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Meet the political scientist who thinks the spread of nuclear weapons prevents war

A MGR-1 Honest John, the United States' first nuclear-tipped rocket .
A MGR-1 Honest John, the United States' first nuclear-tipped rocket .
U.S. Army

Most people who think about and work on nuclear proliferation — the spread of nuclear weapons to new countries — think it's a problem. Nukes are hugely destructive weapons, proliferation is thought to increase the odds they'll be used, and it's worth working very hard to prevent them from spreading. This is why the US government is currently expending so much energy to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons, and why we nearly attacked North Korea in 1994 to prevent them from getting the bomb (which they would eventually acquire a decade or so later).

But there's a vocal minority of political scientists who argue the opposite. Yes, proliferation optimists contend, nuclear weapons are horrible devices which can cause unimaginable amounts of human suffering. But that very fact makes them powerful deterrents. In the absence of nuclear weapons, it's easy to imagine the US and Soviet Union going to war in the 1950s or 60s. That's just what rival powers do, historically. But the presence of nukes helped prevent that. Similarly, while India and Pakistan used to fight brutal wars with some regularity, the pace and scale of conflicts declined significantly after Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons, giving itself a deterrent against already-nuclearized India.

This argument was made most vigorously by the late Columbia University political scientist Kenneth Waltz in the book The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, which also contained a rebuttal by proliferation opponent and Stanford professor Scott Sagan. Toward the end of his life, Waltz even argued that it would be good for the world if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon.

One of the most eloquent exponents of this view currently is Indiana University political scientist Sumit Ganguly, who made the case that proliferation produced peace in South Asia in his book Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons, coauthored with University of Maryland - Baltimore County's Devin Hagerty. Ganguly and I spoke Wednesday about the effect of nuclear weapons in South Asia and about how harmful he thought the spread of the bomb to Iran would really be. Here's the transcript from our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity. For a contrary view, see this interview with journalist Eric Schlosser on the risk of nuclear weapons accidents.

Dylan Matthews In your view, what has the effect of nuclear proliferation been in India and Pakistan, in terms of regional stability and war?

Sumit Ganguly In South Asia it has, for all practical purposes, done away with the prospect of full scale war. It's just not going to happen. The risks are so great as a consequence of the nuclearization of the subcontinent that neither side can seriously contemplate starting a war.

I think the same is true of the Sino-Indian relationship. While the Chinese might probe along the border, or try to test Indian resolve around the border, the likelihood of that escalating into major conflict is practically nonexistent. So I would say that while nuclear weapons are hideous and horrific weapons of mass destruction, they also produce a certain salutary effect.

Dylan Matthews Other experts have suggested that while regular war may have become less likely, irregular exchanges involving militias and other non-state actors have become more common, and crises between India and Pakistan occur with more regularity. What do you make of that argument?

Sumit Ganguly That is an argument that has been made quite forcefully by one of my coauthors and friends, Paul Kapur, who argues this has emboldened Pakistan particularly to use non state actors, recognizing that if India responds with conventional forces, they can always raise the prospect of nuclear war.

I think, while that argument has a certain intuitive appeal, it is false, because Pakistan had long relied on non-state actors well before the advent of nuclearization. This is a strategy that a weak state has used to compensate for its lack of conventional capabilities. This is a strategy that goes back to the very creation of the Pakistan in 1947, and relied upon in 1965 and again in the 1971 war.

His perspective, while intriguing and intuitively appealing, is actually quite flawed, because it overlooks the past history that had existed long before the advent of nuclearization. Nuclearization may have emboldened Pakistan further, but it did not lead to the initiation of the strategy.

Dylan Matthews How seriously do you take the critique, often associated with Stanford's Scott Sagan, that breakdowns in the command and control system mean that deterrence works less well, since Pakistan and India don't behave like unitary actors and there's potential for the system to break down at some point in the bureaucracy?

Sumit Ganguly I don't take that critique particularly seriously because that overlooks the fact that the Pakistani military views nuclear weapons as their crown jewels. They consider these to be weapons of last resort, and jealously guard not only their own prerogatives but control over their nuclear weapons. They are not about to let these nuclear weapons slip out of their grasp. So that argument I do not find persuasive.

What I do find somewhat somewhat persuasive is the increasing tendency of the Pakistani military to devolve control of nuclear weapons to local commanders as they keep investing in tactical nuclear weapons. That I find to be a much more dangerous posture, and those tactical nuclear weapons I'm afraid, in the event of a crisis, could be used by local commanders, especially if the authority to use those weapons is devolved to local commanders. That does worry me, I'm afraid, and that could undermine my more optimistic view of the presence of nuclear weapons in South Asia.


A sign in Eureka, North Carolina commemorating a 1961 nuclear weapons accident in nearby Goldsboro. (RJHaas).

Dylan Matthews The US had a lot of near-misses where nuclear weapons came very, very close to accidentally detonating. Setting aside the question of if deterrence works, does that make you less supportive of proliferation?

Sumit Ganguly There's a danger is extrapolating from the American and Soviet experiences to South Asia. In those cases, the weapons were tightly coupled. For example, the United States' North American Air Defense system had an extensive array of complicated radars which were tied into the nuclear weapons infrastructure, and consequently a single alert could set off a whole chain of events.

In South Asia, where you have relatively small arsenals, eventually, if India and Pakistan could agree on some form of finite deterrence, then this kind of tight coupling that existed amongst the array of nuclear weapons the US and Soviet Union possessed and intensely focused on each other, that kind of situation is not likely to obtain.

The danger is that the Indians and Pakistanis will start emulating the Soviets and United States and build this panoply of nuclear weapons, and have an extensive command and control system where the likelihood of this kind of accidental launch becomes much greater. If you were to have finite capabilities, primarily for the purpose of deterrence, one really wouldn't have to worry too much.

But there are signs that both India and Pakistan are moving away from these fairly simple postures, which are not on hair-trigger alert. So actually I'm arguing against myself, given some of the trends that are emerging in the region.

Dylan Matthews How relevant is the relative size of stockpiles? Does it matter if Pakistan and India maintain rough parity in the size of their nuclear arsenals?

Sumit Ganguly I think it's quite relevant. If you have just a finite deterrent which is primarily designed for second strike capabilities, like a small number of nuclear weapons secure in submarines, that's a very different scenario than one where you have highly vulnerable bombers on air fields, where you have fixed ICBMs in fixed silos.

That's a markedly different situation, and unfortunately India is moving increasingly toward a triad, with nuclear-capable bombers, with ground-based missiles, and with a submarine fleet. The one I'm most sympathetic towards is the submarine fleet, and quite frankly that's the weakest leg at the moment.

Dylan Matthews Another thing that gets brought up in these discussions is AQ Khan. The fact that a key part of Pakistan's nuclear program distributed nuclear information to a number of unsavory regimes seems concerning, no?

Sumit Ganguly First of all, I don't believe that Khan was an independent actor. This is a useful myth that Pakistan has managed to propagate, and Pakistani apologists like Feroz Khan. I wrote a critical review of his book Eating Grass in The Nonproliferation Review, where I pointed out both empirical and logical flaws in his argument.

This is a useful fiction that the Pakistani security establishment has sought to propagate, and the US has gone along with this fiction because we basically overlooked Pakistan's headlong, clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons during the period we were involved in Afghanistan, because we needed them so badly during the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.

We were complicit in many ways in Pakistan's nuclear weapons program because we chose not to crack down on their clandestine activities. We have not sought a full accounting of the Pakistani regime and government's involvement in clandestine nuclear proliferation, not just in acquisition of capabilities, but their involvement in Libya, in Iran, in North Korea, and elsewhere.

AQ Khan was acting in concert with, if not at the behest of, the Pakistani government. Notice his treatment. He was placed under house arrest and then basically given a slap on the wrist and little else. Furthermore, how do you explain the flight of a C-30 leaving Islamabad, flying to Pyongyang , and coming back with components of ballistic missiles, without the Pakistani military knowing it? To believe in this, one must also believe in the tooth fairy. Pakistan has done untold damage to attempts at nonproliferation and the spreading of nuclear weapons to unsavory actors.

Dylan Matthews The late political scientist Kenneth Waltz once argued very explicitly that it would be good for the world if Iran got nuclear weapons. How much of that do you accept? Is it overall good when awful regimes like the ones in power in Iran and North Korea get nuclear weapons, because it reduces the odds of war with other nuclear powers?

Sumit Ganguly I think the regimes are downright repugnant, particularly the one in North Korea. One is hard pressed to come up with a regime more repugnant than the one currently in North Korea. But it's a very simple matter. After the first Gulf War, Indian general Krishnaswamy Sundarji was asked by a New York Times reporter, "What is the principal strategic lesson of this war?" and he said, "If you don't want to be invaded by the United States, get nuclear weapons."

Quite frankly, repugnant and repulsive and loathsome and squalid as the North Korean regime is, they have genuine enemies. Why is it we went into Iraq and not North Korea? I'll give you a simple answer: it's called nuclear weapons. We went into Iraq because we bloody well knew that they didn't have nuclear weapons. We came up with this elaborate fiction, and we lied to the world, at least the Bush administration did, and came up with all manner of cockamamie reasons to justify the invasion. You could justify the invasion on other grounds, but certainly not on the basis of Iraq's possession of nuclear weapons.

Waltz's argument says nothing about the character of the regime. That's a separate issue.

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who has shown more willingness to compromise on nuclear weapons than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Iran Presidency/Pool/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Dylan Matthews It's not about the regime, it's about how heavily you weight the importance of preventing a war with another nuclear power.

Sumit Ganguly Exactly.

Dylan Matthews So is the Geneva round of negotiations to prevent Iran from weaponizing fruitless? Or is the strategic case for getting weapons too great to dissuade them?

Sumit Ganguly I think Iran has a legitimate fear of being attacked and consequently it's unwilling to roll over, but I think now a greater climate of trust has been created, there have been incremental moves, and I think it is possible now to reach an accord with Iran, particularly given that there has been a change of regime in Iran and the present regime is much less belligerent. There are important hurdles that still remain with the negotiators. But I do believe there is a different climate that's emerging.

Of course, it's not helped by periodic statements by people both with political authority in this country and also people in the think tank community who present these apocalyptic visions of a nuclear armed Iran, and cases for why we should go to war with Iran.

These are utterly irresponsible statements. Even if we could accomplish the technical goal of disarming Iran, the political and diplomatic consequences of an attack would make Iraq look like a cakewalk. If we think ISIS is a problem, wait until you attack Iran. These are the very people who got us into the imbroglio in Iraq, and they are the ones now suggesting we create more enemies than the ones we presently have. This is fecklessness run amok.

Dylan Matthews US policymakers often make a point of leaving military action "on the table," suggesting that a strike would be, if not the best option, then at least preferable to Iran getting the bomb. Does that make sense, or is a world where Iran has the bomb, and the balance between them and the Gulf states and Israel is disrupted, preferable to one in which we've attacked them?

Sumit Ganguly Yes, I suspect the Gulf states would feel more threatened. As far as Israel feeling more threatened, that's chimerical. Israel, for all practical purposes, we know possesses nuclear weapons. They have a robust nuclear deterrent. We don't know the configuration thereof because of the secrecy that surrounds it, but the notion that Israel would feel any more threatened is wrong.

This is something that in American political discourse is difficult to say, as it suggests a lack of regard or sympathy for Israel, but the Iranians would think multiple times before contemplating an attack using nuclear weapons on Israel. Not only would they incur the wrath of the Israelis and the United States, but it would turn much of the world against it. I don't think Israel's security would be any more compromised.

As far as the Gulf states go, we're really talking about Saudi Arabia. This is not a popular view, nor are my views on proliferation, but quite frankly, I couldn't care less what happens to the Saudis. They are a menace. They are the ones who have supported various forms of Wahhabi Islam, they are the ones who have created all manner of political problems for us in the Middle East, and I frankly fail to understand why we remain beholden to them.

It's a fairly squalid regime as authoritarian regimes go, their domestic arrangements are nothing I'd find exemplary, and our dependence on their oil have been significantly reduced by discoveries of shale and by fracking in the United States. I, for one, have difficulty wrapping my head around why we need to coddle this completely squalid regime.

Dylan Matthews One counterargument I could imagine is that Iran already, despite not having nuclear weapons, feels free to back Hezbollah and other anti-Israel groups. If there were nuclear parity between Iran and Israel, one would imagine they'd feel more at liberty to support those kinds of groups. Is that right? Would an Iranian bomb increase their support of anti-Israel militants?

Sumit Ganguly That's the same argument made in the Pakistani case, but I doubt you could show empirically that Pakistan has become more aggressive in terms of its use of asymmetric warfare and irregular forces as a consequence of nuclearization. I would argue instead that it had much more to do with Pakistan's sponsorship of these groups during the Afghan war. That's where they cut their teeth.

I don't think Iran would become any more aggressive. I would suggest that for Iran, much of this stems from the revolutionary era, during Ayatollah Khomeini's time, when they decided to export revolution. I think Iran is much more a status quo state today, despite its ties to Hezbollah, than the kind of revolutionary state it was under Khomeini. It's not as if the Saudis are innocent in terms of supporting their own clients. They just do it in a slightly more sophisticated and nuanced fashion. They have their own clients. We were certainly not averse to the Saudis supporting all manner of Mujahedin in Afghanistan. The notion that Iran alone is involved in the support of irregular forces flies in the face of reality. It's just when our allies do it, we turn a blind eye.