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  • Understanding the Strategic Culture of Nuclear Decisions
  • Cameron Chansong Lee (bio)
Review of Jeannie L. Johnson, Kerry M. Kartchner, and Marilyn J. Maines, eds., Crossing Nuclear Thresholds: Leveraging Sociocultural Insights into Nuclear Decisionmaking (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Strategic culture analysis is not new in foreign policymaking circles. George Kennan's "Long Telegram" to Secretary of State James Byrnes on February 22, 1946 highlighted an "instinctive Russian sense of insecurity" arising from the traditional identity of "a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on [a] vast exposed plain in [a] neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples."1,2 According to Kennan, "Marxist dogma, rendered even more truculent and intolerant by Lenin's interpretation," became a useful ideological tool for Soviet leaders to demand sacrifices from people to fight against an "outside world," which the Soviets characterized as "evil, hostile and menacing."3,4,5 In this context, it was clear that the Soviet regime highly valued the maximum development of military and industrial strength while constantly seeking ways to expand its power.6 Thus, US containment policy was born out of strategic culture analysis.

The culture-based approach to strategic analysis increasingly captured the attention of academics in the early 1990s. Constructivists seized on the chance to challenge the previous rationalist paradigms when a stunned international community observed the identity transformation of former Communist regimes after the fall of the Soviet Union. The spread of global norms such as concern about climate change and human rights, coupled with the growing importance of public diplomacy, strengthened this trend.

The book, Crossing Nuclear Thresholds: Leveraging Sociocultural Insights into Nuclear Decisionmaking, uniquely contributes to the established strategic culture literature in two ways. First, the previous literature, which focused on state-based cultural analysis, had deficiencies in accounting for gradual changes in national behavior.7 In Crossing Nuclear Thresholds, the authors instead try to explain the dynamics of change by presuming the existence [End Page 197] of competing sub-national narratives and analyzing emerging dynamics that may influence nuclear decision-making. Second, the book presents an innovative, practical model of strategic culture analysis: the Cultural Topography Analytic Framework (CTAF). This model can be thought of as a constructivist operational manual for the study of proliferation. CTAF suggests five interconnected steps in order to isolate "the key identity factors, norms, values, and perceptions of state actors contemplating crossing a nuclear threshold," and to design "a tailored set of foreign policy levers that interlocutors can use to impact or influence that decision."8

Regretfully, none of the case studies in the book faithfully follow the CTAF format due to a lack of sufficient data on key nuclear actors and relevant cultural factors affecting them, ranging from ethnicity to organizational and national cultures. Considering the secrecy surrounding contemporary nuclear aspirants and the highly veiled nature of the nuclear weapons business in general, researchers' ability to access relevant cultural data for key actors is severely limited without support from the intelligence community. In fact, the prototype of the CTAF model was originally developed by the CIA. How can civilian analysts look inside Iran's Supreme National Security Council or Kim Jong-un's innermost circle? Most contributors to the volume had to rely on open sources, such as media outlets.

In addition, the concept of "nuclear threshold" is overstretched by including all behaviors related to nuclear weapons, thus weakening the model's internal validity. The CTAF purports to help researchers identify "the specific stage of the nuclear weapons development timeline a country of concern has already reached or the next specific nuclear threshold(s) to be crossed."9 However, six nuclear thresholds defined by the book—acquisition of nuclear weapons or capability, nuclear norm violation, nuclear counter-proliferation, proliferation and transfer of nuclear weapons, operational deployment of nuclear weapons, and use of nuclear weapons—are not in-kind, thus making a sequential arrangement impossible for some thresholds. For example, nuclear norm violation, proliferation to other states, or counter-proliferation policies can occur at any time on the spectrum.

One fundamental issue requires further discussion. Strategic culture analysis assumes that all states are endowed with cultural identities that influence their strategic behaviors. But, how much does that matter? The various authors...


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pp. 197-200
Launched on MUSE
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