Publisher web: Amazon, Stanford University Press

Better Safe than Sorry is a historical account of nuclear weapons, their conception, use and relevance to the geopolitics of the Cold War and beyond. Importantly, in the words of the author, the book serves as a "reminder of what happened in August 1945 - and what must not happen again"[1] Krepon acknowledges the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) which constitutes the legal framework for current approaches to dealing with the nuclear question. He recognises the need for the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to strengthen their cooperation in the area of non-proliferation. Krepon is critical of the United States' hypocritical approach developed during the Bush administrations, noting that the "rules and norms were good, except where norms constrained US freedom of action or the actions of US friends and allies."[2] Krepon also assumes that the US has a responsibility to act in a leadership role to prevent the further development and potential usage of nuclear weapons. The break-up of the Soviet Union breeds confidence in the face of emerging threats from Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, which Krepon believes are far less dangerous than the threat of mutually assured destruction during the Cold War. He nevertheless urges statesmen to err on the side of caution as they try to reduce "the risk of having the most deadly weapons fall into the most dangerous hands."[3]

The Cold War, referred to as the first nuclear age, was characterised by unparalleled bipolar nuclear tensions and proxy warfare between the US and the USSR.[4] During that period "the Bomb was the central problem - not a particular state that had the Bomb or wanted to get it."[5]  A fundamental debate over deterrence and reassurance, nuclear non-proliferation and arms control shaped international relations from the 1950s onwards. Krepon traces the evolution of this debate from an American perspective and describes key developments in the nuclear policies of the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson administrations; developments which made possible the ground-breaking NPT. As tension decreased, the multi-lateral treaty - signed in 1968 in Helsinki - would bind several members of the international community to prevent new states from acquiring nuclear weapons and prevent states which already possesses them, from selling nuclear weapons or the ingredients and technology so they may produce their own. In the 1970s, Nixon's official visit to Moscow opened the way for talks aimed at Strategic Arms Limitation (SALT I and SALT II) and paved the way for the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). The US and the USSR would remain in détente under the Ford and Carter administrations. In the 1980s, despite the commencement of the so-called Second Cold War (following the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan, 1979) US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev overcame major differences and took coordinated actions to halt an escalating arms race. Still on a positive note, "no achievement during the first nuclear age was more central to reducing dangers than the record of not using nuclear weapons in warfare, even when doing so might have conferred short-term gains."[6]

The second nuclear age began with the dissolution of the USSR and the presumption of Iraq's - under Saddam Hussein - advanced nuclear weapons programme.[7] Even though the collapse of the USSR was viewed positively, "a new set of nuclear dangers accompanied this welcome event, dangers that have not gone away and that could erupt at any time."[8] Among the many dangers of this new chapter in international relations, Krepon identifies asymmetric warfare and nuclear terrorism: the fear that rogue states and non-state actors, such as terrorist organisations or guerrilla movements, may seek to acquire nuclear weapons to challenge the international status quo. Krepon revisits the Cold War trilateral relationship between the US, China and the USSR, pointing out that today, while China and Russia are bound by a strategic alliance, the Chinese government maintains even stronger ties with Pakistan. Alongside Iran and North Korea, Pakistan is often cited as a major nuclear threat to global peace. Krepon recalls that throughout the 1990s, "two individuals personified the new dangers of the second nuclear age, where nuclear terrorism, ‘loose nukes', and viral, horizontal proliferation have become paramount anxieties . . . A.Q. Khan and Osama Bin Laden."[9] Both names are linked to Pakistan: while Khan is known as the father of the Pakistani nuclear programme, Bin Laden's ties to the Taliban movement in the region are well documented. While massive, life-threatening, nuclear standoffs have not occurred in the current nuclear age with the same regularity of the Cold War, Krepon sees a high probability that future events, in the area of nuclear weapons, may be detrimental to global peace. Krepon justifies his fears by highlighting possible repercussions to the Bush administration's mismanagement and irresponsible behaviour in the carrying-out of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Further, Krepon describes current nuclear trends within the international community as he identifies nine main challenges he believes will shape the future. These are: 1) the increasing risk of nuclear arms being used in state-to-state conflicts; 2) the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes; 3) the impact of the political turmoil in Pakistan; 4) the proliferation of nuclear weapons to new states; 5) nuclear terrorism; 6) radical, extremist groups obtaining nuclear weapons; 7) monitoring failures by the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA); 8) global increase in nuclear testing and the growth of various uranium; and 9) plutonium enrichment programmes worldwide.[10] He then draws a list of likely outcomes to the nuclear question, most notably: the abolition of nuclear weapons; nuclear anarchy; proliferation; arms control and dominance. According to Krepon, "the alternative nuclear future of abolition is the most suitable end state for U.S. nuclear policy, but it remains a long-term vision, many steps away."[11] 

Krepon attributes US successes in the nuclear realm, to a combination of five fundamental elements: deterrence, military strength, containment, diplomatic engagement, and arms control. However, "when national leaders appeared to be relying too heavily on any one of these key elements, public anxieties dictated reorientation."[12] In fact, when applied individually these aspects of a safe nuclear strategy have often led to unwanted results; while heavy reliance on military strength during the Nixon era led to the Vietnam War, diplomatic engagement with the USSR resulted in dangerous encounters between President Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna in the 1960s and between Reagan and Gorbachev in the 1980s, and an overwhelming focus on military strength led to over-spending as seen in Eisenhower's military industrial complex.[13]

Krepon produces an insightful, in-depth analysis of the five main elements that allowed the US and USSR to avoid a nuclear conflict between them and prevent others from engaging in one.  He also alludes to the issue of missile defense systems and the relevance of the US-proposed NATO complex expected to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic. This project, he argues, is the result of the Bush administration's unilateralism, as prior discussions with US Congress, NATO, and Russia - still an important member of the international community -  were minimal at best.  Krepon notes that "(s)afe passage during the first nuclear age required steadfastness, good fortune, learning from mistakes, and above all, wisdom. Safe passage during the second nuclear age will require more of the same."[14]

While acting as an excellent testimony of Krepon's extensive knowledge, Better Safe than Sorry is intended for advanced students or experts of the subject at hand as the author is often overly theoretical, at times irritatingly, on technical aspects of nuclear weapons, such as his depiction of Multiple Independently Targetable Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs), SCUD-type missiles and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (IRNFs) which fall out of the reach of the novice reader. On the positive side, the clear and straightforward sub-headings help structure an otherwise dense work. With respect to content, not only does Krepon underestimate the nuclear threats that are found in current Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, but the international system he describes is unipolar and US-centric, thus, inconsistent with reality. Furthermore, the optimism he initially expresses by the end translates to political idealism.[15] Students of international relations interested in the nuclear question must seek refuge elsewhere. Still, there is hope that the US, in partnership with other key international actors such as the EU and Russia, will find a way to secure a safe future for themselves and the wider international community. In fact, during the EU-US Summit in Prague, US President Barack Obama asserted his nation's devotion to a world free of nuclear weapons.[16] A few hours later he visited Moscow where his words materialised into action as he signed a crucial arms reduction agreement with his Russian counterpart, Dmitry Medvedev. 

[1] Michael Krepon, Better Safe than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009). p. xi.

[2] Ibid. p.6.

[3] Ibid. p.28.

[4] Ibid. p.33.

[5] Ibid. p.45.

[6] Ibid. p.92.

[7] Ibid. p.94.

[8] Ibid. p.131.

[9] Ibid. p.113.

[10] Ibid. p.137-8.

[11] Ibid. p.173.

[12] Ibid. p.175.

[13] Ibid. p.176.

[14] Ibid. p.212.

[15] Ibid. p.xvi.

[16] The White House: Office of the Press Secretary, "Remarks by President Barack Obama: Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic", April 5, 2009.

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