The Nuclear Arms Race Heats Back Up

March 27, 2014Matthew Kroenig, associate professor and international relations field chair in the Department of Government, remembers when he first became interested in foreign affairs. He was on a cruise ship—specifically, a Semester at Sea boat, which ferries college students all over the world.

While at sea, the ship docked in about a dozen ports of call, including Cuba, Kenya, and Japan. Following his graduation from college, Kroenig entered a graduate program at the University of California, Berkeley in 2001. He thought he’d go on to be a foreign service officer. But shortly after arriving on campus, the attacks of 9/11 happened. International terrorism against the United States quickly became a topic of great academic discussion. So too did the question: What if al-Qaida had nuclear weapons?

It was a question that led Kroenig to where he is today—a renowned expert on U.S. national security policy and strategy, nuclear deterrence and nonproliferation, counterterrorism, and Iran. Kroenig has served as special advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense through a Council on Foreign Relations fellowship, as well as a strategist for the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Kroenig is currently a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. His latest book, A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat, will be released in May. He recently took some time to talk about the book, U.S. policy on Iran, and nuclear armament in a post-Cold War era.

On why the nuclear discussion hasn’t seemed relevant over the past few decades: “I think there is a sense that a lot of people [think] that nuclear weapons are old news; it’s a Cold War story. They haven’t been that important in the last 20 years. The United States and Russia negotiated these nuclear arms control treaties, and our nuclear forces are much smaller than in the past.

“So somehow people project this line into the future and assume this is an issue that’s going away. I guess I see it very differently. I see nuclear weapons as the most potent military tools on earth. They’re an important instrument of a great power political competition. I think what we’ve had for the past 20 years is not that humanity has become more enlightened, but we’ve been blessed with this respite from great power political competition.”

On why nuclear weapons are back in the news: “Things are changing. Competition with Russia is heating up as we’re seeing in Crimea. China is becoming more assertive in East Asia. U.S. power by many measures is declining relative to these other states. People say we’re returning to a more multipolar world order. So as that happens, great power political competition is going to heat up, and nuclear weapons will once again become front and center.

“I think we do see that in Russia and China, who are placing more emphasis on their nuclear weapons, expanding the size of their arsenals [and] modernizing their arsenals. Iran is pursuing nuclear capability. North Korea, India, and Pakistan are arms racing. So I really think Northwest Washington, DC, and London are the only spots in the world where this idea of global zero and getting rid of nuclear weapons is still in style. I think the rest of the world is going in the other direction.”

On why countries like Iran are pursuing nuclear arms: “If you’re a country like Iran without nuclear weapons in an intense security situation—you have threats from Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, other states in the region—and you don’t have nuclear weapons, then getting into that mutually assured destruction situation is attractive. Right now [they] are vulnerable to conventional military threats, nuclear threats. But with nuclear weapons, you can then deter those threats to your national security.

“So in the case of Iran, that’s why they’re interested in nuclear weapons. They say their goals are two-fold—to be able to deter foreign attack, and they explicitly say their goal is to become the most dominant state in the region. So I think getting nuclear weapons helps them achieve both those things.”

On what should be done about Iran: “In my book, I present what is the mainstream establishment foreign policy point of view, which is that if we can solve this diplomatically, that would be by far the best option. We want to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. If we can do that through negotiations without having to use force, that would be ideal. But negotiations might not work out. President Obama has said there’s no better than a 50/50 chance that we can solve this diplomatically.

“If we can’t solve this diplomatically, that leaves us with two options—acquiescing and allowing Iran to have nuclear weapons or conducting a limited military strike. The stated position of the administration and the vast majority of members of Congress is that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable and we have to be prepared to use force if necessary to stop them. So I think that’s the right approach and that’s kind of what my book lays out—a diplomatic strategy to solve it, but then a military strategy if the diplomatic effort fails.”

—Lauren Ober