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Alumni Confidential: Rupal Mehta

September 25, 2023
Rupal Mehta

Alumni Confidential

In our latest Alumni Confidential interview, IGCC program and research associate Olivia Chioffi talks with Rupal Mehta, an alumna of IGCC’s Public Policy and Nuclear Threats (PPNT) Boot Camp and a 2012–13 IGCC dissertation fellow who is currently a tenured Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Rupal reflects on the still unanswered questions on deterrence and offers advice to future generations of international security experts. She also shares a glimpse into her intriguing new work on the neuroscientific underpinnings of nuclear decision-making.

You have an impressive background conducting research on nuclear nonproliferation, deterrence, and latency, and have served as a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center and an expert advisor to the Department of State and Los Alamos National Laboratory. What first led you to become interested in nuclear security?

First, I’m Indian American, and when I was growing up, especially in the 1990s and even in the early 2000s, there was a great deal of discussion about a potential conflict or crisis brewing between the Indians and Pakistanis—and nuclear weapons were always part of that conversation. So, I was mindful that there was this absolutely devastating weapon that was impacting my ancestral homeland and the relationship between two peoples who are actually quite similar.

The other part of it was that I was always really interested in current events and foreign policy. I did speech and debate in high school and when I got to college, I took a class with Ron Hassner at UC Berkeley. We read The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed, which is a dialogue between Scott Sagan and Kenneth Waltz on nuclear weapons. and I remember thinking it was so fascinating, because there is this weapon, this technology, that is absolutely devastating, and here are two diametrically different positions about how it can be used and how dangerous it can be.

Have you come to any conclusions about how two peoples—Pakistanis and Indians—who are, as you said, so similar could have this enduring conflict?

Not really! I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years, and there are some things that I understand a little bit better, such as the ways in which nuclear weapons impact conflict and crises. It happens much more on the periphery than you might expect. A lot of my work on nuclear latency, which is the precursor technology to nuclear weapons, has helped elucidate that for me. I always wondered, why would you start the process but not finish it? And then through my work on nuclear reversal, I can better understand why you’d give nuclear weapons up. There’s pressure from the U.S. and the international system, and giving them up is what would allow you to regain your status in the international system.

In the India/Pakistan realm, the questions that are still at the back of my head are: how are nuclear weapons “keeping the peace?” How are they being used on a day-to-day basis? Would the states ever give them up? I’m still gnawing away at the edges of those answers.

If you ask any deterrence scholar what it is that makes deterrence work, we all give different answers. To me, that suggests that we’re getting closer to answers, but there’s still a lot that we don’t have a good handle on. As we get better at empirical analysis and understanding the ways in which nuclear weapons are being used, we get closer to seeing what their effects are. But I don’t think we have definitive answers yet about a lot of the stuff we think about on a daily basis.

Is the diversity of ideas about what makes deterrence work a product of scholars having a regional focus rather than a more global outlook? Or is nuclear security simply something that we have yet to fully understand?

It’s both. For sure, the way that nuclear weapons work in India/Pakistan is going to be different than how they work, for example, between the U.S. and its peer adversaries, China and Russia. But it’s also that nuclear weapons are used—so much, every single day—in such different ways from their intended use as a weapon of mass destruction or a weapon of war. We’re still trying to get a handle on how they operate.

I was at a conference in Sweden a few months ago, and one of the things someone raised was that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is such a clear example of deterrence failing. I remember I turned to a friend, who also studies nuclear weapons, and we looked at each other and asked: wait, deterrence failed? We’re not in a full-scale war between Russia and NATO. To us, deterrence has been successful. Part of why we are still questioning whether deterrence works is because the effects of having nuclear weapons are so nuanced and non-linear. It’s not always possible to isolate what particular thing is having the biggest effect. Is it nuclear weapons, superior conventional weapons, economic independence, fear of continued isolation, potential domestic upheaval as a result of conflict? Part of why we’re all struggling is that none of these things are unicausal. Everything we’re studying is multicausal, and we’re all trying to get a handle on what those causes look like.

Your work has direct policy implications, and you’ve had the chance to see both sides: the academic and the policy side. Do you think policymakers are open to being influenced by research? And are researchers effective at influencing them?

It is absolutely true that we researchers are having an effect on policy, and that the policy community is open to the academic side of these questions. The Biden administration is a great example of this—so many of the people who are in charge of developing policy are academics. I was talking with a policy person who’s in the administration right now, and they were referencing their own experience as an academic and teacher in that conversation. I thought that was really interesting. Whenever we attempt to develop an answer to something, even in a policy context, so much of our training as researchers and teachers comes into play. The policy community is very open to that. Academic research is also now trying to shift so that we’re asking and answering questions that are applicable and useful to the policy community.

There are definitely still pockets of political science where the relevance to the policy community is not quite there yet. But certainly in international relations and international security, we’re trying to do our best to ask questions that are pertinent. Unfortunately, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the need for that type of work and has brought some of this research to the forefront of thinking and made us much more relevant to ongoing policy discussions.

You’ve interacted with IGCC quite a bit over your career, through the Dissertation Fellowship, the Public Policy and Nuclear Threats (PPNT) Bootcamp, the Government, Development, and Political Violence Workshop, and the Nuclear Science and Security Consortium Summer Workshop. Our mission is to share academic research with decisionmakers in order to have a positive influence on policy and global affairs. In a world that has become so politicized and inundated with content, is an institution like IGCC still relevant?

So much of my work has been instrumentally influenced by IGCC’s mission. IGCC is at the forefront, and always has been. Ever since IGCC was developed by Herb York, and as it continues to be led by Tai Ming Cheung, Neil Narang, Eli Berman, and others, every aspect of IGCC is instrumental to our understanding of what goes on in the world. Every time I see something really cool happening at the University of California, it involves IGCC! There will be some new research projects happening or some new grant that’s been developed, and IGCC is always a part of it.

The new Postdoctoral Fellowship in Technology and International Security, where fellows get to meet up in D.C., work across the labs, and develop this network of relationships is really important, not just for the research it generates but for helping to establish the next phase in people’s careers. IGCC stands out as being at the forefront of the conversation, and bridging the gap between the academic side and the policy side of this space.

I was in San Diego over the summer for this year’s PPNT program, and I did feel like I witnessed the new generation of nuclear security experts emerging. Do you get that sense with your own students? Are people coming into universities with an interest in nuclear security and a desire to pursue it further?

Absolutely. I’ve been really fortunate that, in my new class on nuclear weapons, I’ve had huge enrollment numbers every year I’ve taught it. You can see that there’s interest—especially among undergraduates—in understanding what they see in the world around them. Nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction play such an important role in every single current event that we’re looking at, especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also in terms of other things, whether it’s questions of NATO or Taiwan. I can see my students really yearning for information to understand what’s going on.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, we also have a close relationship with U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM). A lot of our students do internships or fellowships at STRATCOM, so they end up using what they learned in my courses, and other courses in our department, to work there. It’s such an important part of training the next generation—they’re getting hands-on simulation experience and implementing it in the next phase of their careers.

Do you have any advice for new scholars in the nuclear security space?

The advice I always give people is, first, read as much as you possibly can. There’s so much amazing content out there, in a variety of different forms. There are podcasts, blogposts by experts—sometimes even Twitter or X threads can be really informative when they’re done by reputable scholars who study nuclear weapons. And of course there are articles and books. But I’m aware that the next generation consumes information in different forms and different types of media. I would say: whatever way people are interested in studying something, they should do that. The more curious they are, the more they will want to go into the details and read the articles and books about this research.

The second piece of advice is to work hard at asking deep and important questions. That was one of the first things that I was taught in graduate school, especially by my advisor, David Lake. Even if they’re hard and you don’t know the answer, that’s the point.

The third thing I would say is, especially when I was in graduate school, there was this sentiment that the only job you should ever be looking for is an academic job. Don’t get me wrong—an academic job is fantastic. But there are all sorts of careers that are important, especially when it comes to understanding nuclear weapons and their effects. There are jobs in policy, government, industry; being open to whatever aspect piques your interest is critical. I always tell my students: pursuing your passion in whatever form it takes is really important.

Lastly: maintain your thirst for knowledge and keep learning. As a tenured professor now, I get a lot of requests to review journal articles. I find myself almost always saying yes because I read the title and think: I don’t know anything about that and I actually want to learn about this! That mentality is not only really important for the discipline overall, it’s also a reminder to myself to continue to be curious about the world, especially about the many things I don’t understand.

That’s great advice, especially the reminder to always ask critical questions and stay curious. What are some of the questions you’re asking currently?

There’s something new that I’m doing that is totally foreign to me! My next-door office neighbor in my department is a neuroscientist and political psychologist. We were chatting and I was reading some of her work one day, and I was thinking, wouldn’t it be cool to do something together?

So now we’re working together on a project on the neuroscientific underpinnings of nuclear decision-making. We’re trying to understand what parts of the brain are activated when participants are put into scenarios that are meant to mimic high-risk, high-intensity nuclear negotiations. We put our participants in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, and we looked at the brains to see if they were activated or moved by fear, revenge, anger, elation, or whatever it might be, to see what parts of their brains are doing the heavy lifting in terms of how they’re approaching negotiations with an adversary.

Part of this is driven by the work in political psychology that suggests that liberals and conservatives approach conversations with other actors differently. If you have a liberal-leaning president versus a conservative-leaning president, how will they approach negotiations, for example, with Iran or North Korea? We think that these findings are going to give us a little more understanding about how presidents view their roles as lead negotiators with nuclear adversaries.

Every time I ask policymakers what it is they’d love to know, they reply: well, we’d love to know what’s going on in the heads of our adversaries. Obviously, this isn’t that—we’re not going to put Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping in our fMRI machine—but it gives us a little bit more insight into how different types of humans engage in decision-making behavior. That, I think, is really cool.