The United States and Nuclear Proliferation: An Undergraduate Course

10 Sep
Above: Donald Trump, noted non-proliferation theorist and proponent of sane of foreign policy positions.

Above: Donald Trump, noted non-proliferation theorist and proponent of sane foreign policy positions.

With debate about the Iranian nuclear deal still raging and everyone and their dog expressing an opinion (no matter how ill-informed, reactionary, or just plain stupid it might be), my new undergraduate course is alarmingly well-timed.

This year, I’m offering a new 4MA (fourth year honours, full year) course entitled The United States and the Problem of Nuclear Proliferation, 1945-2015 (hereafter USPNP). An outgrowth of my research interests and doctoral work, USPNP is my first attempt at a year-long course for the undergraduates in their final year. The class is relatively small (12-15 students) and there will have an intense focus on discussing and debating primary, secondary, and theoretical materials.

Other than contemporary relevance, though, what’s the point of this? Firstly, I firmly believe that in order to make sense of the proliferation challenges of today we must understand the history of anti-proliferation activity. As the foremost power acting in this area, it makes sense to focus on the United States. That’s not to say other states don’t matter, far from it. My own research decentralises proliferation history and examines the significance of the British contribution in the 1970s. However, it would be foolish to say that the United States since 1945 has not – in a significant number of cases – been the pre-eminent non-proliferation force or has been the pre-eminent force acting to aid and abet (frequently clandestinely) proliferation amongst a select group of countries.

Secondly, non-proliferation policy provides a lens through which we can analyse wider US foreign policy during the Cold War and after. It’s totally uncontroversial and unsurprising to state that proliferation policy has been, is, and will continue to be, tied up with a wider constellation of foreign policy priorities and aims. By studying non-proliferation policy, we can examine wider issues of state to state relations, conventional arms sales, human rights, technology transfer, religion, gender, race, technological utopianism, and notions of hierarchy.

Thirdly, and finally, US non-proliferation policy is deeply, deeply interesting on a whole range of levels. Personally, I still find the way in which successive leaders, officials, and thinkers have assessed the ‘problem’ of proliferation fascinating. Why do some states get to have the bomb and others don’t? Why do policymakers think that certain people (or groups of people) are more likely to use the bomb if they get it? These are just a couple of the basic questions that always get asked, but for me they are still provocative and worthy of debate.

The course begins with a class reflecting on theoretical perspectives. In a shock move, we start by looking at the Waltz-Sagan debate. Yes, yes, I hear the cries of awe and astonishment emanating from the audience. Still, despite the fact that this has been done countless times before, examining these perspectives provides firm foundation. We then move on to the actual history, beginning with the Manhattan Project, then through the Baruch Plan, to Atoms for Peace, the MLF/ANF, the NPT, and beyond. There are also many classes focusing on country-based case studies: The USSR, the UK, France, West Germany, Israel, India, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea, and Iran to name but a few. Finally, there are also classes looking at other proliferation concerns: the technology of the gas centrifuge, the A Q Khan network, and the rise of so-called ‘nuclear terrorism’.

As with any new course, there will doubtless be issues and imperfections. Overall, though, I’m very excited to be teaching this, looking forward to meeting the students, and curious about how it will all pan out.


The detailed structure of the course is as follows:

Semester One

  1. Introduction
  2. Theoretical debates
  3. Non-proliferation in the early Cold War
  4. Atoms for Peace
  5. France
  6. The Nth Country Problem
  7. JFK, LBJ, and Multilateralism
  8. China
  9. LBJ and Nixon: Creating the Non-proliferation Regime
  10. The Gas Centrifuge
  11. Israel

Semester Two

  1. India
  2. Jimmy Carter and the Quest for Non-proliferation
  3. Pakistan
  4. Nuclear Intelligence Gathering
  5. Taiwan and Brazil
  6. South Africa
  7. The A Q Khan Network
  8. Nuclear Terrorism
  9. Iraq, 1991 to 2003
  10. North Korea
  11. Iran

One Response to “The United States and Nuclear Proliferation: An Undergraduate Course”


  1. Nuclear Terrorism in the Modern Seminar Room | theatomicage -

    […] Of course, I don’t actually agree with A Q Khan’s self-aggrandising nuclear proliferation motives. The idea of an ‘Islamic bomb’ is complicated and multilayered.(1) And I don’t support the use of nuclear weapons by anyone. But, I will be making ‘controversial’ statements in order to stir up debate and provoke discussion in my seminars for The United States and the Conundrum of Nuclear Proliferation. […]

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