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Disaster Mitigation 101: Have a media strategy

From Flikr user "Simply Info"

As someone with a longstanding interest in the media coverage of Fukushima and how it seems to exculpate the nuclear industry, I was struck last night by a passage from  Eric Schlosser’s fascinating new book “Command and Control“. In it he outlines the recommendations of a top secret 1959 RAND report — authored by one-time MIT professor and Undersecretary of Defense, Fred Iklé — concerning how the US should manage the publicity fallout from an accidental nuclear bomb detonation. Schlosser quotes directly from the report:

“If such an accident occurred in a remote area, so that leakage to the press could be prevented, no information ought to be made public. […] If the accident has been compromised and public statements become necessary, they should depict the accident as an occurrence which has no bearing on the safety of other weapons.”

The report further recommended that the crisis be drained of its immediacy by establishing an authoritative “board of inquiry” that would take several months to reach its conclusions. Schlosser quotes again:

“During the delaying period the public information program should provide the news media with all possible news about rehabilitation and relief. There is always a strong and continued interest in such news after a disaster. Within a relatively short time the interest in rehabilitation tends to crowd out reports about destruction and casualties.”

Any parallels with Fukushima are, I am sure, entirely coincidental.

(Page 195 on my kindle, for anyone interested to read further.)

 

Policy Relevance 101: Know your audience

Rose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can watch the hearing and read the testimony here: http://www.foreign.senate.gov/hearings/nomination-09-26-2013

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

Irrational economics

 

I was impressed by this short piece on HuffPo today.

Former White House policy analyst, Jeff Schweitzer, speaks the truth about the irrational costs of nuclear energy, and highlights our propensity to underestimate high-consequnce, low-pobability failures like Fukushima.

To wit:

“… nuclear energy is not viable and never will be; low probability high consequence risk. While bad events are rare, when they happen, the political, economic and human costs are much too high for society to absorb, even amortized over long periods of stability. And this does not include the problem of disposing of nuclear waste or the life cycle costs of decommissioning a spent plant. Nuclear energy sounds good, but only if most of the true costs are externalized. Trapping the true cost of nuclear energy in the price of electricity would render the industry useless.”

“Unfortunately, the industry survives because we fail to evaluate properly low-probably high-consequence events. Nuclear power is with us only because we have inherent flaws in our ability to evaluate risk. That inherent imperfection is blinding us to the simple reality that nuclear power is dead; we just don’t see it yet.”

File this under “Couldn’t have said it better myself.”

Fukushima’s (Non-)Surprises

800px-Fukushima_I_by_Digital_Globe

Fukushima has been back in the headlines of late, with the ‘surprise’ discovery that hundreds of tons of Strontium-laced radioactive water has been leaking into the Pacific, where the processes of bioaccumulation and biomagnification will ensure that it eventually winds up in our sushi. I put scare-quotes around ‘surprise’ because it really wasn’t a much of a shock to people intimately involved with the disaster. Individual leaks might be difficult to spot, but they know how much water they are pumping into the ruined reactor buildings, and they know how much water they are storing. It isn’t a very complicated math problem to figure out how much water is being lost. Especially, one might imagine, to the nearest hundred tons. Seriously, where did people think that water was going exactly?

With all the focus on the leaks though, I worry we have been missing the much (much) bigger dangers the continuing disaster poses. There is still the spent fuel-pool sitting atop unit 4, which is badly damaged and increasingly unstable. Even a relatively modest earthquake (the normal and entirely expected kind) could bring it down. If that happens, which it very well might, it would inevitably lead to a radioactive fire that would dwarf Chernobyl’s by several orders of magnitude. It is difficult to make a case that it would not (at minimum) be the end of Tokyo as a habitable city. (The implications of this alone are difficult to comprehend. It would mean relocating over 30 million people, and who knows what for the global financial system.) Less bad for the environment but almost as bad for Tokyo would be if the reactor cores melts its way down to the city’s aquifer, which runs under the plant. Again, a very real possibility.

Such fears, should they be realized, would come as ‘surprises’ to the vast majority of the media-reading public, but they really shouldn’t. The mainstream media might be ignoring these issues for now, but there are plenty of knowledgeable people trying to make themselves heard about the dangers. This article, for instance, does a pretty good job of summarizing some of the issues.

 

Disowning Fukushima

fukushima_01

All  policymaking about nuclear power — every cost/benefit analysis, every regulatory decision, every discussion about risk — is framed in some way by a quantitative reliability assessment. Such assessments are invested with all the authority that ‘science’ and ‘calculation’ wield over ‘mere judgement’. And given the irrefutably exorbitant costs (human, financial and environmental) of rector meltdowns, it is clear that policymakers would struggle rationalize nuclear energy without them.

So what happens when an event like Fukushima seems to undermine that authority? How do the many institutions vested in nuclear energy shore-up public faith in an assessment practice that appears to have failed? This is a question I’ve been thinking about this for a while now. Listen here for some broad thoughts, or follow here for the much more in-depth journal article (assuming you can navigate the paywall).

Is there a traumatic kernel to deterrence?

Preparing a paper for the ISA conference in San Francisco on Cyber-Deterrence, I wondered what happened to the “terror” of deterrence. Today deterrence is a merely theoretical shell expressing a rational calculus.

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On Cyberdeterrence

Since the beginning of the atomic age it was immediately clear that access to this force allowed for a direct connection – a shortcut – to power. The paradox to be solved was, how nuclear weapons can be “used” and not be “used”, how they will never explode but still be useful. The answer was deterrence theory

2nd Wave Deterrence.

Deterrence theory laid out the rules how states can “use” the destructive force of the atom to play a rational game that allows them to participate in the power struggles of the new, the nuclear world order.

By representing the dilemma of nuclear deterrence with new game theoretical methods and rational choice theory which rationalized and mathematized social processes, deterrence theorists were able to fabricate a new texture of meaning for the thing, which has the capacity to disrupt this web of meaning itself, to destroy the symbolic order itself. They took seriously that the new strategy was not to use the bomb ever (explode it), and redefined the “use” of a weapon to be a threat to others.

This made nuclear weapons useful items, powerful items in the sense that their destructive force had to be translated, transferred, displaced to be useful and be used in power relationships and negotiations between states. Such, a new language – the language of nuclear deterrence – was developed and invented. Today the system of nuclear deterrence is in place allowing states to hedge the destructive power of nuclear weapons in a meaningful way while still engaging in power politics.

3rd Wave.

The third wave of nuclear deterrence theory in the 1970s expressed critique on some of the assumptions of deterrence theory. The superficial question asked by third wave deterrence theory is how perception, culture and norms influence the values of a quadrant in a payoff matrix or if a utilitarian rational actor without internal dynamics and differences can be reasonably assumed. The third wave of deterrence theory laid open all the flaws in the second wave. But to consider all accessible psychological and circumstantial and norm based factors etc. also stabilized the “rational choice approach to understand actor’s strategic decision-making”. Although it “did not resolve the deficiencies it identified” and did “not replace rational deterrence theory” below the surface nuclear deterrence was made fit on an operational level to address new challenges, while still reaffirming the nuclear order.

During that process the core of what constitutes nuclear deterrence was subtly altered. Deterrence was genereralized, abstracted, augmented to apply in a topological sense to examples beyond the nuclear realm.

But nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of individual denial of benefits or a threat of punishment, a microeconomic rationalization of calculus or bargain with a payoff matrix.

The disturbing fact which has to be actively displaced, concealed, obfuscated, hidden, occluded is that nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of mass murder on an exorbitant scale but the threat to be responsible to literally destroy the world, the threat of absolute death. It is second order death, the death of the network of meaning itself.

One could of course argue that this apocalyptic dimension can be represented again in a payoff matrix, were the costs are almost infinitely high. I want to argue that absolute death is not representable in a rational game and nuclear deterrence is since its invention secretly participating at this ethical dimension. In political science literature such an ethical dimension of nuclear deterrence is sometimes partly captured by emphasizing the influence of norms on the practice of deterrence, based on the amorality of nuclear weapons – a nuclear taboo. But despite the fact that norms “channel constrain, and constitute action” this does not capture what in a slight alteration of Nietzsches aphorism would be: if you are gazing long into the nuclear abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

So, the question is: Is the theory of deterrence structured around this ethical dimension and does it change the theory of deterrence substantially if it is translated or applied to other fields like cyberdeterrence? Is each application of “a” deterrence theory unique, and do these other fields of application impose their own unique norms, changing the metric of deterrence itself?

I am not going to say much about cyberdeterrence here.

But to develop the grammar or metric of cyberdeterrence it is common to compare it to nuclear deterrence. Most authors agree that cyberdeterrence and nuclear deterrence have only few similarities, but that the nuclear example in general can give important lessons.

The main difference though between both is that nuclear deterrence is deterrence by punishment and threatens large scale destruction.

Cyberdeterrence operates in an environment unsuited to traditional models of deterrence. It will be most effective in deterrence by denial strategies and will probably not have a strong deterrence by punishment element. The obvious question is, what these substantive/topological differences in the logic of deterrence mean for cyberdeterrence and for attempts to produce the deterrence effect.

Can cyberdeterrence go beyond a mere cost/benefit calculation and is the metric of deterrence going to work effectively? For the strategic role cyberdetereence could play it will be decisive, if cyberdeterrence is an effective language that allows an actor to participate in power relationships like with nuclear weapons

 

Conclusion

By displacing the ethical dimension, the traumatic kernel in nuclear warfare, nuclear deterrence theory allowed to solve the deterrence paradox of nuclear use/non use and made nuclear weapons useful. While hedging their destructive force nuclear deterrence allowed nuclear armed states to engage in power politics and provided a common language. In the last decades the concept of deterrence subsequently diffused by applying the deterrence “skeleton”, the empty frame of rational calculation of costs and benefits, to non-nuclear fields. But the principal difficulties of the deterrence calculus remained. How do we measure goals and values, how do we quantify credibility, how do we treat epistemological and ontological uncertainty about the perspectives of the other? Deterrence is a blunt tool, it worked with nuclear weapons while survival was at stake.

Even if there is a clear declaratory policy for cyber deterrence strategies and an integration of deterrence with other policy tools, the question remains, if deterrence without large scale destruction is operationally/causally working or if deterrence is a theoretical shell to capture aspects of the metastructure of antagonistic adversarial relationships, but in the end it is quite unpredictable if the imagined deterrence calculus will work in the real world.

——————————

In that sense I am using  deterrence by denial or punishment on a day by day basis, to deter my daughter not to take unwanted action. (But even there I sometimes deter her e.g. from eating berries or mushrooms by claiming they are poisonous and deadly, which they are not – most of the time.)