Michael KreponScare Tactics

Money is the mother’s milk of politics; motivation is the mother’s milk of the politics of treaty ratification.

Arms control battles in the United States tend to be uneven fights — and not just because skeptics need only 34 votes to quash a treaty in the Senate. The “arms control lobby” has not been known for its corporate backers or deep pockets. (If someone out there has the time and interest, it might be useful to compare the resources used by The Arms Control Association and The Heritage Foundation to wage their respective campaigns over New START.) Arms controllers have to compensate for the money advantage and right-mindedness of treaty opponents with equally strong commitment and a very smart game plan.

Treaty critics rely heavily on scare tactics to advance their causes. In times of polarity, conviction politics can override substance – especially when blocking action does not require a majority vote. So naysayers borrow scripts developed for the talking heads on Fox, on the assumption that if arguments unsupported by facts are repeated often enough, enough people – in this instance Senators – will believe them to be true.

Opponents of the New START agreement reprise classic Cold War arguments. As in the 1970s, they argue that the treaty makes America more vulnerable to attack and unable to be properly defended. Since the Soviet Union and the ABM Treaty are both dead, this line of argument takes some explaining, especially since New START permits the United States to maintain the strongest nuclear deterrent on the planet, secures additional billions to modernize the nuclear weapons complex, and allows as much of a build up of missile defenses as the administration, the Pentagon, and the Congress see fit to pursue.

If critics actually had their way in sidelining New START, working Congressional majorities over strategic force levels, modernization programs, and missile defenses would unravel. Then arms control critics would really have something to worry about. But fear tactics are always circular: whatever happens, ratification or no ratification, treaty critics will argue the sky is falling.

What constitutes a smart game plan for treaty backers? One approach, reprised with New START, is to swallow reservations and agree to spend large sums of money on nuclear programs to alleviate enough concerns in the Senate. When these commitments serve to undermine the objectives and purposes of the treaty under consideration – as was the case with U.S. and Soviet modernizations programs accompanying the SALT I Interim Agreement – bad news awaits. But for New START, additional resources actually reinforce the objectives and purposes of the treaty: these investments provide confidence in a long-term process of strategic arms reductions.

Is a smart game plan for treaty ratification to play on fear? There is usually great ambivalence among supporters of arms control to fight fire with fire by employing scare tactics to advance the cause. (One exception is the subject of nuclear terrorism, where the tactics employed by arms controllers and anti-arms controllers are often indistinguishable.) Treaties dealing with strategic nuclear forces are usually not advanced by scary stories, especially when the treaty in question promises modest gains. The argument that “things could be worse” absent the treaty is suspect when the agreement offers too little, or when the treaty partner is already behaving badly. Both conditions conspired to torpedo SALT II. One of the reasons why treaty ratification is so difficult is that successful scare tactics tend to work for one side only.

There are other reasons to doubt the efficacy of scare tactics when used by arms controllers. Successful arms control is a long haul enterprise. Scare tactics can focus attention and generate support for the short term, but sooner rather than later, this tactic wears off on uncommitted listeners. Those who repeatedly seek to motivate through fright begin to sound like the boy who cried wolf. They may well eventually be right, but by then, most people will have tuned out. Besides, the unintended, take-away message of drum-beating nuclear dangers can be to convince listeners of the magnitude and hopelessness of the tasks ahead – when in actuality, extraordinary progress has been made to reduce nuclear dangers over the past two decades. Last but not least, fear-based strategies can lead to significant over-reactions and costly errors in judgment and policy.

If fear is not the way to advance the short-term politics of treaty ratification, and if scare tactics are not politically sustainable, how could they possibly work in a long-term campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons?

It’s very hard to mobilize public concern and governmental action without scaring the living bejeezus out of everybody. Warnings of immediate danger rarely translate into long-term gains in this business, and long haulers don’t run sprints very well. Waves of public concern over nuclear danger crest and recede. Whether the tide is running in or out, mixed messages are the right messages: Yes, there are very serious nuclear dangers out there, and more is required to tackle these problems. But there’s no reason for despair: the United States and others have made great progress in reducing these dangers since the Cold War ended, and we have the tools to reduce them further, including the occasional treaty.


  1. MS (History)

    that’s right, there’s no substance to the critics’ concerns, it’s all vapid emotion.

    There’s no substance to the fact that the New START verification regime is considerably weaker than its predecessor, as SecState Baker testified to Congress.

    There’s no substance to the concern that the vast majority of the Administration’s modernization plus-up does not occur until 2016, as LANL Director Anastasio pointed out in testimony on July 15, 2010 – – no coincidence that Obama is either gone or nearly gone in 2016, right?

    there’s no substance to the concern that the Administration’s modernization plan for a follow-on ICBM, next-generation bomber, or follow-on Air Launched Cruise Missile, are all non-existent.

    there’s no substance to the concern that New START makes no mention of tactical nuclear weapons (but makes plenty of mentions of missile defense), when all of our leverage existed in this treaty to get a deal on tacticals. Why didn’t we get some mention in the treaty of tactical nuclear weapons, which should be as important to us as Russia’s interest in limiting our missile defense deployments is to them.

    there’s no substance to the concern that our unilateral statement is far weaker when compared to our 91 unilateral statement concerning the interaction of missile defense and START

  2. Stan (History)

    It’s interesting when the shoe was on the other foot and the same sort of cataclysmic arguments were made by arms control advocates about the end of the ABM Treaty.

    Of course there truly are problems when advocacy overtakes reasoned argument (language like “game plan for ratification” perhaps as a small example?), but that is a disease from which both pro- and con- suffer in the extreme and largely based on legacy Cold War battle lines.

    With respect to your anecdote about $ for advocacy, I’d argue that it is probably exactly the opposite of your conclusion. When was the last time major foundations or academic institutions put forward real dollars for work skeptical of arms control? Is there a study to back up either position? Yes, there are wins for arms control’s opponents e.g., CTBT but those are the result of unique political alignments rather than $ and research from Pew or MIT.

    Arms control is a tool, not a cause and it time both sides stepped away for their respective debate teams and started treating it that way.

    • Jack Pirate (History)

      The funding for arms control is generally put towards academic research (take your examples of Pew and MIT). The funding against is generally in the form of “propaganda.”

      I think what MK was arguing was that in terms of propaganda funding, the opponents win hands down. That is why the comparison of ACA vs Heritage foundation.

      Of course, if you want to compare academic funding too, you have to consider that a large part of the DOE/DOD/etc budgets go towards “academic” research against arms control. For example, RRW. Viewed in this light, the arms control opponents again win hands down.

  3. Philipp (History)

    That’s right, the prior strategic nuclear arms reduction agreement, the SORT or Moscow Treaty, had such robust verification provisions included in its 501 words of treaty text!

    • MS (History)

      so two wrongs make a right? oh wait, SORT was concluded specifically knowing the START verification regime would still be in existence for the six years to follow.

  4. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    The arms control community has become far too ingrown and, dare I say, elitist. Global Zero has explicitly been cultivating high government officials and has given everyone else short shrift. They asked for bloggers to link. I linked, told them about it, and got a little e-mail thanking me. No link back, no list of blog supporters.

    I have also heard, in response to a question of mine, major figures in arms control say the same thing: the strategy is to cultivate high government figures.

    There is the occasional drive to recruit young people (read: low-paid slaves, as in graduate students) to further the message.

    Now, cultivating high government officials is a good idea. Blowing off everyone else is not. The arms control community is a rather small group of people and, like any other small group of people, has become ingrown. The time to build support was the past ten years.

    So what’s left for a quick response? Fear. “Countdown to Zero” was all about fear. And, let’s face it, terrorists aren’t going to have nuclear weapons any time soon. So that looks crazy too, or spreads entirely the wrong message, as you say.

    I don’t know what we do now. Debunk the nonsense being spewed by the anti-treaty faction, of course. Get out a good story, which New START is. And work the senators directly.

    We can’t afford to have this ratification fail.

  5. Daryl Kimball (History)

    Good analysis Michael. If anyone wants to read what ACA has to say about New START and the overwhelming, fact-based, bipartisan case for ratification see our New START section here http://www.armscontrol.org/subject/125/date

    And if you’re in the mood to help David fight the nuclear goliath ACA’s contribution page is here:)


  6. Mark Gubrud (History)

    I am a bit confused by the proposed ban on “scare tactics.” How exactly do you define “scare tactics,” or equivalently, how can you tell if something is a scare tactic or not? Can what seems like an intellectually honest piece of analysis really be a scare tactic in disguise? Or is the problem that some intellectually honest analyses are liable to be labeled “scare tactics” by those who don’t like their implications?

    To put this another way, are we really to be forbidden from ever saying that “If we do not do this, there is a serious danger of that happening?”

    How, then, should we motivate arms control? As just a cost-saving measure? That’s pretty weak, especially compared with the, dare I say, very real risk of a global catastrophe, certainly of such a scale as to justify the word “holocaust,” that might result from either the continuation of the status quo or, more likely, from allowing a resurgence of major-power arms competition: a resurgent nuclear arms race, a space arms race, a race toward robotic arsenals, now in a multipolar world. All of which spells destabilization. Pretty scary, no? Pretty real, too.

    I understand why one may wish to appear supremely calm and rational in the context of a Senate ratification fight over a status-quo nuclear arms limitation treaty already signed by the president. Yet it seems to me that it has been precisely the lack of a generally understood story about what we are trying to avoid that accounts for the anemia of arms control as a force in politics over the last several decades.

    A perfect example is space: although the Reagan SDI fizzled of its own technological impracticality, its spark was never fully put out, because the public was never told what experts always understood full well: that the proposed space weapons not only would not protect us from evil nukes, they would, if pursued (against all reason), lead us down a short road toward an unstable confrontation in space, and if pursued far enough would inevitably trigger the very conflagration that would bring the nukes down on our heads.

    As a result of the failure to explain why Star Wars was not just impractical, but extremely dangerous, the missile defense delusion continued to be pursued under Bush I, then under Clinton, who freed the fantasists of Space Command to promulgate visions of American dominance of outer space, and then under Bush II, whose inner cabal actually supported the space warriors’ vision.

    And because both Republicans and Democrats had given tacit support to missile defense for two decades, little Bush was able to get away with unilateral abrogation of the ABM Treaty, an act which, contrary to the implication of Mr. Stan, has had far-reaching and long-term consequences which may yet prove catastrophic for global security. For one thing, it has greatly complicated the task of achieving space arms control, and of arresting the sputtering but utterly toxic space arms race that was stoked by the US with its “missile defenses” and maneuvering microsatellite tests, and has since been joined by China, with others eager to jump in.

    Space arms race? Robotic weapons? What on Earth am I talking about? Scare tactics! Science fiction! Ummm…. no. To deny it is intellectually dishonest. And yet, the story remains largely untold by the voices one would expect to be (calmly) arguing the need for preventive arms control.

    But space is hardly the only example. As Cheryl points out, “Countdown to Zero” (by others’ accounts, I haven’t seen it) played up fear of madrassa graduates armed with nukes, but was relatively more low-key about what we all know is the real danger to civilization: the thousands of nuclear weapons primarily of the US and Russia which remain dangerously on alert and which, perhaps more dangerously, mean that the days of hairtrigger nuclear confrontation may yet return with a vengeance. The public yawns, albeit nervously. Hardly anyone is focused these days on what remains an existential threat to our cvilization (if not the only one).

    A bit more fear is needed, I think. A bit more optimism, too. If we don’t stop the arms race, build the institutions of global security, and abolish nuclear weapons, we will go down the road to oblivion, but we can stop the arms race, and we can reduce and soon enough, abolish nuclear weapons.

    Sure, I’m preaching to the choir here, but my point is, Can the choir pick it up a bit? I’m preaching to the preachers, too, and you know, a bit of fire and brimstone is always a good counterpoint to embracing love and forgiveness. A good sermon needs some of both.

    But even if we are well-advised to eschew both extreme and paranoid-sounding warnings of impending doom, and too much New Agey “everything will turn out all right if we all think good thoughts” chicanery, surely there is a place for well thought-out and sober warning about the consequences of the failure to control arms, as well as equally sober optimism and well thought-out proposals as to how arms can be controlled.

  7. MarkoB (History)

    Most interesting observation on nuclear terrorism. That would be worth thinking about some more. Why the same tactics by both sides? I suspect we have the same tactics, but for different reasons. The hawks use scare tactics because for them WMD terrorism is used as a rationale for the use of military force (even now in “AfPak”). But for the arms controllers, I suspect they are trying to scare us in order to beef up their preferred policies on non-proliferation. I think nuclear non-proliferation is a good thing and should be supported regardless of nuclear terrorism. What is interesting here is that the non-proliferationists might be undermining themselves. The more people become scared of nuclear terrorism the easier it is for hawks to make arguments for militarised counter-proliferation. As WMD terror is used as a cover for the use of military force, conducted with other ends in mind, the prospective targets, like Iran, naturally would try and develop a strategic deterrent to counter US moves. So non-proliferation suffers and we shoot ourselves in the foot. Arms controllers must try and be more objective on nuclear terrorism if arms control is what they really care about. I don’t think the ACA or ISIS, in contrast to FAS, are really interested in arms control as such. During the cold war arms control functioned as a way to manage the costs of the arms race, including the affect it had on the rise of protest movements. Now it largely functions as a way for the big two to maintain cost effective strategic parity at relatively elevated force levels and, on non-proliferation, to maintain strategic primacy. If an arms control proposal were to really threaten US strategic primacy I suspect only FAS would support it.

  8. Mark Gubrud (History)

    I am pretty certain that there is not a big difference between people at FAS, ACA and ISIS in terms of their commitment to arms control and their understanding that arms control is consistent with and supportive of US national interests, as well as those of other nations, and that they would be as puzzled by your comments about “US strategic primacy” as I am.

    • FSB (History)

      I tend to agree with MarkoB.

      For more on the subject see “Atomic Obsession” by John Mueller.



      Editorial Reviews

      “With his rare combination of wit and meticulous scholarship, John Mueller diagnoses that America is paralyzed by atomaphobia and prescribes a fifteen-chapter treatment to help us recognize that we have blown reasonable concerns about weapons of mass destruction and terrorism out of proportion and that many of our policy responses actually make things worse. Atomic Obsession is recommended bed-time reading for nervous Nellies both inside and outside of government.”–Michael C. Desch, author of Power and Military Effectiveness: The Fallacy of Democratic Triumphalism

      “John Mueller’s argument will almost certainly change your interpretation of some significant events of the past half-century, and likely of some expected in the next. It did with mine.”–Thomas C. Schelling, 2005 Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics and author of Arms and Influence

      “With clear-eyed logic and characteristic wit, John Mueller provides an antidote for the fear-mongering delusions that have shaped nuclear weapons policy for over fifty years. Atomic Obsession casts a skeptical eye on the nuclear mythology purveyed by hawks, doves, realists, and alarmists alike, and shows why nuclear weapons deserve a minor role in national security policymaking and virtually no role in our nightmares. It is the most reassuring book ever written about nuclear weapons, and one of the most enjoyable to read.”–Stephen M. Walt, author of Taming American Power

      “How much should we worry about nuclear terrorism? How far should we go to stop Iran (or North Korea) from acquiring nuclear weapons? In this fascinating and provocative book, John Mueller addresses such questions. Policymakers, scholars, students–indeed all Americans who are concerned about threats and the allocation of scarce resources–must read this volume, ponder its conclusions, and debate what now needs to be done.”–Melvyn P. Leffler, author of For the Soul of Mankind: The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Cold War

      “…the book will certainly make you think. Added bonus: It’s immensely fun to read.” — Stephen M. Walt, ForeignPolicy.com

      “Mueller’s achievement deserves admiration even by those inclined to resist his central thesis. The book is meticulously researched and punctuated with a dry wit that seems the perfect riposte to the pomposity of security experts who have so far tyrannized debate. Although by no means the last word on nuclear weapons, Mueller deserves praise for having the guts to shout that the atomic emperor has no clothes… the book should nevertheless be packaged up and sent to Presidents Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Gordon Brown with a simple message: ‘Please calm down.'” –Arms Control Today

      “There is much to agree with in the book. Mueller performs an important service in puncturing some of the inflated rhetoric about nuclear weapons…Mueller provides
      an unusual and fruitful perspective on nuclear history.” –Science Magazine

      “The narrative is liberally seasoned with striking facts and a dash of wry humour.”
      –Richard Lea, Times Literary Supplement

      “This is both a well written book and an important scholarly contribution…Policy makers and their staffs could benefit from this piece.” — Choice

      “His witty and unmerciful intellectual attack on the doomsayers, who have been arguing for the past 50 years that rapid proliferation is just around the corner, that we stand on the brink of a new nuclear age, or that it is a few minutes to midnight, is a refreshing one.” –Survival

      Product Description

      Since the end of World War Two, the use of nuclear weapons has been America’s-and the world’s-worst nightmare. But they have never actually been used, despite the fact that an ever-increasing number of countries have obtained them. Our fear levels remain as high as ever today, but are they justified? Eminent international relations scholar John Mueller thinks not, and this highly provocative work, he contends that our overriding concern about nuclear weapons borders on an obsession unsupported by either history or logic. Drawing on the history of the entire atomic era, Mueller argues that nuclear weapons have never represented much of a threat given states’ fundamental unwillingness to use them. After the focus shifted away from “mutual assured destruction” to the terrorist threat following 9/11, alarmists had a new cause. Yet analysts have consistently overestimated the destructive capabilities of the devices we worry about the most now: suitcase nukes and dirty bombs. Moreover, our current worries about terrorists obtaining such weapons are essentially baseless. As Mueller points out, there is a multitude of reasons why terrorists will not be able to obtain weapons, much less build them themselves and successfully transport them to targets. Mueller goes even further, maintaining that our efforts to prevent the spread of WMDs have produced much more suffering and violence than would have been the case if we took a more realistic view of such weapons. This controversial thesis cuts against the received wisdom promulgated by America’s enormously powerful military-industrial complex. But given how wrong that establishment has been on so many crucial issues over the course of the entire post-World War II era, Mueller’s argument is one that deserves a wide public hearing.

  9. FSB (History)

    Scare tactics or upcoming elections where the republicans now have to pander to the Palins, Inc. ?

    It doesn’t matter much if its ratified or not really — in either case the world will not end.

    The concern should be China’s legitimate response to our muscular missile defense plans — hundreds of SM3s on >40 Aegis ships?! And you thought Bush was an idiot!?

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      We all hope it will be possible for Mr. Mueller to go on making his “Don’t worry” argument for years to come (as long as it takes to get a world free of nuclear weapons with a global security system that works without them).

      Meanwhile, if there is really nothing to worry about, why should we care how China reacts to SM-3?

    • FSB (History)

      How about reading the book?

      Mueller’s argument is not so much about the very real dangers of the 1000s of nukes we and Russia have, which he acknowledges, but about the fake threat of terrorists making a nuclear device, and for which we launch wars of aggression or outsource them to our ally in the middle east.

      That missile defense will likely lead to more nukes in China, Russia, India and Pakistan should be a concern to everyone, especially the so-called arms control community.

  10. yousaf (History)

    you say:”It’s very hard to mobilize public concern and governmental action without scaring the living bejeezus out of everybody.”

    For those aiming for passage of the treaty, the aim ought not be on scaring the living bejeezus out of everybody but on arguing that the treaty leads to predictability in bilateral affairs between Russia and US. And that — predictability — is, in my opinion, the key aim of all such treaties. i.e. by signing onto the treaty we are not only avoiding a potentially bad (“scary”) situation, but are gaining something useful: predictability and stabilization.

    I echo FSB’s concerns about missile defense and have written on the connection in Aviation Week recently:


    (you’ll have to zoom in a bit)

    • yousaf (History)

      PS: the article is on p. 90 in the above link

Pin It on Pinterest