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Red Tape vs. Red Scare: The Bureaucratic Aversion to War and Iran

Red Tape vs. Red Scare: The Bureaucratic Aversion to War and IranIn last evening’s Republican Debate, the issue of Iran’s attempt to develop fissile material for a nuclear weapon was brought up as it has been in most of the previous debates. To be certain, this is neither a Republican nor Democratic issue, but one of national security. One candidate posited that instead of typical American saber-rattling, the U.S. should instead open a dialogue with Iran. After all he continued, we managed to avoid conflict with a nuclear Soviet Union throughout the entire Cold War. The main flaw in his argument is that not all governments have the same mindsets, often ingrained by state institutions. I submit that it is these institutions that actually prevent ideological conflicts from ever escalating into wars.

When states become bureaucratized, war becomes a proposition of precarious value, an unmanageable risk to institutional integrity. State bureaucracies, fundamentally concerned with the maintenance of the domestic environment, come to view war as a policy more likely to undermine the state structure than to bolster it. It follows that conflict diverts resources away from the domestic environment and endangers the state itself. Modern states thus tend toward risk-aversion and therefore, abstain from international conflict in favor of diplomatic negotiations. Thus, it is these institutional, rather than ideological factors that are central in understanding the outbreak of war, or the maintenance of peace. States are no longer willing to endanger the political order and their own authority through external conflict.

The most relevant of examples can be seen in the relations between the U.S. and USSR. As a conflict between two well-institutionalized states, the Cold War exhibited a high degree of risk aversion and low conflict. Despite concern about Soviet willingness to initiate aggression with the West, the general trend of US-Soviet relations from the late 1940s to the late 1980s clearly reflects the mutual caution of the two superpowers, who obviously wished to maintain the status quo. A more specific example can be seen during what many consider to be the pinnacle of the Cold War—the Cuban Missile Crisis. Once the situation brought the U.S. and the Soviet Union to a crisis level, both sides quickly moved to defuse the situation. This was most visible in the U.S. use of a naval quarantine rather than an air strike or invasion against Cuba, and Kennedy’s offer to remove missiles in Turkey. Similarly, upon the realization that the U.S. saw the missiles in Cuba as a matter of vital national security, Khrushchev quickly backed away from the brink, admitting the error of his actions and barring the use of nuclear weapons stationed in Cuba even in the case of US attack. In conclusion, the US-Soviet interaction during the crisis indicated that neither country was seeking a confrontation, and both were doing everything they could to avoid one.

Traditionally, the simple explanation for the long peace of the Cold War was not seen as the relative institutionalization of both nations, but rather the overwhelming threat of nuclear weapons. However, this does not explain American inaction during the time in which it enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in nuclear weapons. It was very likely that the institutional, rather than ideological factors in each country, prevented any major armed conflicts between the two superpowers. According to political scientist John Mueller, nuclear weapons were not the primary factor in preventing superpower conflict, but rather the lessons of World War I and II—that large-scale war is costly and of limited value. As he succinctly pointed out, “Even allowing for stupidity, ineptness, miscalculation, and self-deception in all these considerations, it does not appear that a large war, nuclear or otherwise, has been remotely in the interests of the essentially contented, risk-averse, escalation-anticipating powers that have dominated world affairs since 1945.”

Of the countries known or believed to possess nuclear weapons, the U.S., China, France, Russia, UK, Israel, India, and arguably even North Korea, have historically strong state institutions. The same cannot be said for the lone wild card Pakistan, which has a barely-functioning central government and very little in the way of state institutions. Likewise, Iran also has a tumultuous recent history with state institutions. If Iran ever does develop nuclear weapons, they will not have the same incentives as most other nuclear powers to preserve the status quo, especially when the current regime already faces political turmoil from within its own borders. Nuclear powers have never gone to war with each other, despite their occasional bellicose disputes. When on occasion they do go to war with a non-nuclear power, the use of nuclear weapons has never been a factor, even in defeat—e.g., USSR/Afghanistan. Can we be assured a nuclear Iran would exercise this same restraint?

For this reason, the U.S. foreign policy of supporting stable regimes around the world is often criticized. No doubt, the U.S. would prefer to support democratic regimes, but even stable despots are worth supporting for the sake of regional security. It appears that with the spread of institutional state structures over time, the propensity for war declines, viewed as a policy with little to gain and much to lose. Because of this trend, the bureaucrat may be the real force that ushers in global peace.



Thomas Ohlson

Thomas W. Ohlson recently retired from the Foreign Service due to ALS. As a diplomat with the U.S. Department of State, he served in such places as The Bahamas, Russia, Afghanistan, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York City, and United States Southern Command in Miami. Prior to joining the State Department, Tom served in the U.S. Army as a crash-rescue pilot. He holds a B.A. in International Affairs and Anthropology from Florida State University, a M.A. in Political Science/International Relations from the University of Rhode Island, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Archaeology, where his research is focused on human impact on the environment.