Japan and the Bomb

I’ll be using this blog to post any interesting excerpts from academic papers that wouldn’t be of interest elsewhere. So, as a start:

Jacques Hymans has a fascinating paper [PDF] in International Security, titled Veto Players, Nuclear Energy, and Nonproliferation: Domestic Institutional Barriers to a Japanese Bomb. He makes a strong case that domestic institutions shape how easily a state can make the policy decision to acquire nuclear weapons.

Many observers have suggested it’d take Japan six months to weaponize; a more accurate estimate seems to be several years. In any case, Hymans’ argument is that:

Scholars often point to the acquisition of sensitive, dual-use nuclear technologies as evidence that a state is, at the very least, starting to warm up for a transcendental decision to get nuclear weapons. It is certainly true that states do sometimes engage in nuclear hedging strategies. Yet the historical institutionalist, veto players perspective raises the possibility that what may appear at first glance to be nuclear hedging is actually merely the legacy of past choices combined with contemporary policy rigidity—and if this is the case, then the proliferation implications can be quite benign. (p156)

“Veto players” is a longstanding and widely used concept in political science, but not an awful lot in International Relations specifically. It refers [PDF] to domestic political actors whose acquiescence is necessary to a policy change – in this case, turning a peaceful nuclear program into a military one:

my point in this article is that when the nuclear policymaking arena contains a large number of entrenched veto players, they all need to agree before a nuclear weapons project can be set in motion. This dramatically lowers the chances of such action occurring. Ceteris paribus, the more veto players, the less likely the decision to seek nuclear weapons. (p155)

In Japan, a combination of a weak executive, powerful local and prefectural administrations, a strong private sector which has much to lose from becoming a nuclear pariah, and an increasingly autonomic Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) have all combined so that “the country’s traditional nuclear policy orientation has become extremely difficult to change—and next to impossible to change quickly or quietly” (p161).

Hymans also makes note of

 a very important point about Japan’s nuclear proliferation potential that is missed by many Western analysts. Although “Japan” has a great deal of plutonium, most of this plutonium is actually the property of private corporations: Japan’s electrical utilities. Indeed, in a spectacular demonstration of their property rights, the utilities decided in the mid-1970s to contract out the task of reprocessing to Britain and France. Therefore, to this day, the vast majority of “Japan’s” plutonium is still located in Europe: at least 24 tons out of Japan’s total separated plutonium stockpile of about 35 tons. Japan’s European plutonium has started to come back, but only very slowly in light of the technical, security, and political challenges of transporting such a sensitive material. (p170)

In fact,

only about 2 tons—roughly 5 percent of the total plutonium stockpile—is actually owned by the state and present inside the country, and therefore somewhat more worrisome from a nonproliferation perspective. Granted, 2 tons of plutonium is still a lot. By way of comparison, North Korea has been able to blackmail the international community with only a few kilograms of the material. (p186)

And “industrial-scale fuel reprocessing” , which would be required to build up a stockpile of plutonium for military purposes, “is not currently possible in Japan” or a long while.

How might all this apply to Iran? In a separate unpublished paper, Hymans argues that Iranian politics is too fragmented to preserve “nuclear opacity” (as Israel has done), and that it’d probably test a weapon as soon as it had one. But his arguments about that fragmentation might also be read in the context of veto-players:

Iranian politics remainshighly factionalized. There are multiple power centers in Iranian politics and Iran‘s byzantine institutional structure results in a tremendous degree of jurisdictional overlap between institutions and offices. In addition, political power is not entirely formalized in Iran. The interaction of these unique political components in the Iranian regime creates a situation where competition for political power is not fully contained within the institutional structure of the Islamic Republic. In other words, political competition is not just for certain offices that already have proscribed powers, but competition among ill-defined institutions for greater influence. (p20)

This broadly accords with expert accounts of nuclear decision-making in Iran. Of course, the issue is not just the strength of veto-players but whether they favor restraint (as in Japan) or weaponization. That is something that remains in intense dispute.

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