Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Thoughts on nuclear weapons and the Middle East

Update (3/11): This FP column by Graham Allison is to the point.


The U.S. and the USSR had a few close calls during the Cold War, moments when the possibility of a nuclear exchange came too close for comfort.  India and Pakistan had an apparently close call during the Kargil crisis in 1999.  The existence of these close calls means that nuclear deterrence is not an airtight guarantee against a nuclear exchange.  Nor is 'the nuclear taboo' an absolute guarantee, since an exchange between two nuclear-armed countries might conceivably occur essentially unintentionally, i.e. by accident.

However, while nuclear deterrence did not provide an absolute guarantee during the Cold War and while there were a few close calls, on the whole it worked remarkably well, at least in the narrow, relevant sense of "worked".  The Cold War never turned into a hot war between the superpowers, who wreaked havoc on the Third World via proxy wars and caused an enormous amount of human misery and death, but managed to avoid the sort of cataclysmic exchange that, in the worst-case scenario, would have meant the end of anything resembling 'civilized' life on the planet.  In other words, the "delicate balance of terror" between the superpowers (to borrow the title of a famous article by Albert Wohlstetter from the late 1950s) turned out to be quite sturdy (safety as "the sturdy child of terror," as Churchill put it, in something of a metaphorical mash-up).

These rather unoriginal reflections may serve as a prelude to the thought that, if Iran should one day acquire a nuclear weapon or the capacity to obtain one in a short time frame, the consequence would not be an existential threat to Israel, contrary to Netanyahu's assertions (n.b. I haven't yet read the full transcript of his speech to Congress).  Israel of course has its own (officially unacknowledged) nuclear arsenal, and there is every reason to suppose that nuclear deterrence would operate between Iran and Israel as it operates between India and Pakistan, and as it operated between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War.  That doesn't mean no possibility whatsoever that an exchange could occur, but it suggests it would be highly unlikely.  The Iranian leadership would have to be insane to launch a deliberate nuclear strike on a nuclear-armed state with a powerful conventional military, one closely allied to the most militarily powerful country in the world, and I'm aware of no evidence to suggest that Iran's leadership is insane.  (Though doubtless there are people who would rush to furnish some were they to read this post, which they probably won't.)

The 'threat' from an Iranian bomb, insofar as there would be one, would come, or so it seems to me, in the form of an increased boldness on Iran's part to throw its weight around in the region, engage in coercive diplomacy vis-a-vis, e.g., Saudi Arabia or Turkey, and generally become more of a nuisance in the eyes of its adversaries.  That's not nothing, of course, but it is not the existential threat to Israel that some people claim would be the result of an Iranian nuclear-weapons capacity.

The latest news from the talks is that Iran has rejected the proposal (or 'demand', whichever it was) for a 10-year freeze on certain nuclear activities.  However, the talks will and should continue.  Netanyahu's prescription of increased sanctions and an end to the negotiations does not seem like a prescription for anything other than disaster in the long run.  As Peter T. pointed out in his guest posts recently published on this blog (see here and here), Iran is, by virtue of its size, location, capabilities, and level of development, not the sort of country that can be sanctioned into submission -- not, at least, without setting the stage for precisely the kind of potentially explosive or catastrophic consequences that everyone should be eager to avoid.

A final note about how we think about security claims, which I'm tacking on because I just read Jarrod Hayes's post at Duck of Minerva.  Jarrod points out that a speaker's authority to make security claims may be undermined if the claims come to be seen by the target audience as 'political' (though all security claims are political).  Although I agree with this, I think Netanyahu's speech is an instance where one should focus on the objective merits of his claims as much as on their 'authority'.  Jarrod writes: "Even though the construction of security is intersubjective, it is spoken about in objective terms. Where the objectivity of the claim rubs thin, as in Netanyahu’s case, his ability to speak security is undermined."  

But the objectivity of Netanyahu's claim rubs thin not simply because it may be perceived as 'political' but because it lacks 'objective' merit.  The fact that the construction of security is intersubjective does not mean that there is not a world 'out there' about which one can make better or worse, more plausible or less plausible, claims.  The claim that an Iranian nuclear capacity poses an existential threat to Israel is unconvincing, for reasons suggested above.  It is unconvincing because it clashes with what history, logic, and evidence suggest about how the real world works.  Contrary to Patrick Jackson's view that the world does not exist independently of the mind (mind-world monism), I believe there is a 'real world', that it exists independently of our minds, and that claims about how the world works can be judged as more or less convincing on the basis of evidence.  That does not mean I am a neo-positivist (and actually since I have no research agenda and essentially no standing in the IR 'profession', it doesn't really matter what my meta-theoretical leanings are); what it does mean is that in this case we should not lose sight of whether Netanyahu's claims, irrespective of his authority to make them, accord with what we know about the real world. 


LFC said...

I probably should not have put the word "profession" in quotes -- obviously there are tons of professional IR scholars and hence there is an IR profession -- but I think I'm just going to leave it. (If someone gets offended, tough sh*t. I'll be glad to refund their subscription.)

Peter T said...

Two thoughts. I took Jarrod's piece to be about the process of credibility, in that even if Netanyahu's claims are plausible, his position and manner of delivering them are unlikely to convince any but his partisans.

On the substantive issue, I could have used the Iran nuclear trope as a good example of policy-making blinkers. There are good authorities (such as Juan Cole) who keep pointing out that the Iranian leadership has rejected nuclear weaponry on religious grounds. This is not contested but ignored, often by the same people who claim that the religious cast of Iranian leadership makes them more prone to national suicide.

While there is some room for doubt about how tight the self-imposed Iranian restriction is, the public policy discussion to date has taken place almost entirely within the Washington bubble: Iran as a construct of the US imagination.

LFC said...

Good thoughts, thanks.

1)Jarrod's point I think was partly about credibility, but a casual reader of his post might come away w the impression that the claim 'an Iranian nuclear weapon poses an existential threat to Israel' cannot be evaluated in some kind of 'objective' way. That's what I was trying to get at. Two informed observers could still, I suppose, end up disagreeing on the point, but one should be able to say, at least to one's own satisfaction, that X or Y has the better argument. I didn't follow or even read about (beyond the headline) that apparently silly argument about the color of the dress that consumed the Internet a few days ago (is it white-and gold or yellow-and-green or whatever the issue was) but presumably this depends on how one's visual apparatus processes colors or something like that. The question of whether an Iranian bomb poses an existential threat to Israel is not like the question 'what color is that dress?'. It does not depend on the physiology of vision. It depends on facts, some of them historical, some psychological, which at least in principle shd yield, when examined, a more plausible and a less plausible answer. To say that security claims are constructed
intersubjectively is correct, but all that means, to me, is that you need more than one
person to make a claim. It doesn't mean there are no dubious claims. If the governments of Luxemburg and Switzerland, for whatever reason, issued a joint declaration that France's force de frappe (do they still call the French nuclear weapons that?) posed an existential threat to them, that claim would be highly dubious. Indeed, false. I'm not saying Netanyahu's claim is quite in that category, but there is nonetheless a spectrum of plausibility.

2) Interesting re Cole and the pt on religion. (I need to go read him more regularly.)

LFC said...

P.s. I should note that P.T. Jackson has thought long about the methodological / philosophical issues and his bk 'The Conduct of Inquiry in IR' has been pretty widely praised. So I didn't mean to sound overly critical or to suggest he doesn't believe in gathering evidence for claims (which wd be an unfair imputation or suggestion). I think he knows I'm not inclined to mind/world monism, so that will not come as a surprise (in the very unlikely event he should read the post).

JS said...

Sorry, this is quite off-topic, but I had *no idea* that there were idealist (in the philosophical sense) IR theorists! How does that even happen?

LFC said...


So, I knew I shdn't have brought up the philosophical stuff (no, just kidding).

The quick answer to your question is that there are some people (not a lot, but some) in the IR professiorate who are interested in philosophical issues, and IR as a 'discipline' in the 20th cent. and now has been somewhat given to philosophical/methodological navel-gazing (prob. more than some other disciplines).

The particular scholar I've referred to here is someone I know and he happens to be very interested in and well-versed in the philosophical issues: here is the Amazon link to his bk I referred to:


LFC said...

Postscripts to previous comment:

1) Intense interest in the philosophical issues is confined to a fairly small group and the philosophical 'idealist' (mind/world monist) position is a minority position, I strongly suspect, w/in that group.

2) So the IR names you would perhaps be familiar with (Walt, Drezner, etc) don't get up in the morning and wonder about whether there is a mind-independent reality. Kissinger wrote his (famous, in some circles, and never published) undergraduate honors thesis at Harvard partly on Kant ("The Meaning of History: Reflections on Spengler, Toynbee and Kant") but he doesn't wonder about that either, I think it's safe to presume.

3) I'll give you a cite later to an article by Jackson that I've actually read (as opposed to the bk, which I've only read reviews of) that lays out philosophical 'idealist' position.

LFC said...

Here is the article cite:

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, "Foregrounding Ontology: Dualism, Monism, and IR Theory," Review of International Studies v.34 (2008): 129-153

JS said...

LFC, thanks! I am very intrigued. Will try to check out the article. I suppose I need JSTOR or some such? (Also had no idea about Kissinger's honors thesis...)

LFC said...

You may not need JSTOR. Let me see if I can find an openly available version and get back to you.

LFC said...

Free pdf of that article:


JS said...

Thanks, LFC.

Anonymous said...

Because Constructivism is a big tent that contains a multitude of different perspectives, it's difficult to pin down exactly what the approach is claiming about the (non)objectivity of the social world. I think that it is consistent with much mainstream Constructivism (which might even be considered to be the orthodoxy in the UK and continental Europe) to claim that whether claims about the social world are true or false depends on the beliefs of actors. Consensus and a set of agreed rules determines who the PM or President is. Those sort of truths about the social world aren't mind-independent. It is still possible to make incorrect claims if someone is wrong about the beliefs of others or if someone disagrees with the intersubjective consensus on some institutional arrangement. But Constructivists normally hold that beliefs (and meaning more broadly) are always ambiguous, so the facts about social reality are both fluid and open to interpretation.

This is more Wendt than Jackson, however, and I'm not a Constructist so this may not do the position justice. Personally I think it is a bit of a shame that Constructivism has colonised and occupied 'norms and beliefs' in IR the same way that Realism has monopolised the concepts of power and violence in discussions.

LFC said...

Hi N.L.,
Thanks for the comment.

I think you're prob. right that what you're describing is "more Wendt [of his Soc. Theory of Intl Politics] than Jackson." Jackson doesn't think constructivism (or Constructivism) is a coherent category, according to a review of Jackson's The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations by David McCourt in Int'l Studies Review, December 2011.

McCourt quotes Jackson (from p.204 of his book) as follows: "continuing to focus on 'constructivism' as a meaningful category for organizing the IR field is as philosophically nonsensical and practically counterproductive a move as any other [sic] attempt to break the grip of an unselfconscious neopositivism has been over the past few decades."


I think I agree with the essence of your comment (first paragraph). I probably shouldn't have brought up 'mind/world monism' (or philosophical idealism) because it just confuses things here; 'mind-independent' means something different in that context.

Say country X has nuclear weapons and its neighbor country Y doesn't. Whether X's nuclear weapons are seen as a 'threat' to Y depends largely on what is in the minds of the countries' policymakers. (But that has really nothing to do with the question of whether there is a 'mind-independent reality'. It's the old 'would a falling
tree in a forest make a noise if no one was there to hear it?' thing. Jackson, as I understand his views, says no.)

The concrete issue here, and the one I was trying to get at in my post, is this: Israel has nuclear weapons, yet Netanyahu claims that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons they would represent an 'existential threat' to Israel. I have trouble seeing how that claim can possibly be correct. Even if Netanyahu sincerely believes that, it seems to me that he is wrong. For Iran's nuclear weapons to represent an 'existential threat' to Israel, there would have to be some possibility that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons might lead to Israel's being destroyed by those weapons, i.e., say, its population centers destroyed and its government decapitated and
rendered non-functional. I don't see a reasonable scenario that wd lead to that outcome, primarily b.c I don't think Iran would launch a nuclear first strike against a nuclear-armed state. If Iran wd not launch a first strike vs Israel, I don't see how a nuclear-armed Iran could be construed as an existential threat to Israel. I can see why Israel wd reasonably not like a nuclear-armed Iran for various reasons, but existential threat is not one of them.

Anonymous said...

Jackson is right, 'Constructivism' is a sort of theoretical raft of various different bits and pieces borrowed from sociology and the humanities. Worse, it is boiled down to 'ideas and norms matter' in IR 101 classes and (inexcusably) some published research. Obviously, there are entirely different ways in which we might think ideas and norms might matter in IR - but that becomes obscured within the debate.

If there is any coherent core to IR Constructivism, it's that the shared inter-subjective belief in something can make that thing true - e.g. that the UNSC has the authority to sanction force. For that to apply to Netanyahu's claims, they'd not only have to be genuine convictions rather than a piece of political theater, but they'd have to be mirrored by an Iranian belief in the implacable, suicidal hostility of Israel. Such reciprocated beliefs that the other is an existential threat might produce the reality they posit, but absent this Netanyahu's 'beliefs' are objectively false.