The dangerous disregard of nuclear experts for one another

By Hugh Gusterson | March 25, 2015

This year’s meeting of the International Studies Association (ISA) in New Orleans began on the first day of Lent. The gaudy street parades and drunken revels of Mardi Gras subsided and, as city workers swept up colored beads from the streets, the academics converged on downtown hotels for four days of serious discussions about global security and development.

Noting that there were no less than fifteen panels on nuclear weapons issues on the ISA program, one speaker declared that we are in the midst of an academic “renaissance in nuclear studies.” But much of the “renaissance” looks more like recycling than rejuvenation, and it has created an intellectual terrain that is oddly partitioned.

As a quick glance at the ISA program shows, academic discussion of nuclear policy at the conference took place within two distinct intellectual communities. One puts together panels and papers with titles such as “behavioral economics and nuclear weapons,” “security guarantees and nuclear weapons development,” and “extended deterrence and tactical nuclear weapons.” The other group’s offerings have such titles as “nukes and norms,” “nuclear values,” and “post modern nuclear thought.”

The camps are divided from one another along two axes.

The first axis is methodological. On one side are those who accent the science in political science. They believe that national interests are given, and that their pursuit is best understood in a language of variables, correlations, and bargaining. They love to talk about carrots and sticks, as if national leaders were donkeys responding to stimuli.

On the other side are the analysts, broadly influenced by European philosophical thought, who believe that national interests are as much constructed as given, and that human behavior must be understood in terms of ideology, culture, narratives, and norms. (For the record, my own academic work has been in this second tradition.)

The second division is between self-styled “realists” who assume that nuclear weapons cannot be abolished, and “analysts” willing to discuss the abolition of nuclear weapons as a policy possibility. The first group tends to focus on the actions and interpretations of national decision-makers, especially those from the nuclear armed states, while the second asks whether nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and non-nuclear states might find a way to maneuver the major powers toward the abolition of nuclear weapons or, failing that, to much smaller stockpiles oriented to minimal deterrence.

These two bifurcations overlay each other fairly neatly. The “norms and narratives” analysts tend to also be more interested in the impact of those acting outside the national security state and more open to the possibility of nuclear abolition than those who strive for stable nuclear deterrence within the vocabulary of science.

The distribution of these two intellectual communities across universities follows a striking pattern. The nuclear “realists” can be found in the major elite political science departments of the United States. They assume the voice of objectivity as they map the variables that underlie proliferation and dismiss prospects for nuclear abolition, and the US government is most likely to turn to them for advice. With the recent death of the University of California at Berkeley’s Kenneth Waltz, the dean of this community is John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago.

Meanwhile, the other community is stronger in European and Canadian universities, and its members have found refuge in the United States in some small colleges and second-tier political science departments. This latter group includes figures such as Tom Sauer at the University of Antwerp, Jutta Weldes and Benoit Pelopidas of Bristol University, and Thomas Jonter of Stockholm University.

The bifurcation at ISA mirrors a larger split in global security discourse. On one hand, as the United States telegraphs its commitment to modernize its nuclear weapons and retain them as instruments of statecraft, it is clear that US national security elites, together with their cousins in Moscow, London, Paris, and Beijing, have an outlook that makes it impossible for them to imagine a world without nuclear weapons. If nuclear weapons are abolished, it seems likely that it will not be through a process led by the United States but—like the negotiation of the treaties banning landmines and cluster munitions—through a process that the United States to some degree opposes.

Thus, the impetus for a nuclear weapons ban today comes from nongovernmental organizations and European and developing-country diplomats. The push for a ban by groups like the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is the major development at the moment in nuclear weapons policy.

But to the realists, NGOs and non-aligned diplomats are marginal actors when it comes to nuclear weapons policy, which is made by hard-headed decision-makers in the capitals of the major powers who operate in a hostile global security environment that imposes powerful constraints on their actions. Activists scarcely register in their analytic frames. Only time will tell if their “realism” is realistic in this regard, though historians would surely remind us that activists played a major role in winning the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, as well as the bans on landmines and cluster munitions.

At the ISA conference the two speech communities operated in parallel worlds, rarely debating each other directly. (One notable exception came in a round table discussion where Patrick Morgan, a nuclear realist from the University of California, Irvine, scoffed at Sauer’s talk of a global convention banning nuclear weapons). But maybe this lack of communication is inevitable since the two communities operate within what Thomas Kuhn would have called incommensurable paradigms. Still, it was disconcerting to come away from the conference with the perception of two small intellectual communities talking past each other on the same topic—the topic being the most serious international security dilemma in the world today. If we are to solve the nuclear problem, we will need the combined insights of both communities.

In this context it might help to recall that, while the realists are portrayed as conservatives by their critics in the debate on nuclear policy, they were outspoken opponents of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Leading realists such as Harvard’s Stephen Walt and MIT’s Barry Posen spent no small amount of their own money to take out an ad in the New York Times warning of dire unforeseen consequences if the United States invaded Iraq. As Walt pointed out in a forcefully argued retrospective piece on the Iraq invasion in Foreign Policy, many liberal human rights hawks supported that invasion.

Back in my hotel in New Orleans, the receptionist told me you have to give something up for Lent. How about we give up ignoring those who disagree with us on nuclear weapons?

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