Mark S. Bell. Nuclear Reactions: How Nuclear-Armed States Behave. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs Series. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2021. Illustrations. 234 pp. Free (open access), ISBN 978-1-5017-5418-0; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5017-5416-6.
Reviewed by Dustin Vance (Air University, Air War College)
Published on H-War (May, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
In this book, Mark S. Bell uses historical examples to analyze nuclear weapons’ relevance and their effects on foreign policy, beyond simply deterrence. At the most basic level, Bell argues that countries become either more aggressive or, in some cases, more peaceful after acquiring nuclear weapons. Both options lead policymakers to debate a variety of political and military strategies. More specifically, Bell argues that the theory of nuclear revolution, whereby states become more secure as nuclear weapons provide a largely defensive advantage, and other theories are insufficient to explain when and why states use nuclear weapons. Bell states that “nuclear weapons can facilitate a broad range of foreign policy behaviors that states may find attractive” and specifies when states are likely to use nuclear weapons to facilitate different combinations of these behaviors (p. 5). It is important to note that Bell is not arguing that nuclear weapons change states’ goals; rather, he notes that acquiring nuclear weapons grants them more freedom to pursue their preexisting political goals. All these ideas coalesce into Bell’s theory of nuclear opportunism.
Bell outlines six key foreign policy behaviors nuclear weapons can facilitate, which are self-explanatory: aggression, expansion, independence, bolstering, steadfastness, and compromise. He then offers his theory of nuclear opportunism to explain why different states use nuclear weapons to facilitate different combinations of these key behaviors. This theory is intentionally simplified to three main circumstantial factors to provide a foundation for future work and to offer an alternative to the theory of nuclear revolution while making a “different judgement about how states respond to the security that nuclear weapons provide” (p. 7).
In context, Bell offers benefits and mechanisms of acquiring nuclear weapons, which enable a state to pursue its goals. One is the threat of escalation or use of nuclear weapons to make an adversary think twice about potential costs it is willing to bear for escalation. Conversely, having nuclear weapons may lower costs for the owning state, inhibiting intervention from unfriendly third countries while inviting friendly third country intervention. Third, acquiring nuclear weapons may free up resources, allowing the state to engage in foreign policy behaviors it might otherwise be unable to afford. Fourth are bureaucratic and domestic aspects of acquiring nuclear weapons; those who advocate for nuclear weapons may then pursue other goals, intentionally leveraging nuclear weapons as part of the strategy to demonstrate their utility. Fifth, Bell explores psychological and identity mechanisms, such as prestige and technological esteem, associated with acquiring nuclear weapons. Lastly, Bell points out that countries which pursue and acquire nuclear weapons are not accidental, as the process requires significant financial, political, and other costs.
Bell uses three historical examples to test his theory: the United Kingdom, South Africa, and the United States. He also draws on interviews with retired military and political elites for the South African case. He offers several ways this historical approach strengthens his argument, including methodology it affords capturing evidence from discussions and writings of elites to bolster confidence in the idea that acquiring nuclear weapons affects behaviors, because the way leaders think about nuclear weapons reflects on his theory. Second, Bell opines that a large dataset, though it can offer some insight, does not allow for specific, observable implications of the theory of nuclear opportunism. By choosing these three countries in particular, he hopes to provide hard cases to prove his theory. He also chose cases with sufficient available documents or interviews for evidentiary support. For the UK case, Bell counters international relations theories that expect a status quo, democratic, powerful state with a nuclear-armed patron to neither need nuclear weapons nor see acquisition of nuclear weapons significantly affect its foreign policy. His theory of nuclear opportunism, on the other hand, anticipates the UK using nuclear weapons to facilitate independence from the United States, bolstering its own allies, and maintaining steady response to any challenges. Bell’s study of South Africa also indicates several reasons nuclear weapons should, according to other theories, have had a limited effect on South Africa’s foreign policy. South Africa had a stronger military than its neighbors and a status quo preference, despite issues of the apartheid regime. Indeed, South Africa, at that time, was preoccupied with maintaining its established state institutions, notwithstanding internal and external pressures. Unlike other theories, Bell’s theory of nuclear opportunism accounts for how ongoing war in Angola combined with the potential for Soviet intervention in South Africa to push South Africa to use nuclear weapons for both aggressive and steadfast behavior in the face of these threats. Lastly, Bell studies US behavior during and after World War II. He suggests that the theory of nuclear opportunism would predict US use of nuclear weapons to facilitate aggression against Japan and Germany, but the war in Europe ended by the time it acquired them. Bell likewise argues that his theory predicts that a postwar United States, not facing other threats and rising in power, would then use nuclear weapons to bolster new alliances, existing allies, and overall world position.
Overall, this book explores the idea that nuclear weapons acquisition is not merely about deterrence but also about foreign policy. Bell starts by pointing out that his theory is kept simple in order to simplify its implications; however, as he builds his argument, the idea this can be simple or clear-cut quickly derails, as subtext and supporting ideas multiply. Even Bell points out that supporting precepts mingle and diverge across nation-states and conditions, thus turning his argument for his theory of nuclear opportunism into a much more complex concept than he initially implies. While the historical examples he offers are arguably consistent with his theory, the multitude of possible combinations across behaviors and mechanisms can make it difficult to test his theory in hypothetical or future scenarios, as no two are the same. Still, it provides a unique and relatively simple way to examine foreign policy implications for countries acquiring nuclear weapons and may set a good starting point for those analyzing past, present, and future implications for other potential nuclear powers.
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Dustin Vance. Review of Bell, Mark S., Nuclear Reactions: How Nuclear-Armed States Behave.
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