Michael KreponNorms of Responsible Nuclear Stewardship

Quotes of the week:

“Baseball is what we were. Football is what we have become.” — Mary McGrory

“It may be that baseball is, under close analysis, pointless. What seems apparent to me is that close analysis is pointless. The game is there. It is the best game there is. That’s all you need to know.” — Art Hill

How do we transform a dangerous deterrence-based system into a far less dangerous one?

A nuclear deterrence-based system will be with us for a long time — and that’s if we’re successful and lucky. The goal for me is how to create conditions so that a deterrence-based system doesn’t kill us.

How do we create these conditions?

One way is through numbers. Another way is through norms. The best way is by numbers in conjunction with norms.

I’ve written earlier about numbers. There’s certainly value in extending a bilateral numbers-based regime for the two states with the most nuclear arms. Since the United States and Russia exceed China’s nuclear holdings by a very significant margin, predicating an extension of New START to China’s inclusion makes no sense; it’s a thinly disguised way of killing New START’s extension. One of the many reasons to extend New START is the time it will likely take to agree to something better, with broader participation.

Let’s assume, optimistically, that New START is extended. What then? Laying out a new set of very low numbers has been proposed. This is an important heuristic device — it helps point us in the direction of a safer future. But it’s hard to envision how the United States can get from here to minimal deterrence alone, safely, and without freaking out allies absent fundamental change in both domestic political and international conditions. Absent conditions conducive to actual transformation, those seeking minimal deterrence-based force structure will reinforce but not broaden mindsets.

Abolition and the Ban Treaty offer escape from a dangerous deterrence-based system but, alas, the United States, Russia, China and other nuclear-armed states are under the influence of Mars, not Venus. While I support the end state of a Ban Treaty and abolition, this is not the focus of my work. End states will remain distant goals unless we succeed in many battles between then and now.

In my view, the grassroots game only changes the inside game in the United States when the President is willing to override dangerous nuclear orthodoxy. This has happened very rarely, either when external circumstances reinforced domestic insistence (e.g., the ban on atmospheric testing and limits on national ABM deployments) or when external conditions are non-threatening (e.g., reductions in force structure and stockpile under Bush 41, and further reductions in the stockpile under Bush 43). When external conditions appear threatening, top-down decisions to buck nuclear orthodoxy can backfire (Carter) or are easily nullified (Obama).

Alternative theories of change in nuclear orthodoxy are welcome and can be debated on this site.

Another way to change status quo-oriented conditions so as to make deterrence less dangerous is to seek specific modifications in orthodoxy. Remove tactical nukes from Turkey, by all means. Reload the sealed Trident tubes and use this device to begin reducing deployed ICBMs. And please kill the low yield Trident warhead. This idea is the product of deliberation in rooms lacking proper filtration systems. It reminds me of when very smart people like Harold Brown and Bill Perry, operating from a de-oxygenated place of deterrence orthodoxy, tied themselves into knots trying to find a survivable basing mode for the MX missile.

I put No First Use in the category of a specific modification to make deterrence less dangerous. It’s very important. It’s also wonky. Anytime we challenge nuclear orthodoxy, it’s hard to avoid the weeds. My instinct is to try to avoid the weeds as much as we can.

Norms aren’t in the weeds.

I believe we can transform a dangerous deterrence-based system by championing norms that, over time, make nuclear weapons increasingly peripheral and less valuable. Norms that facilitate lower numbers and less exacting readiness standards. Ronald Reagan might phrase this as norms that make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

What norms make nuclear weapons less usable and subject to further reductions?

Above all, the norm of not using nuclear weapons in warfare.

The norm of not threatening to use nuclear weapons in warfare.

The norm of not testing nuclear weapons.

The norm of nonproliferation.

The norm of safety and security for nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials.

The norm of reducing nuclear excess.

These norms can’t stand alone. They would need reinforcement with norms of responsible interstate relations, harkening back to McCloy-Zorin, Nixon-Brezhnev, and the Helsinki Final Act. (More on these in subsequent posts.) My thinking is still fuzzy and needs refinement, but my basic point here is that the nuclear norms we seek won’t be reinforced over time if nuclear-armed states are intent on changing lines on maps by the use of force or subversion.

This is obviously problematic, given Vladimir Putin’s behavior in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere, and given China’s muscle flexing toward its eastern neighbors. More such actions could be ruinous to nuclear norm building. Past actions need not be: The United States negotiated with the Soviet Union over the control and reductions of nuclear capabilities while refusing to recognize the Kremlin’s engorgement of the Baltic States and its control over unwilling Eastern European populations. Likewise, the West would not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and can push back against its misbehavior elsewhere while seeking to reduce nuclear dangers.



  1. William Moon (History)

    These last two norms can/should be pursued cooperatively under bilateral and/or multilateral arrangements. With such progress, we can rely less on deterrence to meet the other norms.

  2. Subversive Peacemaker (History)

    Thank you Michael! An excellent start on an extremely important conversation. And thanks for including the “low-yield” warhead (and the associated concept of using nuclear weapons in warfare). We must stop the continued production and deployment of the W76-2. As much as I do not believe the myth of deterrence, I do believe that deployment of the W76-2 on Trident will undermine Trident’s sole, stated mission, and greatly increase the probability of full-scale nuclear war. We need people to call their members of Congress to cosponsor the Hold the LYNE Act: https://www.gzcenter.org/take-action/

  3. Elizabeth Talerman (History)

    Innovation is achieved through a process of steps, stretches and leaps. On rare occasions, and for certain populations a leap is possible, but far more often, innovation manifests through steps and stretches. I, too, support abolition and believe we can get there through the steps and stretches of norm change when these norms related to simple, universal, human-centric ambitions. Thank you, Michael, for pointing to the norms that are clear, simple and capable of moving us toward a safer world.