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What to do about Iran Part I: New lyrics, same old tune…

Timed to coincide with the growing tension between the United States and Iran, the most recent print edition of Foreign Affairs arrived last week with Georgetown professor, Matthew Kroenig’s name next to the headline “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option” In response to the question, “should the United States attack Iran and attempt to eliminate its nuclear facilities?” Kroenig answers yes, given the option between a conventional conflict and the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, the choice is clear; The U.S. should set back and potentially eliminate the Iranian nuclear program by bombing a yellowcake-conversion plant, a heavy-water reactor, centrifuge-manufacturing sites, and, of course, the contested uranium enrichment facilities is preferable to the alternative.

Kroenig is part of a new generation of “thought leaders” on issues of nuclear security being funded by the Stanton Foundation. Inaugurated in 2010, the Stanton Fellowship program was created in response to a perception that there are many new challenges in the field of nuclear security, but not many young scholars with new ideas on how to confront those challenges. So far Stanton has been successful at supporting people who are willing to put themselves out there in the contemporary foreign policy debate. In fact, another Stanton Fellow currently at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Alexandre Debs, co-authored a rebuttal of Kroenig’s argument. In it Debs argues that attacking Iran is not “the least bad option” because Kroenig’s skepticism about containing a nuclear-armed Iran is unwarranted.

Yet, being part of a rising generation of scholars does not necessarily mean that these young men have come up with new ideas. All they have done so far is apply their forefather’s ideological framework to the current political environment. As currently framed this debate about Iran reproduces a predictable Cold War-era ideological split between deterrence pessimists and deterrence optimists.

Kroenig occupies the role of deterrence pessimist. This is an intellectual tradition with roots reaching back two generations to the work of Herman Kahn. Often vilified and derided, Kahn is famous for arguing that nuclear war was survivable and set out to prove it through a macabre mathematical analysis of who and what would survive an all-out nuclear war. Kahn’s intellectual project, like the work of all deterrence pessimists, was motivated by the belief that U.S. nuclear security strategy should be designed with the expectation that nuclear deterrence will fail. This belief leads to two operational doctrines. The first is escalation dominance; the idea that the United States should always be able to up the nuclear ante, one step at a time, responding proportionally to any attack and terminating any conflict through the threat of more to come. The second is damage limitation; the idea that the United States should always work to minimize its casualties. Kroenig’s support of escalation dominance is well known in Washington. In a recent article he argues “nuclear superior states are more likely to win nuclear crises because they are willing to run a greater risk of nuclear war in a crisis than their nuclear inferior opponents.” Also consistent with the deterrence pessimist position is Kroenig’s skepticism about the ability to contain a nuclear Iran and a desire to stop the threat before it starts.

On the other side of the aisle are the deterrence optimists, the most famous of whom is Nobel Laureate, Thomas Schelling. This school of thought advocates accepting the irrationality of nuclear war and the fact of mutual vulnerability. It does not advocate nuclear superiority, but rather seeks a condition of strategy stability. Debs’ rebuttal takes up the position of deterrence optimist as evidenced by the fact that he finds Kroenig’s skepticism about a nuclear-armed Iran unwarranted, and focuses on the success of containing a nuclear North Korea.

The only way to step meaningfully outside of this Cold-War era framework is to move away from placing the use of force in the foreground and start asking a different kind of question. The question shouldn’t be about whether or not to bomb Iran, but about what place the use of force has vis-a-vis U.S. leadership in a changing international environment. More immediately, it should be about next steps towards diplomatic solutions to the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program. Thus far, the best example of a contribution to this debate that refuses to accept Kroenig’s framing and offers and alternative is from Bill Keller of the New York Times. Instead Keller offers a parody of Kroenig’s argument in his op-ed “Bomb-Bomb-Bomb, Bomb-Bomb-Iran.” For those of you who like to get in the weeds, he also looks seriously at the elements of a nonproliferation strategy that focuses on the technical aspects of both uranium-enrichment technology and the politics of negotiations in an election year on his blog.

Confidence and Contradiction in the Nuclear Order

I am posting my notes from the presentation I gave at this year’s International Studies Association annual conference. As you will see, I grabbed the text from my previous post about the two questions framing the current debate to set up my critique:

“Confidence and Contradiction in the Nuclear Order”
ISA Presentation
March 19, 2011

The ideas I’d like to share with you today are one aspect of a much larger project in which I reinterpret what nuclear weapons are by asking questions about the special kind of relationship between nuclear weapons and the experience of power in international politics.

The motivation behind this project is a basic belief that if you want to produce new ideas, it is not enough to operate within an establish framework of debate, but rather it is necessary to question the terms of the debate itself.

There are two big questions framing academic debate about U.S. nuclear strategy—these are the same two questions that have framed the debate for more than half a century. The first question is often phrased quite simply as “How much is enough?” by which the speaker means something like “How many nuclear weapons are necessary to maintain peace and security?” In principle, this question could organize a conversation between advocates of disarmament (defined as zero nuclear weapons) and advocates of nuclear deterrence (defined as discouraging military aggression through the threat of nuclear retaliation). However, there is little scholarly literature on disarmament. In contrast, there is a great deal of scholarly literature on deterrence.

Thus, in practice, this question drives debate among a community of deterrence theorists all of whom presume that nuclear weapons are here to stay, but take differing positions on how many weapons the U.S. should maintain in its arsenal, construing the question narrowly as “What are the military requirements of deterrence?” The second question frames a debate about the dynamics of nuclear proliferation and the implementation of the nonproliferation regime. In academic jargon, scholars ask, “What are the determinates of nuclear weapons proliferation?” by which they mean, “Why do states build nuclear weapons?”

Although nuclear weapons are the subject of both questions, scholars typically presume that deterrence and nonproliferation are different kinds of behaviors with different kinds of logic. Deterrence is a military strategy. It explains how and why states maximize their security by doing some things with nuclear weapons, and avoiding others. There is no treaty or agreement that governs the requirements of deterrence. The logic of nuclear deterrence theory governs deterrence and compliance is driven by self-interest.

In contrast, nonproliferation is not a strategy. It is a collective bargain codified in legal agreements, which together form the nonproliferation regime. Compliance is presumed to require enforcement to ensure that states prioritize the collective good over their individual self-interest narrowly construed.

The problem with a debate that presumes deterrence and nonproliferation are different kinds of behaviors with different kinds of logic is that it actually obscures more than it reveals.In this presentation I argue that deterrence and nonproliferation are actually much more similar than they are different.

Rather than treating nonproliferation as a regime, in which compliance is achieved through collective enforcement, in this presentation I recast nonproliferation as a strategy much like the Cold War era strategy of extended deterrence. Extended deterrence required the U.S. to behave in a manner consistent with two mutually exclusive, but equally plausible interpretations of that behavior.

Consistent with the principle that it is rational to threaten an act, even if that act would be irrational to carry out, it had to be believable both that the U.S. could (and would) fight and win a nuclear war in response to a Soviet invasion of Europe, and that the sole purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal was to prevent the war that it was built to fight. In other words, extended deterrence required states to maintain a strong distinction between the substance of its declaratory nuclear policy, and the purpose of that same policy. Throughout the Cold war, policymakers were able to create and maintain the existence of two mutually exclusive interpretations by distinguishing between a formal, public discourse about what the U.S. was prepared to do with its nuclear arsenal (a message intended for consumption by an outside audience), contradicted by a second, informal discourse (meant for consumption by an internal audience) about the purpose of that same deterrent.

I argue that the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) exhibits the same structural dynamics as extended deterrence, and therefore should be understood not simply as a treaty or agreement, but as a strategy. Namely, maintaining confidence in the legitimacy of the NPT requires states to accept a distinction between two contradictory interpretations of the same text. These two mutually exclusive interpretations are maintained through, on the one hand, the formal substance of the agreement (the management of nuclear technology), and on the other hand, the informal, but mutually understood, purpose of that same agreement (to reduce nuclear danger while allowing the U.S. and Soviet Union to maintain their nuclear arsenals).

At the core of the substance of the NPT is a political trade-off for non-nuclear weapon states between military security and economic development. Non-nuclear weapon states agree to trade sovereignty over the military decision to produce a nuclear arsenal—and accept invasive inspections to verify that fissile materials have not been diverted from a civilian nuclear program—in exchange for assistance with building and fueling civilian nuclear reactors and the promise that some day nuclear weapons will be eliminated and the two tier system abolished.

While the substance of the NPT is the management of nuclear technology, but the purpose of the NPT was for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to secure their collective interest in the maintenance of a bi-polar system against the diplomatic efforts of France, China and the non-aligned movement led by India and Brazil to construct a formally egalitarian order. Politically, this struggle played out as a fight over whether or not the NPT would restrain both vertical and horizontal proliferation, and whether or not the agreement would contain a timeline to disarm.

In other words, just as confidence in the U.S. extended deterrent required states to maintain the credibility of an incredible threat, confidence in the NPT requires states to maintain the credibility of an incredible pledge to disarm.

What this reinterpretation reveals is that nonproliferation is not a step along the way to disarmament. In fact, effective nonproliferation policies actually decrease the likelihood that the U.S. will eliminate its nuclear weapons. Rather than brining us closer to disarmament, experience suggests that effective nonproliferation reduces the incentive to disarm.

What it does suggest is that the desire to eliminate nuclear weapons has a lot to do with the perception of nuclear danger. Every meaningful diplomatic agreement about nuclear technology has occurred during a period of heightened tension.

For instance, the U.S. and Soviet Union concluded the Limited Test Ban Treaty shortly after the Cuban missile crisis, and the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was concluded after all five members of the U.N. Security Council had their own nuclear arsenals and it appeared that the cascade of new nuclear powers would spin out of control. Yet, by quelling those fears, arms control and nonproliferation treaties also quell the political will to take meaningful action on essential aspects of disarmament such as the establishment of an international fuel bank, or U.N. Security Council reform.

The current renaissance of interest in disarmament is driven by renewed fears of nuclear danger, (the proliferation of nuclear weapons programs; Iran’s development of an uranium enrichment program; the discovery of A.Q. Kahn’s black market in nuclear materials; and the threat of nuclear terrorism posed by new non-state terrorist groups).

What this reinterpretation tell us about the Obama administration’s nuclear agenda is that it will not harness the political will to enact meaningful change towards the goal of disarmament. Rather, the Obama administration’s nuclear agenda is a plan to motivate other states to cooperate in reducing nuclear danger by convincing the world that the U.S. would disarm if it could by apologizing for the fact that it can’t and it won’t. What Obama’s plan will do is reinvigorate a Cold War era nonproliferation regime that effectively postponed nuclear disarmament for more than 25 years.

However, as the instability of the nonproliferation regime over the past decade has already proven, the problem with this approach is that maintaining the credibility of a pledge to disarm is difficult when there is no concrete plan for how to eliminate nuclear weapons. Unlike extended deterrence, the effectiveness of which is difficult to falsify, it is much easier to observe whether or not states are working toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. Thus, the nonproliferation regime is likely to suffer intermittent crises as the credibility of the pledge to disarm declines, and confidence in the regime is undermined.

The disarmament movement will have to develop a more stable solution to the problem of nuclear danger. If there is one lesson to be learned from this article’s analysis of the relationship between nonproliferation and disarmament, it is that the credibility of an incredible pledge to disarm cannot be sustained indefinitely.

Statement of Intent

Nuclear philosophy brings tools of  critical analysis to bear on problems of nuclear policy. The goal is to recover space for human agency within the debate about nuclear security by transforming nuclear weapons from the subject into the object of the discourse. As long as nuclear weapons remain the principle subject and agent of a discourse dedicated to prescribing the appropriate human response to their power, we will continue to limit our imagination of the possible and remain blind to the potential for social transformation. Rather than taking a position within the debate, nuclear philosophy is the practice of questioning the norms of the debate itself.