Michael KreponYear-End Assessment

Quote of the week:

“We are made wise not by the recollection of our past, but by the responsibility for our future.”
— George Bernard Shaw

It has been a bad year. Any year is a bad year when Mar-a-Lago and the White House are common ports of call. Donald Trump walks both manicured grounds, telling us what’s on his mind, accompanied by microphones and the football.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee convenes testimony on the subject of one-finger decision-making to push the proverbial button. Three experts are bereft of better ideas. We have to do better than this.

The Great Unraveling continues. The biggest, least appreciated accomplishment of the past half-century – the safety net of treaties, constraints and norms to reduce nuclear dangers and prevent mushroom clouds – remains widely unacknowledged, let alone appreciated. The great architects of this safety net have mostly left the stage. Much of the general public has come to expect these benefits as if by birthright, without need of further investment and reinforcement.

Those who seek their safety net against nuclear dangers by spending large sums on weapons whose use would invite conflagration and by fine-tuning offensive options keep beavering away.

Fantasists have something to celebrate this holiday season: the Maestro’s distancing act from an agreement that places verifiable constraints on Iran’s bomb-making capability. This advance – a term that, in Trump-like inversion, signals retreat from real-world consequences – is accompanied with calls for more sanctions. Drumbeaters on Capitol Hill and elsewhere have no clue about how else to proceed.

Snipping away at the nuclear safety net is a twisted yardstick of success, but it appeals to those who never reconciled themselves to the necessity for cooperative nuclear threat reduction with rivals. Boll weevils in Pentagon policy shops keep gnawing away at remaining strands already frayed by Vladimir Putin’s misconduct. Open Skies Treaty over-flights, which could help renew defense ties across Europe and push back against the Kremlin’s boorishness, are underfunded and squandered. And the most adept ways to counter Russian violation of the Intermediate-Range Treaty on nuclear forces are viewed as poor substitutes for the one that will be hardest to convince allies to implement – and therefore most injurious to the damaged accord.

As for the problem from Hell in North Korea, the Maestro and his National Security Adviser reject the acceptance of mutual deterrence. What then, pray tell, remains on the table? When we are unable to imagine deterrence and diplomacy working, we invite war, and sometimes wage it.

On the plus side, the year now receding has produced a Ban Treaty. Kudos are due to its champions. The Ban Treaty’s limitations are evident, but in due course, it can be part of a wider normative netting of restraint against nuclear weapons’ use. This assumes we can manage to avoid another battlefield use of nuclear weapons in the unscripted passages that lie ahead.

Everything hopeful and positive we seek depends on preventing this third mushroom cloud. In the event of failure, those in thrall to the manifold requirements of nuclear deterrence will have proven to be of no help whatsoever. Worse, they will have become accomplices to catastrophic failure. If the nuclear threshold is crossed, targeting plans provide only bad answers. In the event of another mushroom cloud, decision makers will be left to their own flimsy devices, crushed by time pressures. Everything that matters will then depend on somehow stopping more mushroom clouds.


  1. Patrick (History)

    Perhaps judicious use of a few nuclear weapons is the medicine mankind needs to remember why they are controled

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Judiciously or not two weapons were used and we have the records of destruction, death and suffering which should be enough to cover this field of medicine.

  2. Jeff Johnston (History)

    Unfortunately all involved parties need to understand or care about the consequences of MAD. Should one be incapable does that suggest the other(s) capitulate their principles and lower non-proliferation standards thereby collaterally encouraging other “c’ players in the world to embark on their own nuclear initiatives? Where do you stop the cycle?