewis post, Yale Simkin simplified the problem for those of us without a lot of nuclear physics:

Imagine a bowl with 1,000 ping-pong balls in it. 993 of the balls are green. 7 of the balls are red. The balls are at “0.7% Red Enrichment.”

Now imagine reaching in the bowl and pulling out unwanted green balls. You are doing “separative work”. You will be leaving the red balls in the bowl.

Remove 840 green balls, a long and tedious job. Now you have 153 green balls and 7 red balls.

You are now at “4.4% Red Enrichment”

Last step. This time remove only 152 green balls.

This leaves 7 red balls and 1 green ball or an “88% Red Enrichment.”

So note: It took EIGHT-FIVE percent of the work to go from 0.7% to 4.4%!

That is why “Peaceful” enrichment is a fraud…

What other wonks have been worried about Iran policy?

Back in February, the Leveretts argued that the Obama administration was dithering recklessly in the ongoing negotiations:

…the Obama Administration and its European partners have effectively rejected these Iranian positions—precisely because accepting them would mean that the Obama Administration would not have a year or more to sort through what it is prepared to do regarding the prospective substance of U.S.-Iranian engagement. Instead, the Administration would have to make strategic choices and develop real positions on important issues much sooner than it had contemplated. And, rather than do that, the Obama Administration is moving to embrace the same counterproductive and feckless policies aimed at isolating and pressing Tehran that the George W. Bush Administration employed.

I too have expressed fears that the Obama policy looks too much like the Bush Doctrine in the right light.

Sixteen months into this administration, the U.S. should clearly work “faster, please” to achieve results in the Iran negotiations. Election-year promises about bargaining without preconditions are beginning to fade from memory even as blustering threats are occasionally made public. The so-called “Zombie fuel swap” proposal may not be a sufficient solution.

In any event, this latest news is perhaps a sign that the world has more time to work out a reasonable compromise.

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Nuclear transparency

Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration has fully disclosed decades worth of data about the size of America’s nuclear arsenal:

America’s official nuclear silence ended Monday when the Obama administration not only disclosed the number of U.S. nuclear weapons available for use in wartime — 5,113 as of Sept. 30 — but surprised many by also publishing weapons totals for each year dating to 1962. (Data from before 1962 were released in 1993.)

Apparently, administration officials believe that this might put pressure on Russia to likewise disclose information about its arsenal. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko told Reuters on May 12 that his country may well follow suit:

“After the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was signed by the Russian and U.S. presidents in Prague on April 8, comes into force, we will likewise be able to consider disclosing the total number of Russia’s deployed strategic delivery vehicles and the warheads they can carry,” he said.

If these disclosures had happened 25 years ago, they would have been truly remarkable:

“This figure is one of the crown jewels of the Cold War when it comes to state secrets,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists in New York.

In 1967, the U.S. had over 31,000 nuclear weapons. The 85% reduction in the size of the U.S. arsenal reflects the remarkable changes that have occurred in the past twenty years. The latest disclosures likewise reflect ongoing efforts to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations.

That said, however, the stockpile numbers are not at all a surprise as Robert S. (Stan) Norris and various colleagues have been publishing very detailed estimates about nuclear stockpiles since the mid-1980s. In defense policy circles, even the cold war numbers were closer to “known knowns” than “known unknowns.”

Incidentally, I still have an early copy of Norris’s Nuclear Weapons Databook on my shelf. I met Norris as a grad student intern at Center for Defense Information in summer 1985; Norris left CDI for NRDC just the year before and sometimes stopped by the old stomping grounds. In summer 2008, loyal readers may recall, I noted that the Obama and Clinton campaigns included several prominent CDI alums — and hoped that their presence might have a desirable affect on U.S. security policy. Maybe Stan called in some debts!

Apparently, the Obama administration is disclosing this data now in hopes that it will promote its “global zero” efforts. In the interim, the goal is to sell that latest arms control deal in the Senate.

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More ISA highlights

I spent a fair amount of time at ISA attending panels and very little sitting in the NOLA bars. Perhaps I wasn’t fully engaged in the “business of conferencing,” though we’d all probably agree that “ISA is what we make of it.”

So, what did I make of ISA 2010 (beyond what I wrote Saturday)?

Over several delicious dinners through the week, I learned that Abita Amber is over-carbonated. This Duck recommends ordering the Turbodog.

The next time ISA selects a hotel within a short walk of a casino, I propose that a group of IR theorists nab a table and play Texas Hold ‘Em. Will the rational choice theorists prevail? Is it likely that a critical theorist will count outs and carefully calculate pot odds before gambling? Will the group be able to come to shared understandings about playable hands — and identify the sucker(s) at the table?

Alternatively, next time ISA is deep into March, perhaps a bunch of fantasy baseball fans should draft a league. So far, I have one taker.

Here are some academic highlights from conference panels I attended:

1.) Kathyrn Sikkink scolded realists for (a) telling her over the years that all sorts of (progressive) changes “can’t happen” in world politics, and then (b) for explaining after they happen that these changes were completely foreseeable and within the realm of normal politics.

I kept this in mind when informed by Robert Art that nuclear abolition is “as likely as hell freezing over.”

2.) Charles Glaser also deflated talk of Obama-inspired momentum toward nuclear disarmament by arguing that if it was going to happen any time soon, then the U.S. and Russia should be able to negotiate a new START deal in about 5 minutes. But they can’t.

Credit for the short version goes to Anne Harrington de Santana: it’s really difficult to kick a “nuclear fetish.”

3.) Jerel Rosati and Patrick Haney think it’s good that we don’t know much about National Security Advisor James Jones, even after a full year on the job. His relative invisibility likely makes him an honest broker for advise within the White House. I’m not sure that this visit to CNN affirms their point.

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ISA: Renewing my call for comedy

I’m just back from the 2010 ISA conference in NOLA, but I don’t have time for a full convention report right now. Among the highlights: First, I attended a panel on blogging featuring the Duck’s Charli Carpenter on a stage with Dan Drezner, Rob Farley and Steve Walt, among others. Later, over drinks, I got to meet a few of the newest Duck bloggers.

These events motivated me to blog more frequently. We’ll see, eh?

In any case, in addition to networking, a major purpose of ISA is for scholars to exchange ideas in a somewhat formal setting. Ideally, panel members present their latest research and then receive useful feedback from other academics. Since I wouldn’t mind getting more feedback on my latest projects, I’m using the rest of this post to highlight my two ISA papers. Sorry for the shameless self promotion — but I’m in a bit of a panic as I saw something at the conference that made me think that I should work faster.

Loyal readers may recall my 2007 ISA paper and related Duck post on “The Comedy of Great Power Politics.” At this ISA, I presented two papers related to my ongoing “comedy project.”

One was fairly directly on point: “Teaching Global Politics Through Film: The Role of Comedy.” Here’s the abstract:

Popular films can be employed very effectively to teach international relations theory. Indeed, film creates learning opportunities that are not readily available in more typical formats. As a mass medium, film provides potent access to viewers’ imaginations, even as it serves as a unique alternative text and mode of learning within the classroom. The paper first reviews the traditional realist concern with tragedy to cement the importance of dramatic narratives in the field and to stress the contours and limits of the typical story. The second section develops the case for studying comedy in world politics, emphasizing the importance of the concerns of ordinary people and highlighting the critical value of farce and satire. This section brief discusses the storylines or other cinematic elements of several specific films that illustrate each of these comedic forms.

I’m pretty sure that anyone can download the pdf, but let me know if you have difficulty and I’ll email it. The paper borrows a bit from my Duck series of posts on my film class, mixes in a bit of my 2007 paper, and provides something of a critique of IR theory and the way it is ordinarily taught.

My other paper (“Is Nuclear Deterrence as Dead as the Dodo?”) views nuclear deterrence as a long-established norm that is currently in the midst of an increasingly heated “norm contest.” For decades, some scholars have argued that deterrence is irrational, illogical, or contradictory, but a few have gone even further — arguing that the inconsistencies reveal nuclear strategy to be absurd, fantastic, ridiculous and far-fetched. You know, “not a tragedy but a ghastly farce.”

Since at least the early 1980s, many prominent political figures and former military leaders have taken up these points as well–calling often for nuclear disarmament based on the framing developed by the academics. When I teach Global Politics Through Film, I assign my students a speech by former SAC Commander General Lee Butler, who offered one of the strongest statements against nuclear deterrence in 1998 (perhaps poorly timed in a year of Indian and Pakistani proliferation). Butler noted SAC planning that “defied reason” and reflected “complete absurdity.”

My primary concern in the paper is whether the growing recognition of the contradictions, irrationalities, and even absurdities of nuclear deterrence might usher in the strategy’s demise—and potentially create the conditions for, and/or provide the impetus to, a world free of nuclear weapons. Critical theorists often argue that serious contradictions between public justification and policy action are logically unsustainable and suggest an opening for alternative, perhaps emancipatory, possibilities. Of course, it is possible that the death of deterrence might merely assure the life of preventive war and counterproliferation strategies like the “Bush Doctrine.” The paper looks at that too.

Before ISA, I posted the full abstract and link to the paper on my personal blog. Again: I’m trolling for feedback, so please let me know if you need an emailed copy.

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Nuclear news

I’m beginning to think that a number of important people in the Obama administration must have read the Keir Lieber and Daryl Press piece in Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006, which explained burgeoning U.S. nuclear primacy, and have taken seriously the potential risks of primacy.

Just more than 10 months since George W. Bush left office, the new administration in Washington has already taken a couple of important steps to reassure other states that the U.S. is trying to reduce the risks.

Duck readers may recall that Bill blogged about the Lieber-Press thesis two and a half years ago — and then Dan mentioned a practical application in summer 2008. Also, I typically assign the reading in my film class during the week we view “Dr. Strangelove.”

Nonetheless, I should briefly explain the argument for those who are just joining the discussion. Essentially, the scholars claim that the U.S. is undermining classic notions of deterrence by pursuing nuclear first-strike capabilities versus Russia, China and other lesser nuclear powers. They point to modernization of various American weapons, as well as deterioration (or negligence) of potential rival arsenals. New burrowing weapons and missile defense technologies contribute to the problem as they magnify nuclear war-fighting capabilities.

If Leiber and Press are right, the U.S. might think the unthinkable in some future political crisis and attempt a “splendid” nuclear first strike against a weaker foe — including Russia. Even if the U.S. is not tempted to attack, potential adversaries might believe that Washington could attack. Therefore, such a state might think it has to “use ’em or lose ’em” and would thus be tempted to launch a preemptive strike in a crisis situation. Nuclear primacy isn’t good for crisis stability, even if its advocates think that it might provide the U.S. with tangible advantages.

Arguably, policy signals and moves by the Obama administration reduce the risks of nuclear primacy somewhat dramatically. Most prominently, several months ago, the President called out “clearly and with conviction, America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” The U.S. is a long way from eliminating weapons, of course, but embracing an abolitionist goal stands in stark contrast to the idea of nuclear primacy. Obviously, concrete followup would be needed to ameliorate the risks outlined by Leiber and Press. The signal itself may have some value.

More tangibly, this past month the administration announced that it was scrapping the Bush-era plans to deploy extensive missile defenses in Europe. While the planned system was ostensibly designed to reduce threats from Iranian nuclear missiles, most Eastern European (and Russian) foreign policy elites saw the defenses as a way to reduce Russian nuclear threats. Missile defenses might be virtually useless against a large Russian missile attack, but they arguably have much greater utility against a so-called “ragged” retaliatory capability that would exist after an American counterforce attack. Again, Lieber and Press specifically point to missile defenses as an element of American nuclear primacy and there’s good evidence that Russian genuinely feared US systems.

Already, the announced new missile defense plans look far less threatening to Russia. The replacement systems have the added bonus of potentially being more effective against Iranian threats — and the altered plan has not unduly hurt relations with Eastern European NATO partners.

I should note that the Pentagon is hastening the pace of the “bunker buster” bombs developed potentially to strike underground nuclear facilities in countries like Iran or North Korea. While this arguably moves the U.S. towards nuclear primacy, it seems to be a much greater threat to new proliferants than to the Russian arsenal.

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The North Korean nuclear test: something doesn’t smell right

Now this is pretty damn interesting:

Researchers were scratching their heads earlier today at a meeting convened by the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) over puzzling results from last month’s nuclear test by North Korea. While the test produced a clearly recognizable seismic signal that was picked up by CTBTO’s worldwide network of sensors, the organization’s atmospheric detectors failed to pick up a whiff of the expected radionuclides in air. Even a deep underground test is usually expected to leak radionuclides, so their absence in this case caused quite a stir. Anders Ringbom of the Swedish Defense Research Agency in Stockholm says CTBTO’s detectors for radioactive noble gases—a telltale signature of a nuclear test—can pick up a couple of hundred atoms from a cubic meter of air. On the lack of a signal, he said: “I was a little surprised, yes.”

Some 400 scientists gathered here, CTBTO’s home base, this week to discuss the results of a series of studies carried out by external researchers over the past year to test the capabilities of the system for detecting clandestine tests and to consider other scientific uses for the wealth of data collected. The system comprises 337 sensors across the globe looking for seismic signals, radionuclides, hydroacoustic signals in the oceans, and very low frequency infrasound in the air. Seismologists at the meeting say that the 25 May Korean test was an unmistakably man-made event and showed characteristics that make it almost certainly a nuclear rather than a chemical explosion. But the presence of radioactive xenon is considered the smoking gun for the nuclear nature of an explosion—and it wasn’t detected.

Here’s the problem: if the scientific community does not find evidence of xenon, then this raises questions about our ability to effectively monitor and enforce compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the United States has failed to ratify. Susan Watts of the BBC writes:

But there was one thing everybody in the room wanted to know. Had the network of sensors picked up radionuclides from the North Korean explosion two weeks ago? Seismologists here today say they are comfortable that explosion was a nuclear test, but detecting radionuclide evidence in the form of radioactive gas is the “smoking gun”. And the big news here is that they have not found that signal.

What’s more, scientists don’t really seem to know why. One delegate, an expert on radionuclide detection from Sweden, told the conference how well the network performed after North Korea’s nuclear test in 2006. Twelve days after that event the network picked up just a few hundreds of atoms of the noble gas Xenon 133 in Canada. He confessed to being “surprised” that this time round, so far, there has been nothing. He said he is sure the sensors are working properly. So why might there be no signal, and does it matter?

The eminent seismologist Professor Paul Richards from Columbia University implied it didn’t matter so much. The network includes a range of technologies – using seismic, infrasound, hydroacoustic and radionuclide technologies precisely to give the world what he described as a “a quiver of arrows”. Thus if one arrow doesn’t hit the target, then others will; if one detection set-up sees no nuclear signature, others will. And his personal view is that this was most likely a nuclear test.

So was there a deliberate attempt by the North Koreans to contain the explosion? Or was the explosion contained by accident? Some larger yield nuclear explosions can apparently “melt” the rock around them, so less noble gas seeps out. Attempts to explain the lack of a noble gas signal remain educated guesses at the moment. The official line here is that all this highlights the need for more countries to ratify the Treaty, so that it can come into force, thus allowing on-site inspection teams to move in to check out such tests.

In the meantime, scientists here might be keeping their fingers crossed that something shows up soon, but they seem already to be resigned to the possibility that it may not.

Still, some news sources are raising the possibility that the North Koreans faked an explosion:

eports indicate that a global network of sensors designed to verify nuclear testing has failed to pick up radioactive gases from North Korea’s nuclear blast, which indicates that the country might have used conventional explosives to mimic a nuclear test.

North Korea conducted what it claims was its second nuclear test on May 25 this year. Within seconds, a global network of seismographs had detected the shock wave from the blast.

The seismographs are operated by the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), a Vienna-based body that would enforce a global ban on nuclear testing if enough nations were to sign up to the treaty.

The CTBTO seismographs showed that the tremors caused by the explosion were of magnitude 4.5, far larger than the nation’s first nuclear test in October 2006.

According to a report in Nature News, the seismic signature of the test strongly suggested that the blast was man made, but the CTBTO hoped to use a follow-up set of measurements to verify its nuclear nature. […]

Zerbo points out that the CTBTO network is far more complete in 2009 than it was in 2006 and that all stations were operational at the time of the test.

“If we didn’t measure it, it’s unlikely that anyone outside of North Korea’s borders did,” he said.

The lack of isotopes has become an interesting puzzle for proliferation researchers. It could mean that the North Koreans used conventional explosives to mimic a nuclear test.

Such a mock test would be unusual, although not unprecedented.

In the 1980s, the United States government set off several multi-kilotonne chemical explosions to test how various weapons and communication systems would respond to a nuclear blast. (ANI)

Given that the last test struck many as a likely fizzle, I suppose this isn’t outside the realm of possibility.

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North Korea explodes nuclear device

Breaking news: North Korea has conducted a nuclear test, this one more successful and powerful than its initial test back in 2006.

You can read some (very) instant analysis, but the short story is that this move seems puzzling, out of context, which is to say that it doesn’t fit North Korea’s existing pattern of telegraphing its moves and using its nuclear program to extract maximum bargaining concessions from the United States. An initial and early read might be that this test does quite the opposite, confronting a new US administration broadly committed to diplomacy and alienating other could-be allies (Russia, China).

My only additional insight comes by way of Drezner, pointed out a very interesting article on the Administration’s take on North Korea’s succession politics. Re-reading that in light of the nuclear test reminds us to keep two key points in mind when making sense of this test:

1. This could be driven by domestic politics. From a theoretical point, this is entirely consistent with liberal foreign policy analysis approaches to the study of international politics. However, in areas such as nuclear weapons proliferation and such–the highest of the high politics of security–realism is generally assumed to have an advantage, and states are supposed to put international factors first in making such decisions. That a state would put domestic politics first in matters of such high stakes doesn’t fit our standard explanatory models of state behavior.

2. We have no idea what on earth is going on in North Korea. The DPRK is more than just Another Country, its perhaps the most closed and authoritarian regime in the world today. As Drezner points out, much of the analysis of the DPRK has a hint of Kremlinology to it, and we are right to be skeptical. Information is scarce, and context in which to make sense of that information is even more scarce. That said, even in an authoritarian regime there are politics, and in times of succession, the stakes are high. However, few, if any analysts have a clear picture of who the players are and how the game is played.

In that context, a meaningful and effective (from a US foreign policy perspective) response is difficult to construct.

Stephen Bosworth
will certainly have his hands full–though it is entirely possible that he’ll have his hands full of free time…

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All conventional wisom is not created equal

Jacob Weisberg reminds us that conventional wisdom is often wrong, and then isolates seven instances of “received wisdom” that might prove wrong.

A lot of our premises have turned out to be wrong lately. I’m talking not about evanescent bits of conventional wisdom that have shifted but about overarching assumptions that were widely shared across the political spectrum—big things that experts and nonexperts agreed about—until they were proved false.

For instance, before 1989, virtually all Sovietologists agreed that the USSR was highly stable. Before 2001, few Middle East scholars worried that the United States was vulnerable to a major terrorist attack. Before 2003, everyone from neocon hawks to French lefties agreed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Before 2008, few economists wondered about the fundamental soundness of the American financial system. Popular opinion echoed the expert consensus on each of these points. Those who challenged the groupthink—such as Soviet dissident Andrei Amalrik, renegade counterterrorism expert John O’Neill, former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, and pessimistic economist Nouriel Roubini—tended to be dismissed as provocateurs, wackos, or (in Ritter’s case) worse.

Some of these examples are pretty darn poor, however.

1. To be blunt, a shitload of people were predicting a major terrorist attack on the United States long before 11 September 2001. I don’t know, of course, about the strange invocation of “Middle East” experts. Maybe Weisberg knows his point wouldn’t withstand scrutiny if it concerned the terrorism scholarly community?

2. Everyone most certainly did not agree that Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction.” Most observers thought Hussein had some kind of residual biological or chemical weapons program. But the ability to produce mustard gas is not synonymous with having WMD, and a lot of people knew it.

The Bush Administration’s great con was collapsing any kind of nuclear, biological, or chemical program into the dreaded “WMD threat,” and a great many people simply didn’t buy it. Weisberg should know better than to perpetuate this fraud six years after the fact.

The rest of the article is kind of enh in an I-need-to-write-an-article-and-I-don’t-have-any-good-ideas-right-now way. Examples include:

“Look, Freeman Dyson says that climate change might not be so bad. The models are uncertain and increased CO2 might lead to better growing conditions for plants” …. “Central authority in China might collapse!” …. “There’s this crazy theory that fossil fuels don’t come from fossils, and the chemical reaction even happens in laboratories!”

That sort of thing.

But, as an international-relations scholar, I feel compelled to comment on one: “Ken Waltz says nuclear proliferation might be stabilizing!”

Well, yeah.

Indeed, as my colleague, Matt Kroenig, has pointed out (PDF), many of the states that actively oppose nuclear proliferation do so precisely because they worry that Waltz is right about the deterrent effects of nuclear weapons.

Such states would, shockingly enough, rather not be deterred from engaging in force projection and various other forms of compellence.

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Researchers identify “historic” Plutonium

As the person who sent the link to me said, “this is [just] really cool.”

Nuclear archaeology has solved the mystery of a jug of plutonium that was found sealed inside a safe dug up as workers cleaned up an early Hanford burial ground.

Science showed the plutonium was historic: Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland traced its origins to the first batch of weapons-grade materials ever processed at Hanford.

It’s also the second oldest known man-made plutonium 239, said Jon Schwantes, a PNNL senior research scientist who led the investigation. The oldest is held in the Smithsonian.

The results of the investigation are not just historically significant. Schwantes believes the research also may have applications in the field of nuclear forensics and efforts to keep nations safe from terrorists.

When researchers received the plutonium, they suspected it came from the beginnings of the Atomic Age after the 586-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation was created during World War II as the United States raced to make enough plutonium to make an atomic bomb.

Hanford’s B Reactor was built as the nation’s first production-scale reactor. It irradiated nuclear fuel that was sent to Hanford’s T Plant, the world’s first industrial-scale reprocessing facility, which chemically extracted the plutonium.

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