Michael KreponWard Wilson’s Theory of (Radical) Change

Quote of the week:

“Certain subjects seem quite clear as long as we leave them alone.” — Fred Charles Iklé, How Nations Negotiate

Note to readers: My last post asked you to consider your theory of change — change that results in successful arms control and disarmament. Mine has evolved. When I began working in this space, treaties were my lodestars. Treaties still have great value, but given the state of dysfunction on Capitol Hill, I now believe that significant progress, even in these hard times, can result from daily victories in lengthening the three key norms of no use, no testing, and nonproliferation. I invite you to offer different theories of change in this space. Supporters of the Prohibition Treaty: how do you believe we can get from here to there? Ward Wilson of RealistRevolt offers his theory of change below.

And to one and all, I wish you happy holidays and a safe, rewarding new year sparked by reaffirmation and recommitment.

Michael’s Krepon’s recent ACW post about how to think about disarmament and change, whether everyone needs to work from the same playbook, and how to shake off the inevitable setbacks is written from a lifetime of experience. There is wisdom in it. And as long as the terms of the debate don’t change, his reassurance that change will continue to be incremental, that there are will be setbacks, that there are many different ways to contribute is undoubtedly true.

But what if the terms of the debate change? What if the basic framework within which all of us in the field work were altered somehow — by new ideas or political tides or unexpected events? What would be possible then?

I happen to believe that the terms of the debate will change — in the near future. Mine is a minority view, but it is a position built out of facts and pragmatic argument. And it holds out the possibility of greater and faster progress toward a safer world. So with Michael’s forbearance, let me lay out three reasons why I think the framework that holds the current discussion about nuclear weapons in place (or perhaps holds it down) might change.

Michael ably describes a conversation and a process that has been relatively stable for seventy years. Few basic ideas have altered, and most people are confident the fundamentals of the discussion will stay the same. But one unnoticed implication of the fact that the conversation hasn’t changed much is that it puts a lot of pressure on the original assumptions of the field. If those first notions haven’t changed much in seventy years, they had better have been right. So just for a second, let’s reexamine the beginnings of nuclear weapons thinking.

The first ideas about nuclear weapons were developed in the deepest and coldest part of the Cold War. It was a time of extraordinary fear and anxiety — even paranoia (think Sen. Joseph McCarthy). We tend to forget that nuclear weapons concepts were drawn out of this cauldron of emotion. It was time dominated by fear. Despite the best efforts of nuclear weapons theorists to banish emotion from thinking about nuclear weapons, human beings are often influenced by their emotions (sometimes even dominated by them).

So the first reason to be skeptical that the initial ideas about nuclear weapons were right is a simple human truth: no one does their best thinking when they’re afraid. It seems likely, when you stop and think about it, that those early ideas were affected by the high emotions that were everywhere at the time. Which means there’s a good possibility they’re wrong.

The second reason to think that early ideas might not have been exactly right is that they were heavily influenced by Hiroshima. Until about fifteen years ago, most people thought that the two atom bombs used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender. But work by historians now throw significant doubt on that idea. Increasingly, it seems as if the entry into the war of the Soviet Union (on the night before we bombed Nagasaki) was the crucial factor. Which means that perhaps those early formulations that cast nuclear nuclear weapons as “winning weapons” weren’t quite on the mark.

So there are both emotional reasons and evidentiary reasons to doubt those first and earliest ideas about how influential nuclear weapons were, how robustly deterrence worked, how useful they were as symbols of greatness, and how sturdily they reinforced alliances.

But it’s been seventy years. Wouldn’t experience have corrected any mistakes made in those early days? Well, it would. If we had any real experience. But nuclear weapons are unique among weapons in that we have hardly any experience with them. Once a weapon has been used extensively, its impact on war is usually well understood. But we don’t have that sort of experience with nuclear weapons. They were used twice, against a single adversary, aimed at only one type of target, in a single war more than seventy years ago and never used again since.

There have been crises and arms races and other secondary behavior that you could try to mine for information about the power and influence of the weapons. But trying to build a reliable picture of a weapon from secondary experiences is like trying to guess how a weapon will impact the battlefield based on what happens when you use it on the proving ground. You can learn a lot about the physics of a weapon’s capabilities on the proving ground. But battle is a complex environment impacted by many factors — weather, terrain, morale, countermeasures, accidents, and others — and it is impacted by the complex interactions between those diverse factors as well. Add to this that there is a new factor — radiation — that no one has ever seen at work on the battlefield, and you can see how difficult it would be to predict the real impact of nuclear weapons on war.

Nuclear weapons tests are so impressive — the rumble and flash, the huge cloud — that we tend to internalize that impressiveness and let it warp our judgement, I think. But just because a weapon seems impressive doesn’t mean that we can give in to feelings and stop thinking. It doesn’t mean we can ignore the practical consequences. That would be like looking at one of the original Hummers and saying, “Wow, it’s so big! It must be the greatest car ever!” without stopping to consider issues like gas mileage, how to park it, how hard it will be to climb up into and down out of it if you’re carrying coffee (or sprain your ankle), that you’ll need a bigger garage, and so on and on. Bigness is not the end of the story.

It seems to me that nuclear tests generate so much visceral emotion, they conceal as much as they reveal. Keep in mind that more than forty years after most of the testing had been done on nuclear weapons, Lynn Eden figured out that military planners had seriously underestimated the fires that would be generated by bombing cities. If it’s possible to misjudge somethings as simple as the physical effects, correctly calculating the impact of a weapon in an environment of complex interactions seems doubtful.

So nuclear weapons policy has been conducted in a sort of experience vacuum. It is a long frictionless tunnel that had a collection of ideas shoved in at one end and those assumptions and beliefs have floated along untested and unchanged for the last seven decades. In which case, the fact that our ideas about nuclear weapons are old doesn’t make them any more reliable.

If a careful reexamination reveals that those original ideas about nuclear weapons were flawed, the impact on the debate could be enormous. If that were to happen, if the entire debate were shaken up and turned on its head, I can imagine profound and far-reaching changes to the debate — and possibly to the nuclear weapons policy that the debate feeds.