Jacques E. C. Hymans

Jacques E. C. Hymans


Your new book seeks to explain why nuclear weapons programs have become increasingly inefficient and unsuccessful in the decades since the five initial nuclear weapons states acquired their arsenals. What do you argue is the major reason this has occurred?

It’s striking that this technology of the 1940s continues to pose such a great technical challenge to so many states. The international community has developed a battery of export controls, safeguards and inspections that aim to keep the bomb from spreading further, and in my book I acknowledge that these efforts have had an impact in recent years. But the most important reason for the great proliferation slowdown is to be found inside the proliferant states themselves. Most of the dedicated nuclear weapons projects up to the 1960s were highly efficient because they were run by relatively well-institutionalized states, whose legal-rational bureaucratic cultures encouraged the nuclear scientists and engineers to work at a high professional level. By contrast, since around 1970 most attempts to build the bomb have been made by poorly institutionalized “neo-patrimonial” states, whose authoritarian and politicized bureaucratic cultures stifle scientific and technical professionalism. Therefore, even though they have often found ways around the nonproliferation regime, most dedicated nuclear weapons projects since the 1970s have been inefficient or even outright failures. Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam’s Iraq are two clear examples of this pattern.

Two cases you use to test your theory in the book are Maoist China and Saddam’s Iraq. While both were highly totalitarian states, their nuclear trajectories proceeded quite different. Specifically, Beijing’s nuclear weapons program was astonishingly successful while Baghdad’s was a remarkable failure. Why?

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Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons project of the 1980s is often portrayed as a proliferation near-miss, but in fact it was a debacle.  Iraq’s nuclear scientists and engineers were never secure in their positions, so instead of coming together to build the bomb, they divided into warring factions that worried more about creating the appearance of technical progress than the reality of it.  And these unproductive tendencies became ever more pronounced over time. By contrast, the scientists and engineers in China’s nuclear weapons project of the mid 1950s-early 1960s were generally protected from the vagaries of politics, and therefore they were able to perform collectively at a very high level.

The key to understanding the divergent nuclear experiences of these two states is to recognize the differences in their respective political structures. In Iraq, Saddam was the state, pure and simple. Therefore, Iraqi scientists had no protection from his moods and whims.  In China, by contrast, the Communist Party-State was a genuine institution that was intermittently able to constrain Mao’s tyrannical tendencies—until his final victory in the mid 1960s Cultural Revolution.  Once Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, politics took precedence over science, and the nuclear program quickly deteriorated. It ultimately took about a decade after Mao’s death in 1975 for the Chinese to set things straight and start achieving significant technical progress again.

You have earned something of a reputation as someone who turns the conventional wisdom on its head. One instance of this in Achieving Nuclear Ambitions is your argument that foreign nuclear assistance at best only marginally advances a state’s nuclear weapons program, and in many cases might actually undermine it. From this conclusion do you think policymakers have been too much emphasis on international regimes like the Nuclear Suppliers Group that aim to deny potential proliferators access to nuclear technology? If so, how might these resources be employed more effectively?

A well-run nuclear weapons project can benefit very much from foreign assistance. The U.S. Manhattan Project is a great example. But analysts wrongly assume that if even the U.S. benefited so much from foreign help, then less well-endowed states would surely benefit even more. In fact, poorly run nuclear programs are less capable of taking advantage of foreign assistance, and they can even be undermined by the experience.

Take the case of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia’s nuclear scientists and engineers treasured the international connections that they made through various Western countries’ Atoms for Peace initiatives. These people became very nervous about participating in a weapons project that, if exposed, would have ruined their reputation and cut them off from the global scientific community. The scientific and technical workers’ reluctance was a key reason why Tito’s nuclear ambitions ended up going nowhere.

The example of Yugoslavia does not invalidate the utility of international controls on sensitive technology, but it should lead us to think twice before adopting controls that seriously impede normal scientific and commercial exchange. We need to recognize that globalization does not doom the cause of nonproliferation, and indeed that encouraging some kinds of globalization can actually promote the cause. Overall, Atoms for Peace has done what it was meant to do.  Those who want to curtail it risk cutting off their nose to spite their face.

Another country you briefly examine in the book and elsewhere is North Korea. Recently, a current senior analyst and a former director of Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory co-authored a piece warning that Pyongyang might conduct a third nuclear test as quickly as two weeks from August 6. More controversially, they also contended, “Although we have seen no direct evidence of a highly enriched uranium (HEU)production program  in North Korea, judging from the available evidence, we think the next bomb test will be based on HEU [The Diplomat note: the first two were believed to be plutonium based].” Do you believe there is any merit to this or is it more likely another case of “nuclear alarmism?”

It’s impossible to know precisely what goes on inside North Korea, but there is plenty of reason to believe that historically, the Kim family regime’s authoritarian management style has greatly slowed the country’s progress toward the bomb.  After at least 30—but probably more like 50—years of trying, North Korea has only gotten so far as to demonstrate a bare minimum, non-weaponized nuclear explosive capacity.  Even according to the report that you cite in your question, Pyongyang still does not possess a genuine, operational nuclear weapons arsenal.

Given North Korea’s very inefficient nuclear progress to date, including its embarrassing recent “space launch” fiasco, it seems imprudent to assume that the country has produced a significant HEU stockpile before they prove that they have it.  I say imprudent, because nonproliferation policies based on worst-case scenarios are far from cost-free. The consistent U.S. pattern from the early 1990s up to the present has been to overestimate North Korean nuclear attainments. These overestimates have led Washington and its allies to provide significant economic and other forms of assistance to the Kim regime, which may well have kept it alive long enough to produce the measly nuclear capability that it now has. In short, our fear of a North Korean bomb has become something close to a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Today the proliferation case receiving the most attention is obviously Iran, which you addressed in the book as well as an article in Foreign Affairs. One of the most widely held concerns people have about Iran potentially acquiring a nuclear weapon is that this will induce neighboring countries like Egypt, Turkey, or Saudi Arabia to acquire their own arsenals. Based on your theory and the current state of these three countries nuclear programs do you see any of them as a viable concern in terms of their ability to build nuclear weapons?

Iran’s pace of nuclear progress has been very slow—and it might be moving even more slowly if only Israel (with tacit backing from the U.S.) would stop trying to assassinate Iranian scientists and threatening to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran’s slow-motion nuclear program has been going on for so long, however, that it has finally gotten to the intermediate stage of enriching uranium up to the 20 percent level. This is surely worrisome, although still, for bombs, you need to enrich uranium up to 90 percent or higher, and taking this further step from 20 to 90 percent enrichment is not nearly as easy as many pundits claim.

Now, if Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other states in the region were to decide to build the bomb in response to Iran, they would be starting essentially from scratch, with state structures that can also be generally characterized as neo-patrimonial. In other words, to get the bomb Iran’s neighbors would probably need to work hard for at least a decade, and more likely two or three. That long prospective timeline also means that if they were to decide to build it, there would be plenty of opportunity for the U.S. and the international community to find out about their intentions and to work on them diplomatically.

But I also question the widespread assumption that the birth of a nuclear-armed Iran would require other regional powers even to try to go nuclear in response.  Iran’s neighbors haven’t shown much real interest in nuclear research up to this point, despite facing the provocation of a potentially nuclear Iran—and the even greater provocation of an actually nuclear Israel.  The fact is that most state leaders around the world, including in the Middle East, think that attempting to build the bomb would be much more trouble than it’s worth.  Indeed, looking at Iran’s unhappy nuclear experience to date, one would be hard pressed to come to any other conclusion.

In recent weeks there has been, not for the first time of course, a fair amount of discussion about the merits of nuclear weapons in both Japan and South Korea. Given the findings in your book, do you think we should be more worried about the potential for these countries to acquire nuclear weapons instead of focusing so heavily on some of the more underdeveloped neo-patrimonial regimes’ nuclear aspirations?

For a state to build the bomb, it needs both a strong top-down political intention to do so, and a strong technical and organizational capacity to implement that intention.  The world is fortunate that the states that have sought the bomb in recent decades have been among the least likely to be able to follow through on their intentions.

Highly advanced states such as Japan and South Korea are in a different category.  For them, the question of “will they or won’t they” really does boil down to political intentions.  So in a sense, yes, these states are more dangerous than the states that have been typically cited as proliferation dangers in recent years.  As I detailed in the Fall 2011 issue of the journal International Security, however, there are extraordinarily high domestic legal and institutional barriers to any Japanese prime minister who might try to “go nuclear.”  Moreover, the large number of institutionalized proliferation “veto players” that we can identify in the Japanese case have parallels in most highly developed, democratic non-nuclear weapon states.  The U.S. would be wise to take advantage of the current 123 negotiations with South Korea to encourage the further institutionalization of domestic South Korean veto players with sufficient interest and independence to block a future occupant of the Blue House from taking a sudden swerve toward the bomb.

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