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When Proliferation Causes Peace: The Psychology of Nuclear Crises, Michael D. Cohen

Reviewed by Terence Roehrig


Though nuclear weapons have been in existence for over 70 years, scholars and analysts continue to struggle to understand the dynamics associated with these weapons. Why do states acquire nuclear weapons? What types of nuclear doctrines do established and new nuclear states adopt? What utility do nuclear weapons have for state security?

Two questions have received less treatment: how do nuclear weapons affect the foreign policies of new nuclear weapons states, and what does this tell us about the dangers of nuclear proliferation? Michael D. Cohen has written an excellent book that begins to answer these questions. Using cognitive psychology, Cohen argues, “Leaders of new nuclear powers tend to authorize assertive foreign policies and accept the risk of nuclear escalation until those leaders experience fear of imminent nuclear war themselves” (p. 12). Thus, once the initial period passes and new nuclear leaders experience firsthand the terrifying prospect of nuclear war, nuclear proliferation becomes less dangerous. Cohen presents a persuasive argument that this nuclear path is not static and evolves as leaders learn from their experiences as a nuclear weapons state.

After laying out the theoretical framework in Chapter 2, the next three chapters examine case studies that provide empirical evidence for his argument. Chapter 3 chronicles how Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev adopted an aggressive foreign policy concerning Berlin and Cuba after 1959 when the Soviet Union developed nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach the United States. However, Khrushchev's policy became more restrained after he personally experienced the fear of nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

In Chapter 4, Cohen provides a similar assessment of Pakistan's behavior. After acquiring an operational nuclear capability, Pakistan's foreign policy toward India became more assertive. In particular, from 1998 to 2002, Pervez Musharraf pushed a more aggressive posture that escalated with the 1999 Kargil operation, and tensions increased further with the 2001–2002 crisis. India's military mobilization, including the deployment of three offensive strike corps, provided a personal and terrifying experience for Musharraf of a possible imminent nuclear war with India that prompted a more restrained Pakistani foreign policy thereafter. Chapter 5 presents four additional, concise case studies on President John F. Kennedy (1960s), Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1999–2003), President Richard M. Nixon (1969–1974), and Mao Zedong (1969–1970) that furnish further support for his argument.

Cohen provides a detailed, well-researched, and structured analysis of crucial questions regarding the dangers of nuclear proliferation. Leaders become less assertive once they have a personal experience that transcends other factors and the cost-benefit calculations of rational assessments. While the result may be a peaceful outcome that has leaders adopting less assertive foreign policies, the crisis required to provide that personal experience could be a disaster and just as easily lead to a nuclear conflagration. The aptly titled concluding chapter, “If You Can Get through This Period,” provides a deft analysis of how Cohen's arguments apply to future proliferation problems such as North Korea and Iran. In applying this argument to the current proliferation dilemma in North Korea, has Kim Jong-un had his personal, fear-laden experience with nuclear conflict, or is that yet to occur? Cohen believes we are still waiting, but time will tell if perhaps the events of 2017–2018 with the Donald Trump administration's threats of “fire and fury” and “locked and loaded” will suffice. Cohen's book provides a valuable framework and assessment for understanding the impact of nuclear weapons on leaders and the foreign policies they choose. It is essential reading for understanding the difficult and complex problem of nuclear proliferation.

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