Michael KreponOptimists and Cynics

All of the significant gains in the field of arms control were the result of stubborn optimism mixed with idealism. Pessimists thought nuclear arms control was a fool’s errand, bound to end very badly, like naval arms control in the 1920s and 1930s. It was preposterous to think that the superpowers could agree to refrain from testing their most powerful weapons, that nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” could agree on a global nonproliferation compact, and that treaties to ban the possession of chemical and biological weapons would have practical effect. It was naïve to think that two ideological and geopolitical foes could agree to limit and then reduce their nuclear arsenals, and even crazier to believe that they would forego national defenses against ocean-spanning missile attacks. Only fools (and not many of them) would have predicted that nuclear weapons would not be used on battlefields after 1945.

Well, who was right? The cynics, pessimists and realists — or the optimists?

Cynics are typically not wired to achieve anything out of the ordinary: they fend off the world around them as best they can. Realists excel at shoring up the status quo – old or new. This can come in handy when the world is changing, but it doesn’t help to change the world. Dreamers have great powers of imagination, but not implementation. Dreamers who are also well grounded become change agents. Optimists aren’t as imaginative as dreamers, but with the right skills, they can shift the status quo.

Prophetic voices warn of impending doom. When the sky doesn’t fall, they lose their audience. Dreamers help identify and popularize positive end-states. Optimists build the steps. A President rarely has the time or space to be a dreamer. But a President has to be an optimist for arms control and disarmament to succeed. The President has to be surrounded with enough optimists to help realists accomplish something extraordinary, which will then become the new normal. If a President is surrounded by realists, cynics and pessimists, he (and sooner or later, she) won’t accomplish much. Even then, uncommon success requires the right conditions for realists, cynics and pessimists to be proven wrong. Opportunities can present themselves and pass quickly. When they arrive, the President has to have sufficient standing to keep pessimists and cynics at bay.

The role of ideologues, whether on the Left or Right, is to resist realism and pragmatism. Ideologues don’t fit in Democratic administrations, which are typically forced by circumstances to triangulate between the hard Left and the Republican Right. Ever since the Reagan administration, ideologues have been handed responsible positions – especially portfolios dealing with arms control.

Republican administrations did much of the heavy lifting for the new enterprise of arms control. Gerard Smith, Butch Fisher, and William Foster were pragmatists as well as optimists who worked for realists. The friction between pragmatists and ideologues in the Reagan administration helped produce uncommon success stories, because the arbiter of these battles was a dreamer.

Barack Obama may also be a dreamer. But a dreamer without keen political instincts and skilled operators around him risks becoming a victim of circumstances, rather than a change agent. President Obama’s legacy on nuclear issues will rest not on his lofty rhetoric, but on whether he can pull off a deal that suspends and down-sizes Iran’s nuclear capabilities.


  1. Tobias Piechowiak (History)

    Don’t consider myself a cynic but I would think the question and claims that will show up on the meeting agenda on wednesday are more or less rethoric. Maybe not having hard evidence but a pile of circumstantial evidence there is no question in my mind that Iran is a de-facto nuclear weapons power…

    They have a good amount of working centrifuges and enough LEU to realize a fast breakout scenario and to be honest I think it would be hard to inverse these facts by negotiations unless the iranian administration agrees to extensive monitoring.

    What are your notions on this?

    • krepon (History)


      By your definition, there are already a number of “de-facto nuclear weapon powers, starting with Japan. And yet having the infrastructure does not equate with having the bomb.


    • Tobias Piechowiak (History)


      Point taken. I agree that the definition could be perceived as somehow blurry. It does not work as a counterstrike deterrent but from a tactical point of view I stil don’t think it makes a difference since it still could serve as blackmaling tool in order to extent hegemonial ambitions and to become “too important to neglect”. It works for North Korea.


  2. krepon (History)

    Here’s a quote on cynicism from Henry L. Stimson’s autobiography, On Active Service in War and Peace (1947), which McGeorge Bundy helped him write:

    “Those who read this book will mostly be younger than I, men of the generations who must bear the active part in the work ahead. Let them learn from our adventures what they can. Let them charge us with our failures and do better in their turn. But let them not turn aside from what they have to do, nor think that criticism excuses inaction. Let them have hope, and virtue, and let them believe in mankind and its future,for there is good as well as evil, and the man who tries to work for the good, believing in its eventual victory, while he may suffer setback and even disaster, will never know defeat. The
    only deadly sin I know is cynicism.”

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    —When JFK publically said that within a few decades there might be 20, or thirty nuclear powers, did the Soviets, wrapped in Communist rhetoric, think that he was being Optimistic? Or pessimistic?

    —Did the “Red Wonks of Moscow” think capitalism would drive independent capitalist countries into making their own arsenals, or did they think that either self-interest and reason, or the spread of Communism, would keep the numbers down to , say nine?

    —Or was their some Russian Chauvinism that told them that Pakistani’s could never do something so complicated as make gas centerfuges?

    —(note: what was the number Kennedy used in that televised speech? 10 countries? 20? 30? 40?)

    • Tobias Piechowiak (History)


      similar statements from these sides are made regarding the iranian program… wonder if they are wrong again…

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    “There are indications because of new inventions, that 10, 15, or 20 nations will have a nuclear capacity, including Red China, by the end of the Presidential office in 1964. This is extremely serious. . . I think the fate not only of our own civilization, but I think the fate of world and the future of the human race, is involved in preventing a nuclear war.”

    —Nuclear capacity is not nuclear arsenals.


    —How many countries did have nuclear capacity, by December 31, 1964?

  5. AEL (History)

    Optimists also launch wars as pessimists do not start wars that they think they will lose.

  6. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Instead of classifying people according to a scheme that is so subjective yet strongly prejudicial and pejorative, it is more productive, I think, and more intellectually honest, to allow that elements of idealism, realism, cynicism, dreaming, ideology, prophesy, optimism and pessimism coexist in just about everybody, and that at most it may be justified to characterize stances and ideas in such terms — recognizing that even in relation to ideas, there is a lot of subjectivity and context-dependency in any such characterization.

    What conclusions can we draw from the fact that nuclear weapons were not used after 1945? We have reason to believe it came close on many occasions. But the fact that it did not happen also gives us reason to believe in the resilience of “deterrence” or the human will to survive.

    I think it is fair to say that doom was impending, and still is.

    “Realism” is often just a self-fulfilling assertion, so can other dispositions be self-fulfilling.

    There are a lot of reasons why initiatives and people succeed or fail, and I don’t think it is fair to assume you can reduce that to sorting people into bins.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      On the issue of “nuclear optimism” (nuclear war is highly unlikely) versus “nuclear pessimism” (nuclear war is highly likely), a July 2013 article in Nonproliferation Review assesses the odds of nuclear war during the Cold War.

      The article applies Bayes’ theorem to the fact of several close calls plus the fact that we are still here, to estimate the odds. These odds were surprisingly high, incurred risk of 44.3% (1.3% per year) and expected risk of 60.9% (2.1% per year).

      Obviously, with the Cold War over, the near-term odds of nuclear doom are considerably lower. Even so, no significant changes have occurred in the international political system to render future war unlikely. I see potential for conventional war, and perhaps nuclear war, between nuclear rivals U.S. and China, India and Pakistan, possibly U.S. and Russia, and in the longer term, China and India. Nuclear doom has been delayed, not eradicated.

  7. j_kies (History)

    Like many things, such labels lack sufficient descriptive power to address practical situations.

    In engineering efforts we are simultaneously optimistic by putting effort into creating new things and pessimistic by applying “Murphy’s law” to discern and mitigate possible failure modes. Cynicism, realism other mental outlooks have appropriate places and roles in the creation process (at least in the engineering domain). In the less physical domain of policy or engineering human reactions I am poorly placed to judge the relative roles and as an alleged ‘con-artist’ perhaps I wouldn’t be believable in any case.

  8. John Maurer (History)

    How does this dichotomy explain the Nixon Administration’s many successes in arms control? You cite Smith, Fisher, and Foster as the key players who, working for “realists,” brought about significant change. But Nixon and Kissinger both made arms control a major national and presidential priority, despite the fact that few would identify them as dreamers or optimists. Smith, Fisher, Foster, Garthoff, Thompson, Rogers, and others were all important, but arms control in the Nixon Administration was a priority all the way to the top. This, I think, poses major difficulties for any attempt to divide the world into optimists and cynics, and explain arms control as the success of the former over the latter.

    • krepon (History)


      Thanks for curbing my enthusiasm for oversimplification, which is a useful provocation, but has to be qualified to book length in all cases.

      The Nixon and Reagan administrations are the most interesting cases, by far.

      You are correct in saying that arms control was a top-down priority for Nixon and Kissinger. Indeed, they kept the bureaucracy at arms length as much as they could during the negotiations.

      We can now look at a mother lode of memos and memoranda of conversations from this period. I’ve written about them in earlier posts, and will no doubt return to them again.

      SALT and ABM, and following thru on the NPT, couldn’t be side-stepped. MIRVs and ABMs were on the cusp of deployment, the Congress was restive, and the public was concerned. My reading of the available materials is that Nixon and Kissinger would have much preferred to proceed with deployments, to strengthen their hand in the negotiations, etc. What is striking to me is how much these two realists resisted the deals that they made.

      Best wishes,

  9. Bradley Laing (History)


    WASHINGTON — Trouble inside the Air Force’s nuclear missile force runs deeper and wider than officials have let on.

    An unpublished study for the Air Force, obtained by The Associated Press, cites “burnout” among launch officers with their fingers on the triggers of 450 weapons of mass destruction. Also, evidence of broader behavioral issues across the intercontinental ballistic missile force, including sexual assaults and domestic violence.

    The study, provided to the AP in draft form, says that court-martial rates in the nuclear missile force in 2011 and 2012 were more than twice as high as in the overall Air Force. Administrative punishments, such as written reprimands for rules violations and other misbehavior, also were higher in those years.

    These indicators add a new dimension to an emerging picture of malaise and worse inside the ICBM force, an arm of the Air Force with a proud heritage but an uncertain future.

    Concerned about heightened levels of misconduct, the Air Force directed RAND Corp., the federally funded research house, to conduct a three-month study of work conditions and attitudes among the men and women inside the ICBM force. It found a toxic mix of frustration and aggravation, heightened by a sense of being unappreciated, overworked, micromanaged and at constant risk of failure.

  10. bradley laing (History)


    WARSAW — The Russian Ministry of Defense has launched a project aiming to secure Glonass, the country’s satellite navigation system, against enemy disruptions of signals, state-run news agency ITAR-TASS reported.

    The ministry has handed a 350 million ruble (US $11 million) contract to two local entities, the Russian Scientific-Research Institute of Physical-technical and Radiotechnical Measurements (VNIIFTRI) and NAVIS navigation systems. The two contractors are to increase the system’s immunity to electronic warfare.