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Security Assurances and Nuclear Nonproliferation

Security Assurances and Nuclear Nonproliferation edited by Jeffrey W. Knopf. Stanford University Press, 2012, 304 pp.

Jeffrey Knopf of the Monterey Institute of International Studies assembles a diverse group of experts on global nuclear politics to examine the impact of security assurances on nuclear nonproliferation. He provides 13 propositions to analyze the role of assurance in seven security cases presented as individual chapters by leading scholars. The cases are both historically significant and geopolitically diverse, resulting in a logical deduction of some general lessons for policymakers, academics, and students of nuclear policy. Specifically, these case studies span the more recent nuclear proliferation moves of Iran and North Korea, which are deemed imminent or outright failures, to the assurance successes of Libya, Ukraine, and Sweden, who possessed or were in the process of attaining nuclear weapons but ultimately renounced their programs. Contributors highlight cases from key US allies South Korea and Japan to more closely examine the role of assurance in extended deterrence. This is a timely work illuminating the central role of assurance in nuclear nonproliferation as the United States examines the next steps in achieving President Obama’s stated goal of a world without nuclear weapons.

Security assurance is framed as two separate but, in Knopf’s words, “fungibly” connected efforts that are executed in a “parallel and holistic” manner. Positive assurances “constitute a promise to take action on the part of another actor,” whereas negative assurances “reflect a promise on the part of a nuclear-armed state not to use its nuclear arsenal against nations that do not possess nuclear weapons.” He highlights that positive assurances are associated with proponents of nuclear deterrence, while negative assurances are commonly promoted by those in favor of nuclear disarmament. Yet, both are necessary for an integrated and effective nonproliferation strategy, thus this book is useful to those in both camps of the nuclear debate in understanding the interplay between the two types of assurances.

A stated goal of the book was to inductively develop some generalizations about the effectiveness of security assurances by using the preliminary hypotheses to examine a myriad of cases. They can be summed up by the characterizations of formal treaties, defense cooperation, relationship strength, public declarations, culture, and reinforcement actions. For readers working on the current dilemmas of North Korea and Iran, hypotheses 10 and 13 provide a lesson on when to use positive versus negative assurances and how to package them with incentives for greater effect, which may be decisive for avoiding future military action. The book’s compelling look at circumstances where assurance worked or did not work is instrumental to refining current nonproliferation policies today.

As previously mentioned, two case studies stand out due to their relevance in the current international arena. While the Iranian case did not conclude that assurance was effective during the Shah’s regime and early days of the Islamic Republic, it does offer a lesson for how the West can make assurances more effective in its current effort to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Whereas, positive security assurances from Moscow were effective in North Korea while they lasted (until the demise of the USSR) because they focused on regime survival—the fundamental concern of communist leaders. Thus, in the post–Cold War era, loss of the Soviet extended deterrent over North Korea may have been a central factor in Pyongyang’s decision to develop its own nuclear weapons. This should remind the United States of the potential impact of reducing its extended deterrent capability to its allies. Yet the more interesting point may be that a Chinese assurance policy could be the essential step to convincing North Korea to abolish its nuclear weapons program. Nonetheless, Knopf avoids making the false conclusion, in absolute terms, that security assurances—positive or negative—are the deus ex machina, but rather he states they are “part of a larger strategy of engagement” necessary for effective nonproliferation.

In the end, Knopf acknowledges the difficulties of integrating positive and negative assurance efforts to stop or reverse nuclear proliferation. While he does not achieve this complex aim, his assembly of cases written by a diverse group of experts did provide general lessons on the significance of contextual factors and regional geopolitics in studying the role of security assurance in nonproliferation. More importantly, his hypotheses allowed each individual writer to analyze those cases and help define what worked and what did not. And therein lies its strength—the book illuminates common qualitative features that must be addressed in future efforts to implement effective assurance strategies for successful nuclear nonproliferation. This reviewer certainly recommends the book to students and practitioners of nuclear policy to gain a greater understanding into how assurance efforts can influence nuclear nonproliferation.

Lt Col John Edwards, USAF

National Defense Fellow

Washington, DC

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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