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Reassuring Allies Helps Nuclear Nonproliferation

Article by Kate Oliver; Photos by MC1 Grant Ammon

Jeffrey KnopfCongratulations and farewell to National Security Affairs (NSA) faculty member, Jeffrey Knopf. Knopf recently had his edited book, “Security Assurances and Nuclear Nonproliferation,” published by Stanford University Press. He is also set to start at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) as chair of the Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies Program. Knopf’s new role will allow him to continue exploring nuclear nonproliferation, the topic discussed in his latest work.  

“This book originated out of a Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) workshop I organized in August of 2009,” said Knopf. “We wanted to explore the concept of security assurance and look at the effectiveness of assurances as a strategic tool in nuclear non-proliferation.”

The workshop was organized under the auspices of the Center on Contemporary Conflict (CCC), the research arm of NSA. The CCC regularly coordinates with DTRA on research related to reducing the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction. Nuclear nonproliferation has been of particular interest to Knopf.

In a strategy of assurance, Knopf explained, one state or group of states tries to alleviate another state’s concerns about a perceived threat to its security by taking steps to assure the other state that its security will not come to harm.

“Security assurances haven’t been as well researched as other nonproliferation strategies,” said Knopf. “A lot of people look down on assurance as a soft power measure, but our research has shown that when used in conjunction with other diplomatic tools it can be effective. This was the case in five of the seven cases we examined for the book. Only in Iran and North Korea have assurances proved ineffective.”

 “Assurances can be used both with allies who fear a threat from a third party and with potential adversaries who view one’s own state as a potential threat. Promises to come to the aid of a country that is threatened by a third party are called positive assurances, while pledges not to use one’s own weapons to threaten or harm another country are called negative assurances.

“This differs significantly from the other popular strategies used in nuclear non-proliferation negotiations, deterrence and coercion. Deterrence tries to stop states from obtaining nuclear weapons through threatening to enact sanctions or other negative strategies. Coercion tries to force nations to stop doing something they’ve already begun or to start something they’re resistant to, like dismantling an existing nuclear program for instance,” said Knopf.

 Deterrence can also be a part of assurance when a state extends its nuclear deterrent umbrella to cover an ally. This particular type of security guarantee has been important to some U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea.

 “I will caution that security assurances are not a panacea. There is no case where assurances by themselves have been the decisive factor; they are one ingredient in the mix,” said Knopf. “In Sweden, for example, assurances, combined with a growing domestic public support for nuclear disarmament, gave some of the more hawkish defense leaders the reassurance they needed to support giving up Sweden’s efforts to build nuclear weapons while still maintaining a strong national security stance.

“We also present cases in the book, like North Korea, where assurances were clearly not effective,” said Knopf. “The U.S. offered some pretty clear assurances that we had no hostile intent against North Korea, but they were not good enough to stop North Korea from pursuing a nuclear weapons program. In that instance, we were offering the wrong type of assurances. The Kim family wasn’t concerned with national security. They wanted a guarantee that they would be allowed to stay in power – essentially an assurance of domestic political security.”

“This is often the case in rogue states - they are more interested in regime survival and assurances they won’t be overthrown than in national security. Western democracies are reluctant to make those assurances because we find the regimes odious,” said Knopf.

Despite his pending move to MIIS, Knopf plans to continue collaborating with his colleagues at NSA, particularly on projects related to nonproliferation. He hopes to expand on this research to examine how the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal impacts the strength of U.S. security assurances.

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