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

by Thomas W. Ohlson, published


In the last 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.

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. 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? Except for a very dangerous Pakistan, all other nuclear powers have secular institutions and leaders (Israel like Judaism itself, is non-proselytizing and insular). Iran, however, is a theocracy. As such, the ideology of its leaders overshadows the stability of its political institutions. For all their posturing, North Korea knows the political consequences of ever using a nuclear weapon. Can the same be said for religious ideologues?

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.

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