What if Nuclear Proliferation Reduces the Incidence of War?

by Peggy McGuinness

Political scientist James Fearon has posted (complete with graphs) the results of his own study of whether nuclear states are more or less likely to engage in war in the years following their acquisition of  nuclear weapons.  Here’s his bottom line:

[F]or each of the nine states that acquired nuclear capability at some time between 1945 and 2001, their yearly rate of militarized disputes in years when they didn’t have nukes, and the rate for years when they did. Note that for the US we have no data on dispute rate without nukes in this period since we got them in 1945; the rate for non-nuclear years for Russia/USSR is only for 1945-1948; the rate for South Africa (SAF) is for 1982-90; and the dispute data only goes to 2001.

China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, and the UK all saw declines in their total militarized dispute involvement in the years after they got nuclear weapons. A number of these are big declines. USSR/Russia and South Africa have higher rates in their nuclear versus non-nuclear periods, though it should be kept in mind that for the USSR we only have four years in the sample with no nukes, just as the Cold War is starting.

Now it could be that getting nukes means that other states become more likely to initiate a dispute with you, rather than you becoming more aggressive.

* * *

What happens if you control for other stuff, like aggregate GDP (a proxy for total military capability) or secular change over time for all states, in a statistical model? I’ve done some of this, with a panel data approach using country and year fixed effects and clustering the errors by country. I get that states see on average about one half fewer disputes per year when they have nuclear weapons, an amount that is close to “statistically significant” at p = .10. For various reasons I wouldn’t put a lot of weight on this but it does suggest that the patterns seen above don’t go away, and in fact might be somewhat strengthened, when you control for aggregate capabilities and time trends.

Obviously the fact that the other members of the nuclear club generally didn’t get much more aggressive in their foreign policy behavior after they tested doesn’t mean that Iran won’t.

Interesting results, which tend to support what some IR scholars have been arguing for decades:  the presence of more deadly weapons raises the stakes of war, lowering the likelihood states will risk initiating conflict.  Others, of course, argue the destabilizing effects of proliferation. So what to do? Fearon hedges his bets a bit on the implications for the debate over preventive war against Iran:

To be clear, I’d strongly prefer that the Iranian regime not get the bomb, mainly because of the risks of further proliferation in the region and attendant risks of preventive war and loss of control of weapons. But attacking Iran seems likely to guarantee pursuit till acquisition, to more effectively license future attacks on Israel, and to greatly increase popular support for the current Iranian regime and a course of nuclear self-defense. (Netanyahu is reported in this NYT article to believe that an attack might actually “be welcomed by Iranian citizens.” If that’s his true view and not purely strategic talk, then sheesh, it looks delusional in light of the historical record on that one.) On the other side of the ledger are vague, weak, or barely developed arguments and claims about terrible things Iran would do if it got nukes.

We’ve heard these same concerns before, regarding Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, Kim Jong-il’s North Korea, and about the mortal mutual enemies of India and Pakistan. All these cases have been very scary, and it’s understandable that the prospect of a nuclear Iran is incredibly scary for Israelis. But so far, in none of these prior cases do the more extreme fears look historically justified.

My own question is what does or should this mean for lawyers? Do quantitative studies of this sort — backward-looking, somewhat limited by their own size, with heavy caveats and resulting in some incidents (outliers?) proving the hypothesis– justify shifts in efforts to penalize proliferation? Or are we headed for the same unresolvable arguments about international nuclear proliferation that we hear in U.S. domestic debates over gun control?


6 Responses

  1. Response…
    But the U.S. has been at war nearly ever since, and Pakistan? it depends on whether internal or transnational armed conflicts are counted and what about surrogate warfare, clandestine warfare, aid to insurgents in other countries?

  2. This is an interesting new addition to study on this topic, and as you point out this is a line of research and literature that stretches back decades, most famously exemplified in the debates between Kenneth Waltz (“proliferation optimist”) and Scott Sagan (“proliferation pessimist”).  We are only talking about one aspect of the broader debate about nuclear proliferation here, i.e. how do states act after they obtain nuclear weapons.  But I think that Fearon’s observations are persuasive and useful, even for us lawyers. I have long maintained in the context of Iran that there is a significant over-hyping and fear mongering in this country about what Iran is likely to do if they ever do obtain nuclear weapons. As Fearon argues, historical cases simply do not bear out these fears. And these are cases that include India and Pakistan who are sworn enemies and who have fought four wars against each other. Now of course Iran is its own case, with its own unique circumstances, so we cant perfectly predict its behavior from other cases. But in my opinion, if Iran ever does obtain nuclear weapons, they will behave essentially rationally and reasonably with them. What does that mean? It means they will do exactly what Israel does with its nuclear weapons. They will keep them as a deterrent to aggression, and as a passive conveyor of regional influence and power. Will Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons change the regional security and political dynamics? Inevitably. And Israel and Saudi Arabia and others will not like this. But will Iran instantly use its nuclear weapons, once acquired, to attack Tel Aviv? I just think theres no persuasive reason to think they will do this. The cost benefit analysis for Iran simply doesnt work out in favor of doing this. And I dont think that the religion/ideology of Iran’s leaders changes that analysis enough to change the outcome. 
    So, what does this mean for us lawyers? It means that the Security Council and the US/EU should back off of their increasing use of economic sanctions – a tool that also has alot of literature on it, all saying that in a case like Iran’s nuclear program, economic sanctions are not going to cause the desired change in target state behavior (let me know if you want cites on this). It means that we should seek for creative legal/political means to allow Iran to continue its uranium enrichment program, while giving the West some increased confidence in their ability to monitor Iran’s use of fissile materials – basically a way for both sides to save face and bring the tension level down.  I think this is definitely doable if both sides, but especially the West, would stop the chest puffing and saber rattling, and think intelligently and creatively about realistic ways through this crisis.  Dan Joyner

  3. Fearon’s study, if it proves anything, actually shows the dangers of Iran’s acquiring a bomb. The reduction of war is precisely the problem: because no one wants to fight a nuclear power, that power is safe to do all sorts of pernicious things safe from military intervention. In the case of Iran, this could include messing with oil shipping or other tactics to drive up prices, and supporting Hezbollah/Hamas in strikes against Israel. Note that the latter involves war, but would not show up in Fearon’s data because it uses proxies. Pakistan is similarly insulated. What Fearon’s study suggests (again, with a very small data set) is that getting the bomb is a total insurance policy, and any prospect for intervention must be pre-bomb.

  4. Response…
    And today’s news re: a NATO report indicating that Pakistan’s intelligence arm actually aids Taliban leaders in the war in Afghanistan that has also migrated to parts of Pakistan is revealing.  The bomb apparenly does not stop countries like Iran and Pakistan from directly supporting armed conflicts of an international character, much less armed conflicts not of an international character (or are they international because Iran directly supports?).

  5. In response to Professor Kontorovich, what you are describing is the insurance policy that all nuclear states have and that they all use in a deterrent sense to get away with pernicious and illegal things (e.g. the US/UK 2003 Iraq war, the Israeli West Bank Wall and settlements, the illegal Israeli assaults in Gaza, NK’s torpedoing of a SK vessel, Pakistan’s aiding and abetting of terrorists and proliferation of WMD, and the list goes on).  Simply because Iran may potentially use its eventual nuclear weapon insurance policy to do things it sees to be in its interests, but other states may view as pernicious, doesnt seem to me to be a principled reason for the West and Israel to breach international law (e.g. introduction of the Stuxnet virus by the US and Israel, targeted killings of Iranian scientists by the Israeli Mossad, potential Israeli airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities) in an attempt to prevent Iran from getting the same insurance policy that they themselves have and use for the same kinds of acts. I’m just trying to get us to be circumspect and objective here, and not forget what the West and Israel – Iran’s chief detractors – have done with their nuclear insurance policies, and question whether these states have any principled basis on which to ground their concerns about Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons. They can, of course, rationally maintain unprincipled bases, like their own national interests, upon which to ground their concerns and actions. But these should be admitted as such, and not clothed in a hypocrisy of principle and law. 

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