Shawn McFall ’18 to present on nuclear arms at national research conference

Shawn McFall
September 22, 2020

“A nuclear reactor is like a knife — it is a necessary utensil for cutting bread, but it can also be used to cut a throat.”

Shawn “Mickey” McFall ’18 invokes those chilling words, written by an exiled Iraqi nuclear scientist, in his own research paper on the potential threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

McFall, a government and legal studies major, will speak on the subject on April 6 at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at the University of Central Oklahoma. He will draw on a previously published paper, “The Perception Gap Over Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East," that he wrote for a CMC class.

This has been a memorable spring for McFall, who just accepted an offer of admission to pursue his M.A. at the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

McFall, in an interview and in his research paper, describes the recent buildup in nuclear energy facilities across the Middle East. The region’s petroleum-rich nations seek — officially, at least — to consume less oil at home and thus profit from having more of it to sell on the world market. But the buildup, he writes, “coupled with deep-seated suspicions, has led some states to perceive other states as potential nuclear weapons states.” The danger is that in a climate of ambiguity and long-standing tensions, regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia, in particular, may be motivated to use fissile material from their reactors to develop weapons.

McFall posits that the big Persian Gulf rivals, engaged in a hegemonic struggle to shape the region, “will misconstrue the intent of each other’s latent nuclear program and therefore will increase their means of nuclear proliferation.” To test that hypothesis, he reviewed the nuclear energy buildup in Iran and Iraq from 1970 to 1979. He drew, in part, on declassified cables from U.S. security personnel and first-hand accounts from tapes recorded by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, also now part of the public record, to determine how nuclear proliferation was shaped during that period. From that history, he discusses implications for the contemporary nuclear ambitions of Iran and Saudi Arabia.

With his term “the perception gap,” McFall draws parallels to a previous era during which false perceptions fueled demands for an arms buildup. The “missile gap” during the Cold War referred to the later-discredited belief of officials in the West, especially the United States, that their countries trailed the Soviet Union in ballistic missile capability.

“This perception gap is the main driver in a state’s decision-making calculus on whether a state shall pursue nuclear bombs,” McFall writes of the Mideast. “The United States and the international community need to shift the current perception of a nuclear reactor — a knife for slitting throats — to a more positive perception, a knife for cutting bread. If there is no shift in perception, then there is potential for a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”

McFall became interested in nuclear proliferation while he attended high school in White Oak in northeast Texas. He cites the influence of reporting by Barbara Demick, author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” (2009).

McFall arrived at CMC in 2014 after having won all-district football honors as an offensive lineman for White Oak High School and first-team academic all-state football honors. His “bright-eyed” younger self, he recalled, immediately became enamored of the Claremont campus, especially the beautiful mountain vistas. On the field, he would go on to play four seasons with the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Stags, though he was sidelined for most of his junior year because of injury.

In the classroom, McFall said, he expected to focus on the Koreas, and to work toward his goal of one day joining the State Department. He enrolled in Korean language courses and studied with Lisa Koch, assistant professor of government. In Koch’s  “International Politics of Nuclear Weapons” and “U.S. Foreign Policy” classes he started to broaden his interests. He credits Koch and other faculty members, notably George Thomas, Burnet C. Wohlford Professor of American Political Institutions, as key influences.

Koch returns the compliment in describing her student, who goes by Mickey on the football field and in the classroom.

“Mickey’s approach to his scholarship is grounded in the practical, policy implications of his research,” Koch said. “He tackles research questions that really matter for U.S. foreign policymaking, such as a recent paper he wrote that offers practical guidance on how the United States should pursue diplomacy with North Korea.”

When McFall ventures to Edmond, Okla., for his talk, he will speak to an audience of fellow student scholars, professors, and special guests, including his mother and grandparents. His mother, April, is a graduate of Central Oklahoma, and the family has roots in the area, about a five-hour drive north of his Texas hometown. (McFall’s dad, Rob, is the longtime softball coach at White Oak High.)

Koch is advising McFall on his senior honors thesis, which focuses on Iraq and argues that threats to U.S. national security do not simply emerge on their own. The president, members of Congress, the media, and public sentiment, he writes, all contribute to determining when a threat becomes perceived as significant to national security.

“Mickey has a great sense of when to contribute his own insights, and when to step back to allow his colleagues to add to the conversation,” Koch said. “He communicates his ideas thoughtfully and considers his audience before framing what he says. Like a good diplomat, Mickey is able to cut through large amounts of information to get to the heart of what U.S. interests are, what policy options might be available, and what the consequences could be. He’s not afraid to think creatively.”

After four years at CMC, McFall appears to be well on his way to a future in the State Department.

“A good diplomat needs to be able to both lead and listen,” Koch said. “Mickey is a person who acts with integrity. And he’s someone other people like to be around. These are two of the most important qualities of a good diplomat.”

– Henry Fuhrmann


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