Michael KreponWhat’s Our Central Organizing Principle?

Every successful business, cause or social movement needs a central organizing principle, including the Nuclear Enterprise and the Arms Control Enterprise. Under the cloak of safe-sounding deterrence, the Nuclear Enterprise in the United States and Russia is built around Gates of Hell nuclear war-fighting capabilities. The result is excessive numbers of targets and warheads, big-ticket items, and their costly replacements. The Nuclear Enterprise remains successful. It has shrunk over time and has been confined in some respects, but still retains substantial political backing and commands significant resources from taxpayers.

The Arms Control Enterprise, on the other hand, is shaky, despite past successes. The name of this enterprise doesn’t fit any more and, more problematic, it lacks a central organizing principle. Readers of ACW are invited to dwell on this circumstance and to offer suggestions.

Central organizing principles matter greatly. When they are right, they lend impetus to big policies and coherence to small initiatives. When they are absent, everything seems ad hoc. When they are wrong, expect very bad news. Central organizing principles lay behind the success of U.S. national security strategy during the Cold War and its failure after 9/11.

With the advent of the Cold War, there was bipartisan support for a central organizing principle of Containment. Containment was a big success story. Its meaning was clear and persuasive. It had bipartisan backing. Its methods could be inferred, but not too specifically, which was also helpful. And it put the onus on the Soviet Union to break the bonds of containment. If Moscow sought to change the status quo in Europe, it would be the Kremlin’s fault. The United States and its allies would be in the right to respond.

Some Conservatives didn’t like Containment. They preferred a central organizing principle of Rollback. Rollback’s meaning was clear, and its methods could also be inferred. But Rollback wasn’t a persuasive central organizing principle during the Cold War. It was extremely dangerous and it could not count on bipartisan support. The onus for Rollback’s success fell squarely on the United States, and would require actions that could provoke a major conventional or nuclear war.

Rollback made a comeback after the 9/11 attacks. It was the central organizing principle behind President George W. Bush’s first National Security Strategy. Rollback was now directed toward the defeat of tyrants and terrorists who could acquire weapons of mass destruction. Rollback would replace them with the promotion of democracy.

This central organizing principle was unfurled at a time when there were no effective domestic or international checks and balances against excess. The U.S. homeland had been attacked in a dramatic way, resulting in grievous losses. No one could deny the validity of punishing responses against the perpetrators. Russia was certainly in no position to object. But then hubris kicked in. The Bush Administration extended its central organizing principle beyond Afghanistan to Iraq. And then, the United States had a pair of trillion-dollar wars on its hands. Extrication took place when the Islamic State was rising along with severe domestic division — and when Russia and China were seeking openings to exploit.

To repeat: the choice of a central organizing principle matters greatly. The first central organizing principle for dealing with the advent of the Bomb was General and Complete Disarmament. Or at least that’s what the superpowers said. In actuality, this was just a hollow incantation until they could figure out something else.

The answer came courtesy of a brilliant group of conceptualizers in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. They came up with the central organizing principle of Arms Control. (Aspiring wonks: to capture the spirit and intellectual ferment of this time, I continue to recommend two books, both published in 1961: Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin’s Strategy and Arms Control, and Donald G. Brennan’s edited volume Arms Control, Disarmament, and National Security.)

Some of these conceptualizers came to Washington to serve in the Kennedy Administration. Others arrived in 1969 with a new Republican administration. Arms control was practiced for almost three decades. At the outset, it was hard to come up with arms-control proposals, and even harder to convince the Kremlin to reach agreements. And soon enough, it also became hard to maintain enough of a domestic consensus in the United States to keep the process going.

Despite these difficulties, there were significant accomplishments. The superpowers acknowledged and codified national vulnerability to missile attacks, and they agreed to place limits on the most powerful means of destroying each other’s society. But these advances weren’t sufficient. They didn’t alleviate anxieties or reduce superpower nuclear arsenals.

By the early 1980s, the American public was ready for the new central organizing concept, and was receptive to the pursuit of nuclear arms reductions championed by President Ronald Reagan. But Reagan also championed Astrodome-like strategic defenses and American military dominance, so it was hard to figure out whether his new central organizing principle was sincerely held. The answer came in Reagan’s second term. He not only wanted deep cuts in strategic forces, but also their complete abolition.

The strategic arms-reduction treaties negotiated just before and after the demise of the Soviet Union were path-breaking. But this path didn’t have a clear destination. Other priorities intervened. President Bill Clinton necessarily focused on the nuclear dangers attendant to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and President George W. Bush was consumed with the fallout from 9/11, including the specter of nuclear terrorism. The Republican Party found little to like about arms control, and cut ties to President Reagan’s legacy by resisting further strategic arms reductions. As Vladimir Putin expanded Russia’s sphere of influence and as China’s military strength rose, support for the treaty-making Arms Control Enterprise barely had a pulse in the Republican Party. President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Prague about his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and then moved on to more pressing problems, especially Iran.

So where does this leave us? Arms control is old school, redolent of the ‘60s. It’s now shorthand for a larger body of work, but there’s no propulsion behind these words. Nonproliferation remains central, but many states view this construct as serving the interests of those who want to preserve their special status as nuclear-weapon states (NWS). Without more of an impulse for strategic arms reductions, the divide between the haves and have-nots will grow. Strategic-arms reductions have to be part of the new central organizing principle, but they will become very complicated after the next US-Russia tranche.

The central organizing principle of disarmament – just nuclear, not “general and complete,” as in the early days – runs into resistance from the NWS. Abolition is an end state, not a driver. Making an end state the central organizing principle doesn’t help achieve intermediate steps. The Humanitarian Pledge movement faces this same quandary. It helps to clarify the horrific consequences of nuclear weapons’ use, but then what? Action plans consisting of multiple steps and a plethora of “shoulds” and “musts” don’t get the job done.

The Arms Control Enterprise is in need of a new central organizing concept, one that can gain a working consensus in the United States and not be subject to the vetoes of spoilers abroad. This time around, conceptualization can’t be made exclusively in the USA. Asia is where stockpiles are growing; without input and buy-in from Asia, any new central organizing concept won’t have legs. And yes, Putin’s Russia will have to be on board, as well as pragmatic leaders of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Central organizing principles work best when they convey a clear and compelling sense of purpose; the more concise, the better – even though the new concept will necessarily cover a wide range of activities.

So, what do you have in mind?


  1. E. Parris (History)

    Banning the Bomb is apparently entering a new, and much more complicated phase. I recall seeing a small article–perhaps 10 days ago–that the Obama Administration planned to request up to a billion dollars for the modification of nuclear weapons currently in the US stockpile. Apparently the days of the city-busting bombs are over, although, no doubt, some will remain in storage. But the military is seeking flexibility in their targeting. And one can imagine how a small nuke in a drone could clear a battlefield. By the addition of a series of switches on the weapon, each mission could be customized. And with the success of these weapons in tough military areas, such as has been found in Afghanistan, these weapons–based on efficiency in the battlefield–will be legitimized. The trick will be to “open the door” by demonstrating the relative efficiency of one of these nuclear weapons in a limited context. And what will happen when small bands of truly bad guys get their hands on these things? We could be entering a very new and difficult phase of conflict, too terrible to even contemplate.

  2. David Clark (History)

    I described my ‘organizing principle’ as, “I work to make sure my children and I die from something other than nuclear weapons.” It worked well in explaining to friends who thought we’d all die from pandemics or climate change why I thought they were incurable optimists…

  3. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Thanks, Michael. The lack of an organizing principle has been bothering me too. One principle that I see across several NGOs is fear. Because the fear of a nuclear war is much less than it was during the Cold War, the substitute is usually the possibility of an accident or nuclear terrorism. Old accidents are recycled. Nuclear material picked up by sting operations is hyped as practically a nuclear weapon, even if it’s cesium or an obvious batch sample.

    Most fundamentally, fear is not the kind of organizing principle that we need. It promotes poor thinking and eliminates intelligent strategizing. There is entirely too much of it in the presidential campaign.

    Additionally, rehashing old accidents and exaggerating what nuclear material may be available do not add to credibility.

    Seems to me the message needs to be something positive, but I haven’t come up with something I’m pleased with yet.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      We’re on the same wavelength.
      Fear is the fuel of choice for the Nuclear Enterprise and the Rollback Enterprise. On a short-term basis, it can help achieve policy outcomes favored by the Arms Control Enterprise. But sustained fear is a circuit breaker. The Arms Control Enterprise distinguishes itself by combining prudence with hope and a sense of progress. The Nuclear Enterprise holds out the hope of deterrence predicated on Hellish transactions. Without an arms reduction process, the Nuclear Enterprise has no forward movement.

  4. anon (History)

    Transparency, confidence-building measures, and stability.

    This has been my mantra for years. I don’t really care about the numbers, I care about the probability of use through misunderstanding, miscalculation of effect, or ambiguity of intentions.

    I also don’t really believe in “accidental use” (oops, I pushed the wrong button!), and I don’t really fear nuclear terrorism (although maybe I should), even though I am a strong supporter of improved cooperative measures to secure materials and know-how… I tend to believe that those who hold nuclear weapons as a national asset understand the horrific effects of these weapons and will do their best to avoid accidents or leakage to non-state actors.

    So, my organizing principle is the need to adopt confidence-building measures that improve transparency and enhance stability.

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Always welcome your comments.
      I, too, am a big fan on CBMs and nuclear risk-section measures. Especially now between the US & Russia.
      I am suggesting that these useful mechanisms be placed in the service of a central organizing principle.

  5. Chuck Baynton (History)

    The Humanitarian Pledge may be better than Michael gives it credit for, but here is a thought:

    As Michael points out, best would be something that makes sense from the perspective of diverse countries. Also best would be something that can endure as details of what is happening around nukes change. So how about

    mutual self-interest?

  6. tobychev (History)

    Nuclear Safety – the idea that we as a collective deserve to be safe from nukes. Since a strategic weapon cannot be targeted at an individual or a group in any meaningful way its use should be viewed as explicitly intended to attack a collective, which by necessity means killing large numbers of innocent civilians. We, as innocents, deserve to be protected from this indiscriminate attack.

    So strategic weapons are then simply a source of indiscriminate killing, in contrast to conventional and small tactical nukes because their scope is so limited they can be used in a selective fashion. Of course, even these can be misused but at least it is harder to achieve mass killings on the same sort of scale as the strategic weapons. Additionally, with the advent of precision munition military aims are better accomplished by just a few bombs so there is little military reason to do large bomb raids with lots of collateral damage that as a side effect build up a tolerance for slaughter.

    Proponents of strategic weapons can then only deliver this sort of nuclear safety: http://i.imgur.com/ohbT8hd.png?1

  7. Walter Paul Komarnicki (History)

    as President Reagan used to say, “Trust, but verify.”
    Trust, like respect, must be earned, and for flagrant and blatant violations of trust – like a takeover of other countries’ land or sea areas or allowing proxy warriors to down commercial aircraft or allowing terrorists the means to finance their evil acts – there has to be a process to put sanctions in place a lot sooner and more effectively than at present.
    And putting some teeth into the International Criminal Court for a change.

  8. J_kies (History)

    Reduce risk of nuclear weapon usage

    No such weapons obviously reduces risks in uses against military or civil targets. A few extremely large devices remain necessary for planetary defense purposes mated to programs capable of asteroid/comet detection in time to effect defense.

    The major NWS presently have conventional militaries that address legitimate defensive needs and their security is actually degraded by the existence of ‘useable’ nuclear weapons. Arms control / reductions can succeed if couched as a means of continuing the status quo with slow and controllable change.

  9. Jonah Speaks (History)

    Personally, I still see “ban the bomb”, “global zero”, and “nuclear disarmament” as succinctly describing a central organizing principle that is fairly easy to understand and communicate. It describes a destination, yes, but it also provides a direction. There are dozens of proposals for how to get there, even if it will take a long time. It’s like saying North Pole: How do we get there? Go North, not South. Even if (as some argue) we can never actually get there, it provides general guidance on which direction to go. Whether or not we actually get to zero, reduce numbers, yields, and reliance on nuclear weapons.

  10. Nick Ritchie (History)

    Michael, is it not the case that global nuclear politics has been broadly characterised by two competing organising principles, namely the logic of nuclear deterrence and the logic of nuclear disarmament as responses to the challenge of mitigating the risk of unacceptable nuclear violence? A current iteration of the first logic is often framed as ‘responsible nuclear sovereignty’ – rules of the road for justifying the possession of nukes by being good nuclear citizens and responsible stewards of nuclear weaponry (which all sounds a bit neo-colonial in the global south), whereas the ‘humanitarian initiative’ is reframing the second logic around broadly Western notions of cosmopolitan security that connect disarmament with discourses and practices of global social, economic and environmental justice. The differences between the two logics can be nuanced through practices of old school arms control and non-proliferation, but they remain pretty incommensurable and attempts to bridge the gap tend to generate awkward nuclear doublespeak.

    • Michael Krepon (History)


      Well put. If I am able to secure funding for brainstorming on bridging this divide and coming up with a new central organizing principle, I will try to rope you in.

      The logic of nuclear deterrence seems even more frozen to me than the logic of arms control. We are about to witness an over-reach by the Nuclear Enterprise in the US, which will lead to a backlash. Their ‘new’ ideas are old. Some are once again kicking the tires of lower-yield weapons to bolster deterrence. Right.

      The Humanitarian Pledge movement can breathe new life in the Arms Control Enterprise, but if captured by the NAM ‘leadership’ — Egypt, Iran, Venezuela, etc. — it will add to the rancor and weapon the NPT.

      Definitely need creative thinking now.


  11. Allen Thomson (History)

    WRT deterrence, there is the question of whether the so-called “Long Peace” is real and, if so, if nuclear deterrence had anything to do with it: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_Peace . If nukes really have had an effect in preventing WW-III or similar bad event, then the details of that (what nukes, of what kind, how many etc.) would be worth exploring.

    IIRC, going back to the 1950s, several opinions came up with ca. 200 deliverable nukes-of-the-day as being a sufficient deterrent if deterrence were the objective. If, instead of deterrence, nuclear war-fighting were the objective, then the number would be much bigger.

  12. anon (History)

    How about making non-use the organizing principle?

    As the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review said: “It is in the U.S. interest and that of all other nations that the nearly 65-year record of nuclear non-use be extended forever.” Or as President Reagan said “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

    Ideally, the organizing principle should define a clear choice between actions to take and actions to avoid. This principle may not be the best from that perspective, as it requires choosing among hypothetical outcomes based on potential consequences that may not always be clear. Does missile defense increase or decrease the likelihood of nuclear weapon use? The answer you come up with may depend on the specific circumstances or on your strategic perspective.

    But however we may disagree on the answer at least there is a good chance we can agree that this is the right question.

    • George William Herbert (History)

      Non-use is perhaps a good core starting point that even skeptics of zero can rally behind…

  13. Bradley Laing (History)

    If it does go ahead, the Successor submarine project will be one of the biggest the military has undertaken in decades. It will also see the creation of some of the most technologically advanced and stealthiest submarines in the world.
    BAE will be the lead contractor on the project and expects to have between 5,000 and 6,000 people working on the programme at its peak, out of a total of about 9,000 people in the unit at the time. BAE’s submarine business currently employs 7,700 staff, with the bulk of them working on the Astute-class attack submarines.
    Other major companies involved include Rolls-Royce, which will build the nuclear reactors on the submarines, and Babcock. Hundreds of other smaller companies will also be in the supply chain for the programme.
    More than £1bn has already been spent on design work, as well as expanding BAE’s shipyard in Barrow in Furness, Cumbria, where the submarines will be constructed.