The Duck of Minerva

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Counterproliferation strategy

December 7, 2005

Part of the Duck’s ongoing mission is to highlight articles in academic international-relations journals that speak to topics of general concern among the blogging and blog-reading community. In that spirit, I want to call attention to the latest issue of International Security, which includes a provocative article by Alex Montgomery.

Alex is a good friend of mine from our days together at the Center for International Security and Cooperation, so caveat emptor.

In “Ringing in Proliferation: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb Network,” Montgomery slams current trends in US counterproliferation strategy:

In practice, the Bush administration’s nonproliferation policies have been more varied and less aggressive than its rhetoric would suggest. For example, it has been willing to enter talks with North Korea and Libya despite describing both as “rogues.” Strong words can be used strategically to convince proliferators that accepting a settlement offer would be better than continuing to hold out. Yet the administration’s unyielding rhetoric has placed the United States in a position from which it is difficult to back down; combined with a lack of positive incentives, this stance has convinced proliferators that the United States will not agree to or uphold any settlement short of regime change. Moreover, the administration has not formulated any coherent counterproliferation policies other than regime change and an aggressive form of export control enforcement known as the Proliferation Security Initiative. With respect to two of the key proliferators today—Iran and North Korea—the Bush administration has shown little interest in offering any significant incentives or establishing any clear red lines. Instead, it has relied almost exclusively on China to convince the DPRK to give up its nuclear program and has declined to join the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in talks with Iran.

Montgomery’s case against regime change as a strategy of counterproliferation is built upon a careful – and well-document – series of claims. Current “rogue” proliferators, he argues, are not as far along in their programs as many believe and as they would like us to think. Furthermore, the structure of “proliferation networks” – the channels through which knowledge, technical skills, and technology for proliferation spreads – is such that, given the right tactics, they can be disrupted and choked off. In consequence, tools other than regime change and preemption are our best hope for preventing the spread of nuclear capabilities.

In the article, Montgomery thoughtfully disaggregates the relationship between proliferation networks, the motives of proliferators, and counterproliferation. He pays close attention to the best public evidence about the actual structure of proliferation networks and interprets them using a fairly elegant application of basic network theory.

Based on his analysis, Montgomery argues that:

First, nuclear proliferation networks are highly centralized and are much less effective than determinists claim. Second, given sufficient incentives, proliferators can be persuaded to halt or roll back their programs. Consequently… proliferation can be halted or slowed through proper application of country-specific incentives selected from a broad range of options. The presence of second-tier networks is indeed a new problem. Measures to deal with them should be based on an analysis of their structure and the speed of technological development. The hub-and-spoke structure of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile networks—which, I argue, developed in part because of the difficulty of passing on the tacit knowledge required to successfully build and operate these weapons—requires a policy that targets the hubs rather than a policy of systemwide coerced change. Past successes in slowing the spread of nuclear weapons through the use of targeted incentives, rather than demanding regime change, indicate that even the most seemingly determined proliferants can be slowed without resorting to extreme measures.

If you have access to International Security, I recommend you got out and read the whole thing.

I do, however, want to say a few words about one of the things I really like about this article, because it bears on a post I plan to write in the near future. Most of what passes for discussion of “networks” in professional and blogger punditry is wooly, metaphorical, and not particularly illuminating. Networks are “sexy,” and casting arguments about international politics in (often extremely sloppy) network lingo is very popular. Now, I am by no means a network theorist – I took the courses, but don’t do the math – but I know enough to recognize when obfuscation masquerades as argumentation.

Montgomery’s article emphatically does not suffer from this problem. One of the reasons is that he can and does do more complicated, quantitative network analysis. The most important reason, however, is that he doesn’t treat network metaphors as if they were some magic key with which one can unlock the secrets of current political trends. Rather, he takes some simple insights about variations in network structures, applies them to proliferation networks, and comes to some sensible conclusions about what they imply for counterproliferation strategies. In my humble opinion, we need more of this, and less Castells, second-order riffs on “netwars,” and the like.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.