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Fukushima’s first days: the US response


I’m going to break the format of this blog a bit, such as it is, to make a few journalistic observations about the US response to the earliest days of Fukushima.

Firstly, the US NRC seems to have been shell-shocked by the event. It should have been obvious from the first day that Unit 1 was in meltdown. The commission knew, for a fact, that there was no cooling in the core; this is well established. And it does not take a degree in nuclear physics to know what happens to nuclear cores without cooling. Yet it was three days before anyone was willing to admit the obvious, even to themselves. By all accounts the commissioners just watched the clock as over forty hours-without-cooling ticked by, and continued to assure the world that Japan had it under control. It is as if a lifetime of fervently espousing the impossibility of core-melts had made them unable to see what was right in front of their eyes.

This is cognitive dissonance on an epic scale.

Secondly, the Defence Department seems to have been much quicker to grasp the nettle. It was the Navy’s nuclear reactor division that appears to have been the real driver for belated US action. (The voluntary evacuation order, for instance, and a strongly worded message to the Prime Minister suggesting ‘heroic action’ — ie: suicide squads — when it looked like TEPCO were pulling out.)

Thirdly, the limited US evacuation recommendation (50 miles) was far too limited from a safety perspective. Within 72 hours it was clear to everyone that the citizens of Tokyo were in serious jeopardy. This is to say there was substantial evidence of a zirconium fire in the unit 4 spent-fuel pool (not least the fact that the building exploded, despite there being no fuel in the reactor core) — an event that would have released a tremendous amount of radioactive fallout, and would almost certainly have led to the loss of a much larger pool nearby. As it happened, the fuel had begun to melt but the Japanese were able to bring the pool back from the brink; but nobody at the time took this for granted.

When questioned about this, authoritative experts repeatedly stress that the NRC simulations showed no threat to Tokyo, even from a spent fuel fire. What they don’t say, however, is that the NRC simulations (which use a system called RASCAL) were only capable to modeling effects up to 50 miles out, and so they could not have shown a threat to Tokyo under any circumstances. The Germans had already advised their citizens to evacuate the capital, no doubt at some diplomatic cost. So had the French, the Russians and the Chinese — all countries with heavy nuclear investments and none of them exactly wilting violets when it comes to radiological hazards.

Tokyo was in serious trouble, and the US must have known.

This leads to my final observation: that the US decision not to order an evacuation beyond 50 miles — quickly and obediently echoed by the UK — was a political decision not an evidence-based calculation. It was a decision to put US citizens in Tokyo at risk as a favor to the Japanese government, who were desperately worried that a mass international evacuation would have led to uncontrollable panic in their capital.

It was a gamble that paid-off. Other countries looked to the US for cues and echoed their recommendations, stemming the tide of evacuation recommendations. Mass panic was averted. TEPCO — with ‘heroic efforts’ and no small amount of heroic luck — were able to save the spent-fuel pool, and with it the residents of Tokyo. (Although it remains in jeopardy).

In other words, Japan owes the US a solid, and they’re acutely aware of the fact. Sore misgivings about US bases on Japanese soil have all but disappeared since the crisis.


Policy Relevance 101: Know your audience


Acting Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Eilene Gottemoeller

Policy relevance is a term that is thrown around in academic communities that thrive on soft money. It is what you have to figure out how to be in order to receive funding–something that fewer and fewer of us who once aspired to the Ivory Tower lifestyle can afford to ignore as even those with tenure-track jobs are asked to bring in grant money. However, what exactly being policy relevant means is not always readily apparently if you believe, as I did, that it is primarily about arguing the merits of different policy options.

When I first arrived in Washington DC a couple years ago, I had my first real conversation about what it meant to be policy relevant. As I recall, I sat down across from Jeffrey Lewis in his cramped office on K Street not sure what we would talk about. Being unsure of what you want out of a conversation in Washington can go very wrong, but with the right person it can quickly turn into a revelatory experience. At the time, Jeffrey and I were working for the same organization, but lived in very different intellectual worlds. I had only recently graduated from the University of Chicago and was still in love with knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Jeffrey had already built his very successful blog,, where the nuke policy community debates the finer points of what the US should do about the topic du jour and the validity of the intelligence on which those decisions are being made.

In the first few moments of our conversation, it became readily apparent that what I considered policy relevant was painfully naive to a Washington insider. Jeffrey asked me to name the officials who implement US arms control and nonproliferation policy and I couldn’t name a single one. I was still holding onto the mistaken notion that being policy relevant actually meant saying something meaningful about policy. In my case that meant arguing about whether and how the system of deterrence and nonproliferation works. What I learned from Jeffrey is that the process of becoming policy relevant begins with knowing your audience.

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the nominations for the top three arms control and nonproliferation positions:

The Honorable Rose Eilene Gottemoeller of Virginia, to be Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security

Mr. Frank A. Rose of Massachusetts, to be Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance

Mr. Adam M. Scheinman of Virginia, to be Special Representative of the President for Nuclear Nonproliferation, with the Rank of Ambassador

These nominations, and the nomination for the top official, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller, in particular have been tied up in partisan politics for some time. As Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance, Rose Gottemoeller negotiated the New Start treaty with Russia. Not surprisingly, today she was questioned repeatedly about whether or not the Obama administration had any intention of obviating the treaty process and reducing the nuclear stockpile either in concert with the Russian, but without a formal treaty, or unilaterally. Ms. Gottemoeller repeatedly stated that the US intended to move forward with negotiating a treaty with the Russians, but that further reductions outside the treaty process were “not currently on the table.”

You can watch the hearing and read the testimony here:

There was a lot more to my conversation with Jeffrey that I will save for another post; He was in no way reducing policy relevance to the idea of influencing individual policymakers. Really his question about who holds what position was simply a rhetorical device to prove a larger point about the relationship between policy and politics. I’m still collecting answers to what it means to be policy relevant (or politically relevant, maybe?) from others in Washington. I think this is an important question for the project of nuclear philosophy and am curious what you have to say on this topic.

Ich bin ein target

Obama BrandenburgLast week on June 19th President Obama stood on the eastern side of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to announce that he would reduce the US deployed strategic nuclear arsenal by a third to approximately 1,000 weapons. His announcement confirmed rumors that the Obama administration plans to obviate a difficult treaty ratification process like the one the administration went through with the New Start Treaty in 2010. Although the reductions will be undertaken in concert with Russia, Obama is seeking a pact, not a treaty. This a significant change from business as usual, but it didn’t make much of an impact on the German public. The coverage of Obama’s visit was dominated by questions from reporters about the PRISM program–the US National Security Administration’s post-industrial spying machine.

The heavy symbolism of his return to the place where President Kennedy made his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech 50 years ago speaks to Obama’s desire for nuclear reductions to be remembered as one of his signature accomplishments. However, rather than being remembered for his heroic efforts to end the indiscriminate targeting of populations with nuclear weapons, Obama’s legacy may lie in his administrations perfection of the practice of precision targeting–the ability to scan large amounts of data and pick out the ‘high value individuals.’

I happened to be in Germany at the time of Obama’s speech visiting Paderborn for the conference on Tracking, Targeting and Predicting. Presentations at the conference fell into one of two groups: papers on mechanisms of public data collection and its manipulation, and papers on the role of perception and survellience in military training and operations. There were an impressive range of topics covered: the history of visual perception and the “martial gaze,” DHS Fusion Centers, the Revolution in Military Affairs, biometric identification techniques, public health data tracking, US survellience of internet data, and the mania of “Drone-a-rama.” I presented a paper I am co-authoring on US Joint Special Operations and “zone warfare.”  In addition to the German presenters, there were participants from the US, England and Canada. Most of the case studies focused on US programs and behaviors. There were no presentations on nuclear weapons.

My expereince at the conference was consistent with my past impressions of Germany. Every time I visit I am always struck by how different the center of gravity is in public conversations about national security. Germans have a different perception of risk than Americans and a stronger aversion to the language and practice of targeting. Under Angela Merkel Germany has asked the US to remove its Cold-War era nuclear weapons from its terrirory, began the process of phasing out nuclear energy, maintained the value of personal privacy as a social good, and continued to express zero-tolerance for torture of any kind. In contrast, Obama’s nuclear reductions appear modest, his justifications of the PRISM program with his back turned to ‘the West’ provokes the wrong kind of Cold War symbolism, and targeted killings continue to proliferate.

There was something incredibly uniting about the radical equality of the threat to humanity posed by nuclear war, and President Obama renewed a collective sense of purpose in countering that threat when he held out the promise of  ‘a world free of nuclear weapons’ in his 2009 speeach in Prague–especially since most of us have lived our entire lives as “countervalue targets” in a nuclear war plan. However, it turns out that we are now targets of a different kind. In constrast to the collective threat of nuclear war, we are caught up in a general cultural trend toward the use of social data to single out individuals based on demographic data and past patterns of behavior–from identifying terrorists to the Obama campaign’s “precision targeting of persuadable voters.” Usually we think nothing of it, but presiding over this shift in security culture is likely to be the defining feature of Obama’s presidency. We are all ‘high value inviduals’ in at least one of Obama’s targeting plans.

Self-licking ice cream cone?


The big news coming out of the current talks between the P5+1 and Iran in Almaty, Khazakstan is that the parties have agreed to…talk. CBS News reports that “Technical experts for each side will meet in Istanbul in mid-March to discuss the world powers’ offer and the high-level diplomats will re-convene again April 5 in Almaty.” According to what Steven Erlanger reported for the New York Times prior to the conclusion of the meetings yesterday, this outcome is what Western diplomats were identifying as a success. I guess if you set the bar low enough, success is all but guaranteed. In all seriousness, while continuing diplomatic engagement is definitely preferable to other alternatives, a quick look back at a summary of the June 2012 meeting held in Moscow (like this one from the Arms Control Association) made me wonder if I was experiencing déjà vu. Even the pictures out are eerily similar:

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton meets with Iran's Chief Negotiator Saeed Jalili in Moscow

Personally, I prefer Jalili in a gray suit. The softer color compliments his salt and pepper hair and lends him a distinguished air. The penguin suit is too severe.


Photos: The European Union foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and Iran’s chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili. Top: New York Times Bottom: Reuters

Sanctioned out and still testing


According to the  Washington Post, North Korea is sanctioned out. The country is already so heavily sanctioned that more restrictions won’t have any effect; there is nothing left to take away. Kim Jong-un doesn’t even have a real octopus to  look at any more (touching a life-size replica is much safer anyway). So what will be the response to North Korea’s latest act of defiance? Luckily for Kim Jung Il, their latest nuclear test  is not something that President Obama can simply  sweep under the rug-as much as he might like to do so. Thanks to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, there is an international organization that monitors and reports on evidence of nuclear weapons tests. That frees up Kim Jung Un to lay his gaze on  more important things  because others are doing the work of publicizing the size ( 7kt) of his nation’s  nuclear test. In fact, not to be out done by Iran, North Korea tested just in time to warrant a mention in Obama’s State of the Union address. He singled out North Korea as a threat, but didn’t further elaborate on earlier statements condemning the test and calling for “swift and credible action” from the international community.  North Korea has perfected the art of bringing powerful members of the international community to the bargaining table, holding out the carrot of giving up its nuclear program in order to compel the provision of goods and services in return for the promise of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. It’s a good gambit as long as North Korea can keep it up.


Trust and verify

Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Saeed Jalili (third R) was heading the Iranian negotiating delegation in the talks with the P5+1 in Baghdad.

Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) Saeed Jalili (third R) was heading the Iranian negotiating delegation in the talks with the P5+1 in Baghdad.

…the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

IAEA Board Report, May, 25 2012

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room at the White House in 1987.

U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev signing the INF Treaty in the East Room at the White House in 1987.

We have listened to the wisdom in an old Russian maxim. And I’m sure you’re familiar with it, Mr. General Secretary, though my pronunciation may give you difficulty. The maxim is: Dovorey no provorey — trust, but verify.

The General Secretary. You repeat that at every meeting. [Laughter]

The President. I like it. [Laughter]”

Remarks on Signing the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, December 8, 1987

President Reagan made the phrase, “trust, but verify” practically synonymous with US-Soviet arms control. It’s also a phrase that has been adopted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which advertises itself as having “a proven track record of remaining true to the principle ‘trust but verify.’” “Trust, but verify” captures a certain common sense notion of the tension between exhibiting faith in someone else’s intentions, and the desire to make sure that your judgment is correct by checking to see that their deeds match their words. However, after spending this past week learning about international nuclear safeguards policy, I came to the conclusion that “trust and verify” would be a more principled basis on which to build confidence in nonproliferation.

The course, International Nuclear Safeguards Policy, was co-hosted by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. In it experts from the IAEA and national labs covered the history and legal foundations of safeguards, and the technical aspects of the process through which IAEA inspectors verify that the material facts on the ground match the declaration of activities provided by officials of the country under inspection. Historically, the primary responsibility of IAEA inspectors has been to build confidence in the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by accounting for declared nuclear material as it moves through the nuclear fuel cycle, and certifying that the declaration is correct. Through this process IAEA can provide de facto assurance that the country in question is not diverting any of the declared material from energy production to nuclear weapons programs. Known as Comprehensive Safeguards, these agreements are technically challenging to verify, but fairly straightforward.

What Comprehensive Safeguards do not—and cannot—do is certify beyond a doubt that there are no clandestine activities being carried out simultaneously. In other words, they cannot verify that a declaration is complete. So, if you think the point of safeguards is to prevent cheating, they will always fall short of expectations—as they did most recently with the revelation of Iran’s covert nuclear enrichment program, and most significantly in the case of Iraq’s illicit weapon program during the 1980s and early 90s. In both cases, the countries in question did not divert material from their declared nuclear activities, but rather created a parallel, clandestine program for enriching uranium from other sources.

After the discovery that Iraq had developed an illicit nuclear weapon program while maintaining the appearance of being in compliance with its NPT obligations, the IAEA asked states party to existing agreements to sign an Additional Protocol. The Addition Protocol expands the IAEA’s authority by granting inspectors access to all parts of a state’s nuclear fuel cycle, including access to undeclared facilities. Purportedly, this new authority “enable[s] the IAEA not only to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material but also to provide assurances as to the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in a State.

Advocates of the Additional Protocol believe that it strengthens the IAEA, but there is another side to this story. Comprehensive Safeguards, as originally designed, essentially amount to an audit. They simply verify that a state’s declaration is an accurate description of the activities it contains, and states are presumed to be in compliance unless there is information to indicate otherwise. Audits create a sense of accountability, but they also give the state in question a mechanism with which to credibly demonstrate its own mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle. In this sense they are mutually beneficial. Under the Additional Protocol, in contrast, inspectors have gone from being auditors, to being detectives. The IAEA’s expanded authority means that inspectors can now seek access to undeclared facilities, including access based on third-party evidence. States under inspection have gone from being presumed innocent until proven guilty, to being assumed guilty until proven innocent. This places both the IAEA and the states under inspection in an untenable position.

In the long-term the Additional Protocol will undermine the credibility of the system. The problem is that the impartiality of the IAEA depends upon a scientifically rational process, yet the Additional Protocol does not respect the limits of that process. In setting out to “provide assurance as to the absence of undeclared nuclear materials” the IAEA is setting itself up to fail. Proving a non-event stumbles on an irresolvable epistemological problem because we can never know for sure that there isn’t something else the IAEA overlooked. As a result, it asks too much of the inspectors. Under the auditing function an inspector performs for traditional Comprehensive Safeguards agreements, she or he could say with certainty, “I can verify that under the bounded conditions of the declaration, the facts on the ground match the statement at hand.” Anything above and beyond that is left up to others to interpret. However, under the Additional Protocol, in the final instance, any honest inspector will be force to say, “All we can tell you is what we have found, anything else we cannot know for sure.” If they have not found any evidence of an illicit nuclear program, yet suspicions abound, this conclusion will always be unsatisfactory because it cannot help us distinguish between violators and non-violators. Yet, a stronger statement in either direction will inevitably appear politically motivated.

This dynamic is apparent in the failure of the most recent negotiations between the IAEA and Iran. According to the IAEA Board Report, released on May 25, “Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs [locations outside facilities where nuclear material is customarily used] declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement.” However, Iran refuses to implement its Additional Protocol and admit IAEA inspectors to undeclared sites. The IAEA is requesting access to Iran’s Parchin military complex, where it suspects that nuclear explosive tests were carried out. Iran, however, insists that these requests are politically motivated. Asked about Parchin, Iran’s IAEA ambassador, Ali Asghar Soltanieh was quoted as saying, “That is in fact one of the problems. The more you politicise an issue which was purely technical it creates an obstacle and damages the environment.”

For the sake of argument, let’s say Iran admits IAEA inspectors to Parchin and they find nothing, what would that prove? What kind of evidence would be sufficient to assure the IAEA and P5+1 that Iran does not have a clandestine nuclear program? How can you trust in a finding that by its very nature cannot be verified? In the case of Iraq, the US wasn’t satisfied until post-invasion inspections laid bare the entire country. If we continue down the same road, we are likely to end up with a similar outcome in Iran. This is an alternative for which the US government should be prepared. However, it is a less than desirable outcome for all parties involved.

If instead of basing safeguards policy on the principle of “trust, but verify,” we predicate it on the twin pillars of trust and verification, it changes the approach and, hopefully, the outcome. “Trust, but verify” poses trust and verification as alternatives to one another. That’s why Reagan liked the saying. It’s a funny way of saying you trust someone, while at the same time acknowledging that you don’t. “Trust and verify,” on the other hand, poses trust and verification as two complementary pillars, both of which are necessary for the functioning of effective safeguards. It also acknowledges the limitations of each pillar on its own.

The Additional Protocol has shifted the focus of safeguards policy from the more balanced approach of Comprehensive Safeguards, to an over-emphasis on verification. The principle of “trust and verify” would move the balance back toward a bounded approach to verification activities and an acknowledgement that IAEA inspections should be only one means of assessing the trustworthiness of nations and building confidence in the Nonproliferation Regime.

“Trust and verify” should also be the approach that the P5+1 brings to its round of talks with Iran scheduled for June 18-19 in Moscow. Both pillars will be necessary in order to stabilize the security dilemma in which all parties now find themselves. For Iran, this will mean agreeing to confidence building measures such as  additional inspections. Bolstering verification is necessary to compensate for the trust deficit Iran created by carrying out clandestine enrichment activities of questionable legality. However, Iran also has to be able to trust that there is an alternative to US invasion other than through the self-reliance offered by a domestic nuclear arsenal. Focusing exclusively on sanctions as a coercive mechanism is a good way to get Iran to the table, but creating credible security assurance will be the only way to close the deal.

What to do about Iran Part III: The case for a compelling alternative (or building the conceptual basis for why the US needs to make Iran ‘an offer it can’t refuse’)

As the November election approaches and no actionable alternative vision for Iran emerges, the cloud of resignation descending over the liberal elite in Washington is palpable. Will Obama choose to support the use of force simply because action is preferable to inaction in an election year? Or can the case be effectively made that we have already been down this route with Iraq? The short-term gratification of bombing Iran now will give the American population its quick fix, but it will not provide a long-term solution. But what other alternative is there?

The United States has a military solution for almost any international problem, and as we all know, if all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail. Looking at the shape of the public debate in the US about how to engage Iran, there are few concrete diplomatic proposals for resolving the current conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. However, there is a recurring discussion about whether to use preventive force now to deter—or at least delay—the development of Iran’s nuclear program by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, or rely on nuclear deterrence to contain Iran once it has successfully weaponized its nuclear program. In the mean time, the US is enhancing international economic sanctions against Iran—which may or may not be having an impact on Iran’s strategic calculus with regard to its nuclear program—and Iran has agreed to return to the negotiating table. Although there is no way to tell what lies behind Iran’s desire to engage again diplomatically with the P5+1, the willingness to resume talks nearly a year after the previous round collapsed presents the Obama administration with another opportunity to implement a powerful solution that conserves force and re-establishes America as a visionary world leader. However, in order for the US to make use of this opportunity, the Obama administration must to be prepared to articulate to itself, the American public, and the world a vision of what will work and why.

Unfortunately, there are few conceptual tools available with which to build a strategically effective diplomatic vision. Right now there are excellent proposals from nuclear experts about what the technical substance of an agreement should entail, as well as diplomatic analyses of what is at stake politically for Iran. However, the analysis of how these technical proposals can and should be brought together with what is at stake politically in order to produce a long-term strategic vision is lacking. Unlike in the realm of military-strategic discourse where the concept of deterrence provides an overarching framework for a conversation about where and when to apply military force or hold it in reserve, there is no similar strategic logic driving a debate within the American national security establishment about various diplomatic solutions.

Developing conceptual tools is the first step towards having an intellectual infrastructure on which to draw when conflict arises. Without those resources, we are likely to return to what we know because policymakers have neither the time nor the patience to listen while concepts are built, nor should they. It simply takes too long to form a concept from a group of principles or ideas. The concept of deterrence was built and disseminated methodically over 50+ years through hundreds of briefings, thousands of conferences, millions of pages, and many lifetimes of intellectual work. It is now the intellectual tool available to us on short notice when we are called on to articulate three possible responses to Iran in one page or less—which brings us back to Maslow’s aphoristic hammer: If all you have is the concept of deterrence, every proliferation threat becomes a conversation about the relative merits of preventive force versus containment.

In order to build actionable diplomatic alternatives for the future, I propose that we fill the conceptual gap with deterrence’s misunderstood, and often overlooked, fraternal-twin: compellence. On the most basic level, deterrence and compellence are two sides of the same coin. Deterrence is about making sure the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits; compellence is about making sure the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs. While deterrence emphasizes what to avoid, compellence offers an alternative to embrace. When used effectively in tandem, deterrence and compellence make for “an offer that can’t be refused.”

Compellence as a strategic concept makes its debut appearance in Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence. My word choice is intentionally drawn from his lexicon, in spite of the fact that compellence is not a term that captured imaginations or migrated into idiomatic parlance. Even Schelling himself was dissatisfied with it, lamenting that we have no “obvious counterpart to ‘deterrence.’ He then runs through a list of possible alternatives including “coercion,” which he interprets as capturing what he wants to say, but he rejects it on the grounds that it does not exclude deterrence. Next he turns to “intimidation,” which “is insufficiently focused on the particular behavior desired,” and “compulsion,” which he deems “all right but its adjective is ‘compulsive,’ and that has come to carry a quite different meaning.” Finally, he concludes quite simply: “‘Compellence’ is the best I can do.”

My suspicion is that Schelling’s dissatisfaction stems as much from problems with the distinction itself as it does from word choice. Schelling wants to distinguish between types of threats, explaining that the “threat that compels rather than deters often requires that the punishment be administered until the other acts, rather than if he acts.” “Therefore,” he continues, “deterrence and compellence differ in a number of respects, most of them corresponding to something like the difference between statics and dynamics. Deterrence involves setting the stage…and waiting. The overt act is up to the opponent… Compellence, in contrast, usually involves initiating an action…that can cease, or become harmless, only if the opponent responds.” In other words, deterrence is about erecting a barrier. It is the social analog to a moat with a wall and cannons. Thanks to Glenn Snyder and his book Deterrence and Defense, we have terminology for this analogy: deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial. You can defend against attack either by threatening unacceptable punishment in return, or by building defensive barriers that appear too difficult to overcome. Compellence in this schema is the analog to offense. It is the ability to not simply defend, but to fight an enemy back until she gives up or surrenders.

The problem with Schelling’s interpretation comes from the fact that, while seemingly clear in theory, the distinction breaks down in practice. Schelling tries to explain that “to deter continuance of something the opponent is already doing—harassment, overflight, blockade, occupation of some island or territory, electronic disturbance, subversive activity, holding prisoners, or whatever it may be—has some of the character of a compellent threat.” The mental image Schelling’s version of this distinction produces is of a body at rest. Deterrence in its simplest form keeps that body at rest. Compellence, from this perspective, meets the body at rest and applies additional force to create motion. The problem comes when the body is already in motion. Is it deterrence or compellence that brings a body to rest?

In contrast, I argue that the difference between deterrence and compellence is not in terms of how active a threat is, but rather is in the nature of the action itself. Whereas deterrence is about manipulating fear, compellence is about manipulating desire. Deterrence is divisive. It is the ability to convince someone to refrain from violating your borders. Compellence, on the other hand, is the ability to convince someone to give you what you want. Whereas deterrence is about ensuring that the costs of an action outweigh the benefits, compellence is about ensuring that the benefits of an action outweigh the costs. In contrast to Schelling’s idea of compellence as imposing greater and greater costs until your opponent chooses to submit, what I am proposing is an idea of leading someone to an action through making that action either the only viable alternative or just too good to pass up.

It is very difficult to make your opponent submit through force because you are manipulating only one end of the equation. The most effective diplomatic strategies manipulate both. Take, for instance, a bank heist. The bank robber uses force to deter the occupants of the bank from leaving. If they try to leave, she will kill them. Explicit in that statement is the manipulation of fear; implicit is the manipulation of a compelling desire to live. This is why the robber also says to the bank manager, “If you give me the money, I will let you walk out of here alive.” That’s the compelling alternative. If the robber were more sophisticated, the heist could be done in ways that co-opted the desire of the manager in the first place—for money, power, or prestige—and would have required less force.

The distinction is captured by the proverbial story of the wind and the sun. The wind bets the sun that he can remove a passing traveler’s coat. The wind blows harder and harder, colder and colder, trying to blow the coat off, but only succeeds in convincing the traveler to pull her coat closer and tighter. When it’s the sun’s turn, she shines warmly down on the traveler. Perspiring, the traveler stops and simply removes his coat.

We have a tendency to use the verbs “force” and “compel” interchangeably in American culture. We also use the nouns “force” and “power” as if they were synonyms, but all of these terms are distinct. Force is but one means to an end. Power is an end in itself. We tend to conflate them through the practice of nuclear deterrence, which is about the manipulation of superior force in pursuit of power. Deterrence has a natural affinity to force because deterrence is about punishment. In contrast, compellence is not about force; it’s about power. Compellence is about drive, desire, and hunger. They key to compellence is to know what your opponent wants (or wants to avoid) and manipulate it to your own ends.

Acknowledging that the ultimate weapon exerts this effeminized form of power is what makes the punch line from this New Yorker cartoon so funny:



This cartoon captures something about the power countries like Iran experience by attracting international attention through their pursuit of the bomb.

Schelling’s analysis of deterrence and compellence does include the notion of positive incentives in his analysis through the idea that both require assurances to be effective. He argues that your opponent must have a reason to believe that whatever pain and suffering you are inflicting (or further threat thereof) will cease in the event of compliance. In contract, I am arguing that assurances are not a component of deterrence. They are a component of compellence.

The point here is that deterrence and compellence always operate in tandem. If you are not managing both, one is being done to you. While the USSR was deterring the US, the US was simultaneously compelling the USSR to maintain an unsustainable arms race, and vice versa. Someone is always doing the deterring and someone is always doing the compelling. You cannot have one without the other. Unless you preserve your own ability to walk away from a relationship at will, you are experiencing the costs and benefits of being on both ends of a compelling struggle for power.

At this point in time, Iran is not convinced that the benefits of complying with the NPT outweigh the costs it pays in terms of the status it gives up. Bombing Iran into temporary submission is not likely to change that calculus, but rather to compel Iran to pursue its goal of constructing a robust nuclear program because the benefits of achieving the status of a nuclear weapon state are just too good to pass up. Continuing down the path of blowing harder by ratcheting up sanctions is unlikely to produce the desired result of Iran giving up its enrichment without offering a compelling alternative.

The problem with the current situation between the US and Iran is that Iran is undeterred and enjoying all the power by compelling the US to take action. The more force the US has to use in order to deter Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the less powerful the US is (think of the parent who says, “don’t make me take off my belt” versus the parent who can ask a child to do something and the child willingly complies).

This, of course, is a dangerous game. It could end very badly for Iran, but so far Iran has managed to maintain the upper hand, and it will continue to do so even in the event that the US decides to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Finding a solution to the conflict with Iran needs to be about more than deterrence. The solution needs to be more complex than a line in the sand that the Iranians are told not to cross. Deterrence is something that the US does very well, but there are limitations to a strategy that equates power with the threat and/or use of force. It is appropriate for the US to prepare its deterrent strategy, but deterrence alone will not bring about a solution. A solution will come from the ability to combine deterrence with a positive diplomatic vision in which the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs. In other words, the Obama administration needs to make Iran ‘an offer it can’t refuse.’

What to do about Iran Part II: Recapitulation and a new refrain…

Debates in the realm of US nuclear politics conform to a familiar pattern, especially in the academic realm. On the one hand, deterrence pessimists believe that US nuclear force posture must be built on the assumption that deterrence will fail. In order to be credible, a deterrent threat must be backed by a fully operational plan to fight and win a nuclear war. This leads to the operational concepts of nuclear superiority, flexible response, and damage limitation. On the other hand, deterrence optimists believe that everyone loses in the event of a nuclear war. To that end, optimists believe US nuclear force posture should presume that fighting and winning a nuclear war is not an option. To them, the sole purpose of the US nuclear deterrent should be to threaten massive retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. By limiting the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal, the US reduces the possible pathways to nuclear war. At the same time, if done right, eliminating other options can have the effect of locking the US into massive retaliation as a last resort, increasing the credibility of a retaliatory threat. Deterrence optimism leads to relatively small arsenals that meet a minimum threshold of a secure second-strike capability. The goal is not nuclear superiority, but rather strategic stability through arms control.

In the previous post, I argued that the current debate over whether or not it is time for the US to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities maps nicely onto the old deterrence pessimist/optimist framework.  Explicit arguments that recommend conventional bombing in order to avoid—or at least forestall—a nuclear-armed Iran are implicitly based on the pessimists’ assumptions about deterrence. From this point of view, the alternatives boil down to a choice between a conventional conflict now and living in a constant state of preparation for nuclear war later. Therefore, attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is “the least bad option.” In contrast, the argument against conventional bombing is based on the optimists’ assumption that containing a nuclear-armed Iran would work. Thus, the debate boils down to an implicit disagreement over the interpretation of deterrence theory.

Viewing problems of proliferation through the framework of deterrence provides us no resources through which to assess or recommend diplomatic solutions. If the only questions to which deterrence theory provides us answers lie in the realm of “the diplomacy of violence,” our conversation will be severely limited. In contrast, a theory of nuclear fetishism creates intellectual tools to analyze why various diplomatic agreements might, or might not, work. It widens our aperture by explaining how nuclear weapons function as a currency of power. Thus, we are able to focus our attention on what the technical substance of a negotiated settlement should (or should not) contain in order to resolve the underlying political conflict. (I’ve written about the relationship between the substance and purpose of arms control and nonproliferation agreements at length in a previous post).

Currently, two different communities of experts are addressing questions of what a negotiated settlement would look like. A community of nuclear policy experts is writing primarily about what the technical substance of an agreement would need to entail, while a second community of diplomatic experts is writing about political factors at work. Bringing together these two different perspectives on this crisis, one from nuclear expert Matt Bunn and the other from Ambassadors William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, gives us some building blocks with which to begin putting the pieces of a solution in place (although articulating a unified proposal will have to be work for another day).

Bunn explains what is realistic and possible in the realm of nuclear technology, and Luers and Pickering explain what it is at stake politically. In both cases the suggestions begin with answer the following three questions: “What do they want, what do we want, and what do we both want?” According to Bunn, the formal agreement would include:

  • The P5+1 agrees to allow some operational centrifuges in Iran.
  • Iran agrees to limit enrichment to 2-8 centrifuge cascades (other centrifuges in place, but not operating).
  • All centrifuge operations, R&D, manufacture (also other sensitive nuclear operations) are shifted to international ownership with a 24/7 international staff.
  • Iran agrees to the Additional Protocol and broad transparency measures.
  • The P5+1 implements an incentives package (trade, nuclear assistance, etc.).
  • Bilateral and multilateral dialogues are established to address other issues over time – including recognition and an end to sanctions if these other issues are successfully addressed.
  • The United States pledges not to attack Iran and not to attempt to overthrow the regime as long as (a) Iran complies with its nuclear obligations, (b) Iran does not commit or sponsor aggression or terrorist attacks against others.

And according to Luers and Pickering, politically an agreement would meet the following needs:

“Iran wants recognition of its revolution; an accepted role in its region; a nuclear program; the departure of the United States from the Middle East; and the lifting of sanctions. The United States wants Iran not to have nuclear weapons; security for Israel; a democratic evolution of Arab countries; the end of terrorism; and world access to the region’s oil and gas. Both Iran and the United States want stability in the region — particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of terrorism from Al Qaeda and the Taliban; the reincorporation of Iran into the international community; and no war.”

Taking these two analyses of the conflict as a starting point, the question we are left with is how they interact to create a viable solution.