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Understanding the Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation

By Jacques E. C. Hymans

One cool evening in Buenos Aires, I met with Dr. Conrado Varotto, the father of Argentina’s once-secret uranium enrichment program. The enrichment of uranium is a key pathway toward nuclear weapons, and I suspected that the Argentine enrichment program had been part of a nuclear weapons drive.

My long list of detailed questions kept Dr. Varotto talking for about two hours that evening. Many of his answers were curt, guarded, even defensive. Then, suddenly, something snapped. He looked at me squarely. “The bomb is in the human heart or it isn’t,” he told me. “We could have done it, but we didn’t, because the bomb was not in our hearts.”

I was skeptical of my interlocutor’s claim, not least because in our discussion he had acted as if he had something to hide. But in the end, after a great deal of research and thought, I decided he was right. Indeed, in a sense my new book, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation, is an extended elaboration on Dr. Varotto’s basic point. In the book, I argue that decisions to go or not to go nuclear substantially reflect the psychology of the leaders who make them. Simply put, some political leaders hold a conception of their nation’s identity that leads them to desire the bomb, and such leaders can be expected to turn that desire into state policy.

Conventional wisdom holds that one tragic but inevitable feature of the anarchic international system is that states naturally reach for the most fearsome weaponry they can obtain. But in fact, nuclear weapons are so big that this normal logic doesn’t apply. For example, while on fieldwork in India in 1965, the political scientist Stephen P. Cohen identified no fewer than thirty-four separate strategic, diplomatic, political, economic and ethical dilemmas that Indian elites were discussing as they considered whether or not their country should go nuclear. And there was nothing particularly “Indian” about that list.

Faced with such complexity, the human beings who lead us don’t actually calculate the pros and the cons. Instead, they look inside themselves for direction. What they find there determines their attitude toward nuclear weapons acquisition.

Those leaders who do decide to go for nuclear weapons—a small proportion of the total—are almost unfailingly what I call “oppositional nationalists.” Oppositional nationalists are people who combine a deep-rooted fear of a foreign enemy with an intense pride in their nation’s potential to face the enemy down.

The Argentine military presidents whom Dr. Varotto once served made many reprehensible choices. And they certainly were interested in growing the country’s nuclear capacities; I discovered, for instance, that the strategic purpose of Dr. Varotto’s secret uranium enrichment plant was to provide fuel for nuclear submarines. But even in Argentina’s darkest days, the country was not led by oppositional nationalists. Notably, the rivalry with Brazil was never seen as a death match. Therefore, to Argentina’s leaders the notion of acquiring nuclear bombs always seemed a “strategic absurdity.”

By contrast, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was prime minister of India from 1998 until 2004, is an oppositional nationalist. Vajpayee’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, first made international headlines by organizing the destruction of a 16th-century mosque that it claimed stood on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Rama. Vajpayee and the BJP have also mounted campaigns to rewrite school history textbooks in order to portray Indian history as one long saga of conflict between Hindus and Muslims.

Driven by his oppositional nationalism, within weeks of coming to power in March 1998 Vajpayee told his men that “there was no need for much thought. We just have to do it.” Soon they were rejoicing along the ridge of the crater that their nuclear test had made in the Rajasthan desert.

Thinking about the psychology of nuclear proliferation in this way suggests a number of lessons for American and international policymakers.

First, not every nuclear program is a nuclear weapons program. Nuclear weapons are not the natural outgrowth of technological development, but rather a transcendental political choice. Of course we shouldn’t stop worrying about the growth of nuclear capacities, but we need to focus a lot more on what current and potential future state leaders intend to do with those capacities.

Second, not every leader—not even every distasteful leader—has nuclear weapons ambitions. During the days of the Cold War, because of our fear of Communism we often undermined those “pink” social-reformists who actually represented our best hope to block the rise of Communists in a given country. Today, because of our fear of nuclear proliferation we often undermine those garden-variety nationalists who actually represent our best hope of blocking the rise of oppositional nationalists in a given country.

Third, the usual diplomatic carrots and sticks are insufficient to sway oppositional nationalists from going for the bomb. Since the decision for nuclear weapons is not the product of cost-benefit calculation, efforts to affect those costs and benefits—through the threat of international sanctions, for instance—will fall on deaf ears. We can certainly try the normal diplomatic tools, but we shouldn’t be under any illusion about their likely effectiveness.

Northampton is a long way from Buenos Aires, but the memory of that long-ago meeting still resonates in me. Of course, it’s hard to see what’s in someone else’s heart. But, as Dr. Varotto indicated, we need to look.

Jacques E. C. Hymans, assistant professor of government at Smith, teaches courses on U.S. foreign policy, international relations, and weapons of mass destruction. His book, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions, and Foreign Policy, was published in February by Cambridge University Press.

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