Michael KreponTaking Stock

The advent of a New Year and a new administration are as good a time as any for taking stock. Decades of hard work to reduce nuclear dangers are at risk. The most consequential but least heralded achievement of the Cold War – the role of diplomacy in reversing a strategic arms race and helping to prevent mushroom clouds on battlefields – is ancient history for most of our fellow citizens. Worse, the Republican Party now widely denigrates nuclear diplomacy.

Slightly more than half of the U.S. population will feel like it is wandering in the wilderness for the next four years. Our lamentations will shift from a President who has not accomplished enough to a President who is endangering far too much. Hard challenges lie ahead. Our campaigns will mostly be about stopping bad ideas, not pushing good ones through the Congress. Prevention will be defined as accomplishment.

Dwelling in the desert has its purposes. It is a good place to find clarity and a renewed sense of resolve. Think of it this way: these spaces have nurtured the world’s great religions. Our tasks are comparatively modest but still essential. One is reformulating what we have, somewhat lazily, called “arms control.” The challenges ahead call for a new formulation – one that fits contemporary and future dangers, and one that lends itself to bringing converts on board.

There are two “wings” to the arms-control community – Washington-oriented NGOs and grassroots organizations. A strong inside game requires a strong outside game to succeed, and vice versa. Both wings will be in need of reinforcement for the zigs and zags of the Trump Administration. As a denizen of the Washington-based NGO world, I am in no position to comment on the needs of grassroots organizations for the coming battles. Organizers are hereby invited to offer their own suggestions in the comments section, below. I will confine myself to the world I know best.

In tough times, it is necessary but insufficient to fight the good fight. In my experience, time spent in opposition is the best time to pursue three additional objectives: building organizational strength, mentoring a rising generation of committed talent, and pursuing more persuasive outreach efforts. During hard times, public concerns over nuclear dangers grow. Good people are ready to enlist. (Many of our most effective contributors today enlisted during the Reagan Administration.) It’s our collective responsibility to channel this influx of talent and energy – not only for immediate challenges, but also for the long haul.

The Scoville and Stanton Fellowship programs have been enormously successful. The Stimson Center and other D.C.-based NGOs have become stronger because of them. The Scoville program provides us with free entry-level positions, six to nine months in duration. Stanton Fellowships are geared toward PhDs. They have generated relevant academic research, replenished teaching talent at the college level, and provided a new influx of pedigreed talent inclined toward public policy at NGOs and research centers.

Continued entry-level opportunities will be critical over the next four years. Just as critical will be keeping young talent on board and providing them with career paths. If we take as a given the need for NGOs to expend more effort as well as replenish over the next four years, it follows that NGOs will need more slots to do this work. Yes, consider this special pleading. But the logic is hard to refute.

As for fellowships at the post-doctoral level, I am not in a position to say when a saturation point has been or will be reached. Stimson’s South Asia programming has operated on the assumption that there can never be enough outstanding teachers and courses on issues relating to nuclear dangers. Accordingly, we are creating free on-line open courses that draw on the expertise of dozens of teachers and practitioners. Courses, mentors, and serendipity are tried-and-true conveyor belts for talent into the field.

As for public outreach, I’m reminded of an old United Airlines commercial, where the boss gathers his sales force and hands each one an airline ticket, saying something like, “Our customers no longer know us. Working the phones isn’t enough. Go out there and reintroduce yourself.” Working the internet is no longer enough, either.

My sense is that we (speaking again of my fellow D.C.-based NGOs) have good reason to reintroduce ourselves to our fellow citizens in ways that can broaden our base of support. Getting on airplanes is one way, something I have not done enough of during the Obama Administration. New public outreach initiatives are necessary – in red states and between the coasts. As are additional outreach programs on Capitol Hill.

It would also be useful for us to reassess the arguments and frames we use to elicit support. Most fundamentally, many of our fellow citizens are no longer persuaded by the necessity of “arms control.” This frame speaks to the past, not the future. It’s fine for shorthand (myself included, being a longstanding contributor to ArmsControlWonk.com), but we really mean something different, something more clearly understandable and supportable: Our life’s work is to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons.

The critiques of “arms control” are by now well rehearsed: treaty X or agreement Y doesn’t accomplish enough and, besides, our adversary will cheat. This frame places arms controllers on the defensive – unless the agreement reached is well beyond expectations or is negotiated by a hawkish Republican president. Playing defense gets harder when the adversary doesn’t abide by our preferred interpretations of compromises reached, or infringes on obligations in non-militarily significant ways.

Detailed explanations then become necessary, but they don’t shift the terms of debate. Opponents still make hay over minutiae. Public support for meaningful accomplishments is diminished by diversionary tactics and fake news. More problems are invited by relying on terminology that is far too abstract, like “strategic stability,” “deterrence stability,” and “arms race stability.” These terms are gobbledygook to most of our fellow citizens, who are looking for concrete measures of assurance that nuclear dangers are being reduced.

I have advocated shifting the frame from arms control and stability to reducing nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons. Setting terms of debate at the outset requires focusing on accomplishments and the dangers of rejecting diplomacy for military options: “This agreement reduces nuclear dangers by X, Y, and Z. If you don’t think this is enough, how exactly do you propose to do better? And what do you propose to do when you cannot do better?” If we make a relentless habit of this, the burden of proof in domestic debates can be reversed. This frame is equally applicable when opposing unwise initiatives that increase nuclear dangers.

The Obama Administration employed this argumentation poorly, getting lost in extended expostulation and refutation. That’s what happens when opponents frame the terms of debate when negotiations are ongoing, while an administration is tight-lipped – even about its negotiating objectives – until negotiations are concluded. It’s also what happens when those we are negotiating with behave badly, when accomplishments like New START appear to be too modest, and when the President is painted as weak in protecting U.S. national security interests.

President Obama compounded these problems by initially setting the frame as abolition. Everything he subsequently did was denigrated by supporters and vigilantly opposed by defenders of nuclear deterrence. The Obama Administration made an uphill climb steeper by failing to find a compelling framework for its efforts after geopolitical trends made a hash of the end-state of abolition. Comb through a dozen speeches by administration officials on various nuclear-related topics to see what I mean. You’ll find a nod to the Prague speech, a polite shuttling aside of classical references to arms control, and a litany of policy objectives.

Articulating a compelling rationale for action will not erase the partisan divide that throttled the Obama Administration, but it can help frame future debates on more favorable terms. If you have reservations about the frame of reducing nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons, what would be better?

Mere tactics? Point well taken. We are also obliged to construct new strategies to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons to stop the unraveling of the accomplishments of the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton Administrations, and to build for the future. This, too, is part of our “to do” list while sojourning in the wilderness.


  1. Marylia Kelley (History)

    Good morning, Michael. This responds to your shorter email as much as your excellent essay (above). Also, It occurred to me that I first responded more about strategies/methods than specific issues (e.g., nuclear weapons complex modernization vs subs vs missiles vs something else) below. In that regard, I do believe that some reductions within NNSA and the nuclear weapons complex will be possible in the coming era of Trump. The price tags are getting up there for some of the NNSA dream list.- and we have a history of cutting them back. I will let the folks who focus on DoD weigh in on that agency. I will be doing cross-agency work on LRSO in the coming administration. I love the idea of moving away from ICBMs, but, again, will let others comment on the feasibility of pursuing that option in the coming administration. Peace, Marylia

    On Jan 10, 2017, at 7:15 PM, Marylia Kelley wrote:
    I am typing stream of consciousness, so apologies for typos, etc.

    On nuclear weapons and disarmament issues, Trump is going to be interesting. What do you say about a president elect who says “Let it be an arms race…” in one moment and then carries on a “bromance” getting all gaga over an authoritarian Putin in nearly the same moment. i would note that both of those responses come from a “personal” emotional place inside the man; neither response comes from a national security/policy place. So, it’s going to be a bumpy ride from any angle.

    What to do?

    1. Public education/organizing has long gotten short shrift from some of the funding world – but, I would argue that not only is this a ripe strategy at the moment – it is also an essential one if our community wants to make any progress that won’t be rolled back on a whim in the era of Trump. Also, the very personal volatility of Trump-the-man makes many people uneasy – and therefore open to an outreach/education/organizing strategy. If we win the “hearts and minds” – or even capture the attention of – segments of the American people willing to mobilize or act, we will succeed! Plus, we have an unprecedented opportunity to make common cause with other parts of an overall social and political change movement. In essence, I argue that there are actual opportunities to make progress in this sector that did not exist before. We should be all over these opportunities in myriad ways large and small.

    2. Advocacy should be pursued (and funded) in the era of Trump, even if the targets shift a bit from “usual suspects” to a broader array of new targets in both political parties, and in the public sector. I think of it this way (as one example)… A group writes a report (so far, that’s analysis), now they should also make sure there are recommendations (otherwise, why write the report?). In the past, some of these recommendation pages have been pretty narrowly focused. In the era of Trump, I say, open that up a bit. Have recs for the Administration and Congress, yes, absolutely. But, also have some for the American people! The opportunity is here to broaden our vision. Let’s do this. In the past, I am aware that sometimes the audience has been a handful of people. My point here is that the audience in the era of Trump ought to be broader in most cases.

    There’s probably more, but these are the things with which my group is grappling. We are groping toward what we think will be effective in the coming administration. In that, our purpose is not that different than the funders or other NGOs. And, it is not completely different than the analysis we undertook by asking ourselves what we thought might be most effective in the Obama era or in the various eras before that. The answers are different, but the questions are not so different. We all want to be effective. And, that is as it should be. I want to know what others are thinking, too. I’m hoping it’s brilliant!

    Take care. And, Happy New Year one and all.


  2. Erica Fein (History)

    Michael, Women’s Action for New Directions is helping to lead the “grassroots wing” as you call it in your piece. We are all about building a movement to put nuclear risk reduction back on the agenda of elected officials, though we’ll call it something sexier. To do so, we must build way, way outside the beltway, raise political dollars, work cross-sectionally with other movements, coordinate with each other better, and collectively decide on a big vision and small policy goals (including defensive ones) to rally around. I want to emphasize the final point: grassroots and policy groups must come together toward a big picture vision and work together as seamlessly as possible. To achieve these goals, we need to raise more money, both from individual donors and big foundations. The money will go to onboarding personnel, creative new media, traditional organizing, and lobbying. The moment is now, and WAND is poised to seize it.

    Erica Fein, Nuclear Weapons Policy Director, WAND

  3. Bradley Laing (History)


    By Steve Liewer Omaha World-Herald Staff Writer

    ASHLAND – If the Looking Glass isn’t the jewel of the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum quite yet, at least the rust is about gone.
    The museum’s EC-135C jet – popularly known as the “Doomsday Plane” – was one of several “Looking Glass” aircraft that tag-teamed in the air continuously from 1961 to 1990, as an emergency command post in case of nuclear war. It was equipped to launch a nuclear counterstrike even if ground posts at the Pentagon or at Offutt Air Force Base were destroyed.
    “People could sleep better knowing that it was up there,” said Gen. John Chain, the former SAC commander who used to fly the Looking Glass, in a 2015 interview.
    Now the museum is about halfway through a two-year, $200,000 restoration program to restore an icon of the Cold War so that its fuselage and interior look as they did July 24, 1990. That’s the day Chain landed it at Offutt to end the 29-year string of continuous Looking Glass flights