Michael KreponFailures of Imagination

Lyric of the week:

“I sit alone at home and cry over you
What can I do
Can’t help myself
Cause baby it’s you
Baby it’s you

You should hear what they say about you (cheat, cheat)
They say, they say you never never ever been true (cheat, cheat)
Wo ho, it doesn’t matter what they say
I know I’m gonna love you any old way
What can I do, then it’s true
Don’t want nobody, nobody
Cause baby it’s you”

–“Baby It’s You,” lyrics and production by Burt Bachrach, Luther Dixon, and Mack David. The original version by The Shirelles (1961) continues to astound. Strangely covered by The Beatles in 1963.

Mercury watched agape during 2020 as the Earth remained in retrograde. Mere mortals watch as Donald Trump begrudgingly prepares to leave the White House at the top of his game, in a blaze of denial, victimization, falsehoods and grift.

The extent of Trump’s rejection by the voters was magnified by the results down ballot, where Republicans did surprisingly well. Social upheaval is generally good for both the Democratic and the Republican brands. Demographics have swung the popular vote blue, but the Grand Old Party figured out decades ago how to oppose or block legislation and blame Democrats for failures to improve societal ills. 

Moral indignation is a feel good but useless response to the best strategy Republicans have to exercise and retain power. The country’s problems cry out for bipartisanship, but policy differences are now thoroughly cultural, and the cultural divide in the United States remains wide and deep. Unless and until the risk/benefit calculus of bipartisanship changes on Capitol Hill, very few Republicans will co-sponsor controversial legislation championed by a Democrat in the White House. 

My memory of the political sectarianism that afflicts us dates back to the Nixon administration. Julian Zelizer has written about how Nixon’s “silent majority” evolved into a vocal minority in Burning Down the House, and I’m inclined to agree with him. The current wave of extreme partisanship began during the Clinton administration with Newt Gingrich leading the charge. Gingrich needed media support, and Rupert Murdoch – the defiler of Democracy in three great English-speaking countries – Fox television, and its talk radio counterparts provided it. Fox spawned even worse offspring on the Right, and MSNBC did counter-programming on the Left. So, here we are in two closed loop echo chambers.

Gingrich flamed out, as was his nature, but the techniques and themes he explored were perfected by Mitch McConnell and Trump. Their styles were utterly different, but together they took the Gingrich Revolution to an entirely new and previously unimagined level. Those of us reared on civics textbooks didn’t see this assault on Democracy coming. 

I now recognize that this constitutes a failure of my imagination. The foreshadowing was plainly evident, but I didn’t connect the dots. Barack Obama’s memoir reminded me that in his first month after taking office, when bipartisanship should have been at its highest ebb, emergency legislation to deal with the near collapse of the U.S. economy received the support of just two Republican Members of Congress and no Republican Senators. One Republican voted for his health care legislation, which cost the Democratic Party dearly.

Despite the stakes involved, the Republican Party chose not to horse trade or help. If more sectors of the economy tanked, with greater job losses and evictions, the consequences would have been blamed on Obama.

Joe Biden thinks he can do better. I hope he can. His skills and experience to reach across the aisle are far better than Obama’s. But the hand he’s reaching out to belongs to McConnell – the same McConnell who told Biden “You must be under the mistaken impression that I care” when as Vice President, Biden tried to explain why a bill should urgently become public law.

McConnell faces the same fundamental calculation now: whether helping another Democrat in the White House to mend the nation’s wounds advances or harms his Party’s electoral interests. Public desperation is no longer reason enough to lend a helping hand. 

In trying to process this information, my mind cycles back to the phrase “failure of imagination.” Tom Schelling used these words in a preface for Roberta Wohlstetter’s essential book, Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision. What intelligence analysts lacked in the winter of 1941 wasn’t information that an attack on Pearl Harbor was coming; there were plenty of signals amidst the noise pointing in this direction. Instead, as Schelling wrote, it was a failure of imagination to connect the dots. What became obvious after December 7th went unrecognized beforehand.

Not stopping the attacks of 9/11 constituted another failure of imagination. Once again, there were signals amidst the noise, and once again, dedicated analysts failed to connect the dots. CIA Director George Tenet and Richard Clarke on the National Security Council staff were too busy and too swamped in warnings of impending danger to step back and put the puzzle pieces together.

Key indicators were held by domestic as well as foreign intelligence collectors. Only three people – George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice — had the authority to direct everybody to get in the same room to share their most important nuggets of information, to lock the door, and to demand that nobody leave without a theory of the case. None of the three did.

This was, in my view, their foundational failing; other failings would follow in due course. To compensate later on, they and the U.S. Intelligence Community would be guilty of having too much imagination.

Those of us who work to reduce nuclear danger through the mechanisms of arms control are obliged not only to warn about failures of imagination that can lead to mushroom clouds, but also to suggest imaginative remedies to prevent their occurrence. We have a good track record about warnings, which is one of the many reasons why there have been no mushroom clouds in warfare since 1945.

The hardest part of our business is offering creative approaches to what are becoming systemic problems. Nuclear dangers are now flashing warning signs on multiple fronts, while our standard remedies have lost traction. 

The pursuit of abolition always matters, but it defies trend lines that are all too evident. No nuclear-armed rival that reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first will be convinced otherwise, although the U.S. formulation can be softened. Until twenty or so Republicans in the U.S. Senate can see their way clear to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a cascade of stabilizing U.S., Chinese, Indian and Pakistani ratifications will have to wait. New START can be extended for five years — anything less would be unwise as it would shorten the guaranteed time line for inspections to verify numerical limits. Deeper bilateral cuts will be a hard but worthwhile pursuit. 

If we step back from our standard remedies and look at the big picture, we see nuclear-armed states disrespecting the national sovereignty of others, over-reaching, and engaging in serious risk taking. The geometry of the global nuclear order makes all of these concerns harder to address. Since 1998, this geometry has been defined primarily by four bilateral and two interlocking triangular competitions. The combination of bilateral (U.S.-Russia, U.S.-China, India-Pakistan, and India-China) and triangular competitions (one among the United States, Russia and China, the other among China, India and Pakistan) invite crises.

Every nuclear-armed rivalry lacks sufficient guardrails and stabilization measures. Only one of these rivalries now lends itself to numerical treaty constraints. Every nuclear-armed rival is taking steps to strengthen deterrence in ways that appear threatening and that prompt countermeasures by a competitor. This picture becomes even more troubled when bilateral rivalries are overlaid atop triangular competitions. These dynamics are inherently hard to stabilize when two states act in concert against the third. They do not lend themselves to numbers-based fixes. 

There are no evident diplomatic initiatives to allay concerns about the possible use of these threatening weapons. Diplomatic ties between Washington and Moscow and between Washington and Beijing are in bad shape. Border clashes between China and India and between India and Pakistan are becoming more severe. Cyber intrusions are becoming increasingly bold. Space warfare capabilities are growing. The status quo is no longer sacrosanct.

The Founding Fathers of arms control never dealt with conditions this complex. We will need all of our creativity and imagination to stabilize these bilateral and trilateral equations. Technical patches are commendable and can help at the margins, but beg larger questions. The time has come to consider new conceptual frameworks.

Numbers still matter greatly, but norms matter more. Norms are easier to defend than numbers are to reduce. If we can focus our efforts on reaffirming the three crucial norms of non-battlefield use, no further testing of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation, we can establish conditions for far fewer numbers.

I’ve come around to the idea that it would be wise to establish a new forum to reinforce these norms, one that includes, but is not limited to the competitors in both interlocking triangles. I’ll lay out this case after the holidays.

In the meantime, dear readers, exhale. In this holiday season, I hope that you find sustenance in family and friends via Zoom if not in person. Please take time to note of the gifts that surround you. There is light at the end of this tunnel.

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