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Beauty and the Beast

Operation Hardtack

As anyone who works in the world of nuclear politics knows, the debate is profoundly repetitive. I was sitting in a meeting recently where one of my colleagues was reporting back to the group on the happenings of a conference on nuclear energy in Japan. When he was finished, a senior colleague related an almost identical experience that he had thirty years ago. Although the particulars of events change, the contours of the arguments remain the same.

It’s rare to encounter an argument that does not conform to expectations and that’s what makes Frances Ferguson’s article The Nuclear Sublime (Frances Ferguson, Diacritics, Vol. 14, No. 2, Nuclear Criticism (Summer, 1984), pp.4-10.) so remarkable. The irony, of course, is that this “new” argument is thirty years old and now it’s my turn to repeat it (in fact the entire issue of Diacritics is “nuclear philosophy”). And, if that weren’t enough, her argument is itself the repetition of a story about the tension between the beauty of human life and the janus-faced character of the sublime first told by Mary Shelly in her 1818 publication of Frankenstein.

What is so radical about Ferguson’s argument is that she enters the debate from a unique angle. She concerns herself solely with the argument for nuclear disarmament as one that lays its claim to legitimacy, not on an account of what maintaining a nuclear arsenal does to our lives today, but rather on the concern for the fate of those as of yet unborn. While the disarmament advocate Jonathan Schell identifies this future as one in which our progeny will be free from the feeling of claustrophobia generated by the constant threat of nuclear destruction, Ferguson points out the problem with a justification that prioritizes the claims of others, placing demands on and sacrifices from the self. The claims of the unborn to invade on our own claim to freedom: “To march off into a future free from nuclear peril is, from one direction, to free ourselves from claustrophobia, but it is, from another, merely to evade the claustrophobia inspired by the pressures of intersubjectivity…” The weight of the claims of the “unborn” is all the greater because the current non-existence of the future makes it pregnant with possibility, but whether or not the idea of this possibility inspires a sense of freedom or a different sense of claustrophobia is a matter of perspective.

By applying the logic of the “sublime” from an earlier era to the nuclear sublime Ferguson reveals that the disarmament advocate’s justification for eliminating nuclear weapons fails to identify or cope with that which gives rise to the desire for the sublime: to escape the claustrophobia of the everyday by existing in the presence of something greater than the self. The sublime is “the thing that is bigger than any individual, and specifically bigger in terms of being more powerful and, usually, more threatening.” From this perspective, the logic of the nuclear sublime as collective immolation is the expression of freedom in its negative sense: “the outcome of the subject’s search for self-determination is not the achievement of absolute freedom in a positive form but rather the achievement of a freedom from the conditions of existence by means of one’s nonexistence.” We are free to destroy ourselves. If the crush of the demands of others becomes too much, we are free to escape those pressures through death.

Ferguson’s writing style is so rich and pregnant with possibility itself, that it feels practically impossible to reduce her argument to a single conclusion. Each time I try, it seems like I have left the most important part out. However, what I take to be the lesson for the project of nuclear philosophy is that there is a tension between the sublime and the beautiful: “while the sublime courts the feeling of overextension as a version of individual freedom, the social world of the beautiful recoils at the way the notion of individual freedom seems stretched too thin to accommodates its various claimants.” She brings an awareness of the way that tension recurs in the nuclear debate and points us in a new direction. Rather than advocating disarmament in the name of the unborn or the fear of future destruction, Ferguson points us, instead, toward the notion that tackling nuclear disarmament is also about finding a way to live with the claustrophobia and beauty of daily life, which is different kind of imperative.


Nuclear Policy and the Politics of Knowledge Production

“The international security environment has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The threat of global nuclear war has become remote, but the risk of nuclear attack has increased…These changes in the nuclear threat environment – especially the heightened concern about nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation and the less dangerous strategic interaction between the United States and Russia – have not emerged overnight. They have developed over the last twenty years, and Administrations of both parties have responded with modifications of U.S. nuclear weapons policies and force posture. But those modifications have not gone far or fast enough. As the President has said, we have to ‘put an end to Cold War thinking.’” Nuclear Posture Review Report, April 2010

If policymakers want to “put an end to Cold War thinking” they will have to invest in creating an intellectual space for new thinking at the level of basic theory. It is not enough to ask for innovation at the level of policy. There must also be an active investment in over-turning entrenched interests among intellectual elites in maintaining existing paradigms. There is a politics of knowledge production that is relevant to the process of legitimating any large-scale policy transformation. The kinds of questions addressed at this level will not necessarily produce results that are immediately relevant to any one policy, but rather will lay the conceptual and theoretical foundations for a new program of study. There was an opening of this nature within the US academy during the 1990’s due to the failure of prominent scholars within the field of International Relations to foresee the end of the Cold War. However, that temporary opening has been replaced with a resurgence of interest in deterrence. The current trend is to look for ways to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while expanding the practice of deterrence to encompass cyber and space with the ultimate goal of achieving cross-domain effects. Work on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament is alive and well among policy-oriented think tanks, but is still underrepresented at the level of theory. [1]

At the dawn of the nuclear age, scholars found a new type of institutional support and interdisciplinary environment for an active debate at the level of theory, which yielded implementable strategic policies, and effective operational and technical systems. [2] As a fully mature discourse, the deterrence paradigm includes robust debate and activity at 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.

Responding to the call that US President Barack Obama made in his April 2009 speech delivered in Prague to “put and end to Cold War thinking” in US nuclear policy will require a similar shift in the relationship between means, ways and ends in nuclear strategy that occurred in response to the introduction of nuclear weapons. Creating that shift will require more than a response at the level of policy. In fact, the transformation is already underway at the operational and policy levels. It is the realm of theory that has yet to catch up. With a few notable exceptions, theoretical innovation has lagged behind changes in other realms. Entrenched institutional interests among established intellectuals make it difficult to see beyond the existing paradigm, placing limits on innovation in the academic realm and hampering the developing of a robust theoretical discourse to compete with the nuclear deterrence paradigm.

As Philip Taubman revealed in his book, The Partnership, this limitation exists even among reform minded deterrence experts. In 2010 leaders and innovators of the Cold War order, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn and Sidney Drell, gathered a group of forward thinking defense intellectuals for another in a series of conferences held at the Hoover Institution to discuss alternatives for moving toward a new paradigm. Yet, Taubman reports that they were unable to escape the strictures of deterrence theory’s foundational assumptions. They exhibited an “enduring devotion” to nuclear deterrence, ultimately succumbing to the seductive qualities of its logic. Taubman also reports that the resistance to any idea of moving beyond the current paradigm was even stronger at a 2009 gathering of defense experts convened by the directors of the Los Alamos and Livermore National Labs. There Sidney Drell and William Perry were confronted with a breed of deterrence purist that insists on maintaining a large nuclear arsenal with numbers determined exclusively by military target planners, arrived at independent of any political guidance or considerations such as treaty limitation. An idea to which Perry responded by pointing out that targeting plans do not exist independently of political guidance. [3]

Shlutz, Perry, Kissinger, Nunn, Drell and others like them understand the political character of the Cold War nuclear order and the conflict that they played an important role in guiding to a safe conclusion. They have articulated an ambitious and forward-looking policy agenda based on intuitions developed out of many years of practical experience, at the center of which is a basic hypothesis about the relationship between military deterrence, arms control and nonproliferation, and the goal of nuclear disarmament. This hypothesis is encapsulated in the following statement from their 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed:

“Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations. Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.” [4]

In other words, what Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn posit is that enhancing the credibility of the US pledge to disarm is necessary (although possibly not sufficient) to motivating the cooperation of states in restricting access to sensitive nuclear technology and reducing the incidence of nuclear proliferation. This assertion is testable, but since their hypothesis is not derivable from any existing theoretical framework, efforts at testing have looked at it through an empirical lens and not yet considered the full range of hypotheses.

Developing additional conceptual tools is the first step towards having an intellectual infrastructure from which to draw to out new hypotheses and possibilities for political action. This does not necessarily mean that deterrence will be discarded, but that there will be more strategic concepts in the policymaker’s toolbox. 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 on short notice when they are called on to articulate three possible responses to Iran in one page or less—which brings to mind Maslow’s aphoristic hammer: If all you have is the concept of deterrence, every nuclear threat becomes a conversation about how many nuclear weapons are necessary to maintain a credible deterrent threat.

Today we take for granted that ‘nuclear deterrence’ can stand alone as a phrase in a one-page policy document. There is a reasonable expectation that decision makers will understand that it refers to the manipulation of nuclear threats to ensure that the costs to an adversary of military aggression will outweigh the benefits. Yet, back in 1946 when Bernard Brodie first proposed the ideas that are routinely accepted today as the foundation of deterrence theory, whether and how nuclear deterrence would work was not at all clear. The suggestion that the US would produce an entire category of weapons for the sole purpose of preventing rather than waging war was considered strange to the point of being absurd. [5] It went against a set of foundational assumptions about the nature of the international system and the role of the military in maintaining the security of the nation. When the civilian and military leadership in the US were still working within the existing policy paradigm and endorsing strategies to win nuclear wars through massive retaliation, Brodie was already asking a new and more fundamental set of questions. He was talking about atomic technology as revolutionizing the ends of military strategy itself, famously claiming that “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.” [6]

Deterrence—not simply as a tactic, but as a national security strategy—gives rise to new forms of power politics in which states play out international conflicts by bargaining over the use and possession of armaments. is an historically specific techno-political and international diplomatic practice that is enabled and constrained by the human capacities for surveillance and destruction. As the institutional and technological context changes, so will the possibilities for nuclear disarmament.

Building the conceptual architecture that will help us move the debate about nuclear policy forward will require going beyond the current nuclear deterrence paradigm by bringing together a group of scholars that are working on ideas that are usually considered too strange or radical to be part of the mainstream. In other words, this kind of work needs an institutional home for policy research akin to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (another of William Perry’s visionary innovations), or similar to the one that RAND provided for the development of the deterrence paradigm. These are institutional spaces that exhibit a commitment to critical inquiry and interdisciplinary research, accept a high rate of failure, and do not strangle nascent research programs by sacrificing conceptual innovation in favor of short-term policy relevance. There are institutional spaces that and funding programs exhibit some of these aspects, promoting and developing those programs, even in an era of budget austerity, should be a component of the US nuclear security policy.


[1] For instance, these are the types of questions that are being debated at the annual Deterrence Symposiums hosted by STRATCOM: This trend is also reflected in and reinforced by the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report. What the report makes clear is that policymakers still consider nuclear deterrence a key element of US national security, but there is an overwhelming sense that moving beyond a Cold War mindset is necessary for the US to maintain its national security. These are also the issue areas the Department of Defense is funding for social scientific study through their Minerva Initiative:

[2] Fred M. Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983).

[3] Philip Taubman, The Parnership (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).

[4] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Jan 4, 2007. pg. A.15

[5] Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 152.

[6] Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, ed.  (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946).


Recovering current costs (or advice to advocates of nuclear disarmament)

Rocky Flats has long been controversial. In this newspaper photo from the early 1980s, people circle the facility in protest. (Photo courtesy Department of History University of Colorado)

Rocky Flats has long been controversial. In this newspaper photo from the early 1980s, people circle the facility in protest. (Photo courtesy Department of History University of Colorado)

On a friend’s recommendation, I just listened to an episode of Fresh Air about nuclear contamination in Rocky Flats. In it Kristen Iversen talks about her new book: Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. That same friend also recommended Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed. Both of these books are part of a post-Cold War process of recovering information about the real-time social, environmental, and economic costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal. These narrative accounts compliment scholarly works such as Joe Masco’s Nuclear Borderlands and Stephen Schwartz’s Atomic Audit.

All of these texts contain the seeds of change. They provide us with the kind of tools that are necessary to any movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Rather than focusing our attention on the fear of what could happen in an unimaginable future, they focus our attention on what we can know now. They ask us to grapple with an immanent threat, the effects of which can be measured, discussed, and weighed against other alternatives.

As Iverson illustrates through the story of Rocky Flats, for much of the Cold War, the process through which the US produced and maintained its nuclear arsenal took place behind a shield of secrecy. A focus on the potential for catastrophic future costs associated with a nuclear war pre-empted or obscured discussion about the current costs of nuclear weapons. The rationale for the maintenance of the US nuclear arsenal was that the production of nuclear weapons would discourage military aggression through the threat of unacceptable costs in return. Therefore, it was the presence of the weapons that was keeping the peace. Maintaining the peace of the Cold War was the pre-eminent goal of US national security policy, hence environmental contamination and its health effects were considered a minor cost to pay in comparison. The desire to prevent a nuclear war, and the role of the US nuclear arsenal in deterring Soviet aggression, meant that the development and production of nuclear weapons proceeded as if the process were costless.

Arguments for nuclear abolition based on the real-time costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal lead to very different kinds of policy outcomes than arguments based on the fear of an apocalyptic future. Real-time cost-based arguments focus attention on what nuclear weapon states are doing to destroy their own landscapes and peoples (and sometimes the people of neighboring countries or close allies). In other words, cost arguments ask nuclear weapon states to look at the threat they pose to themselves by choosing to develop nuclear weapons. These arguments highlight the aspects of nuclear weapons that are dirty, poisonous, and difficult to contain.

Real-time cost arguments lead to restrictions on what states may or may not do with nuclear materials. The most prominent example of a movement based on cost arguments is the movement to ban nuclear testing that played an important part in creating pressure on the US and USSR to agree to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and informs the current debate about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In contrast, arguments for nuclear abolition based on the fear of an apocalyptic nuclear attack focus attention on what nuclear weapons can do in the context of an imagined future. Unlike real-time cost arguments, which provide states with concrete reasons to give up nuclear weapons for their own good, apocalyptic fear-based arguments focus attention on why nuclear weapons are dangerous to humankind at large.

The problem with this approach to arguments against the production of nuclear weapons is that on some level they feed back into the justification for the production of nuclear weapons. The apocalyptic potential contained in the thousands of nuclear warheads dispersed around the globe is either truly terrifying or entirely reassuring depending on your perspective.

The idea that nuclear weapons are dangerous does not necessarily mean that they should be eliminated. These same arguments about nuclear apocalypse provide advocates of nuclear deterrence with their justification for why maintaining a nuclear arsenal is essential to US national security. In the hands of an irrational adversary, nuclear weapons are dangerous, but turned to rational purposes by responsible states, nuclear weapons are the ultimate source of stability and power.

Apocalypse-based arguments direct attention to the threat posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of others. The act of giving up nuclear weapons may serve the long-term good of humanity, but is against any individual state’s short-term good (narrowly-construed). Policies generated by these arguments restrict access to nuclear materials, while legitimating the possession of nuclear weapons by a chosen few. These are the arguments that are being used by Global Zero and the Nuclear Security Project, and which are behind the Obama administration’s commitment to a ‘world free of nuclear weapons.’

Arguments that ask us to consider the real-time costs a nuclear arsenal provide a new basis on which to argue against the kind of Cold War-era arms race in which the US and the USSR engaged. Creating a sense of urgency about the costs that are being incurred now, rather than emphasizing the possibility of apocalyptic costs that may or may not be incurred at some point in the future, creates the best possible argument for why what serves the long-term good of all also serves the short-term good of individual states as well.

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.

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.