Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Politics of Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Gas Centrifuges for Uranium Enrichment Recovered from a Chinese Cargo Vessel en Route to Libya in 2003 

Source: ISN

While traditional nonproliferation measures are still effective, Ursula Jasper believes they also neglect the ‘demand side’ of the problem. A better understanding of why states want nuclear weapons in the first place could help prevent their spread in new ways. 

By Ursula Jasper for ISN 

ISN: To the extent that they still do, why do states want nuclear weapons? Is it possible to provide a systematic answer to this question, or is each case unique? 

Ursula Jasper: I’d argue that each case is indeed pretty unique – but that it is still possible to discern certain larger patterns or contingent generalizations. Clearly, states which find themselves in an uncertain security environment are more likely to acquire nuclear weapons than states that feel secure or that feel sufficiently protected by the nuclear umbrella of an ally. Likewise, we know from several studies that economic considerations and the level of a state’s integration into the international economic system function as incentives not to acquire nuclear weapons. The same is true for normative constraints. It is equally well-documented that in many cultural contexts nuclear weapons signify technological aptitude and are therefore symbolically laden as embodiments of national prestige. So, yes, there are some general trends and patterns, but we still need to focus on the particulars of each individual case rather than subsuming it under our pre-existing categories.

In addition, we should not forget that many states have not sought to acquire nuclear weapons even though they maintain the technological and economic wherewithal to do so and would be expected to do so in light of our general assumptions. From a policy perspective, i.e. if we want to devise measures to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons, these cases are particularly interesting. If we know why so many states have no ambitions to acquire their own nuclear capabilities, this knowledge should influence how we deal with potential proliferators.

In your recent book, The Politics of Nuclear Non-Proliferation , you argue that traditional explanations of proliferation tend to overstate the role of a state’s security environment in its decision to pursue nuclear weapons. What do these approaches ignore? 

Above all the book makes a theoretical argument. It finds fault with the search for mono-causal, sweeping explanations of proliferation that dominate the scholarly literature. I argue that we have to pay much closer attention to the domestic and societal processes where factors such as threat perception, national interests or normative constraints are discursively negotiated and established in the first place. In some cases, as in Switzerland in the 1950s and 1960s, we see a highly inclusive and very heated societal debate (including two referendums) on these questions. In other cases, such as Libya or North Korea, the debate and negotiation obviously takes place only in very restricted circles. All cases suggest, however, that nuclear proliferation decisions are not quasi-automatic responses to some supposedly objective triggers, but are accompanied by contestations and challenges and by a continual re-evaluation of interests and (economic or normative) limitations. In the end, it might still be the case that security considerations weigh heavily, perhaps even crucially, on states’ proliferation decisions or that economic calculations lead states to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, my argument is that there is rarely one single cause that sufficiently explains the nuclear decision-making of a state. On the contrary, states’ “nuclear trajectories” are highly intricate and ambiguous; they seldom evolve in a straightforward, linear manner – or represent a response to a single motif. If we want to understand why states proliferate (or why they decide not to seek nuclear weapons) we need to understand these convoluted processes. Hence, we need to study the domestic contestations and debates.

In the book, you point to the historical examples of Switzerland and Libya. But are there contemporary examples where you see strong parallels to these cases?

Well, the two cases in the book were chosen because they provide a maximal contrast, i.e. they are probably as far apart (with regard to the political and economic conditions, timing and so forth) as they could possibly be – so we shouldn’t artificially overemphasize similarities. What is interesting, however, is that questions of sovereignty, self-determination and national pride play a major role for example both in the Libyan as well as in the current Iranian case. In both, the nuclear question is framed in prestige-related terms – not just as a security issue, but as a more fundamental question concerning states’ rights within the global (nuclear) order. Consequently, the nuclear regime, which divides the world into those who are allowed to possess nuclear weapons (and who largely control access to nuclear technology) and those who are not, is perceived as fundamentally unjust and discriminatory. People in the West tend to ignore the saliency of these issues: we are quick to assume that such justifications are merely “cheap talk” or a pretext that is invoked in order to undermine negotiations or forestall agreements. This seems to be a misinterpretation, however. Behind debates over nuclear rights often lurk broader and more deeply engrained grievances over the perceived imposition of a global order that is dominated by the West.

To what extent are existing counter-proliferation measures informed by inadequate explanations of the nuclear ambitions of states?
Traditional export control, non-proliferation and counter-proliferation measures do have a place within the wider regime to control the spread of nuclear weapons technology. The problem is that they tend to ignore the demand side of proliferation. This means that they are primarily tailored towards the goal of interdicting or regulating access to nuclear weapons technology. But this should be one component among others. It is equally important to address the demand side, i.e. to reduce states’ “appetite” for such military technology. We have to better understand why a particular state seems to seek nuclear weapons. Therefore, global nuclear non-proliferation efforts have to be receptive to domestic decision-making processes and to the “nuclear discourses” of potential nuclearizers. Closely monitoring the debates regarding a state’s perceived foreign policy role, its security perception and its envisioned nuclear stance provides opportunities for early political intervention. More specifically, such monitoring allows us to identify and possibly strengthen those voices within the discourse that question and oppose calls for nuclearization.

In particular, is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) up to the task of restraining the nuclear ambitions of ‘rogue’ states? What about non-state actors? 

There is an ongoing debate within the security studies community over the NPT’s record of success. Clearly, the treaty – together with the broader regime that has evolved in parallel over time – has restrained the spread of nuclear weapons and has made it far more difficult for states (and thereby also for non-state actors) to acquire the technology necessary to build nuclear weapons, let alone to acquire them. Especially since the 1990s, when the nuclear states began to impose stricter export controls on themselves, the supply of and access to dual-use technology was significantly impeded. From a scholarly perspective, however, it remains difficult to ascertain with high confidence the exact degree to which the NPT mattered in restraining nuclear proliferation. Even before the NPT was in place – and certainly before export controls and so forth were scaled up – the proliferation dynamic had slowed down. This indicates that other factors are equally influential in whether states strive for nuclear weapons.

At the same time, some scholars and policy-makers claim that the regime is currently in danger, because the NPT is slowly but surely losing its legitimacy. On the one hand, the nuclear weapon states turn a blind eye to their disarmament obligations; on the other, they control access to nuclear technology and, critics hold, disproportionally emphasize the treaty’s non-proliferation goals over disarmament. It is this perceived injustice that is time and again condemned by many non-nuclear weapon states. But the treaty is arguably not only under strain from within. Rather, the fact that Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea – four key nuclear states – have remained outside (or have left) the NPT is clearly a further and perhaps the most crucial cause for concern.

The Politics of Nuclear Non-proliferation: A Pragmatist Framework for Analysis by Ursula Jasper was published in 2013 by Routledge.

Ursula Jasper is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). She holds a Doctorate in Political Science from the University of St. Gallen (for her thesis on The Politics of Nuclear Reversal – A Pragmatist Analysis) and a Master's degree in International Politics and Security Studies from the University of Bradford (UK).