Kenneth Waltz on “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb”

Kenneth Waltz on “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb”


Kenneth Waltz speaks with The Diplomat‘s Zachary Keck on his controversial article in Foreign Affairs, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb,” China, India-Pakistan troubles, terrorism and more.

Over the years you’ve entered into the policy debate only on a few choice occasions, such as your critique of the U.S. war in Vietnam. I’m therefore wondering what made you decide to write on the Iranian nuclear issue?

I did think it was an important issue not adequately discussed. The issue was being very narrowly defined simply in terms of Iran. But there are a lot of important lessons beyond this country or this region that must be considered and that can be applied to Iran itself. So I was interested in what I might contribute to that aspect of this debate. But I did this mainly because I was asked by Foreign Affairs.

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Policymakers work from the perspective of their own national interests. As you note in the Foreign Affairs piece, Israel confers substantial benefits from its regional nuclear monopoly, and a nuclear-armed Iran would significantly curtail Israel as well as the United States’ freedom of action in the region. How strong of an incentive is this for Israeli and U.S. policymakers to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear arms?

Clearly Israel has a very great interest in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapons state. I do not think the same applies to the U.S. The American interest in the long run is that the region be stable and peaceful. The existence of a single nuclear power without a balancer is a recipe for instability in the long-run. The amazing thing is that Israel managed to remain a single nuclear power for such a long time! Israel is an anomaly in this way. This anomaly will be removed if Iran becomes a nuclear power.

When the Obama Administration first took office, many touted Nixon’s trip to China as a model President Obama might seek to emulate in order to end the adversarial nature of U.S.-Iranian relations. Left unsaid, however, was that the Sino-U.S. rapprochement occurred after China acquired a reliable nuclear deterrent (although not necessarily because of it). Could Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon make a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement more likely in the future?

I don’t know if it would be a genuine rapprochement. But I do think that as with other new nuclear countries that we originally feared, the United States will come to accept Iran as a nuclear weapons state, reflecting that well-established pattern. We oppose any state we dislike and distrust becoming a nuclear weapons state. Once it does, we have no choice but to live with it. So we may well have a much calmer relationship with Iran than we do now.

You have often pointed to the Indo-Pakistan relationship as an example where the introduction of nuclear weapons stabilized a previously war-prone relationship. Some Diplomat readers in India will wonder whether this has really been to their advantage. While no major war has broken out since the 1998 nuclear tests, Pakistani terrorist groups have carried out a series of attacks inside India, which New Delhi found difficult to respond to because of Islamabad’s nuclear deterrent. Given that the size of India’s population and economy make it a far greater conventional military power than Pakistan, wouldn’t Islamabad be more restrained if the two powers didn’t possess nuclear weapons? 

India quite naturally did not want Pakistan to become a nuclear state. A second nuclear state cramps the style of the first. It is hard to imagine one nuclear state acquiescing easily or gracefully to its adversary going nuclear. But certainly in the long run, the nuclear weapons have meant peace on the subcontinent. This is in GREAT contrast to the expectations that most people entertained. Statements abounded by pundits, academics, journalists that suggested that nuclear weapons would mean war on the subcontinent. These experts all denied that the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan could be like that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When two countries have nuclear weapons it becomes impossible for either to strike at the manifestly vital interests of the other. It remains very possible, however, for nuclear states to engage in skirmishes, and those can of course be deadly. A historical example is the Soviet-China border disputes (1969), and a more recent one is the Mumbai attacks. But never have any of these skirmishes gotten so out of hand as to escalate to full-scale war.

In Foreign Affairs and elsewhere you have pointed out that many states have become less aggressive after acquiring a nuclear deterrent. One country that seems to buck this trend, however, is North Korea. Pyongyang’s actions in recent years include the sinking of The Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong. What’s to say a nuclear-armed Iran wouldn’t act in a similar fashion?

It is true that North Korea has been up to some nefarious business. But it is important to keep in mind that this is not a break with tradition. The Kim regime has been engaged in terrorism and provocation for decades—you may recall that North Korea was responsible for the assassination of several South Korean cabinet ministers in 1968. So, it is true to say that North Korea has not become completely pacific since acquiring its own nuclear weapons. But I also do not think it has become much more aggressive. In fact, it has been remarkably constant in its tendency to harass the South.

The goal of abolishing nuclear weapons has received a great deal of attention in recent years, with some policymakers usually associated with realism even lending their support. You remain skeptical. Why?

President Obama and a number of others have advocated the abolition of nuclear weapons and many have accepted this as both a desirable and a realistic goal. Even entertaining the goal and contemplating the end seems rather strange. On one hand the world has known war since time immemorial, right through August 1945. Since then, there have been no wars among the major states of the world. War has been relegated to peripheral states (and, of course, wars within them). Nuclear weapons are the only peacekeeping weapons that the world has ever known. It would be strange for me to advocate for their abolition, as they have made wars all but impossible. These propositions are further buttressed and explicated in the forthcoming 3rd edition of The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, by Scott Sagan and myself.

In your recent interview with James Fearon, you predicted the period of unipolarity would soon come to an end and singled out China as the country most likely to emerge as the next great power. What should the U.S. response be to China’s growing power? Do you think the Obama Administration’s Asia pivot is warranted, or should the U.S. not be overly concerned given the inherent stability of bipolarity and the fact that they are both nuclear-armed powers?

We should be wary of course, as any country naturally would be as power relations in the world shift. Certainly, the U.S. is directing more attention to the Asian region. This is warranted on a number of grounds, including the increasing economic importance of Asia.There is no reason for the U.S. to be unduly concerned with China’s increased importance. China can no more use its nuclear weapons to attack or intimidate than the United States can. The situation between the two major powers is inherently stable for that reason. Between the United States and China as between other great powers, there will be a rather extended period of adjustment as we work out a host of local issues (China and Japan, China and Southeast Asia, Chinese claims to island territories, etc.). But these should be minor squabbles, and should not be viewed as overly dangerous.

Finally, what is your general assessment of the Obama Administration’s handling of foreign policy? What has the Administration done right in your opinion, and what are some of the policies you think are most in need of change?

The Obama Administration has done well in trying to reduce the prominence of the military dimension in American foreign policy. But there is much farther to go. Our military spending has still not been reduced nearly as much as it could be. The United States faces no fundamental military threat, and seldom has a country enjoyed this position.

We need to complete the job of disengaging from Afghanistan. Why we are following the foolhardy, centuries-old example of getting bogged down in this country is beyond me. In Iraq, we were wrong to go in. So I certainly support Obama on his withdrawal. I’d like to see the same in Afghanistan as soon as possible.

The Obama Administration has also adopted a more systematic approach to terrorism. The Bush Administration understandably reacted strongly to a terrorist attack, but terrorism as a threat to American interests was greatly exaggerated in those years—we overacted to an absurd extent. Terrorists are a disruption. But they cannot threaten the vital interests of a major power. They can do significant local damage and are dramatic, sensational, and capitalize on surprise. Their long-run implications are small, however. The reaction of the Bush Administration to terrorism was unsurprising because we had very little experience with international terrorism. But the Obama Administration has adopted a somewhat more level-headed policy—a sign of increased wisdom that comes with several years of experience with what this phenomenon is all about. This level-headedness has been a characteristic of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy in general.

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