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What new academic research can teach us about nuclear weapons

A man looks over the expanse of ruins left by the explosion of the atomic bomb on in Hiroshima, Japan. (AP Photo)
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This is the introduction to a brief Monkey Cage symposium on what new academic research by historians and political scientists has to say about old and important questions about the role of nuclear weapons in international politics. The symposium is loosely based on an  H-Diplo/International Security Studies Forum roundtable: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons.” The convener of this symposium is Francis J. Gavin, the Frank Stanton Chair for Nuclear Security Policy Studies at MIT. The other participants are Matthew ConnellyAlexandre Debs,  Peter Feaver and Colin Kahl. Their contributions will appear over the course of the week.

Erik Voeten

Nuclear weapons have cast a powerful if mysterious shadow over international politics.  One the one hand, they are capable of wreaking unspeakable, catastrophic destruction.  On the other hand, they have not been used in conflict since the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.  Many believe the power of nuclear deterrence has been an important reason there has not been a great power war in almost eight decades.

Since the beginning of the nuclear age, the brightest minds from a variety of academic disciplines have been drawn to questions surrounding nuclear weapons.  Think tanks and research centers like the RAND Corporation and Harvard’s Center for Science and International Affairs attracted scholars from the natural sciences and engineering, the social sciences, and even the humanities.  Nuclear strategists – the so-called “Wizards of Armageddon” – were viewed exemplary scholar-practitioners, whose ivory tower research contributed to important policy debates over nuclear strategy and arms control.  When the Cold War ended peacefully, however, academic interest in nuclear weapons faded.

As Scott Sagan points out in the introduction to the H-Diplo/International Security Studies Forum roundtable, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons,” we are in the earliest days of a renaissance in academic research in nuclear studies.  Much of this interest has emerged, no doubt, from the complex and contested policy questions surrounding nuclear issues in recent years.  From worries over Iran’s nascent weapons program to President Obama’s Prague speech calling for eventual disarmament, nuclear issues have risen to the top of the global policy agenda.  The Carnegie, MacArthur, and Stanton Foundations, among others, are providing generous support to a new generation of nuclear scholars.

Historians are exploiting the treasure trove of once-closed archives to reconstruct nuclear decision-making around the world.  Organizations such as the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Nuclear Proliferation International History Project and the National Security Archive have taken advantage of the digital revolution to make these once top secret documents accessible to anyone with a computer and internet connection.  Political scientists are using a very of sophisticated methods, including game theory and statistical studies, to advance arguments about nuclear dynamics.  While there has been some effort to bring these two disciplines together – the Nuclear Studies Research Initiative and the University of California’s Public Policy and Nuclear Threats workshop come to mind – for the most part, unfortunately, these parallel renaissances have emerged in relative isolation from each other.

The H-Diplo/ISSF discussion, and this Monkey Cage roundtable are attempts to bring different academic disciplines and scholarly methods in conversation with each other.  The point of departure was an essay I wrote on research undertaken by Matthew Kroenig and Matthew Furhmann and Todd Sescher published last year in the journal International Organization.  Both used statistical methods, but came to somewhat different conclusions.  Furhmann and Sechser argued that nuclear weapons were useful for deterrence but not compellence, regardless of the nuclear balance.  Kroenig, on the other hand, contended nuclear superiority did convey important benefits in a crisis. In both the original essay and further reply, I argued neither came close to proving their claims, and that the methods they used to make their case were not appropriate to the questions they asked.

My arguments were not against quantitative methods, per se – I have also been quite critical of theoretical and qualitative scholars working on nuclear issues.  Indeed, my own historical work revealed that many of the historical and theoretical questions surrounding nuclear dynamics were not as settled as we once thought they were, and this new history was challenging long-held beliefs about how nuclear statecraft worked.  If nothing else, it seemed to me that we should openly debate and discuss these important issues, both within and across disciplines, methods, and the academic-policy divide.  To that end, several distinguished scholars, including Hal Brands, Erik Gartzke, and Vipin Narang weighed in, and the “Dean” of nuclear studies, Scott Sagan, helped frame the debate, which we are continuing and expanding upon here.

To my mind, the discussion engages four important questions.  First, how do nuclear weapons shape international relations and influence statecraft?  Second, how should we think about the scholarly methods we use to understand nuclear dynamics?  Third, what should be the relationship between the disciplines of history and political science when it comes to exploring these issues?  Fourth, should our scholarly work aim towards contributing to policy debates on nuclear weapons, and if the answer is yes, what are the best ways to do so?  Obviously, in many ways these questions are deeply interwoven and cannot be looked at in isolation from the others.

The Monkey Cage has asked four prominent scholars from different backgrounds to weigh in with their own views, both on the roundtable and these larger questions the exchange has generated. Matthew Connelly is an award-winning international historian doing innovative work with computational analysis and declassified documents.  Alexandre Debs is an MIT trained economist who studies nuclear questions using a variety of qualitative and quantitative methods.  Peter Feaver and Colin Kahl are that rare breed who have managed to excel in both academics and policy, Feaver as a senior director on the National Security Council of President George W. Bush and Kahl as a deputy assistant secretary of defense during the first term of the Obama administration.  Both have written about and been involved in policy decisions about nuclear weapons.

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.