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.
Important aide memoire for self: those subjects that you really, really know a lot about, have done extensively researched, and that you’ve produced scholarly work about. Those are the ones that are hardest to teach.
For this part of the course, we turned our gaze towards proliferation and the developing world. In particular, the West’s interactions with the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme. Which just so happens to be the subject of my doctoral thesis. The intent behind this was twofold: 1) to explore how the media influences perceptions about national (or what they perceive as transnational) nuclear programmes. 2) to explore attitudes towards national nuclear programmes within governments.
On June 5, I’m delighted to be attending the BISA Global Nuclear Order Working Group workshop Critical Perspectives on Nuclear Weapons (try saying that after a few beers). This is a great chance to engage in discussions about nuclear issues with some fantastic scholars from across the UK and beyond, looking at issues such as deterrence and disarmament, nuclear identity, and nuclear legitimacy.
As part of the research process, you often find interesting little snippets that, while not hugely significant themselves, form part of something bigger. On May 17, 1979, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin wrote a short letter to newly installed British leader Margaret Thatcher. His letter formed part of a wider popular outburst centred around the idea of an “Islamic bomb.” Although the idea of an “Islamic bomb” – an imagined nuclear weapon that transcends state boundaries and spans a transnational religious community – had come up in previous years, it was only in 1979 that the issue really burst into the consciousness of policymakers and the public.
The concept was founded in the rhetoric surrounding the Pakistani nuclear weapons programme. Indeed, it was the two markedly different Pakistani leaders Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Mohammed Zia ul-Haq who gave birth to the idea. But it was the Western (and to a lesser extent, Indian) media that really gave life to the notion that one Muslim state would automatically share the fruits of its nuclear labours with other Muslim states.
Nuclear history is chock full of the strange, the never-quite-adequately explained, and the conspiratorial.(1) A fascinating example of this is the September 1979 ‘Vela Incident.’ This is kind of vaguely related to my thesis work, as it impinges on nuclear proliferation (kind of.)
The Velas were a series of U.S. satellites designed to detect clandestine nuclear testing. They used what are known as ‘bhangmeters’ (plus a bunch of other uber-scientific doohickeys) to pick up the unique ‘double flash’ given off by a nuclear explosion. The satellite in question, Vela 6911, was over ten years old in September 1979. On the 22nd, it picked up a double flash in the South Atlantic, far, far away from any land (apart from the remote, French-owned Kerguelen Islands.) Heads were scratched on a global scale, committees were convened, much sweat poured forth.(2)