Michael KreponTime For Another Big Re-Think

Quotes of the week:

“I am still making order out of chaos by reinvention.” — John le Carre

“Why is there so much month left at the end of the money?” — John Barrymore

Arms control was conceived by a clutch of brilliant white men who mostly lived in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. Their timing was perfect. The Eisenhower administration was exhausted and about to hand the baton to a new crew led by a young, energetic president with ties to the Harvard-MIT corridor along the Charles River.

As bad as circumstances are now, conditions were way worse when John F. Kennedy entered the White House and when the “Charles River Gang” convened to map out what would become the new enterprise of arms control.

These men – Thomas Schelling, Donald Brennan, Jerome Wiesner, Morton Halperin, and others — were conceptualists as well as strategists. They met at a time when U.S. and Soviet officials professed allegiance to general and complete disarmament while engaging in a fierce nuclear arms competition. Gloom pervaded strategic thinking. Severe crises were a feature of the superpower competition. There were no management tools, let alone an exit strategy to avoid surprise attacks and mushroom clouds. A nuclear peace seemed inconceivable.

The Big Idea behind the Big Re-Think was to marry reassurance to deterrence. In doing so, the Charles River Gang succeeded in preventing mushroom clouds and much, much more. Despite setbacks and endemic friction between arms controllers and deterrence strategists, the practice of arms control succeeded beyond any reasonable expectation. It opened functional lines of communication between Washington and Moscow, fostered a new vocabulary and concepts for nuclear arms control, and designed constraints on proliferation.

A quarter-century after its unveiling, political conditions permitted the practice of arms control to shift into high gear. By the end of the Cold War, the excesses and sharp edges of nuclear deterrence had been filed down. Strategic arms reductions became possible and dangerous military practices stopped. Cooperation between Washington and Moscow deepened to the point where scientists at nuclear weapon labs collaborated on increased security for fissile material and warheads in the Russian Federation.

The crowning achievements of arms control occurred when deterrence strategists practiced what arms controllers preached. The inconceivable happened: the key elements of a nuclear peace were put in place.

This didn’t last, as bad decisions followed good ones after the Cold War ended. George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin jettisoned many of the elements of nuclear peace as inconvenient and unnecessary. The pairing of Putin with Donald Trump produced more bad decisions. We now live in a world in which nuclear dangers are rising on many fronts.

Perhaps the demise of “classical” nuclear arms control was inevitable with the end of the Cold War, abetted by the revival of the Russian economy, Moscow’s resentment over NATO expansion, China’s rise, and Xi Jinping’s ambitions. But history isn’t inevitable; the extent and depth of current nuclear dangers are the result of prior decisions that were made or not made.

Decisions to discard arms control compacts have come back to haunt. They’ve reduced room to maneuver and made it more difficult to rebuild. These decisions were not made casually. They were made with conviction by those who believed in freedom of action and who wished to be rid of arms control. This mess is of their making.

What do we do now? Cold War-style arms control was designed for a two-party competition, not for a nuclear order topped off by the United States, Russia, and China. Evolving triangular dynamics among China, India, and Pakistan are also characterized by increasingly dangerous military practices and an absence of diplomacy conducive to arms control. The last surviving bilateral strategic arms control treaty expires one year after the next U.S. president takes the oath of office. If controls aren’t in place or coming into place for China’s strategic forces, it’s hard to foresee a successful future for U.S.-Russian arms control.

In addition to the dead weight of these hard problems, the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran bear down on us. We are witnessing slow motion train wrecks on multiple tracks that can be accelerated by intense crises.

The Biden administration finds itself in the unenviable position of having to prioritize which portions of track to repair. Diplomacy is overburdened, underfunded, and short staffed. To switch metaphors, after four years of the Trump administration, the State Department is in full fire-fighting mode. Creative thinking is hard for people who drink from fire hoses. It comes from people who have the time and luxury to think.

The first Big Re-Think in 1960-1961 conceptualized the practice of arms control when the pursuit of disarmament was stalled. It’s time for another Big Re-Think because the practice of arms control and the pursuit of disarmament are both stalled. The long-held prescriptions of those who believe in arms control and disarmament deserve respect, but calling for ambitious new treaties and unilateral U.S. conciliatory measures when Russia and China engage in predatory behavior is not going to work right now.

The opening for the first Big Re-Think agenda items came as a result of the Cuban missile crisis. We can reasonably expect another harrowing crisis. Sooner or later — and perhaps because of another harrowing crisis — U.S., Russian, and Chinese leaders will come to same conclusion at the same time — that deterrence without reassurance is too dangerous. We need to be ready when this happens.

Big Re-Think 2.0 requires tackling the three biggest post-Cold War challenges: how to do arms control among the Big Three, how to reduce dangers in the trilateral nuclear competition in southern Asia, and how to lengthen and strengthen critically important norms. Too little thinking has been done on these problem sets. We need plans and strategies for all three.

By comparison, we are in relatively better shape in thinking about new tools to strengthen constraints on proliferation. There’s good work already underway along these lines. We have plans and strategies to deal with the North Korean and Iranian nuclear and missile programs. We’re stuck because it’s extremely hard to execute them when partial successes are deemed not good enough and jettisoned by critics who have no better game plans.

More work needs to be done on proliferation because hedging strategies are on the rise. We still have time to figure out plans and strategies for the three biggest arms control challenges in the post-Cold War world. Big Re-Think 2.0 could employ the same methods as the first Re-Think: convening smart and wise strategists with a problem-solving bent, commissioning essays, and publishing findings.

This time around, however, more zip codes will be engaged, women as well as men will contribute, and international participation will be mandatory. There is much beyond our control at present. Of that which is within our control, the pursuit of diversity is necessary and generously funded. Creative thinking about our nuclear future is also necessary and poorly funded.

We’ve got the brain power, but we don’t have the grant support. I’ve been a participant in this field since the 1970s and, in my view, there’s never been a greater mismatch between pressing need and philanthropy. This is fixable, but it’s above my pay grade.


  1. Thomas G. Mitchell, PhD (History)

    For the problem of the trilateral architecture of the new nuclear age one should turn to the naval arms control regime of the interwar period of the 20th century, which lasted precisely 20 years. The Washington Conference produced treaties that covered several different problems and were all multilateral. The regime later went qualitative with the detailed limitations on cruisers and submarines as well as the capital ships (battleships, carriers). Several studies of the interwar naval arms control were written in the 1990s anticipating their future use in nuclear arms control. The biggest problem is to get Beijing to accept lower limits than the former superpowers. The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 was a muti-tiered system of different quantitative limits for different powers. Japanese militarists eventually rebelled at being paired with France and Italy at lower levels than Britain and the U.S. They left the regime in 1936 effectively rendering the regime dead. Possibly a two-tiered structure with China paired with Britain and France might be a temporary solution.

  2. Paver Podvig (History)

    I would suggest that Big Re-Think 2.0 should start with admitting that the Big Re-Think 1.0 was a failure:

    If you take the classic Schelling/Halperin definition of arms control, the whole arms control enterprise was a total failure – none of the objectives was achieved. Things changed in late 1980s, but the success was driven by an entirely different set of objectives/considerations

    More at https://twitter.com/russianforces/status/1403349159122505728?s=20

  3. Ben Saginaw (History)

    I appreciate this historical perspective. A question: what interests like behind opposition to arms control and disarmament? Do financial interests — in the form of military contracts and campaign donations by weapons manufacturers and military contractors — play any role? If yes, could democratizing the U.S. be part of the “Big Rethink” necessary?

  4. Michael Krepon (History)

    Most people trust military might more than diplomacy. In my view, big defense contractors are less of a constraint than many suppose, because they are typically rewarded when treaties happen. We call this “safeguards”. It’s maddening but it’s usually the way that treaties get ratified.
    For me, the democratic deficit that is most harmful to arms control is the extent of polarization at home. That, and the Republican Party’s drift away from constructive international engagement.

    • Ben Saginaw (History)

      Can you explain the point about safeguards for the uninitiated?

  5. Thomas G. Mitchell, PhD (History)

    The opposition to both the SALT ii Treaty and the JCPOA on Iran were both centered on the perceived imperialist actions by the Soviet Union and Iran pursuing expansionist goals in the Third World and the Middle East respectively. This was not financial opposition from defense firms but nationalist sentiment from conservatives.

    • Ben Saginaw (History)

      I don’t doubt the sincerity of people who argue this way, but then it is human nature for people and institutions to sincerely cling to narratives that promote their material interests quite independently of whether those narratives are true or tell the whole story, and then for those narratives to become entrenched and thus come to be adopted by people who might not care for the material interests that generated those narratives to begin with. Critical acumen has a way of evaporating when material interests or tradition are at play.

      What led the media to ignore the US National Intelligence Estimates on Iran from 2007 and 2011, promote a false WMD narrative to justify Clinton’s genocidal sanctions on Iraq and Bush’s war of aggression, exaggerate China’s naval military prowess, excoriate both Biden and Trump for ending the war in Afghanistan, praise Trump as “presidential” for bombing Syria and Afghanistan, ignore the fact that Obama supplied arms to the umbrella group HTS in Syria (a coalition in which al-Qaeda in Syria has the leading role), etc., etc. The continuities among the Republicans, the Democrats, the media, the Washington DC elite, and the industry are so remarkable that it is becomes easy for one to assume these continuities represent reality rather than dispositions entrenched as a result of the post-WWII American socioeconomic order.