Nicholas Miller

Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Studies
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Nicholas Miller
Assistant Professor of Political Science
and International Studies
Mike Cohea/Brown University
Developing foreign policy positions and strategies is an art that has significant consequences. A U.S. policy that restrained nuclear weapons proliferation after 1980 was a great success, Nicholas Miller says. Policies like the removal of the Baath Party in Iraq were not. Policy-relevant research is key.

Nicholas Miller wants his international security research to be relevant to policy, but he’s managed to exceed mere relevance. His conclusions have provided clear arguments about whether the United States government got things right or wrong, an important consideration given that thousands or millions of lives ride on every blunder or success.

Take, for example, his freshly completed doctoral thesis work at MIT’s Security Studies Program. There he asked why nearly a dozen nations initiated programs to develop “the bomb” between 1960 and 1980 but only a couple have started up new programs since. The answer, he demonstrates, is the success of a U.S. policy that made military and economic support conditional on forgoing the weapons. Reluctance to fray ties with the United States convinced many nations, even ones under dire security threats such as South Korea and Taiwan, to hold off (in these cases, even after they had started).

Many political scientists have overlooked or dismissed the impact of this U.S. policy, launched in 1976, but Miller shows in his thesis and in a related paper upcoming in International Organization, that the likelihood of abstaining from a nuclear weapons program correlates highly with the degree of dependence a nation had on the United States (canceling an already extant program was much more rare). Only nations with very little U.S. dependence — Iran and Iraq — persevered in initiating a nuclear weapons program after 1980, by which time the policy had become established and credible on the world stage.

“I think it’s one of the great policy successes that the United States has achieved in the last fifty to sixty years,” said Miller, assistant professor of political science and the Frank Stanton Assistant Professor of Nuclear Security and Policy at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. “If you look at the patterns of proliferation and how U.S. non-proliferation policy develops, you can see the striking pattern.”

Failure in Iraq

If only policy always went so well. In other analyses, Miller examined a more recent U.S. policy that went poorly: the occupation of Iraq. Here he examined whether constituencies within an occupied country will be inclined to collaborate with or resist the occupying power.

Drawing on historical examples, especially Nazi occupations including the Vichy regime in France that collaborated with the Germans, Miller shows that occupying powers can expect more collaboration than they might think. Applied to Iraq, the lesson is that the United States likely could have co-opted remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party after the dictator was overthrown instead of marginalizing them. Baathists soon became violent resisters rather than collaborators.

“I’m not advocating imperialism or anything like that,” he said. “But empirically, collaboration is incredibly common across foreign occupations. In every occupation, collaboration occurs and often times it’s by mainstream, organized political actors. In spite of what everyone thinks of nationalism, it’s not all-powerful.”

By not including the Baathists, Miller said, the U.S. occupation of Iraq became “a prototypical case, almost, of an occupying power basically causing resistance against it.”

Ever since Miller was an undergraduate at Wesleyan in Connecticut he has wanted to work directly on policy. At that stage he figured it would be from within the government, but at MIT, which emphasized relevance to policy, he discovered he loved the freedom to pursue his own research within that constraint. Now at Brown and the Watson Institute, Miller said he looks forward to continuing his work. He has no plans to become esoteric.

“The Watson Institute is also very committed to policy-relevant academic research,” he said. “I’m more interested in evaluating the success or failure of policies than I am of engaging in more abstract theoretical debates, for better or worse.”

A new project he may take up here would be an examination of whether starting a nuclear energy program really has much to do with developing a nuclear weapon. It’s not necessary for a country to have a nuclear energy program to acquire such weapons, he said, and many countries with nuclear power haven’t bothered to make weapons. The link between a nuclear energy program and weapons seems weaker than people may think. More study will be required, however, before applying this analysis to the current tensions with Iran.

Brown will also be a great place to teach, he said, because the undergraduate and graduate students are very smart and engaged.

Perhaps they, too, will reach positions where they can help policymakers understand why different moves succeed or fail in the geopolitical arena.

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