Michael KreponWhat Is Your Theory of Change? Do We Need a Common One?

Lyric of the Week:

“But your momma always said, ‘Look up into the sky
Find the sun on a cloudy day,’ on a cloudy day” — Tones and I

All of us who persist in seeking arms control and disarmament are driven by an internal compass that points South — in the direction of nuclear arms reductions. The immediate objective is to prevent mushroom clouds; the ultimate goal is getting to Zero. We have different strategies and tactics for dealing with the present and getting to the future. Our choices reflect who we are, when we began this pursuit, personal experiences, and workplace orientations. Individual theories of change vary as a result. Would we be in a stronger position if we had a common theory of change? Do we even need one?

Change happens whether or not we adhere to a common theory. During the Golden Decade of arms control and disarmament between 1986 and 1996, our community didn’t have a common theory of change. Nor did we need one. Change happened and happened quickly for reasons far beyond our powers of control and influence.

Successful arms reduction and disarmament happens when leaders want to succeed and have the backing to make progress. The two principal change agents of the Golden Decade were Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan. Who knew? They were able to move quickly, despite resistance, because of conditions that were quite specific to Reagan’s second term.

They also succeeded because they could draw on decades of preparatory work. We often lose sight of this: Change in our line of work happens after ideas are conceived, advanced, insisted upon, and repeatedly rejected.

One of these ideas was on-site inspections. Gorbachev accepted on-site inspections for military exercises in 1986 after decades of Soviet opposition. Far more intrusive inspections, including production monitoring, quickly followed in the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. The INF Treaty then set the table for steep reductions in strategic forces and many more agreements, including a convention to abolish chemical weapons.

George H.W. Bush accomplished more in four years than any other President. Bill Clinton’s first term was also stellar, consolidating some of the gains of his predecessor. In addition, Clinton moved ahead on new fronts, especially Lab-to-Lab cooperation to help prevent “loose” nukes in the former Soviet Union, securing the indefinite extension of the Nonproliferation Treaty, and striving to complete negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In our business, lean years are followed by full years, and full years are followed by lean years. Sounds Biblical, I know. During the lean years, it’s our job to conceptualize new initiatives that await favorable domestic and international opportunities.

As I recount in my history of nuclear arms control, the lean years we’re in now began during Clinton’s second term, marked by the painfully difficult ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention and opposition on Capitol Hill to demarcation agreements clarifying theater missile defenses permissible under the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. These agreements could have been ABM Treaty life extenders, but Clinton lost control over the terms of debate, and then crashed and burned on CTBT ratification. It’s been mostly downhill ever since George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002.

Do arms controllers and advocates of disarmament need an agreed theory of change to turn our fortunes around? I’m not optimistic that a unified theory is possible, and I don’t think it’s needed. The great successes in our field came without one.

We arms controllers and disarmament advocates are a diverse lot. That’s OK because we believe that diversity is a strength, not a weakness. On the last two occasions when a Democratic President has been elected to clean up messes in the United States, some of us have chosen to play an inside game, trying to push and pull levers in Washington. Some of us are outsiders by preference, believing that change comes from the grassroots. Some are inclined to fight today’s battles. Others place the vision of a world without nuclear weapons front and center.

It’s all good, in my view. It’s OK if our diversity isn’t based on an overarching theory of how change happens. We don’t need to choose between a short game and a long game. We need both.

If we can’t see eye to eye on how positive change is most likely to happen, we can focus on what resonates most and respect each other’s sense of commitment. There will be occasional friction because we believe strongly in our respective choices. Most of the time, however, we get along without a common theory of change because the short game is compatible with the long game.

Besides, if we seek a unified theory of change, we’re likely to leave many critical bases uncovered. Seeking the White Whale of a singular objective or a common theory of change can backfire, as was evident with the MacArthur Foundation’s profoundly unwise “big bet” on controlling fissile material. The intellectual rationale for trying to control fissile material was and remains sound, since plutonium and highly enriched uranium are present in every nuclear danger. And if we can create effective, global controls on fissile material production, then every nuclear danger would at least be bounded.

Regrettably, nuclear rivalries get in the way of sound intellectual constructs. The goal of controlling fissile material remains as elusive as when the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan was drafted by J. Robert Oppenheimer in 1946. No better plan has ever been devised, but Oppenheimer’s vision was nullified by Superpower mistrust and competition. Lean years followed. Advocates of disarmament were quieted and advocates of arms control didn’t find their voice until the Kennedy administration.

One of the early accomplishments of arms controllers was to craft a nuclear nonproliferation regime that made great strides in controlling the fissile material problem for abstainers, but not for nuclear-armed rivals. Progress on this front will depend on making headway in resolving the conflicts that fuel these rivalries.

Domestic politics in democratic societies and enduring geopolitical rivalries get in the way of time-bound solutions and brilliant intellectual constructs like Oppenheimer’s. The control of fissile material is a necessary but insufficient linchpin of achieving nuclear peace. There are many others because there are many types of nuclear danger.

Since each and every one of our nuclear nightmares can become real, we are obliged to apply energy and effort across the board. Disarmament requires arms control and nonproliferation. Nonproliferation requires controls on fissile material and many other things, as well.

Big bets can shortchange activities across the board. Worse, when big bets fail to move mountains, they can serve as a predicate for depression and throwing in the towel. That’s what happened at the MacArthur Foundation, which declared that its big bet hadn’t diminished nuclear rivalry and announced its intention to pull funding for smaller bets.

We’re better off without betting the ranch on what lies beyond our reach. We’re also better off without a single theory of change when nothing is monocausal in our line of work and when success is measured by negative stuff that doesn’t happen and well as positive stuff that does happen. When, as a result of our efforts, negative stuff doesn’t happen over a long period of time, we succeed far more than we (and our funders) realize.

Our lives depend on the norm of no use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Nobody made a big bet on this; instead, success happened every single day that this norm was extended. The same is true for the norms of no testing and the norm equating proliferation as a threat to international peace and security.

We don’t need to agree how Global Zero happens or whether or not it’s feasible as long as we can extend key norms on a daily basis and as long as we can find near-term goals to rally around – goals that point in the direction of visionary outcomes. Opportunism trumps theory in our line of work. We need good ideas to re-conceptualize the future of arms control. We can do without theory; we can’t do without good ideas.

I’m seventy-five years old. There have been times in my life when domestic and geopolitical conditions were aligned to enable significant achievements in arms control and disarmament. If you are much younger than me, you, too, will experience times when success, including great success, becomes possible.

We do not enjoy favorable conditions at present for many reasons, most notably because of domestic divisions in the United States and because two of the three most consequential nuclear-armed states are unhappy with the status quo. Their unhappiness increases nuclear dangers and makes arms control and disarmament much harder to accomplish.

In times like these, a unified theory of change doesn’t help, and a big bet on a policy outcome is bound to disappoint. We’ve been here before, and we’ve persevered. When conditions and leaders change, we will have new opportunities. To exploit future opportunities we’ll need creative ideas to rebuild what has been torn down. The rebuild will carry forward many familiar elements of design, but it will also take a different shape.

In the meantime, Job One is to protect and extend the norms of no use, no testing, and no further proliferation. We can win these battles. Winning them will lay the foundation for reconstruction in the future.