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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.