Delaying Doomsday: The Politics of Nuclear Reversal

  • Published

Delaying Doomsday: The Politics of Nuclear Reversal by Rupal N. Metha. Oxford University Press, 2019, 259 pp. 

Delaying Doomsday is an academic analysis of nuclear proliferation and reversal. The author, Rupal N. Metha, is an assistant professor in the University of Nebraska Department of Political Science. She was a Stanton nuclear security postdoctoral fellow in the Belfer Center’s International Security Program and Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard University.

Her argument is simple. If the United States wants a world with fewer nuclear armed states, it should make it more difficult to acquire nuclear weapons and make it easier to surrender a weapons program. Despite its inherent logic, powerful individuals do not follow this simple line of reasoning, particularly the second part. This book provides overwhelming academic evidence, both quantitative and qualitative, that positive incentives, negative punishments, and the threat of war are the most likely methods of inducing nuclear reversal. 

The book is broken down into a few main sections. Chapter one describes the problem of nuclear proliferation. This section serves its purpose well, giving the reader an overview of the challenge as well as precisely formulating the questions of interest. Chapter two provides her theory of nuclear reversal and overviews the evidence used throughout the book. Chapter three analyzes the quantitative evidence through a large N analysis. Chapter four, five, and six describe specific cases of nuclear proliferation through India, Iran, and North Korea, respectively. This was easily the most interesting part of the book with the ability to compare-and-contrast successes with failures in a story-driven way. The final chapter serves as a summary with recommendations for policy makers. 

There are several high points worthy of praise. First, the author states her argument clearly. Given how many academic papers fail even that simple task, this is refreshing to see. Second, the assumptions are supported in reasonable ways. For example, her use of the United States as the primary actor interested in the antiproliferation regime is defended by America’s unparalleled war-fighting capability and ability to impose costly sanctions. Third, the large N analysis is thorough while remaining understandable. The graphs provided concisely demonstrate evidence for her thesis. Fourth, each of the nations analyzed offer interesting perspectives by comparing-and-contrasting nuclear proliferation stories. She made excellent choices for case studies while also revealing information about each example that those interested in nuclear proliferation issues ought to know. 

The Indian nuclear proliferation case is particularly praiseworthy. Most Americans and policy makers are familiar with North Korea’s weapons and Iran's program given their presence in the news, but the American response to India’s nuclear ambitions is not part of the public consciousness. As the author points out, the parallels between India and Iran make them interesting cases for proliferation analysis.

India began its nuclear ambitions by gaining civilian capability from the United States. Learning how America was India’s leading supplier of nuclear technology and materials due to lobbying from Dr. Homi Bhabha from 1955 to 1965 was absolutely fascinating. As the chapter develops, she describes the contrast between the intelligence community’s response to India's nuclear capabilities before and after their first nuclear explosion. By quoting reports and people from the time, the author takes the reader back to that period and gives an excellent analysis of the American failure to prevent India from acquiring nuclear capability. 

There are a few weaknesses to the book, some of which are a result of decisions made by the author while others inherit the topic. Toward the beginning, the author states her thesis multiple times with different phrasings. While not damaging to the analysis itself, one can imagine a reader giving up due to the repetition, thus missing out on some truly incredible work.

There were also some technical issues and missed opportunities with the analysis. Treating sanctions as binary (either sanctions exist or do not exist) feels unfair. Targeting individuals from other countries versus cutting out entire industries from the world economy ought to demonstrate different levels of resolve, so coding sanctions as binary may be an oversimplification. This issue is minor, particularly given the desire to analyze a large data set. Another missed area for exploration was the credible threat of force.

The author argues that negotiations need to take place within the “shadow of war” to be most effective. Yet, the threat of being attacked or toppled by the foreign invaders is at least part of the reason states pursue nuclear weapons to begin with. It would have been valuable to see if the threat of violence, particularly in countries with divergent policy preferences from the United States, drove states to want to acquire nuclear weapons in the first place. Untangling the causation might have been difficult, particularly for a quantitative analysis, but it could have revealed interesting information about how American threats of violence impact the calculations of domestic actors in states considering investments in nuclear weapons. 

Two other issues might be better described as critiques of academia more so than this individual book. There is a lack of understanding of how individuals think and feel throughout the process of nuclear proliferation. Some of the highlights of her analysis includes seeing how State Department officials or domestic policy makers saw the nuclear weapon program. By focusing on the way states acted (which was part of her stated assumptions) and not the people who carried out policy, she robs the reader of any chance to connect with real individuals throughout each country’s nuclear proliferation or reversal.

If the author had spent more time humanizing the interplay between states by exploring individual interactions, readers could have emotionally connected with the data provided earlier in the book. There is also limited analysis of the moral dimension of nuclear proliferation.

Part of the reason that biological and chemical weapons remain relatively rare is because of the normative taboo of making and using such systems, not just the mechanistic system of sanctions and agreements. Do such normative qualms exist with nuclear weapons? On the other side, one could see nonnuclear states feeling morally outraged that the United States, owner of one of the most deadly nuclear arsenals in the world, threatens war against states who attempt to obtain even a single nuclear device. Do leaders pursuing nuclear weapons do so primarily out of calculated self-interest or a feeling that their people deserve to have a nuclear deterrent?

Outside of some references to Islamic leaders opposing weapons of mass destruction, the author ignores how ethical considerations play into how states acquire or give up nuclear weapons. Analyzing how individual people and ethical considerations impact nuclear proliferation would have been incredible. But given that book is not a story but an academic argument, these decisions are justified. 

This book is an excellent analysis of the nuclear proliferation question. It uses both data and individual case studies to prove that nuclear reversal is most likely when “the international community, mainly the United States, offers inducements that include face-saving incentives for political leaders to reap the benefits of a negotiated end to their costly nuclear pursuit and threatens or imposes sanctions of other escalatory punishment if the proliferation persists.”

But one reads this text understanding that it is a research paper, thus containing some of the limitations of academia. Still, this book remains an unparalleled way for academics, policy makers, civil servants, and even interested citizens to understand how the international community can prevent more states from acquiring nuclear weapons. 

Vivek Thangam

"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."