The 2020 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the tenth such event, will be held from 27 April to 22 May in New York. One of the most important and controversial pillars of the global nuclear order will be evaluated there. The NPT was opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. Its ratification was a milestone in nuclear history and gradually developed into a centerpiece of the liberal international order. The NPT was the first joint international arms control treaty signed by the Soviet Union and the United States. With it, the Soviet government led by Leonid Brezhnev turned definitively away from demanding a complete ban on nuclear weapons, which had informed Soviet nuclear policy between 1946 and the mid-1960s. The NPT encompassed a threefold strategy that aimed first at preventing further proliferation, second at reducing existing arsenals, and third at the promotion of non-military nuclear technology under the condition of compliance with a safeguards system based on inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Julia Macdonald begins her review for this forum by pointing out that nuclear security studies has in the past decade undergone a “renaissance” in both political science studies and international history. Macdonald proceeds to note some of the most influential earlier studies by leading scholars such as Robert Jervis and Kenneth Waltz before discussing the newer studies which include the articles under review. Frank Gavin is one of the authors of an article under review as well as the author of Nuclear Statecraft; History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age, which has a broader focus than that of the forum but addresses the subject of proliferation and its role in U.S. grand strategy during the Cold War and into the Obama administration. As Macdonald emphasizes, the new studies significantly challenge some of the leading earlier works by demonstrating the importance of non-proliferation as a central objective in U.S. Cold-War strategy and the degree to which mutually assured destruction (MAD) did not necessarily contribute to “caution and stability among states, but instead can actually facilitate a range of different behaviors from compromise to aggression.”
Nic von Wielligh’s new book on the history of the South African nuclear project is a timely contribution to the on-going scholarly debate on why and how countries choose to develop, maintain and dismantle nuclear weapons programs. Since South Africa is the only country to date that has undergone a voluntary complete nuclear roll-back, its history is particularly important to scholars of nuclear proliferation, especially in the contemporary context of the debate surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and its trajectory. The author, nuclear physicist Nic von Wielligh, began his involvement in South Africa’s nuclear program in 1975, graduating into a managerial position in South Africa’s Atomic Energy Corporation a decade later. This unique position enabled von Wielligh, with the assistance of his daughter, Lydia von Wielligh-Steyn, to write the book from an insider’s perspective, revealing many previously unknown details and filling-in some much sought-after gaps in the literature on South Africa’s nuclear endeavour.
Last year, Scott Sagan declared – on H-Diplo – that we are in the midst of a renaissance in nuclear studies, driven by first-rate work by younger scholars. Two qualities in particular mark this scholarship. First, many of these young scholars combine both methodological innovation and rigor while engaging new archival sources. Second, these scholars are unafraid to challenge long-held conventional wisdoms about the nuclear age. The three commentators to this forum – a roundtable on Andreas Wenger and Roland Popp (eds.), “Special Issue: The Origins of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime,” in The International History Review — are exemplars of these trends. Eliza Gheorghe has mined new sources to explore the previously unknown and fascinating history of Romania’s nuclear program, in the process generating important insights into nuclear dynamics between superpowers and smaller states. Nicholas Miller has identified the key moments in United States nuclear nonproliferation policy, helping us understand the motivations and tools driving these efforts. Jane Vayman has built upon recent historical research to model the causal dynamics behind the surprising superpower collusion to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. As their previous work and their reviews here reveal, all three are equally conversant in the most recent historical scholarship and the newest trends in international relations theory involving nuclear dynamics.