Maria Rublee

Maria Rublee, Senior Lecturer in Political Studies, explains how she came to study "naughty" nuclear states.

Maria Rublee, Senior Lecturer in Political Studies
Maria Rublee, Senior Lecturer in Political Studies

I am not surprised that I turned out to be a political studies lecturer – my mom was a voracious reader, and our home was full of books. My dad was a politics hound – he wouldn’t just watch political shows, he would interact with them. My parents inspired me to read and think for myself.

Initially, I earned a Government and Journalism degree in the States, where found I really enjoyed politics and philosophy. In fact, I had been accepted into the Georgetown Political Philosophy PhD programme - one of the best political philosophy programmes in the world – when I had an opportunity to study in New Zealand on a postgraduate Rotary International scholarship.

From a viewpoint outside of the States, I saw how important Asia was, how important international relations was. I realised that I had a huge knowledge gap and on returning home, I embarked on the study of international relations for my PhD. My experience in New Zealand had completely changed my academic path.

A PhD programme in the US involves three years of coursework before even beginning the thesis. When finished my comprehensive exams and received approval to write my PhD thesis, I had been in school for eight years past high school, and I was tired. So I took leave of absence from university and went to work for the US government.

Working really changed the way I teach - a lot of what I had learnt had little application on the job. I believe we have the mandate to teach students how to think critically, so let’s teach them how to apply that thinking to policy as well.

I ended up in the Defense Intelligence Agency within the US Government in Washington, DC. There I studied “naughty” nuclear states - countries that were doing things they weren’t supposed to. It was very interesting work, but it struck me that all this money and all these people were focused on a very small group of states, while most countries were doing what they were supposed to. Why weren’t we looking at all these countries to learn what we could to help us with the countries that we were concerned about?

I returned to university to refocus my PhD on why countries that could develop nuclear weapons instead decide to exercise nuclear restraint. The traditional argument is that they don’t have the security need for nuclear weapons. I argue that “security” is socially constructed, and international norms shape the way states think about their security. Because of the norm against nuclear proliferation, when most states think about security, they automatically exclude the possibility of nuclear weapons. Countries that seek nuclear weapons are seen as rogue states, and most countries don’t want to be rogue states.

I am currently working on an area of research around anti-nuclear norm entrepreneurs – people who try to “sell” policies for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. These are a range of actors - individuals in NGOs, politicians - who try to press the case, but they can also be states – such as Norway. New Zealand could be one of those states, but has instead chosen to remain mostly on the sidelines. I want to look at these norm entrepreneurs: Who are they? What are they doing? What methods do they use and are they effective? I still get criticisms; people say “norms don’t matter at all – they’re just window dressing”. So I want to see if these norm entrepreneurs actually make a difference.

To study something as soft and immeasurable as norms, I’ve had to proceed in a systematic way. I returned once again to study, labouring through thousands of pages of social psychology literature. I wanted to bring together insights from social psychology into one framework, and that’s what I used in my book Nonproliferation Norms: Why States Choose Nuclear Restraint. My book was subsequently awarded the Alexander George for the best book in political psychology for 2009 – that’s very exciting.

So much is going on in the nuclear arena. I am also working with other international experts on another book project on nuclear norms. It is basically an unexplored area - yet there is so much to talk about: What different types of norms are there? How do they affect state behaviour, individual behaviour, who develops the norms, who benefits from the norms, what types of new norms should we be thinking about?

I’m always engaged on Middle Eastern and East Asian issues - I am doing a paper for a book on Egyptian nuclear policies, and I’ve just finished a chapter on North Korean nuclear policies.

In my opinion, if the nuclear weapon states are not willing to work on disarmament, then they have to be willing for other countries to develop nuclear weapons. It is going to happen whether we like it or not - so either get to work on with disarmament or accept that we are going to see the further spread of nuclear weapons. Thankfully we are now seeing movement for disarmament because you cannot have this discriminatory status quo – it simply will not last.