Miller Center

Colloquium - Same as it ever was: Nuclear proliferation and lessons from the Cold War

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Professor Francis Gavin
November 7, 2008
12:30PM - 12:30PM (EST)

Professor Francis Gavin
Professor Francis Gavin

Professor Frank J. Gavin, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs at University of Texas, Austin.

Francis J. Gavin is the founding Director of Studies for the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law and the first Tom Slick Professor of International Affairs at Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is also the director of "The Next Generation Project – U.S. Global Policy and the Future of International Institutions," a multi-year national initiative sponsored by The American Assembly at Columbia University. Previously, he was an Olin National Security Fellow at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs, an International Security Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and a Research Fellow at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. His publications include numerous scholarly articles, book reviews and editorials. His book, Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 19581971, was published in 2004 by the University of North Carolina Press under their New Cold War History series.

Gavin is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

ABSTRACT for "Same as it Ever Was: Nuclear Proliferation and Lessons from the Cold War" Francis J. Gavin, LBJ School, University of Texas

There are two widely held propositions about nuclear proliferation and its effect on U.S. interests and policies. First, nuclear proliferation constitutes the gravest threat the United States faces today, it is worse than ever before, and we need new, more active policies to confront the problem. Second, while it is recognized that nuclear proliferation is not new, it is argued that there is little that the past – and particular, the history of the Cold War – can teach us about the dangers and possible policy solutions. According to this view, the nuclearized world before 9/11 – and even before 11/9 – was far more stable, safe and predictable. There are few meaningful lessons from the so-called "Long Peace" that can be applied to the complex and dangerous world we inhabit today.

Should these assessments simply be accepted at face value? Is nuclear proliferation more likely, more dangerous, and harder to solve than ever before? And is the history of nuclear issues during the Cold War irrelevant to today's discussions?

This essay will demonstrate that these claims about nuclear proliferation are overstated and at times flat out wrong. The flawed conventional wisdom relies on two, related misunderstandings of the past. First, it exaggerates the differences in the dynamics of nuclear politics between the pre and post 9/11 worlds, as well as exaggerating the differences post and pre 11/9 landscape. Second, these assessments are based on an oversimplified characterization of the Cold War and the effect nuclear weapons had on international relations during that period.

This article is divided into three parts. The first section lays out the arguments that nuclear proliferation is more dangerous and likely now than in the past. It will detail the explanations that purport to show the irrelevance of the Cold War period to current discussions about what policies are needed to confront nuclear proliferation. The second section will challenge these views by presenting a view of the history of postwar nuclear politics that is more nuanced and complex than the received wisdom. In particular, the notion of a "Long Peace" during the Cold War – a stable, predictable, and safer international order buttressed by bipolarity and nuclear deterrence – will be challenged. The third section will present the lessons of this new interpretation and suggest changes in how we think about nuclear non-proliferation policy. Finally, while the focus throughout this essay is on the dynamics of nuclear proliferation, the analysis will suggest lessons and connections between the Cold War and today on a wide range of important nuclear issues, including nuclear strategy, the nuclear balance and brinkmanship, basic and extended deterrence, and arms races and arms control.

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