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Nuclear Authority: The IAEA and the Absolute Weapon

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Nuclear Authority: The IAEA and the Absolute Weapon by Robert L. Brown. Georgetown University Press, 247 pp.

Nuclear holocaust devastated the Japanese Empire at the conclusion of World War II, and the specter of even more cataclysmic super-bombs haunted the imagination of generations of Cold Warriors. Even today, the western world lives with anxiety over an unexpected nuclear attack in Eastern Europe from revanchist Russia, genocidal intentions on Israel by Iran, or an incomprehensible act by North Korea. Similarly, revisionist powers suspiciously view the US’s overwhelming nuclear triad. In parallel, in the past 70 years, advanced economies under fewer international regulations enjoyed disproportionate benefits from nuclear technologies in a number of sectors such as medicine, agriculture, and electrical generation while states without mature nuclear programs lacked sufficient access to these technologies.

While masterworks like Henry Kissinger’s World Order provide an overarching view of the post-World War II order, every security analyst should place a copy of Robert Brown’s Nuclear Authority next to Kissinger’s seminal work. In his debut book, Brown traces the history of international efforts to implement nuclear nonproliferation regimes while maintaining developing nations’ access to peaceful technologies and details the motivations and obstacles of the international community to establish the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Throughout his work, Brown focuses on how the IAEA acquired the independent power to issue rules and make commands in some areas of nuclear policy and why states feel compelled to comply. Unique among many attempts at international oversight and governance, Brown details how the IAEA acquired power as a political authority, a power that arises out of the persistent demand for agency autonomy and the international community’s continued willingness to cede authority.

To his credit, Brown provides a systematic analysis of the bases of power and authority within the international community while noting the nuances of each example within its historical context. His intellectually honest approach reinforces his thesis even as he candidly notes vulnerabilities within the IAEA and international governance. Brown succinctly organizes nuclear policy into four issue areas: nonproliferation, disarmament, safety and security, and the promotion of peaceful uses. Then, he overlays the different nuclear policy areas onto four distinct epochs within the IAEA’s history: the birth of the IAEA (1945–61), the adolescence of the agency (1962–85), IAEA-challenged (1986–98), and nuclear authority (1998–2013). With this framework, the reader emerges with a developed understanding of how nuclear policy shaped the post-World War II order. Much more than a historical account, Nuclear Authority explores the development of how an international entity amassed controls authority over the nuclear policy arena.

Brown acknowledges the work’s main limitation in the introduction. He clearly advertises his role as a political scientist—not a nuclear engineer. While the author provides references to leading technical authorities, the author approaches certain technical aspects from too shallow an angle. Specifically, a marginally more detailed description of enrichment technologies and process would provide readers greater context for current challenges such as Iran and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Nuclear Authority’s provision of context for the evolving nuclear tensions in the present day showcases the book’s most immediate and profound aspect. With an understanding of the international framework, the security analyst better understands the impacts of Russia’s doctrine of “escalate to de-escalate” and the US’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. These contemporary case studies provide salient examples of why the IAEA remains a critical agent within the international system. As nuclear deterrence theory evolves in the post-Cold War era, it is essential to examine which methods of bilateral, multilateral, private, and governmental agreements produce the greatest returns on investment.

Also, Nuclear Authority explores several unintended consequences from international cooperation. As a part of the grand bargain between the Nuclear Weapons States (NWS) and all other states, the NWSs agreed to share peaceful-use technologies with aspiring countries via the IAEA. However, the author honestly juxtaposes the good intentions of enabling developing countries to benefit from nuclear power plants with the reality that technology sharing with North Korea and Iran laid the foundation for modern-day proliferation concerns.

In his conclusion, the author notes the utility of using the study of the IAEA as a general analysis of international frameworks, which may prove useful for future efforts in organizing international technology policy. While Russia and China continue to build new stockpiles of tactical nuclear weapons, an ever more frightening number of countries, commercial entities, and transnational criminal organizations continue to build new and more powerful cyber weapons capable of effects equivalent to large-scale nuclear attacks. Present-day technologists and policy researchers draw many parallels between the nuclear arms race and the pursuit of artificial intelligence (AI) development. Frequently, these researchers call for the establishment of an international organization with similar authorities to the IAEA in order to provide international governance for cyber and AI development. However, while many similarities exist between the AI arms race and the Cold War nuclear arms race, unresolvable differences exist. Those AI enthusiasts seeking to regulate the peaceful use of AI without unleashing the negative aspects of weaponization should examine many of the successful methods pursued by the IAEA as well as distill the lessons learned.

This well-organized and readable book equips the reader with a clear understanding of the IAEA’s history and potential future as well as a crash course in international governmental policy development. Nuclear Authority constitutes mandatory reading for defense policy professionals, civilian energy analysts, and artificial intelligence researchers. In an era of increasing nationalism when many politicians challenge the value of international institutions such as the IAEA and the United Nations, senior leaders must articulate compelling narratives about the successes of the international community in establishing and maintaining the post-World War II order. Additionally, analysts at all levels of the establishment should remain cognizant of the deficiencies and limitations of existing institutions to address the obstacles faced by the IAEA and ensure that the demonstrated vulnerabilities and failures of the IAEA are not recreated in institutions currently under design to manage twenty-first-century challenges such as artificial intelligence governance.

LCDR James M. Landreth, USN


The views expressed in the book review 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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