Michael KreponThe Adjacent Possible

Pardon the oversimplification, but Hawks and Doves, for all their polarity, are driven by the same basic motivation — anxiety. Both are pessimists at heart, worried that mankind’s worst instincts will be realized. Hawks worry about being disadvantaged by very bad actors and by the Bomb’s use. Doves worry about any use of the Bomb, period. Both camps remain wedded to Cold Ware instruments to reduce their anxieties. Hawks are deeply attached to nuclear weapons and missile defenses. Doves want treaties that curtail nuclear weapons and missile defenses. Hawks worry that treaties won’t change bad behavior. Doves worry that, without treaties, bad behavior won’t change. Hawks hope to prevail over enemies. Doves hope to prevail over fear. Both camps need each other to affirm their rightness of purpose, which makes it very hard to find the adjacent possible.

The adjacent possible, as explained by Steven Johnson in his fine new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation (2010), is the process by which creative minds reach a higher level of accomplishment through shared innovation and insight. The term “adjacent possible,” as coined by Stuart Kauffman in Investigations (2000), “is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” Johnson makes a convincing case that our idealized view of invention – the solitary genius who has a revelatory moment – is mostly bogus. Instead, great inventions and advances are largely the result of a creative process in which many minds contribute in innovative increments. Great inventions, in Johnson’s wonderful analogy, are like coral reefs, where different species contribute to an integrated, healthy habitat of new possibility. The world-wide web is perhaps the most clarifying recent example of a collective, creative process that beckons the adjacent possible.

Critics of New START argued, among other things, that the Treaty is old hat – utterly yesterday. They have a point: New START borrows old forms to reach lower numbers of deployed nuclear weapons. This negotiation was prosaic, hard work. Little creativity was involved, just the usual hassles. And yet, the adjacent possible needs a base on which to evolve. Critics of New START worried more about the future than about the agreement itself, so they fired all their guns at what was largely an unobjectionable accord. Their critiques were as “yesterday” as the treaty itself.

We’re stuck in the enmity of two camps. The Arms Control Association, of which I am a dues-paying member, is as orthodox in its belief system as the Heritage Foundation. The adjacent possible for arms control is very hard to find in circumstances where different species do not congregate at the same coral reef. It’s very hard to transform error into insight – one hallmark of the adjacent possible – on the battleground of fixed ideas. Johnson argues that “good ideas are more likely to merge in environments that contain a certain amount of noise and error” and that “chance favors the connected mind.” Debates over arms control include plenty of noise and error, but do not yield much fertile ground for innovation because the combatants are so disconnected. As long as we remain fixated on formulaic follow-ups to New START, they will become harder to achieve. Prospective time lines for numerical reductions work well on paper and poorly in our fractious world. The U.S. Senate and the politics of treaty ratification are currently too binary for the adjacent possible. There are other ways to build coral reefs.

NOTE TO READERS: Since starting this blog, I have edited the Comments section with a very light hand, blocking only mean-spirited posts and ad hominem attacks. Henceforth, I will do more editing to make the Comments section more welcoming to new voices and fresh perspectives. Didactic and repetitive posts will no longer be welcome here. The authors, real and pseudonymed, are hereby free to find soapboxes elsewhere.


  1. FSB (History)

    I would disagree that doves are pessimists.

    Doves are of the view that treaties etc. (even if they are occasionally cheated on) provide a bedrock predictability that is conducive to peace.

    Further, in bilateral US-Russian relations there is little motivation for serious cheating as all parties know their arsenals are not directed at each other any longer.

    The risk of being caught cheating and the consequent public dressing down would pretty much rule out cheating in US-Russian treaties.

    But as the The Onion said: I am neither a dove or a hawk dammit! — I am an Eagle!

    [NOTE MK: I do not mention BMD although even this post invites a challenge to the US position on it.]

    • Jack Pirate (History)

      FSB, I for one am a dove specifically because I am a pessimist. Humans will always be making mistakes, and no safeguards against disaster scenarios that we can implement will ever be foolproof. Except that of zero weapons. I don’t believe this will ever be achieved, but it still must be sought after.

      That said, I basically agree with everything else you and MK said.

  2. Dan Joyner (History)

    This is a profound and excellent analytical piece, and I was engrossed in reading it. I was only disappointed that you didn’t take the next step of offering a way through the current intellectual deadlock to facilitate the realization of our adjacent possible re: nuclear disarmament! More please!
    And BTW I agree with FSB in his characterization of the utility of treaties, and doves’ aspirations for them.

  3. ali (History)

    the hawks and doves have been looking for treaties and simultaneously striving for more and more weapons pondering the questions of destruction level and maximum damage approach.
    if we see the contemporary security environment both the hawks and doves have not been so successful as of the news comes to my mind that Mynammar also developing scuds and no-wonder one days we will hear that it is working on a nuclear program.

  4. Andrew (History)

    “Cold Ware” is my new favourite term for Cold War weapons and thinking, even if it was unintentional.

    • krepon (History)

      One of my best typos.

  5. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I think you might be missing something in your analysis of doves and hawks, and that’s the role of combat in the human condition. What is totally lacking in the debate between the two camps is a means of discussing intelligently the role that violence plays in both camps’ emotional approach to solving problems and dealing with insecurity. If you could find a way to show a hawk the real human and economic face of violence in a way that they would not discount the source, I think that would be a plus. A killer ap along these lines would to find a way to make the hawks pay the economic price of violence. In the end I think their nature would allow them to understand that price better than others. Likewise I think a lot of the dove camp need to accept that quite a lot of the world is run by people whos love of violence runs open loop and during a crisis the voice of the doves can act as a positive feedback signal to a hawk.

    As for arms control, I believe we are entering an economic age that will do more to control arms than any treaty we’ve seen yet. For a while at least, many nations will lack the funds to build, maintain and operate large conventional military forces. So long as the populations of the major nations are not willing to accept mass poverty in exchange for a massive arms buildup, the long recession ahead will act as the most powerful arms control regime seen yet. That’s an iffy if. However, perhaps a series of conventional arms control treaties targeted at the costliest systems could work if they would be a means of allowing nations to contain cost while keeping the resultant insecurity at a minimum.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “As for arms control, I believe we are entering an economic age that will do more to control arms than any treaty we’ve seen yet.”

      I hate to say it, but the 1930s didn’t end so well.

    • FSB (History)

      A return to (real) conservative American values would help — James Madison:

      “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home.

      Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

      Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few.

      In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people…. [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

      I think Madison just foresaw Cheney.

      As Andrew Bacevich has said, the United States’ penchant for projecting power has created as many problems as it has solved. Genuinely decisive outcomes remain rare, costs often far exceed expectations, and unintended and unwelcome consequences are legion.

      In fact, the pursuit of military dominance is an illusion, the principal effect of which is to distort strategic judgment by persuading policymakers that they have at hand the means to make short work of history’s complexities.

      The real need is to wean the United States from its infatuation with military power and come to a more modest appreciation of what force can and cannot do.

      e.g. It can NEVER win in Af/Pak.

  6. Drew (History)

    Very few people study or think at all systematically about “arms control” anymore in large part because the context in which it was used has gone away. This is fine with the hawks who never trusted it to begin with, but it also has unfortunately left the doves mostly yearning for days gone by rather than thinking creatively about how it is that arms control-like tools might be used to address contemporary security issues or how one thinks about creating new tools. Many creative arms control/CBM tools were invented in the 50s-80s. I don’t see similar efforts today in universities, think tanks, governments to create new tools like arms control(they may be treaty-based, they may not) that address contemporary problems. Foundations don’t fund these things anymore. How does one begin to create the new cohort of thinkers/scholars/analysts who will come up with new sets of tools that may or may not be labelled arms control?

  7. Michael (History)

    New START was hardly unobjectionable, as you say. As Jamie Fly wrote for the Weekly Standard, the Obama Administration pursued arms control for arms control sake. That put the US in a weaker negotiating position. Russia’s thousands of tactical nuclear weapons were not put on the negotiating table; they continue to sit on the doorstep of our NATO and non-NATO allies. The US and Russia reduced its strategic arsenal to a level financially sustainable for the Russians. And a supposedly non-binding perambulatory statement limited US missile defense to the parameters of a defunct ABM treaty. New START was a win for the arms control left and for the Russians, but not for U.S. national security.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      The New START had to be negotiated quickly because the Bush administration was allowing the existing verification structure to lapse without replacement. Reestablishing some sort of verification structure was a plus for U.S. national security. Letting that wait until a deal involving tactical nuclear weapons could be negotiated would certainly have delayed and probably would have prevented that outcome. Limiting the strategic arsenal to a level financially sustainable for the Russians is a problem if there is some reason that we should want more than that. If you have a reason, let’s hear it. Finally, “a supposedly non-binding perambulatory statement limited US missile defense to the parameters of a defunct ABM treaty” comes about as close to meaningless doubletalk as I have seen in quite some time.

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