Scholars Debate US Policy Toward Emerging Nuclear Powers


The Alexander Hamilton Society’s event entitled “Fire and Fury: U.S. Policy Toward Emerging Nuclear Powers” was Georgetown at its best. Preeminent scholars, engaged in vigorous intellectual debate about the nuances of US policy toward rogue regimes and rising nuclear powers assessed, applauded and assailed American strategy across administrations from evidently different ideological perspectives.

Dr. Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, seemed eminently critical of the Obama Administration’s embrace of diplomacy with Iran. After insinuating that differing “intellectual histories” may have provided Iran with its own unique take on diplomacy as “asymmetric warfare to tie down [American] hands while they advance,” Rubin outlined a multifaceted approach with a military dimension for impeding Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Dr. David Edelstein, a Vice Dean for Georgetown College and an associate professor of international affairs, pushed back on some of Ruben’s more hawkish rhetoric, declaring “diplomacy doesn’t have to imply complacency.”

Ultimately, one of the greatest points of contention between Rubin and Edelstein was the degree to which ideology existed and could play a role in Iran’s nuclear deployment decision-making process. For Edelstein, states’ pursuit of survival underpins international politics with few exceptions. In Iran’s “neighborhood,” there exist four nuclear powers: Pakistan, India, Russia, and Israel. It would be reasonable, Edelstein argued, for even a regime devoid of Iran’s ideological extremities to pursue nuclear weapons.

Rubin, for his part, was wary of discarding the survival imperative assumed to motivate the state but was eager to show its insufficiency in placating the idea of an Iranian nuclear threat. “I agree that the Islamic Republic isn’t suicidal, but what happens if Iran is terminally ill,” Ruben remarked.

Rubin’s succinct metaphor portrayed the threat of regime collapse in Iran as the precursor to an Iranian nuclear strike. After all, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – steeped in dogma and virulent anti-Americanism – are in control of Iran’s nuclear program and may not be beholden to the same constraints that exist in the international system.

Ruben’s attempts to underscore the importance of using military might when dealing with rogue regimes and Edelstein’s endorsement of diplomacy and deterrence reemerged when the moderator, Professor Matthew Kroenig, steered the conversation to North Korea. However, it was not simply arehash of the same-old talking points.

Rubin, for his part, played the part of provocateur when asked to solve the North Korean crisis by declaring the US goal should be “regime change” and that “maybe it’s time for Japan to rethink its nuclear weapons policy.” Akin to what some saw as a gaffe on the campaign trail made by then Candidate Trump, Ruben made it clear that the idea of arming Japan was around well before Trump proposed it.

Edelstein was more cautious, electing to challenge the policy on the grounds that it simply might not elicit the “intended response from China.” In Edelstein’s estimation, “deterrence can work” with North Korea and must be pursued.

However, Rubin and Edelstein – in possibly a nod to the decorum that has become emblematic of Alexander Hamilton Society events – underscored points of commonality throughout. Perhaps a passion for engaging, thoughtful discourse paired with shared fears of “fire and fury” trumped ideology.