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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.’

Deterrence Works?


Vasili Arkhipov might be the most important human being who ever lived.

On October 27, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak. An American destroyer was trying to force a Soviet submarine to surface by harrying it with depth charges. The submarine’s sleep-deprived captain – cut off from radio contact and unable to know if war had broken out – ordered the launch of a nuclear weapon. The sub’s political officer, on board to provide an external check on the captain’s actions, seconded the decision.

Arkhipov, the second in command, was the last of three officers who were required to consent to a launch. He refused. He talked his comrades down from the brink and persuaded them to surface the sub, thereby narrowly averting The End Of Days.

Hardly anybody knew this until an academic conference in 2002, when the director of the National Security Archive unveiled some newly declassified documents and announced that ‘a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.’

Arkhipov is not the only person with such a claim, however.

On September 26, 1983, Soviet missile warning systems indicated that a US first strike was underway. It was at another point of extreme tension between the US and USSR, with a large US military exercise being widely perceived in the Kremlin as a cover for war preparations.

The mechanics of Deterrence meant the Soviets had to respond within fifteen minutes if they were to respond at all, and had the politburo been informed of the incoming strike they would probably have ordered a nuclear response. Institutional doctrine and bureaucratic momentum would have almost dictated it. There would have been almost no time for cool reflection.

Fortunately for humanity, nobody reported the launch to the Soviet hierarchy. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the duty officer at the early warning center that night, correctly dismissed the warning as a bizarre computer error and defied protocol by declining to report it.

Petrov – who was subsequently reassigned, took early retirement, and suffered a nervous breakdown – might also have saved the world. Yet hardly anybody knew about him either until the 1990s, when a Russian general published his memoirs.

Who knows how many other such brushes with Armageddon there have been. The secrecy around nuclear security is intense.


The logic of Deterrence – the idea that baroque infrastructures for launching thousands of nuclear weapons at our enemies on very short notice should make us safer – has been orthodoxy in security discourse for so long that its absurdity has become invisible to insiders. It is an axiom of nuclear discourse that deterrence works. Of course it works. The principle is so elegant and logical on paper, and the proof is in the metaphorical pudding: the world is still here. Academics can debate the minutiae of why it works, but only those with their heads in the sand can question the fact that it works.

Yet there is almost no evidence for this.

Consider this question: how much time must pass without a nuclear exchange before we can say there is evidence that Deterrence has kept us safe?

Reliability engineers would not conclude that a lightbulb had worked as designed until it had performed satisfactorily for several years. And they would be reluctant to conclude that a bridge was successful until it had stood for decades. We expect bridges to perform for much longer than lightbulbs, in part, because bridge failures are so much more consequential. If Deterrence fails the consequences would be biblical. Relative to that, the half century that it has been US doctrine is all but immaterial.

It is certainly arguable that there have been no great-power conflicts during the fifty-plus years of Deterrence’s tenure, but what does this prove? Throughout the Nineteenth Century the world enjoyed almost a hundred years without a clash between the world’s powers, but the Pax Britannica was not evidence that war had become obsolete. It collapsed in 1914 with the terrible carnage of the Great War: a conflict so traumatic that it was thought to have rendered all future wars ‘unimaginable.’ (Little were we to know). The Pax Romana lasted even longer – almost two hundred years. The world entered the second half of the Twentieth Century in ruins, and has been characterized since then by ever-increasing economic interdependence and the radical decoupling of territory from power and prosperity. In this context, the relatively brief ‘Pax Atomica’ – fifty years in which we declined to commit planetary suicide – hardly seems like compelling evidence of our strategic brilliance.

We spent many billions of dollars on the paraphernalia of Deterrence. We did so on the solemn advice of our nuclear shamans, who concluded – pardon me, calculated – that it was the optimal way of keeping us secure. What we accidentally wrought with our billions was a generation that owes everything – every walk in the park; every Monday morning; every chicken nugget; everything – to two middle-ranking, enemy military officers, who made difficult decisions under enormous duress and spared us all.

Eat your heart out, Doctor Frankenstein.

Time Between Failures

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.

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.

How many mathematicians are in a petaflop?


According to John Ptak at Ptak Science Books, the first use of the term “super computer” dates from 1929. The name of the machine was “Packard” (after the luxury car), but rather than talking about its horse power, its capabilities were measured in terms of mathematicians. Installed at Columbia University in 1931, this is what the equivalent of 100 mathematicians looked liked:


Fast forward eight decades: The first four racks of Lawrence Livermore’s Sequoia were delivered on January 12th. When complete it will be the worlds largest supercomputer at 20 petaflops. How many mathematicians are in a petaflop?

The Sputnik Moment You May Have Missed

Picture of the delivery of the Dawn supercomputer, a predecessor to Sequoia, from the LLNL Community News FEBRUARY 6, 2009 VOL. 2, NO. 5.

Picture of the delivery of the Dawn supercomputer, a predecessor to Sequoia, from the LLNL Community News February 6, 2009 VOL. 2, NO. 5.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a self-described “premier research and development institution for science and technology applied to national security,” is famous for designing the advanced nuclear warheads that put the “super” in superpower and carried the United States through the Cold War-era arms race. Now Livermore wants to lead the way in the next race, and it has stiff competition. According to the “Top500 List,” a biannual ranking of the 500 most powerful computer systems, China surpassed the United States for the first time in the rankings this past summer, placing the U.S.’s Jaguar, the 1.75 Petaflop Cray XT5 system installed at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in third place behind first place Japan and second place China. Currently Livermore’s most powerful computer is ranked in 15th place. However, they do not plan to stay there for long. Livermore has a new machine, Sequoia, under construction and due to debut at number one in 2012.

The link between supercomputers and nuclear weapons may not seem obvious to those less familiar with the U.S. weapons complex, but these computers play an integral role in moving the U.S. away from the need to physically detonate nuclear devices in order to verify the reliability of its arsenal. Rather than detonating a weapon to prove that the U.S. maintains its ability to threaten nuclear attack, the U.S. can now simulate a nuclear explosion, taking into account the effects of time on the fissile materials at the core of a nuclear weapon. In effect, the U.S. is transferring the function of testing from the immediate physical ability to detonate a nuclear weapon to the physical ability to perform computational analysis as part of a program referred to as “stockpile stewardship.” The U.S. is no longer dependent on consuming individual weapons in its arsenal in order to maintain the credibility of its nuclear deterrent. Instead it can utilize supercomputers for that purpose. In other words, since its moratorium on testing in 1992, the U.S. has taken a step back from its physical dependence on the kinetic properties of nuclear weapons. The relationship to those properties is now mediated by the supercomputers that are used to verify that the weapons in the U.S. arsenal will in fact detonate. Rather than detonating a weapon in an underground test, the U.S. depends on the physical capability of supercomputers to process vast amounts of data in minimal amounts of time.

As a result, supercomputers are also developing a social meaning akin to nuclear weapons. The blogosphere’s journalists and pundits have already begun making the link between being number one in supercomputing technology and maintaining U.S. national security. In an article recently re-posted on The Daily Beast Dan Lyons goes so far as to refer to China’s surge forward in supercomputing technology as a “Sputnik moment” saying:

“To most of us, this might sound like no big deal, akin to Apple coming out with a faster smartphone than Microsoft. But to the scientists, industry titans, and world leaders who understand how delicate America’s position as a global superpower really is, this was a Sputnik moment. Only this time, it wasn’t Russia trouncing the U.S. in the space race, but China surging ahead in one of the most vital areas of national security.”

Producing and maintaining machines on the scale of supercomputers is no easy task. Not only do they require large amounts of technological expertise to design and run, but the they consume large amounts of energy as well. To offer some perspective, according to Lyons, “just one of Livermore’s supercomputers throws off so much heat that if the air-conditioning system were to fail, the computer would start to melt within minutes.”

In an era when more and more states are becoming nuclear capable, the task of building and running these machines is not something all states have mastered. Therefore the possession of a top ranked supercomputer can be used to distinguish between different kinds of states. Whether or not a country has machines that rank on the Top500 list is a good proxy for its overall international standing. In other words, supercomputers are not only important because of their technological advantages, but also because they are a manifestation of a national project and a material expression of a country’s underlying capabilities and resources. Expressing the limits of national technological capabilities was one of the functions of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, but someday producing vast numbers of very dangerous explosive devices and polluting domestic environments through testing may reach the point of appearing foolhardy. That will also be the day that supercomputers, rather than nuclear weapons, define states as superpowers. This is not to say that nuclear weapons will disappear, only that they would no longer define the global hierarchy. What this allows us to imagine, for better or worse, is moving beyond the limits of a world defined in terms of nuclear security to one defined in terms of cyber security.

Fetishism North Korea Style

Kim Jong Eun mourned Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

Kim Jong Eun mourned Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang.

My initial response to the media coverage of North Koreans wailing in public demonstrations of mourning over the death dictator Kim Jong Il was that it appeared bizarre to the point of being almost unintelligible. I’m familiar with ritualized wailing, but media coverage of it is still jarring:

This behavior has received a lot of media attention in America, and in other parts of the world too I assume, perhaps because it is so difficult for Americans to interpret. The most common reaction is to think that the North Koreans can’t possibly be serious, and yet some of these people are pretty convincing:

The mystery deepens once you combine the ritualized wailing with reports about the role of myth making propaganda in ensuring a smooth transition of power to Kim Jong Il’s son, Kim Jong Eun, as explained in the WSJ (link to full article here):

“Myth-building in North Korea is a serious business. Analysts say it is critical for the regime to ensure that the personality cult of the Kim family remains intact and its rule unchallenged.”

My personal favorite is the one about North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, who was, “said to have made a hand grenade from a pine cone to blow up an American tank.” The claim that natural wonders have occurred in conjunction with significant events is also good:

“…when Kim Jong Il was born, propagandists reported that the sky was filled with lightening and thunder, as well as a rainbow.

As recently as Wednesday, Korea Central News Agency reported many natural wonders observed around the country, such as the sky turning red and a huge snowstorm suddenly stopping, as the people mourned their dead leader.”

The mystery started to unravel when I read the following quote from a North Korean defector: “‘The regime has to keep doing it, regardless of whether people believe it or not, because they need to establish the legitimacy of the family…”

The key lies in the fact that whether or not people actually believe in the myth of the Kim dynasty is irrelevant. As long as they continue to act as if they believe, the legitimacy of the regime remains in tact. This is exactly the same dynamic I point to in my analysis of nuclear fetishism.

I often use the example of a king to illustrate the practice of fetishism. A king is a king only in so far as his subjects submit to his rule. Yet, the claim to divine ordination passed through the hereditary characteristics of royal blood makes the power of the king appear inevitable–as if he would be a king even outside his relation to his subjects.

North Korea is one of the few true nation-states left on earth that still has an entire social and political system build on a racialized concept of social hierarchy in which divine right is supported by founding myths. Kim Jong Il is North Korea’s national fetish object. The sense of wonder that outsiders experience as they witness the ritualized practice of public mourning is entirely consistent with the experience of fetishism. What people like me don’t understand when we watch these ritualized practices is that for the people engaged in them, whether they believe or not is not entirely relevant. What is important is that as a collective experience their behavior is both powerful and normal.

The vision of a world in which nuclear weapons no longer functioned as the United States’ national fetish object would be characterized by a similar sense of bewilderment at the ritualized practice of nuclear deterrence. It would be populated by people who learned about the history of nuclear deterrence and thought, “It’s so crazy that they actually thought those weapons made them safer.”

Ecstasy and Extinction

I recently had the opportunity to visit the Nevada Nuclear Security (aka Test) Site with my fellow Stanton Nuclear Security Fellows from the Center for International Security And Cooperation (aka Arms Control). Michael Freedman, the CISAC Public Affairs Manager, joined us and wrote up a nice article based on our experience for The Atlantic“Can We Unlearn the Bomb”.

I like his article not only because it’s a meaningful account of a personal experience, but also because it captures the significance of the interaction between personal and institutional relationships to nuclear testing.

The elements of a robust discourse

These thoughts on the elements of a robust discourse emerged from many attempts at explaining why theory matters to a policy oriented audience of nuclear experts:

The need for a new set of concepts through which to understand nuclear security has become increasingly apparent.  Neither nuclear terrorism, nor the proliferation of nuclear weapons to states outside the nuclear nonproliferation regime can be effectively countered by the logic of the existing deterrence paradigm. Previously robust, changes at the operational level have eroded the self-reinforcing nature of the existing paradigm. Deterrence theory has no answer for nuclear terrorism, and nonproliferation policy provides no guidance on how to relate to India, Pakistan, and North Korea, all of which have established nuclear weapons programs, and as such are not eligible for recognition under the Nonproliferation Treaty.

The deterrence paradigm took more than 15 years to mature. At the RAND Corporation, scholars found a unique kind of institutional support for an active theoretical debate, which yielded implementable strategic policies, and effective operational and technical systems. These systems in turn influenced the theoretical ideas, leading back to revised strategic policies. Thus, as a fully mature discourse, the deterrence paradigm included robust debate and activity at a the concrete, operational level, at the level of applied ideas as realized through the strategic policies that directed those actions, and at an abstract level of theoretical analysis through which we comprehend the nature of human interactions with social and material environments, articulate what is politically possible, and make value judgments about what is desirable.

Unlike deterrence, disarmament was never a fully mature discourse. Disarmament, defined as the abolition of nuclear weapons, has existed in the shadow of deterrence as the major competing paradigm since the 1950’s. While the discourse of deterrence operated at all three levels (operationally, politically, and theoretically) the discourse of disarmament was and is primarily an operational discourse. There was never a fully mature theory of disarmament, and therefore no effective strategic policy for how to achieve the desired operational outcome of zero nuclear weapons. Even today in the midst of a renaissance in disarmament politics, disarmament has not matured into a fully robust paradigm.

This brief comparison between deterrence and disarmament is meant neither as a defense of deterrence, or advocacy of disarmament, but rather as an illustration of the importance of fostering a fully robust nuclear paradigm to counter new nuclear threats. Debate needs to thrive at the level of theory, policy and operations in order to produce actionable steps to stable outcomes.

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.