Alex George, the much-admired Stanford University professor, wrote Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy (1993) to encourage academia to produce more policy-relevant work. This divide has become wider in subsequent years. Hard-pressed government officials rarely look to academe for help with proliferation. They usually don’t have the time or patience for theorems or quantitative analysis. Bill Potter and Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova have tried to bridge this gap. Their new two-volume set, Forecasting Nuclear Proliferation in the 21st Century (2010) [Vol. 1 | Vol. 2], brings together academics committed to policy-relevant theories of proliferation and offers country studies. There is much that is admirable in both volumes for students, academics and, yes, practitioners.

The editors place particular emphasis on the work of Jacques Hymans and Etel Solingen, two political scientists strongly committed to applying their craft to nonproliferation issues. Hymans builds a predictive model around “oppositional nationalism”: look for national leaders who rely on “opposition-induced fear and nationalism-induced pride” in states that have “reasonably intense interactions” wih a competitor as well as a nuclear program under centralized control and, in Hymans’ view, you may well be looking at a proliferator. Solingen is a proponent of the “analytical advantages of domestic models of political survival.” Her research suggests that political leaders and ruling coalitions “advocating growth through integration in the global economy” will not be inclined to seek the Bomb. Instead, beware of proliferation where “inward-looking leaders and coalitions” pursue political platforms “rooted in mistrust for international markets, investment, technology and institutions.”

Political scientists working on nuclear issues have successfully de-coded the language of practitioners, but they still speak in their own code. These two tribes are unlikely to commingle more if political scientists speak (and argue) in a language that practitioners have no interest in learning. Academics who wish to influence policy and practitioners are therefore obliged to learn translation skills. Richard Betts wrote evocatively and persuasively about paranoids, pygmies, and pariahs. Hymans uses the typology of oppositional nationalists, sportsmanlike nationalists, oppositional subalterns and sportsmanlike subalterns.

Contributing factors to proliferation are widely recognized. They include domestic drivers, economic and security concerns, as well as regime and leadership types. The academic school of realism and its various branches do not satisfactorily explain the relative paucity of proliferation cases. A “unified field theory” of proliferation, if one can be devised, would include all of these factors in some measure. But the weighting of these factors is different in all cases, and every favored theory has its exceptions. The editors acknowledge that their contributors “do not yield a definitive answer to the question of how best to forecast nuclear proliferation.”

Proliferation theory will always matter far more to political scientists than to government and nongovernmental experts. Reliance on methodology to inform nonproliferation policy clearly has its limits, and other investigative methods are likely to be more fruitful. Hedging strategies that begin with civil nuclear power programs cannot be hidden for very long. And no academic theory is likely to be more suggestive than, say, tracking illicit acquisitions or reading other people’s mail, to use Henry L. Stimson’s quaint formulation. These essays make a strong case for academic inquiry, but not for specific predictive purposes.

The most important policy-relevant conclusion from these essays is a rebuttal of the widely-held assumption of proliferation cascades. Up until now, proliferation has been a relatively rare occurrence, far below projections. The data mined by these authors suggest that, with wise policy choices, this might continue to be the case, even with the current, unsettling Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs. The finding that new proliferation cases are likely to be few in number further undermines the presumed value of theoretical pursuits. This quest does no harm, but functional and regional experts do not need theoretical constructs derived from academic methodologies to figure out where to look for new cases of proliferation.

This two-volume set suggests that academic efforts to theorize may be more helpful in gaining insights from the past than in predicting the future. Notably, the editors conclude not with a ringing endorsement of new theoretical excursions, but by calling for a renewed commitment to “empirical research based on a deep understanding of the countries and cultures they analyze.” The field awaits and could make good use of a rising generation of proliferation experts, schooled in regional, country, and language skills.

Note to readers: This is a much-abridged and slightly revised book review that appears in the current issue of the Nonproliferation Review, along with the disclaimer that the publisher of my most recent book, Stanford University Press, has also published this two-volume set.