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Vipin Narang: On the brinkmanship beat

Department of Political Science assistant professor studies the strategic use of nuclear force as global tensions threaten to reach the boiling point.
Associate professor of political science Vipin Narang specializes in nuclear security, proliferation, and deterrence.
Associate professor of political science Vipin Narang specializes in nuclear security, proliferation, and deterrence.
Photo: Stuart Darsch

It’s a wonder that Vipin Narang gets any sleep these days. The Mitsui Career Development Associate Professor of Political Science, Narang specializes in nuclear security, proliferation, and deterrence. It is work that has never seemed more urgent.

Today, Narang is closely monitoring the ongoing rivalry between India and Pakistan, and the alarming, increasingly bellicose sparring between North Korea and the United States and their respective heads of state, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump.

“If Kim Jong-un thinks the U.S. is coming after him, and Trump fires off a tweet that appears provocative, I can imagine the North Korean leadership seeing itself with no choice but to use its conventional and potentially nuclear weapons preemptively, because they would have to rightly fear that the U.S. could destroy most, if not all, of their nuclear forces,” he says.

Narang's Twitter feed provides a steady stream of nail-biting news, including on one recent evening when he was sharing real-time seismic information for the Korean peninsula while awaiting new underground nuclear testing by North Korea.

For Narang, diligent maintenance of his social media feeds is part of the job. “I try to use my academic training and scholarship to make the pressing nuclear security issues of the day relevant and accessible to the public and policy makers,” he says.

Narang frequently contributes to such newspapers as The Hindu and Indian Express, and to the journal Foreign Policy. The New York Times also routinely seeks his expert commentary, and he often engages in security meetings with government officials.

Narang’s rigorous scholarship in the ways states wield nuclear force to achieve their interests fuels his engagement with the public, the policy community, and students. His current research focuses on his second planned book, “Strategies of Nuclear Proliferation.”

“Understanding how states acquire nuclear weapons is important in terms of improving nonproliferation policy,” says Narang, who recently became an associate professor with tenure. He cites the recent Iran deal as a success story.

“With Iran’s nuclear weapon program, we managed to move a state from a hiding strategy to a hedging strategy,” he says. “While Iran may not have fully given up on its nuclear aspirations, the deal pushed them back to a more ambivalent hedging position, which is a nonproliferation win.”

Narang has adopted an unusual approach to nonproliferation research. “Most academic literature focuses on the why, whereas I focus on the how,” he says. “It gives the international community different things to look out for when trying to formulate new policy or strategies with an aspiring nuclear state.”

He developed his singular take on security issues quite early in his career. In graduate school a decade ago at Harvard University, he received cautionary advice to steer clear of nuclear questions. “Most in my discipline thought it was a dead field,” he recalls. “They wondered if I had anything new to say about nuclear weapons that had not been said during the Cold War.”

As it happened, he did. “That was because I was focused on regional nuclear powers, such as China, India, and Pakistan, not on U.S. or Soviet superpower strategy,” he says. “There were eight non-superpower states with small arsenals, many bordering each other, with a history of enmity and disputes — I had a good sense there would be something new to say about them.”

Narang’s doctoral research investigated common nuclear strategies among these states, and whether their smaller arsenals deterred conflicts. His comparative study of regional nuclear powers, which included not just countries in South Asia, but also China, Israel, France, and South Africa, demonstrated that “nuclear weapons by themselves don’t confer automatic benefits,” he says.

“Nuclear theology in the academy was that once a state acquires nuclear forces, other states are afraid to pick fights,” he explains. “But I showed that nuclear weapons don’t necessarily deter conventional attacks just by their existence.”  

That research served as the basis for Narang’s first book, “Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict” (Princeton University Press, 2014), which won the 2015 International Studies Association International Security Section Best Book Award.

As a child of Indian immigrants, Narang grew up as a South Asia watcher, and he says his keen interest in military conflict emerged when he was quite young. “We used to go to Punjab during the insurgency,” he recalls. “The army would take over our train when it crossed into the state and, as a 10-year-old, I was fascinated by the security situation.”

That fascination blossomed during high school, when Narang was discovering policy debate. “While I was researching U.S. foreign policy toward China, what excited me the most was learning about Chinese nuclear strategy.”

Even as a chemical engineering major at Stanford University, Narang managed to nurture his interest in foreign policy and security. His undergraduate thesis concerned India’s secret chemical weapons program. “It was a little piece of security history no one had known about, and I got into the nature of the weapons stockpile and India’s decision to reveal and ultimately dismantle it,” he says.

Narang pivoted to his current field at Oxford University, where he spent two years as a Marshall Scholar. It was there, he says, that “I realized I cared about foreign policy, especially the security side and the technology of security.”

Today, as he completes his next book on nuclear acquisition, Narang is also contemplating a future one about strategies of nuclear coercion. He says his research will focus on whether nuclear weapons successfully work as leverage for one state “to try to get another state actor to change its behavior.” Think 1962 Cuban missile crisis and the U.S.-Soviet standoff, he says. That crisis resonates in the context of the current tense situation with North Korea.

Narang is not an optimist about how the Korean conflict, or other regional ones, will turn out.

“The development of nuclear weapons was designed to prevent massive, conventional wars,” he says. “But we have traded the Cold War era’s lower risk of catastrophic global nuclear annihilation for today’s higher risk of serious but limited use of nuclear weapons by regional states.”

As a relatively new father, weighing these options feels more than academic to Narang. He does not see a way to undo the existence of nuclear weapons, but he does believe there might be a way to better manage them. The central challenge, he says, is managing stable nuclear deterrence relationships at lower warhead numbers between states that have deep historical rivalries.

“On the one hand, we want regional powers to avoid the arms race mistakes of the Cold War,” he says. “But on the other hand, we don’t want them to have such small and vulnerable nuclear forces that they believe that they may have to use them before they lose them.”

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