Through a crystal ball, dimly: nuclear modernization’s anticipated effects on International Relations theory

Nukes, crystal balls, and futures of theories

The ivory tower of academe may be intricate in nature, byzantine in design, and daedal in style, but it does not come equipped with a working crystal ball. Within the world of International Relations (IR) theory, predictions are hard, especially about the future. Rarely do we find theories that go beyond their descriptive, evaluative, and explanatory role to not only demonstrate a causal relationship, but attempt to make probabilistic or deterministic claims about the future. Even rarer is it to find scholarly work on how theory itself will evolve, unless some evidentiary fiat is so interesting that future-finding transcends the daydream and becomes a justifiable and warranted analytical exercise. The advent of the nuclear age undeniably was one such fiat, and nuclear modernization is another such directive, one that asks us to gaze into the future of how theory might respond to incremental changes in the empirical world. While we will not be able to predict the winding path theory will take, we will probe, explore, and plot out a road-map where theory development will likely find solid footing.

Kenneth Waltz, the father of modern International Relations theory, explicitly stated that, theory-making lies in looking for simplicities while taking a step back from reality.1 For years, International Relations theory has been aspiring to parsimony at the expense of empirically driven research and fine-grained theories with limited generalizability. The evolution of the discipline notwithstanding, compelling theoretical arguments about international phenomena are inextricably linked to empirical observations. Put differently, International Relations theory remains an empirically driven scientific proposition while the iterative nature and dialectical relationship between deductive and inductive theorizing is inescapable.

More specifically, and with regard to nuclear weapons and state relations, the current nuclear modernization efforts have the potential to bring about changes in the currently somewhat stale empirical realm of nuclear studies, and may even jolt novel, more general discussions about International Relations theoretical schools of thought and paradigms. This chapter is not concerned with an extensive or intensive analysis of the technological or policy implications of the ongoing and proposed future U.S. nuclear modernization plans. Instead, it is interested in

Through a crystal ball, dimly 125 providing an overview of what sort of effects nuclear modernization would bring about in International Relations theory.

Nuclear modernization then, as previous chapters have contextualized, is taken as a potential micro-driver of theoretical change and examined from that perspective. While the counter positive of this type of analytical reasoning, that of the outcomes of the double hermeneutical effect, i.e. when theory informs policy changes by affecting the mindset of the policy-maker, are amply determined, it is not unreasonable to expect new empirical evidence to generate theoretical changes as well. We examine this possibility.

In the first section of this chapter, we offer an overview of the main Cold War theories and the way they conceptualized the impact of nuclear weapons on state interactions. The second section explores ways the current U.S. modernization might impact traditional macro-level theories of International Relations and we, then, proceed by considering new evidence regarding middle-range theories and their potential re-consideration in the post-Cold War environment. The last section looks at some critical foreign policy questions such as the U.S.-China relationship and the impact of the U.S. modernization on theories of nonproliferation.

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