Why Waltz May Have it Right

This letter to the editor was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 2.

To the Editors,

In a well-argued and thoughtful article (“Miscalculating Nuclear Deterrence: Iran and the Bomb,” Global Security Studies Review, Volume I, Issue 1), Roslyn Warren argues that Kenneth Waltz is mistaken in his “more may be better” logic regarding the prospects for conflict in a nuclear Middle East. Her contention appears to rest on two central arguments. The first concerns the “stability-instability paradox,” which holds that dyadic nuclear stability may actually embolden states to engage in lower-level provocations. Warren argues that this instability has the potential to inadvertently escalate to a nuclear level and that it heightens the risk of dangerous misperceptions and accidental detonations. Her second argument concerns the likelihood of preemptive strikes during windows of opportunity/vulnerability in the nuclearization process and shortly thereafter. While her arguments are compelling, there are at least three reasons to question her conclusions.

First, her comparison with the Indo-Pakistani conflict does as much to hurt her case as to help it. Since partition in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought four wars, three major and one minor. The wars in 1947, 1965, and 1971 resulted in 3,500, 8,000, and nearly 12,000 battle-related deaths, respectively. India then conducted its “peaceful” nuclear test in 1974, followed by tests by both India and Pakistan in 1998. These were followed by the Kargil War in 1999, lasting only a few months with just over 1,000 battle deaths.[1] Since this conflict, there have been no large-scale military exchanges between the two sides, despite ongoing rivalry and crises such as the 2011 border skirmishes and terrorist attacks in the Indian Parliament in 2001 and in Mumbai in 2008. In times of crisis, both sides seem able to step back from the brink.[2] Thus, rather than necessarily escalating conflict through misperception or any other route, it seems that mutual nuclear possession is concentrating the minds[3] of these two states, as it likewise could vis-à-vis  Iran.

Second, the empirical record regarding the validity of the stability-instability paradox is inconclusive. While intuitively logical, this argument’s greatest weakness is that many of its applications have been in the context of “enduring rivalries,” where conflict and crisis is more the norm than a deviation from it.[4] In the case of India and Pakistan, it is possible that nuclear weapons have allowed Pakistan to aggress with greater impunity, but it is equally plausible that this is simply business as usual. Similarly, on the Korean Peninsula, North Korean belligerence and provocation is a constant, not a result of their recent nuclear weapons acquisition, so it is difficult to sort out what exactly is making the difference. Iran would likely be no different, since its inflammatory rhetoric and support of terrorist organizations is a constant phenomenon.

Third, her argument regarding windows of vulnerability is powerful, but ultimately deals with a short-term concern. In the longer term, based on the empirical record, Waltz’s arguments seem to hold. For instance, the early years of the Cold War were surely tense on a nuclear level, but after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the Soviet Union and the U.S. settled into a more-or-less stable mutual deterrence relationship that arguably prevented war between them.[5] Similarly, after China’s nuclear test in 1964, it managed to avert large-scale war with the Soviet Union, its neighbor and deepest rival, despite fighting a brief conflict along their border in 1969. While Warren may argue that Iran is different because it is a “revisionist” state, it is difficult to find an adjective that better describes the People’s Republic of China of the 1960s.

Given the small sample size available thus far, it seems that long-term relations between Iran and its neighbors could just as easily be stable as they could be tumultuous, but the historical record undoubtedly points at stability. Therefore, it is perhaps best to read Waltz’s argument as being positive in the long-run, but normative in the short-run – in the long-term, nuclear deterrence will lead to stability, so in the short-term it is better not to be reactionary.

Nick Anderson
Tokyo, Japan

Mr. Anderson is a 2012 graduate of Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

[1] All casualty figures from Meredith Reid Sarkees and Frank Wayman, Resort to War: 1816-2007 (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2007).
[2] For a more in-depth argument and more examples of this nature, see Sumit Ganguly in Sumit Ganguly and S. Paul Kapur, India, Pakistan, and the Bomb: Debating Nuclear Stability in South Asia (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2010).
[3] English literary figure Samuel Johnson once noted “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
[4] On “enduring rivalries,” see Gary Goertz and Paul Diehl, “Enduring Rivalries: Theoretical Constructs and Empirical Patterns,” International Studies Quarterly 37, no. 2 (June 1993): 147-71.
[5] It is also worth noting that up until the late 1950s and early 1960s, nuclear weapons were largely seen as warfighting weapons among U.S. security planners and political officials. See Scott D. Sagan, “Change and Continuity in U.S. Nuclear Strategy,” in Michael Mandelbaum, ed., America’s Defense (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1989), 279-317; David Alan Rosenberg, “A Smoking Radiating Ruin at the End of Two Hours: Documents on American Plans for Nuclear War with the Soviet Union, 1954-55,” International Security 6, no. 3 (Winter 1981/82): 3-38.

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