Michael KreponThe Use and Misuse of Nuclear Fear

Quote of the week:

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” — Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address

Arms controllers and deterrence strategists have at least one thing in common: both camps regularly scare the living bejeezus out of people. Everything about nuclear weapons is over the top, including anxieties we attach to the Bomb.

Does the tendency to worst-case nuclear danger really help?

For deterrence strategists, the answer is usually ‘yes.’ There are no penalties for being wrong. As long as there are no mushroom clouds, every strengthening measure is a correct choice. Perceived “gaps” in capabilities convey disadvantage and therefore must be filled. Like placing nuclear-armed cruise missiles back on U.S. naval platforms and in so doing, diminishing their conventional military utility.

The more worried U.S. voters feel, they more they are inclined to overspend for nuclear weapons and their means of delivery. In contrast, when arms controllers raise nuclear fears, the results are mixed. It doesn’t necessarily follow that the more worried U.S. voters feel, they more inclined they will be to support treaties.

Sometimes, dire warnings do help. Other times, not really. Occasionally, scaring people is counterproductive because nuclear fear can breed resignation, hopelessness, and despair.

Life can be unfair. Unlike deterrence strategists, when our hair is constantly on fire, we risk not being able to expand our audience when we need it most. Spencer Weart, the great chronicler of nuclear anxiety, deserves to be more widely read on these matter.

The hard part, at least for me, is knowing how best to convey messages regarding nuclear anxiety during crises — especially this one.

The public policy marketplace is crowded with pressing issues, strongly felt concerns, deep anxieties, and loud voices. Raising anxiety about nuclear danger serves as an attention getter. Projecting dire warnings also helps with fund raising and book sales. Amazon’s list of best sellers on the topic of arms control is topped by This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends. Even Alex Wellerstein is concerned that his NUKEMAP has been overused. Rational calculation is not advanced by the 24/7 opinion cycle.

We arms controllers believe passionately in what we do. We are rightly hypersensitive about developments that are contrary to our core belief systems. We raise alarm bells when we see trouble ahead — or right in front of us.

We are living through one of the most severe crises since the Bomb appeared. Even so, we are obliged to think hard about how to characterize nuclear danger. The “Chicken Little syndrome” falls on us, not on deterrence strategists, who get a perpetual pass for insisting that the balance of nuclear terror remains “delicate,”even after seven decades without a mushroom cloud appearing on a battlefield.

There are clear cases when raising nuclear fears has helped mobilize popular support for threat reduction efforts. That’s how atmospheric nuclear testing stopped. Massive public and political push back to President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative and Euro-missile deployments helped produce conditions conducive to deep cuts in strategic forces and the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The war in Ukraine isn’t a run of the mill ‘Chicken Little’ moment. The stakes are way too high. This crisis clarifies the dilemmas we face as arms controllers: It’s our job to heighten sensitivities about nuclear danger. At the same time, we are obliged to consider the extent to which our warnings reinforce Vladimir Putin’s game plan.

Unlike the Cuban missile crisis or the 1973 Middle East crisis, this war has apparently not prompted demonstrable steps to heighten the alert rates of opposing nuclear forces or changes in DEFCON levels, in the parlance of the trade.

Yes, Vladimir Putin has suggested this to his top two men in uniform — on camera no less — but there has been no public confirmation of increased Russian readiness levels by the U.S. Strategic Command or the U.S. Intelligence Community. If Russia’s fortunes in the second phase of this war continue to worsen, DEFCON levels might change, as well.

Raising nuclear alarums is part of the choreography of crisis behavior – and not just with respect to Russia. Even so, nothing regarding nuclear weapons can be treated as pure theater in a crisis of this magnitude. The longer this war goes on, the more it is accompanied by Russian losses, and the more U.S. officials and armchair warriors move the goal posts with respect to war aims, the appearance of a mushroom cloud becomes more worrisome.

Is the sky falling? No – at least not yet. Putin’s nuclear threat making has a clear purpose: He wants NATO to back off to facilitate his war of aggression against Ukraine. If supporters of Ukraine act in ways that allow Putin’s nuclear threats to succeed, we can expect nuclear threat making to become more prevalent, and nuclear dangers to rise on several fronts.

All of which leaves arms controllers on the horns of a dilemma: How do we characterize nuclear danger without playing into Putin’s game plan?

If arms control is to have a future, Putin needs to lose more than he gains in this war, and he needs to lose more than he gains without resorting to nuclear use. The outcome of this war has to demonstrate that aggressive war by a nuclear-armed state doesn’t pay – especially in a case where the victimized state gave back its nuclear weapons to the aggressor. The outcome of this war also has to demonstrate that nuclear threat making doesn’t succeed.

In other words, much has to go right and worst cases have to be avoided. I believe this is hard, but achievable. One of the conditions for success in this war is calibration — not only with regard to the use of force, but also regarding how we characterize nuclear danger.


  1. Ben Dhyani (History)

    The outcome of this war may be a world nuclear war unless both sides agree to change their present positions. Both sides naturally see themselves as having the higher moral ground, God only knows the truth?

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Your moral equivalence escapes me.
      Are you by any chance affiliated with one of the warring parties?

  2. John Chick (History)

    I consider myself to be a nuclear “optimist” ala Kenneth Waltz, but have been stunned at the casual attitude of those in Congress on both sides of the aisle in their disregard for Russia’s nuke threats. Perhaps behind closed doors there is careful consideration happening but I sometimes wonder if the younger elected representatives born after the end of the Cold War simply consider nuclear weapons relics of an ancient age that will never actually be used.