When Looking at Nuclear Action, Look at Leaders, Argues Nunn School Professor

Posted December 8, 2021

In 2002, the world learned that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. That same year, the United States led the charge to confront Iraq’s alleged nuclear weapons program. However, despite the neighboring countries presenting seemingly similar situations, the United States only intervened militarily in Iraq. In 2007, the Israeli government did something similar, bombing what was at the time a secret Syrian nuclear reactor and foregoing an attack on Iran.

This discrepancy in where the two countries used force piqued Rachel Whitlark’s interest. A first-year graduate student in the fall of 2007, Whitlark decided to write her dissertation on why countries choose to intervene — or not intervene — in response to nuclear proliferation from others. Now, 14 years later, Whitlark is an assistant professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs who recently published a book on the subject called All Options on the Table: Leaders, Preventive War, and Nuclear Proliferation.

Alongside Associate Professor Jenna Jordan, Whitlark leads one of the Nunn School’s three core areas of focus: international security. This focus area explores the drivers and consequences of emerging technologies for issues related to conflict, cooperation, and governance in international security. The Nunn School offers a one-year master’s degree in international security. (The deadline to apply for Fall 2022 is Jan. 15, 2022.)

Whitlark’s book provides a new perspective on such international security issues with a renewed focus on the thinking of world leaders and their role in the nuclear and military decision-making process. Whitlark says that this approach had fallen out of favor in much of the scholarship on the issue, which instead has focused on international structures or military factors. Comparing cases from Presidents Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, H.W. Bush, Clinton, and W. Bush, as well as exploring the decision-making of several Israeli prime ministers, Whitlark argues that a leader’s personal beliefs are the driving force behind a state’s counter-proliferation policies.

“We need to bring leaders back into the literature and focus on the role that they're playing in international politics and security, particularly in all things nuclear,” Whitlark said. “Leaders matter for proliferation decisions, counter proliferation decisions, and a whole host of other things.”

Much of Whitlark’s evidence comes from archives, namely the presidential libraries of those she uses in her case studies. For example, she traces Kennedy’s foreign policy preferences from his Harvard draft thesis to the articles he publishes after his World War II service in the U.S. Navy to his decision-making as president. She then pieces together a picture of how and why Kennedy made the decisions that he did in regard to nuclear proliferation and compares it to the logics driving his successor, Johnson.

Whitlark also compares the decision-making environments in the United States and Israel to each other. While the size and systems of government differ greatly, what she finds is that the two countries aren’t so different in their approach to preventive war decisions. She argues that because Israeli prime ministers have such wide latitude when it comes to counter proliferation, the use of preventive military force is heavily influenced by the leader’s beliefs.

“The argument that I build and test first in the American context travels very well when talking about Israeli counter-proliferation decision-making,” Whitlark said.

Whitlark and Jordan are currently researching the strategies behind the assassination of nuclear scientists around the world, and Whitlark is working to unite nuclear energy and weapons modernization in more interdisciplinary, climate-change-focused conversations down the line. She hopes All Options on the Table helps to recenter the conversation on the role of leaders when it comes to nuclear decisions. She also hopes that people pay more attention to the influence that elected officials can have on their day-to-day lives.

“Who we elect matters,” she said. “Get involved in politics, and first and foremost, vote.”

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President John F. Kennedy delivers a radio and television address to the nation regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 1962. Credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston

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