Nuclear investigations

April 3, 2012, 3:01 a.m.
Nuclear investigations
Courtesy of Scott Sagan

Political Science Prof. Scott Sagan discusses teaching nuclear deterrence and security

Imagine you are a soldier out in the middle of the desert. An enemy tank formation faces you, and there are no civilians within hundreds of miles. Could you justify the use of nuclear weapons against the enemy? For Stanford political science professor Scott Sagan, the answer is simple–no.

From his realist perspective, Sagan believes that the use of nuclear weapons in this case would set a dangerous precedent. Such dilemmas drive him to find solutions for problems beyond the palm trees and sandstone walls of Stanford.

Sagan’s interest in nuclear security was inspired by his college thesis on failed deterrence efforts that led to the Pacific War during World War II. After graduating from Oberlin College in 1977 with a major in government, he pursued a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard University. This led to a job at the Pentagon where Sagan served as special assistant to the director of the Joint Staff.

“I went from the ivory tower of Harvard to a windowless room in the basement of the Pentagon, from studying abstract theory to focusing on military operations and the real world of preparing for nuclear war,” he said.

This “real world” experience had a profound effect on him.

“It convinced me that weapons are not controlled by abstract states or even statesmen,” Sagan said. “I began to question who actually controlled the weapons. Did the military have the autonomy to use them when they wanted? Who made the actual decisions?”

Sagan started to provide intelligence about these decisions, producing literature about the control of nuclear weapons.

“As a renowned nuclear weapons policy expert, his work has influenced scholars and policymakers alike,” said Reid Pauly, a graduate of Cornell University and research assistant to Sagan.

Sagan added that policymakers rely on scholars like him.

“They [policymakers] are so busy putting out fires, they rarely have time to question assumptions,” he said. “So scholars play an important role, bringing new ideas and new facts to bear on government policies.”

“Stanford is a marvelous place because of the quality of the students,” he said. “I never have to reduce the level of discussion and can try out new ideas in a creative way.”

In partnership with Alan Weiner from the Stanford Law School, Sagan developed a new spring quarter course this year titled The Ethics and Law of War. The course, targeted toward juniors and seniors, will analyze the standards that countries use when determining whether or not to use force. Sagan is also planning a freshman lecture course, The Rules of War, for next year.

Role-playing and simulations of real-world situations are important to Sagan’s teaching style.

“I’m a big believer in active learning,” he said. “It not only helps capture what decision making is like, but also forces students out of their box[es].”

Sagan also teaches a course in the Sophomore College program titled The Face of Battle. The course involves him taking approximately 10 students on a fieldtrip back in time to the battlefields of Gettysburg, Penn. and Little Bighorn, Mont.

Matthew Enriquez ’13 spoke enthusiastically about his 2010 Sophomore College experience with Sagan.

“I got to interact in a very active way with such an amazing professor, but also with history itself,” Enriquez said. “Professor Sagan’s passion brought the battlefields to life.”

Aside from teaching classes, Sagan is also a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) and emeritus co-director of the Center for International Security and Co-operation (CISAC) at Stanford.

Despite being busy with work on the Farm, Sagan continues to engage with current nuclear weapons policy debates. He said he is concerned about countries with radical military elements seeking out a nuclear bomb–most notably Pakistan and Iran.

“Once Iran gets the bomb, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps may become more aggressive, not less aggressive,” Sagan said. “And that’s a danger we all have to worry about.”

According to him, issues like these are too important for young people at major universities to ignore. Yet even for those who want to make a difference, Sagan warns against misguided passion.

“You can care passionately about something, but passion itself doesn’t produce influence,” Sagan said. “Passion armed with new knowledge and skillful ways to apply it can have influence.”

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