Michael KreponNuclear Learning

Quotes of the week:

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss

“The more places you’ll go, the more you’ll learn.” — MK

How do we learn about the Bomb and about arms control? How do we come to hold views and what does it take to change our attachment to them? 

My answers to these questions are personal and not steeped in social science research. I believe our views are a reflection of individual experience, reinforced by the information we are most inclined to absorb.  

Those who first stepped into the breach to prevent mushroom clouds were led by remorseful veterans of the Manhattan Project. I interviewed subsequent generations of doers for my impressionistic history/magnum opus/door stop, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise, and Revival of Arms Control. When I asked how they became committed to the field, the answers I received were usually rooted in periods of generational angst. 

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there were the duck and cover drills, intense Cold War crises, fallout from nuclear testing, debates on Capitol Hill, and popular campaigns like the Freeze Movement and the pursuit of the Prohibition Treaty. Every wave of generational commitment and energy has refreshed our work and made us stronger. 

Generational learning is passed along more than it is rebelled against. The same is true for classroom learning. Those I interviewed told me, time and time again, that professors had a major impact on their choice of a career. Divergence in our field may well start in the classroom: Students of Joseph Nye and William Van Cleave are likely to think quite differently about the Bomb and arms control. After leaving the classroom, divergence is reinforced by those we work with and with whom we are inclined to agree. 

When I taught as a Diplomat (sic) Scholar (sic) in the University of Virginia’s Politics Department, I told my seminar students that my job was to teach them how to think, not what to think. Toward that end, I would offer counter-arguments and ask for rebuttals to all views confidently expressed. But was I truly impartial? Probably not, and besides, my personal views were an open book, available online. 

After early hopes for abolition faded, those inclined toward this work split into camps of arms controllers and deterrence strengtheners. Few of the individuals that appear in my book changed their views once they came to hold them. Those who did, like Donald Brennan, Stuart Symington, William Foster, Gerard Smith and Paul Nitze, have interesting stories to tell. When we hold certain truths to be self-evident, most of us stick to them, regardless of evidence to the contrary and changing circumstances. 

There was a brief period when this wasn’t the case: After the Cold War ended, everyone became an arms controller supporting deep cuts and cooperative threat reduction initiatives to prevent “loose nukes” in the former Soviet Union. Then, after about a decade, for reasons I shall avoid here, we reverted to our camps to argue over arms control and nuclear weapons.

Divergent nuclear learning prompted pitched battles in he United States and Great Britain on these topics. Other democratic societies, like France, haven’t had comparable public or intellectual battles. Nor has India, where there is a wide mainstream view and fringe views on the Left and Right. China is interesting because of the occasional, sanctioned questioning of state-supported doctrine. In many countries, learning is often confined to the rote inculcation of talking points. 

What’s striking to me as a student of evolving nuclear discourse in India and Pakistan is how quickly doctrines congealed and requirements became open ended. I suspect this had much to do with the succession of hair-raising crises on the subcontinent once bombs came out of the basement. There was receptivity in both India and Pakistan to minimal deterrence after the 1998 tests, but as the competition took hold, western constructs of strengthening deterrence did, as well. 

It’s still possible to find distinctions between what I call the eastern model of nuclear orthodoxy in India and China and western orthodoxy everywhere else. This is most clearly evident in New Delhi’s and Beijing’s adherence to ‘no first use’ declaratory postures. But as nuclear rivalries mature, western orthodoxy usually gains ground.

The Stanton Foundation does a great service by supporting a new generation of academic expertise and teaching about the Bomb and arms control. Our field has been and will continue to be enriched as a result. Relatively few students, however, are fortunate enough to learn in these classrooms. The barriers of entry, beginning with the price of college admission, are now prohibitive for most students in the United States, let alone elsewhere. Visas have also become an issue, not to mention COVID. There is a pressing need for borderless, free, high-quality, long-distance nuclear learning.

I’m proud of my colleagues at the Stimson Center for answering this call. Stimson has produced two courses on nuclear learning. The most recent course is on nuclear deterrence in southern Asia, a topic that becomes more complicated the more you delve into it. This course is built around 63 guest lecturers who are based primarily in the United States, India, Pakistan and China. Have a look at the list of contributing lecturers here—it’s a who’s who of great teachers and experienced practitioners. All of them have volunteered their time to help Stimson produce 183 videos and 14 hours of lessons. Stimson has designed this course to be adopted for classroom use.

I was still actively engaged in Stimson programming when we produced the first course on “Nuclear South Asia: A Guide to India, Pakistan, and the Bomb.” This course provides 8.5 hours of video content and features lectures from more than 80 renowned scholars and practitioners. You can see more about the course, including the list of contributors, here.

So far, over 4,400 students have taken these courses. I urge readers of ACW who want to delve deeper into these issues to join them.