Department of Political Science
2115 G St. NW, Monroe Hall 440
Washington, DC 20052

Phone: (202) 994-6290
Fax: (202) 994-1974
polsci@gwu.edu


Rachel Whitlark

Office Hours — By appointment only

E-mail — whitlark@gwmail.gwu.edu

Major — International Relations

Minor — Comparative Politics

Current Research

Interests: International security, international relations, foreign policy decision-making, nuclear proliferation, military intervention, and grand strategy.

Overview: My dissertation, titled “All Options on the Table? Nuclear Proliferation, Preventive War, and a Leader’s Decision to Intervene,” explores how leaders’ beliefs influence the decision to use preventive military force as a counter-proliferation strategy against adversarial nuclear programs. Using comparative and historical analysis, I conduct qualitative and archival case study research to investigate the sources of American counter-proliferation decision-making against a variety of adversaries from 1945 to 2007. Beyond the dissertation, additional projects explore current American foreign policy in its historical context, investigate the impact of nuclear weapons on the international system, and scrutinize the behavior of the superpower in the provision of public goods and in foreign military interventions over time. 

Education

M.A. International Policy Studies, Stanford University

B.A. magna cum laude, International Affairs and French, George Washington University

Background

For the 2013-2014 academic year, Rachel is a Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow with the Managing the Atom and International Security Programs at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She spent 2012-2013 as a Stanton Nuclear Security Pre-Doctoral Fellow with Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program.

Dissertation —

Title: “All Options on the Table? Nuclear Proliferation, Preventive War, and a Leader’s Decision to Intervene”

Committee: Charles Glaser (Chair), James Goldgeier (American University), Elizabeth Saunders

Abstract:

Under what conditions do states use preventive military force to forestall or destroy an adversary’s nuclear weapons program? If nuclear weapons are so dangerous, why do leaders disagree about the magnitude of the threat posed by specific nuclear programs? Despite the fact that nuclear proliferation has been a growing source of concern, counter-proliferation decision-making remains poorly understood. In addition, though the logic of preventive war pervades the international relations literature as one state response to a relative decline in power, after five decades of scholarship it remains unclear when this leads to war and when it does not. In the nuclear arena, a preventive war may occur when one state, facing another state in the process of acquiring nuclear weapons, attacks the nuclear program in an attempt to destroy or forestall it and remove the future possibility of fighting a nuclear-armed adversary.

My project demonstrates that the decision to use preventive military force rests not only on structural factors, such as power differentials and military feasibility, but critically on a leader’s prior beliefs about the consequences of nuclear proliferation and confidence in the state’s ability to deter a particular nuclear adversary. Included in the universe are 23 cases between 1945 and 2007 that demonstrate the phenomenon in question. From within the larger universe, and to test my argument against competing hypotheses from the existing literature, I conduct comparative and historical analysis using archival research and process tracing to examine American decision-making against the Chinese, Iraqi, and North Korean nuclear programs. I test the generalizability of my argument with cases exploring Israeli decision-making against Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria.

I offer a leader-centric argument for understanding use of force decisions, where cost-benefit analyses by various leaders differ because of disagreement over the requirements of deterrence and the dangers of nuclear proliferation, as well as competing threat assessments of the state attempting to proliferate. In contrast to purely rational models that would not expect much rational variation in this calculation, I argue that leaders possess divergent prior or pre-presidential beliefs about the nature and dangers of proliferation, as well as threat perceptions of specific other states. My research and existing research on the Cold War suggests that leaders have patterned, entrenched, and divergent beliefs on these topics fundamental to intervention decisions. Leaders therefore have different expected utility calculations when confronting the same estimates of the situation they confront that lead to different strategy selections.

This project advances the literatures on foreign policy decision-making, counter-proliferation, and preventive war. Using archival material, it demonstrates the key role individuals play in nuclear policy and the existence of divergent beliefs about deterrence and proliferation. It offers a novel explanation for variation in counter-proliferation behavior and recommendations to improve the policy process by highlighting an oft-overlooked source of information vital to non-proliferation policy: the essential role of individual beliefs. 

Publications

2012. "The Battle Over America's Foreign Policy Doctrine." Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 54(5): 45-66. (With Amir Stepak)

Working Papers 

Prepared for Submission to PS: Political Science and Politics. “Using Scenarios in the Classroom: Teaching Creativity, Research Design, and Research Question Selection.” (With Naazneen Barma, Brent Durbin, and Eric Lorber)

“Putting the ‘Public’ in Global Goods: An Empirical Investigation of Global Public Goods Provision.” (With Naazneen Barma)

“Nuclear Weapons and the End of the Nation State.” (With James Goldgeier)

“Discourses of Legitimation: Power, Identity, and Humanitarian Intervention.” (With Shannon Elizabeth Powers)

Classes Taught

Teaching Assistant*:

International Affairs Cornerstone (graduate), Professor Charles Glaser, George Washington University (Fall 2011 & 2010)

Introduction to International Politics (undergraduate), Professor Chad Rector, George Washington University, (Spring 2011, Spring 2010, Spring 2009, & Fall 2007)

Guest Lecturer:

“An Introduction to Nuclear Weapons,” for “Introduction to International Politics” course (Spring 2011)

“21st Century Deterrence: Confronting Rogue States and International Terrorists,” for “Introduction to International Politics” courses (Spring 2010 & Spring 2011)

*Teaching evaluations are available upon request.