Michael KreponParanoids, Pygmies and Pariahs

We’d all be better off if Richard Betts wrote more often about proliferation. But he seems intent on pursuing high-quality, book-length projects on a wide range of topics, including surprise attack, war & peace, intelligence, and the Cold War.

My favorite Richard Betts article on proliferation appeared in Foreign Policy (Spring 1977) on paranoids, pygmies and pariahs, which he updated in a 1993 issue of Security Studies. Nations seek the Bomb, according to Richard, for two essential reasons: fear or ambition, or if you prefer, security or status.

Here’s a sampler:

Trying to coerce or buy off a power-happy state might well backfire; the desire for prestige is the desire not to be in a position of either victim or supplicant… Security-motivated candidates are the ones we should spend the most time worrying about. But here the problem is less what we can do than what we want to do.

There are no simple solutions that are feasible, no feasible solutions that are simple, and no solutions at all that are applicable across the board… There is no free lunch in nonproliferation policy; every effective measure has economic, political, or moral price tags.

Proliferation does not have a life of its own; it is a political problem as much as a technical one. Technological mystery, coinciding with international bipolarity, simply gave the United States a long period of grace in which it could afford to pay less attention to the political dimension.

With the disappearance of “technological mystery” and bipolarity, is there any wonder why new concerns about proliferation have arisen?

In a subsequent piece on proliferation (in Vic Utgoff, The Coming Crisis: Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Interests, and World Order, 2000), Richard labels proliferation optimists like Kenneth Waltz as “utopian realists” who argue that,

… nuclear weapons can produce the permanent peace that liberals have always believed in and realists have always said is impossible… Any theory that predicts, say, 90 percent of outcomes on some important matter is an amazingly good theory. The Waltz argument may be in that category… [but] one exception to the rule may be too many… The United States should act as if the utopian realists are wrong, but hope that they are right.

As for U.S. nonproliferation policy, Richard argues that,

For most of the nuclear era the priority that the United States placed on nonproliferation was high in principle but low in practice. Washington was always willing to promote nonproliferation when it did not have to short-change some other objective, but seldom did it prove willing to sacrifice other interests for the cause.

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