«Historically when dealing with nonproliferation people are thinking primarily about states. But in the case of WMD there is also a need to study non-state actors»: an interview with Professor Jeffrey Knopf by Elena Karnaukhova

May 17, 2023

PIR Center continues to publish materials on nuclear nonproliferation and NPT under the auspices of our website special section Notes from the Field: 10th NPT Review Conference through the Eyes of Russian Public Diplomacy. This time PIR Center Deputy Director-Education & Training Program Director Elena Karnaukhova conducted interview with Professor Jeffrey Knopf, Chair of the M.A. Program Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, USA (MIIS). We discussed with him the linkage between nuclear nonproliferation and terrorism, strategy of counterproliferation to fight against the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and American nuclear policy in general, the future of the NPT, antinuclear movement and new approach to study nuclear strategy as behavioral economics.

Jeff Knopf is a professor at the MIIS, where he serves as chair of the M.A. program in Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies. Dr. Knopf is also a research affiliate with the Middlebury Institute’s James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) and Stanford University’s Center on International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). Dr. Knopf received a Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford. Prior to joining the MIIS faculty, he taught at the Naval Postgraduate School, the University of California-Santa Cruz, and the University of Southern California. Dr. Knopf is a former editor of “The Nonproliferation Review” and has published research on nuclear arms control and nonproliferation, deterrence strategy, and how public opinion, NGOs, and social movements affect national security policies. Find more: https://www.middlebury.edu/institute/people/jeff-knopf

Karnaukhova Elena: Professor Knopf, thank you for this opportunity. You are a Chair of the M.A. Program Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Could you please explain why it is important to have such a nexus between the two phenomena?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: Our educational efforts on nonproliferation go back a long way. Our Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) has been conducting educational activities since the 1990s, more than 30 years already. And in the 1990s CNS got interested in WMD-terrorism in general and nuclear terrorism in particular and hired some specialists to study these issues. These specialists also kept their general interests in conventional terrorism. Eventually they started a new research center and educational efforts about terrorism. We heard from students that they wanted a degree that combined and focused on these two types of security concerns. As a result, within the MIIS we launched this Program Nonproliferation and Terrorism Studies about 14 years ago.

Of course, there is definitely an interconnection between the two fields. Historically when dealing with nonproliferation people are thinking primarily about states who are trying to acquire chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.  But in the case of WMD there is also a need to study non-state actors who might be able to get WMD. Thus, both fields overlap.

Karnaukhova Elena: Could you please tell us more about the established principles to study WMD-terrorism in the US? What features do American studies in this area have? What directions and prospects can be identified?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: For years it was quite unusual to have this Program because typically people study nonproliferation and terrorism separately. In the US it has been a very long tradition to study nuclear nonproliferation by itself. Traditionally nuclear studies in our country have been concentrated primarily on nuclear deterrence, with a little bit on arms control. There are not many educational master’s programs on the chemical and biological weapons, which are also considered to be WMD. So, on the nonproliferation side we deal with all the types of WMD.

When we at MIIS started to study terrorism, that field was separate from those who studied nonproliferation. But then the two fields began to come together. It is not surprising that in the US most of our studies in the areas of nonproliferation and terrorism are driven by our foreign policy, national security problems, threats to American people. After 9/11 many specialists in the US were engaged in terrorism studies. Gradually many of American scholars turned to cybersecurity, it happened mostly in the 2010s. Lately greater interests to study great power competition arose, such as the relations between Russia and US, or US and China, how they manage regional rivalry with each other to be more precise. Regarding nonproliferation itself, now it is very common to conduct researches on how emerging technologies can influence the field and which risks they pose to the field, especially when we are talking about 3D printing or artificial intelligence. So, we try to be flexible and study different security threats as they arise and examine how the relate to each other.

Karnaukhova Elena: In 1970-1980s, for example, some countries already faced the threat of nuclear terrorism. Were these attempts to organize nuclear terrorist attack studies at these days or general interest in the issue arose only in 1990-2000s?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: Sure, the biggest concerns for 1970-1990s were that somebody would try to attack nuclear power plant or crash an airplane into the building containing nuclear reactors. It could lead to the risk of releasing radioactive materials. The studies of this historical period resulted in designing the criteria for how to make nuclear facilities safer and more stable even in case of emergencies. But till the 1990s the threat of nuclear terrorism was not seen as a big problem though.

Karnaukhova Elena: From American perspective, what is nuclear terrorism both in practice and in theory? How can we define it?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: It is a very good question. People keep disagreeing on how to define terrorism. Typically, we connect terrorism with the activities of nonstate actors motivated to cause fear and panic among the population, and they have some political or social motivation for what they do. Sure, there is no common understanding of nuclear terrorism. One of the examples of its manifestation is to conduct an attack with using nuclear explosive devises, or to attack a nuclear facility, etc.

Karnaukhova Elena: In international relations we do not have a common understanding of terrorism is per se. Is it possible to have a common understanding of nuclear terrorism though? And do we need to have this common understanding at all?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: There is no international legal agreement to define terrorism. But I think that countries proved to be able to work together against this issue. For example, UN Security Resolution 1540 was accepted in 2004, and it creates a legal environment to take measures to reduce the risks of WMD proliferation, of WMD being acquired by non-state actors, and WMD-terrorism itself. Also, we can mention Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT) announced by the US and Russia in 2006. So, it seems to be that countries are able to create practical measures no mater what is happening upon this common definition of the notion terrorism.

Karnaukhova Elena: How can you estimate GICNT as a tool to deal with the threats of nuclear terrorism?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: It does not function anymore given to what is happening in the US-Russian relations. But, as I see it, in the past it proved the possibility of cooperation. Such tools to fight against the risks of nuclear terrorism as the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) or UN SC Resolution 1540, have posed some pressure on states to do something. From my point of view, the best moment was when the US President Barack Obama (2009-2017) held his presidential office, and he organized Nuclear Security Summits which brought many countries together. Within this format there was a mechanism to make commitments and to transfer resources to help developing countries to build up the capacity to fight with the threat of nuclear terrorism. And GICNT was a part of this puzzle. So, I believe it was very helpful.

Karnaukhova Elena: Thank you for touching upon Nuclear Security Summits. The last summit was held in 2016, and after this door was closed. One of the unofficial reasons, as I know, was that Russia refused to take part in the summit. In the official communique it was written that “The threat of nuclear and radiological terrorism remains one of the greatest challenges to international security, and the threat is constantly evolving”. So, why did the US stopped organizing these summits though even without Russian participation?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: I know that American governmental officials regretted that Russia chose to stop participating in the last summit. I do not think that the main reason to stop organizing Nuclear Security Summits was that Russia had decided not to take part in the format because so much energy had been directed to other states. I think that it was mostly due to the fact that organizers felt that there would not be much more than they could accomplish. It is hard to make the leaders of so many countries to come and to meet. As I understand, at the end of Obama administration the high-level participation was replaced by something more ministerial, because it is rather difficult to make such summits happen. Then new presidential election took place in the US, and we had the change of administration. You know, Donald Trump administration had some other attitudes to nuclear issues in general.

Karnaukhova Elena: In Russia many analysts believe that Trump was not interested in nuclear issues, nuclear nonproliferation or arms control to say in particular. But if we look at his statements, he always supported both nuclear nonproliferation and arms control regimes. How can you explain this contradiction?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: Theadministration of the US President Donald Trump (2017-2021) was sometimes really ard for other countries to understand. I need to stress that during his presidentship the US still had a large bureaucratic apparatus in the State Department, Department of Defense, National Security Council, Department of Energy. They continued to function at this period. As permanent bureaucracy they tried to uphold existing US nuclear policy commitments: “So, yes, we support the NPT”, “So, yes, we support arms control”, and etc. It seems to me that it was one of the reasons why we had such a big disconnect between Donald Trump and some federal agencies. Sure, he personally did not really care about nuclear issues. Or it would be right to say that he had his own mind, and he expressed his own opinion, what he really thought himself.

Personally, I got an impression that Donald Trump was not very knowledgeable about nuclear weapons or arms control. But he really did seem to believe that nuclear weapons were dangerous. Again, he did not have a lot of knowledge, and he did not do enough to communicate clearly to his administration the nuclear policy he wanted to pursue.

Karnaukhova Elena: It is rather interesting. Donald Trump did not develop strategic dialogue with Russia, and he decided to withdraw from some treaties which were important for arms control, for example, INF Treaty. But if we look at the Biden administration which is considered to be more conscious about arms control, we see that it does not demonstrate radically another attitude. No strategic dialogue with Russia, no nuclear deal with Iran. To be continued. So, we have two administrations, but their nuclear policy does not seem to be different. And some Russian analysts are speaking about the continuity of the American policy towards arms control since 1990s no matter Republicans or Democrats are in power. Is it our misperception of the American nuclear policy?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: I do not agree with that opinion of continuity. Yes, I think that this is a misperception of the US nuclear policy. In the past, there used to be some bipartisan agreement on issues like nonproliferation, but more recently there are differences between Democrats and Republicans. The members of the Grand Old Party do not seem as interested in the NPT. Under the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009) the US nuclear policy was more willing to consider the use of force, and it resulted in invading Iraq, for example. We saw a slightly different approach to arms control negotiations with Russia from their part. The next Republican administration, the Trump administration, did not try to negotiate new treaties as it was mostly skeptical about arms control and nonproliferation agreements.

When Biden came to power in 2021, the first thing what he did was to make sure that the 2010 New START Treaty would be extended before being expired. He resumed strategic dialogue with Russia. You remember that there were negotiations between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva in June of 2021. The Ukraine invasion disrupted everything. Now the US Government feels that it is not appropriate to conduct normal business with Russia on the one thing and to criticize and oppose Russia on the other things. If possibilities to renew arms control talks come around, I think, the Biden administration will be ready to use them. The agenda of arms control talks may be different though. For example, Biden administration can put tactical nuclear weapons on the table, and Russia may put anti-ballistic missile systems on the table. To sum up, my impression is that President Biden and his administration still have interests in arms control, and they do really want to save it.

Karnaukhova Elena: But President Biden does not take measures to develop strategic dialogue with Russia…

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: When I first started working in the field, it was the earlier 1980s, there were a lot of discussions about so called issue linkage. To be more precise, some specialists were arguing whether you could not isolate arms control talks from everything else, believing it should be only arms control itself without any linkage to other international problems. At that time pro-arms control people say something of that kind: “Arms control is very important, we should have it even if there are so many disagreements between the US and the Soviet Union”. In 1980s the Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan was going on, but the US, indeed, still wanted to hold talks with the USSR on arms control. But sometimes the influence of your relationship with each other is so big that you cannot isolate arms control from other problems, and such issue linkage becomes inherent. That’s the situation now. The disagreement about the conflict in Ukraine is so fundamental that it makes it very difficult to have a dialogue in other areas.

Karnaukhova Elena: I asked this question so many times, but we see that American and Russian political leaders are represented by descendants of the Cold War era. Both Putin and Biden saw so many international crises in the 2nd half of the XX century which could result in nuclear war between the US and the USSR. Why did their attitude to nuclear issues change? Of course, our opinion changes throughout our lives and experience. But even now we have so many manifestations of the Cold War logic and behavior.

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: Some of this applies to me too, because I grew up during the Cold War. And that can have some advantages in terms of being aware of nuclear dangers. But until recently nuclear weapons were seen as something the world left behind. The younger generation has not had the same direct experience of nuclear danger so far. Until recently, for many years we did not have such a crisis which could cause a nuclear clash. I see that, yes, the US and Russia are returning to the pattern of suspicious attitude to each other. But at the same time our presidents are coming back to the idea that nuclear crisis and nuclear weapons can be dangerous based on the experience of the past. In contrast younger people do not have personal memories of the Cold War epoch. I believe that all people should be knowledgeable about and aware of what nuclear weapons can lead to, they cannot stand far away from it if the escalation to nuclear level can happen.

Karnaukhova Elena: So, how can we better understand the nuclear policy of the US, its logic, and the mindset of American political leaders as well?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: So, going back to 1960s we can find people of that time talking about an action-reaction dynamic. The same logic, indeed, is now. The US looks what Russia or China are saying and doing, and it tries to develop nuclear weapons and nuclear policies taking into account what may happen in these countries. Russia and China look at the US in return. This action-reaction dynamic is always going on.

Both Russia and China are developing their nuclear capabilities. Russia has developed its nuclear doctrine and has said many times in what conditions nuclear weapons can be used. It affects what is happening in the US. I am sure that Russian and Chinese analysts observe actions and behavior of the US from their part as well.

Karnaukhova Elena: Let’s speak about counterproliferation strategy. It was developed in the US in 1993. Not the US, but Israel was the first country to introduce such policy as Israel bombed Iraqi nuclear facility Osirak in 1981. In 2007 Israel bombed suspected nuclear reactor of Syria. So, can we view the measures undertaken by Israel as nuclear terrorism manifestation?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: I will say no, these actions do not fit any of the usual definitions of nuclear terrorism. But I agree that such actions are very problematic and controversial under international law. According to international law states cannot use military force against nuclear facilities, and in general you can use force in the aims of self-defense only. But it would be not right to consider these operations of Israel against Syria or Iraq and the strategy of counterproliferation as nuclear terrorism. The purpose of terrorism including nuclear one is to create fear among the population in order to advance a social agenda. We can argue whether it is right or wrong to carry out preventive strikes even if you just want to eliminate some particular threats and ensure your national security without waiting when other country create nuclear weapons. But again, here we have a problem that we still do not have a common definition of nuclear terrorism.

Karnaukhova Elena: You mean that Israel did not want to wait until Iraq and Syria create their own nuclear bombs. But at the beginning of 1980s Iraq already joined NPT, and it had the right to develop peaceful nuclear energy. Before these actions of Israel inspections of the IAEA did not reveal that Iraq had been developing nuclear program, international community knew about it much later. It is another story with Syria which was believed to develop clandestine nuclear activities with the help of North Korea, but Syria always denies that it wanted to create nuclear bomb. In both case there was no strict reaction to operations of Israel. Can they be justified?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: The attack against Osirak caused criticism towards Israel at that time. Sanctions were not so strict though. It was more verbal criticism. But then, in the late 1980s, it has become apparent that Saddam Husein (1979-2003) did have a clandestine nuclear program. The attack against Syria was less criticized. In general, it is hard to validate such attacks under international law. It’s also not clear how effective such attacks are. Especially in the case of Iraq there were many debates and many conflicting studies about whether the operation of Israel influenced the Iraqi nuclear programs. We can find arguments both ways.

How important is it to uphold international law? People still disagree on that. Realists always say policy should be based on the national interests of any country and threats to them, and for realists the international law does not play so much of a role. Other people disagree with this position and assert that we should be more respectful in relation to international law. So, it is generally a huge debate.

Karnaukhova Elena: Some month ago American Ambassador to Israel said that Israel “can do whatever they need” on Iran, “and we’ve got their back”, meaning that the US would support Israel if the country decide to take force against Iran not waiting until it got nuclear bomb. How can we consider such statement? Were there any critics about it in the US? 

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: I will start from the point that if Israel or the US attacks Iran, it will be an attack based on conventional weapons. There are so many debates about the questions of whether there should be any preemptive attack on Iran or not. I do not think that Biden does really prefer to take this kind of action. When problems with the Iranian nuclear program came up during Obama administration, there were public debates as well. I remember one expert from Georgetown University who argued that it was time to bomb Iran and to use force against the country to prevent if from going nuclear. One of the biggest critics of this position is now a senior official in Biden’s Defense Department. So based on this and what Biden said in the past, I think he will oppose ideas of that kind, but again I could not know what he really has in his mind.

Basically, in the US it is unusual for politicians to publicly criticize Israel due to our sympathy towards each other. And there is so much support for pro-Israeli positions of the US. But sometimes the US president will still take a different position than Israel. Indeed, Biden has criticized Israeli Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who proposed to change the judiciary in his country which would harm the independence of judicial power. So it will not be automatic for the American leader to support an Israeli decision on Iran.

Karnaukhova Elena: What were the main reasons to introduce such attitude as counterproliferation? Was it relevant to these days and the situation in the world?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: The counterproliferation strategy differs from nonproliferation in a couple of possible ways.

Firstly, the definitions themselves are rather different. Nonproliferation is the measures you take to prevent any country getting nuclear capabilities, it is all the diplomatic and economic tools. If they fail, if any country comes the threshold to become nuclear or already go nuclear, you move to counterproliferation strategy trying to counter that situation. The situation when any country gets nuclear weapons or proliferates them in other words. But it is not about using force immediately. You can also use diplomatic and economic tools to make this country stop developing its nuclear program or to reverse the progress it may achieve.

Secondly, nonproliferation strategy is implemented by the US presidents, American diplomats, US State Department. But counterproliferation is more about military servicemen duties. For example, you can take counterproliferation efforts when you are attacked by any country to eliminate its capabilities in WMD.

The concept of counterproliferation was motivated in 1990s by the fact that proliferation of nuclear weapons was taking place despite the NPT. North Korea announced that it would withdraw from the Treaty and later created nuclear weapons. Iran also had a nuclear program. We had a very difficult situation in Iraq under the regime of Saddam Husein who wanted to join nuclear club. And now U.S. political leaders see that the nonproliferation regime is not 100% effective and it does not give clear directions what to do in all the situations.

Besides, I think that at the end of the Cold War and especially after the collapse of the USSR, the US felt more freedom of action, still remaining the only superpower in the world. It felt like it can do whatever it wanted and like nobody would stop it. This made it easier to contemplate the use of force as a nonproliferation tool.

Karnaukhova Elena: The basic problem is that nuclear nonproliferation has an international legal foundation. In 1960s there was so long negotiation process on the future NPT, for example. And other elements of the nuclear nonproliferation regime are based on international agreements. Indeed, counterproliferation is the only American concept and strategy, there is no international legal base for it. That is why, it is not surprising that sometimes it is considered to be an attempt of the US to put pressure on other countries and to use force against them, especially against hostile countries as well as to use the problem of nuclear terrorism for interfering. But what do you think on such opinion?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: I am not a governmental spokesman, but I will say that the US Government and American officials will probably argue that they have developed the concept of counterproliferation with an aim to support the NPT. Well, Iraq signed the Treaty, but it cheated and violated this international agreement. American officials will not say that they want to have counterproliferation strategy just only to show force. They will explain this use of force by the fact that they act on the behalf of the NPT against countries which violate the Treaty.

Karnaukhova Elena: But can we develop international legal base for counterproliferation strategy, or it should be just an American way of settling nuclear issues?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: In 1992, there was a first-ever UN Security Council meeting at the head of state level, and it released a statement that declared WMD proliferation to be a threat to international peace and security. This is language that allows the Security Council to authorize the use of force. And under the UN Charter there is also language to permit the use of military force for self-defense reasons. Of course, it does not open the door to do only what you want to do. International law specialists working in the US Government could consider the 1992 Security Council statement as a legal base for acting against Iraq in such a way.

Karnaukhova Elena: In 1990-2000s, the US also developed such concepts as axis of evil and rogue states. Among them have been those countries who may have developed WMD-programs, including of nuclear weapons, and who support terrorists’ groups as well. What do you think – the history proves such linkage?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: Oh, George W. Bush administration made this link very explicit. US National Security Strategy unveiled by Bush administration embraced the preemption doctrine that the US reserved the right to act first to prevent other countries from developing WMD programs. Axis of evil concept included dangerous countries which they thought could not be subject to deterrence strategy. In addition, they feared that these countries may cooperate with terrorist groups and give them nuclear bomb to conduct nuclear terrorism. But personally, I was really critical on this concept.

Karnaukhova Elena: It is very ideological, and it put limits on your actions towards these countries.

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: In some sense all national security concepts are ideological. I do not agree that the concept of axis of evil was ideological in the sense of where it falls politically, it was based on a very particular worldview which, I thought, was not well-founded.

Karnaukhova Elena: But the US has the same worldview nowadays. If we look at the current US National Security Strategy, we see: the same states and the same labels. If the US had changed the position on this matter, would it have been possible to resolve North Korean or Iranian cases? Not identifying them as evils or rogue states, I mean.

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: Personally, I think that North Korea is a very dangerous country now. I think that for Iranian case it was a real chance to resolve the problem taking into account the 2015 nuclear deal. It really provided the opportunity to prevent Iran from going nuclear. There was another missed opportunity in 2000s after 9/11 when the Bush administration ignored Iranian attempts to reach out and initiate a dialogue. If we look at the past, we will see other missed opportunities

Distinguished Professor of Practice Dr. Siegfried (Sig) Hecker recently prepared a book Hinge Points: An Inside Look at North Korea’s Nuclear Program on relations between the US and DPRK and made the same argument that there were many missed opportunities in the past to use diplomatic tools to resolve the problem with the nuclear program of North Korea. And the US was primarily unwilling to pursue this diplomacy.

Today I think that the situation with the DPRK is probably one where an agreement for denuclearization is no longer possible. And with Iran the window is closing as well.

Karnaukhova Elena: In 2017, Biden administration included Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in terrorists’ groups list. So, there is an opinion that it is impossible now to restore Vienna nuclear deal with Iran anymore. And for me it is a good example that such a linkage between terrorism and nonproliferation can go wrong. What is about you?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: As I see it, for the US nuclear nonproliferation is not always a number one priority. We are responding to national security threats, we are responding to regional insecurity in the Middle East, or we are responding to human rights violations. Sometimes these other issues get more attention. And, then, nonproliferation takes a back seat. The US nuclear policy is very up and down. Sometimes it gets more priority, sometimes less.

Karnaukhova Elena: Well, but why? It sounds surprising. In Russia some analysts believe that it is the US more interested in nonproliferation than any another country. What are the interests of the US though?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: Yes, I believe that nuclear nonproliferation is not always a top priority for the US. Every country has its own national interests, let’s be fair. And every country defends their national interests for themselves.

For the US the national interest has usually been seen as a kind of mixture of traditional national security interests and democratic values. We do not want our country to be attacked. We do not want our economy to be harmed. We do not want our citizens to be killed. But a more expansive component of the national interests of the US has an idealistic component. We do want to have world with many democracies, with an open economy, with the respect for human rights. And the US is capable to put the nuclear nonproliferation to the second place if it thinks something else deserves a first place.

Karnaukhova Elena: So, if nonproliferation is not a priority for the US and some other countries as well, which future do the NPT and NPT-based nuclear nonproliferation regime have?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: I am very nervous about it. Sure, I think that the NPT will survive. Nobody wants to kill the Treaty as it would be a disaster. The NPT has an ability to stay robust even in these troubled days. But the nonproliferation regime is under a lot of strain.

Karnaukhova Elena: Is it possible that we will have more nuclear weapons counties? If the NPT fails, for me it does not mean that each country of the world would go nuclear immediately. Moreover, you already have the right to withdraw from the Treaty. Of course, nothing good, but alarm is not good as well. It is interesting to know your opinion considering that you wrote an article Why the Ukraine war does not mean more countries should seek nuclear weapons in April 2022.

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: The main problem is that we do not know for sure what keeps countries from getting nuclear weapons, from going to war, from using nuclear weapons. We know only what we did in the past. We have the NPT, arms control, nuclear weapons free zones, export control regimes, etc. We have efforts within disarmament and nonproliferation efforts. We have special sessions and particular international forums under the auspices of the UN. We even have the TPNW. We have many books and movies that show what could happen in a nuclear war. And, fortunately, nobody has used nuclear weapons from 1945. I hope it will remain the same. The spread of nuclear weapons is very limited – we have only nine nuclear weapons states, it is very impressive. If some of these things we did in the past start disappearing, we do not know what we will be facing with.

Sure, if arms control between the US and Russia ceases to exist, we have other tools which might still hold nuclear danger in place. If the NPT will stop functioning, it is hard to know what will happen. We should not have any illusions, and it would be better to keep and save what we got in the past and to build more now rather than to abandon what has been achieved. From my point of view, now only Iran can be considered as a candidate for joining nuclear club, it is the only risk of proliferation that we have now. But if existing mechanisms fall apart, then who knows what will happen?

Karnaukhova Elena: Speaking about the youth, you communicate a lot with the students and young specialists from many countries of the world. Are the NPT and nuclear nonproliferation regime still a value for them? I see three groups of people: one supports the NPT and the entire regime, the second does not take care at all, the third criticizes the Treaty a lot because there is no progress in nuclear disarmament or something of that kind. And it seems to me that foreign young specialists too often are a part of the third group.

Professor Jeffrey Knopf:  It is exactly what you say, i.e. the difference of opinions. Many young people are unaware of the NPT and NPT-based nuclear nonproliferation regime, but they are not specialized in nuclear issues. Others are familiar with nuclear issues. I think that many of them still value the Treaty. But a very few people want to get away. There are many people who do really support the agreement and the regime and want to save them.

But the Treaty and nuclear nonproliferation regime have many critics both in the right and in the left. Critics on the right argue that the NPT is not enforceable enough because there are countries who have been cheating on the Treaty, and nothing sufficient is done to them in response. So, you have to do something else to make the regime be more enforceable. Critics on the left want to have progress in nuclear disarmament, they are talking about the Article VI. These both groups are a minority. And in the middle, we have the majority, i.e. those who value the NPT and want the Treaty to survive.

Karnaukhova Elena: Can the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), supplement the NPT? Especially in the eyes of the youth…

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: It depends on who you ask. I support the goal of the TPNW as I think that nuclear disarmament is important. And it is important as well to avoid a nuclear war. I believe that in a short term TPNW is probably not very helpful. I do think that it creates an opportunity for states to exit from the NPT and sign the TPNW, but the problem is that there are no safeguards, no verification in the TPNW. It also causes a lot of friction with nuclear weapons states which cannot be predicted diplomatically. I wish that strategy on nuclear disarmament would be a little bit different. From my perspective, in the long term it is possible the TPNW will prove not to be terribly important.

Karnaukhova Elena: It is not the first time I ask this question, but I would be pleased for your comments. How it would be better to consider this agreement? From the one hand, it is a common opinion that nonnuclear weapons states are so frustrated and believe that TPNW can push nuclear weapons states to conduct negotiations on nuclear disarmament. On the other hand, there are some thoughts that the US can be interested in the Treaty because it can promote nuclear disarmament while the US will save its nuclear arsenal. Many American foundations and different institutions promote TPNW, and finance projects devoted to stigmatization of nuclear weapons.

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: The US officially does not support the TPNW, and there is no secret plot or hidden agenda. The scenario you describe is a conspiracy theory. It is not true.

Karnaukhova Elena: It is rather interesting. I will explain this position. You remember that, in 2008, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn published famous article Toward a Nuclear-Free World in the The Wall Street Journal. But previously some of them strongly supported nuclear deterrence. It is well-known fact that in 1970s Henry Kissinger was rather critical and pessimistic about the NPT. Of course, it is interesting to understand this change of opinions and its triggers. But I will add that this article was released at the same time when Barack Obama proposed a concept of minimal deterrence. The main idea was that you did not need to have many nuclear arsenals. And I know that some experts saw it as an attempt of the US to change the balance of power with Russia and China because both had started to modernize their nuclear arsenal, and Russia had more potential in the tactical nuclear weapons. So, the US wanted such disarmament, as other would disarm, and the US would do the same, but also with saving potential with conventional weapons. Thus, the article and Obama initiative look rather interconnected. For some specialists the same thing is about TPNW. And for some it is based on emotions but not on the understanding of strategic situation in the world. It will be very useful to know your opinion as an American specialist.

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: I will recommend you not to describe support for the TPNW as emotional. It will not give the respect to people who support the Treaty and who contributed to its conclusion. There are so many of them indeed. Nonnuclear weapons states and civil society can be frustrated by the NPT which entered into force in 1970, and there not been enough movement on Article VI so far. And for them it can be fair to think that nuclear weapon states do not keep their words. I think that nuclear weapons states do not give enough weight to Article VI, and support for the TPNW is their fault because they have not done enough in the aim of the NPT Article 6.

Speaking about the US, it is a conspiracy to think in such a way that the TPNW is a clandestine activity of the American officials. Both Obama in his Prague Speech and former American practitioners in their common article in the Wall Street Journal in 2008 thought more about how to react to the threats of nuclear terrorism. We are returning to the first topic of our conversation. In a world with states which have a technical ability to get nuclear weapons or to have it, it makes sense for the US to rely on nuclear deterrence and nuclear retaliation. And then they hope that this situation can be stable. As people started to worry about non-state actors getting nuclear materials or a bomb or carrying out nuclear terrorism, I think, it really changed the way of thinking. The general idea was that as the less weapons you have, the less nuclear materials you have, and, thus, you can prevent nuclear terrorism. And the idea to abolish nuclear weapons was driven in part by fear of nuclear terrorism too.

Besides, the US has a pretty large advantage of conventional weapons. So, it will have advantages in the military sphere in any case. The US has very strong positions in terms of military balance. There are no hidden attempts to promote nuclear disarmament and not to disarm by yourself. The US can propose it openly just in order to have safer world.

Karnaukhova Elena: Previously you studied antinuclear movement. But were you a part of it somewhen? If yes, what did you do in particular? Do you agree that nowadays it is less active than it was in the past? There are so many NGOs, foundations, information technologies…

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: When I was an undergraduate student in the early 1980s, I participated in the Nuclear Freeze Movement (American campaign against nuclear weapons when its participants demanded negotiations on the US-USSR end of testing, producing, and deploying nuclear weapons – Editor’s Note). The idea was to promote nuclear arms control.  

I strongly believe that nowadays we have a less active antinuclear movement. It probably reached its high peak in about 1982, I would say. There was a big demonstration in New York City when about 1 million people gathered to participate. There were never so many people on protests against nuclear weapons. I think that the public, target audience is not as active now.

Karnaukhova Elena: You wrote a book Behavioral Economics and Nuclear Weapons. Can you briefly comment on this book and behavioral economics as a tool to analyze nuclear strategy itself? It is a very interesting methodological approach, I think. What conclusions did you make?

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: The best description of behavioral economics is that it is an application of psychology to study economic behavior. Mainstream economics assumes people are rational actors. But people do not always make rational decisions, so we do not have a rational model of decision-making all the time. My colleague Anne Harrington and I recruited some other scholars to write papers on how these insights from behavioral economics might apply to nuclear deterrence, nonproliferation and related issues. We concluded that, yes, it is true that even during a nuclear crisis you probably would not be able to count on all decision-makers be rational. Thus, there can be many surprising and unpredictable decisions which will make the situation more dangerous and worse. We also concluded that behavioral economics is not well developed enough to be a standalone framework to study nuclear strategy. It is not strong enough to predict behaviour in nuclear field. Sure, it is good, but not good enough.

Karnaukhova Elena: I see chapters on Neurobiology of Deterrence or Justice and Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime, I think it is a very unusual approach. Books of this kind is very helpful and interesting just like our conversation. And I want to thank you for it.

Professor Jeffrey Knopf: Thank you. I appreciated the chance to talk to you.

Key words: NPT; Terrorism; Global Security