Interview: Arms control expert Michael Krepon on a broader approach to keeping the nuclear peace

By John Mecklin | February 21, 2022

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center think tank, shows an aerial picture taken by the US military in the days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The institution later gifted the photos to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. (Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images) Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center think tank, shows an aerial picture taken by the US military in the days after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The institution subsequently gifted the photos to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. (Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

After serving in the Carter administration, Michael Krepon and Barry Blechman co-founded the Stimson Center in 1989. Krepon was the think tank’s president and CEO until 2000. He is the author and editor of 22 books, including his newest, Winning and Losing the Nuclear Peace: The Rise, Demise and Revival of Arms Control, published by Stanford University Press.

In 2015, Krepon received the Carnegie Endowment’s award for lifetime achievement in non-governmental work to reduce nuclear dangers. He recently spoke with Bulletin editor in chief John Mecklin about the history of nuclear arms control and how arms control talks might be reinvigorated in the complex, multi-polar security environment of the 21st century. 

John Mecklin: You write about upholding the three nuclear weapons norms: no use, no testing, nonproliferation. But to me, all of those seem like they’re under incredible pressure right now. I mean, we just went through an administration where some guy was talking about having a bigger button than the other guy, and our military is building battlefield nuclear weapons, idiotic “small” warheads for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. So how do we do the life extension on those norms?

Michael Krepon: The life extension of these three norms, while difficult, is actually the easiest part of our agenda. The norms of no use—no battlefield use of a nuclear weapon—that norm is over seven decades old. Which means not only that we are incredibly lucky, but also that this is the hardest norm for any national leader to break. The norm of no testing: All major powers and all regional powers haven’t tested [nuclear weapons] for over two decades, some longer. So that suggests that that norm also has legs.

And one reason why it has legs is that nobody wants to be like North Korea. Because when you test, you are an outlier, and you confirm your outlier status. And the other states know that if they test, somebody else is going to test—someone they don’t want testing. And then probably there will be a cascade of testing. And the last thing our troubled world needs now in the nuclear space is a cascade of testing.

So I believe these two norms can be extended. I propose the goal of extending these norms to the 100th anniversary of the atomic demolition of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I think we can do that. The norm of nonproliferation is harder to extend. It’s now under severe strain by Iran, but I take heart in the historical record. We have always overestimated the proliferation problem from day one. When President Kennedy thought there may be 15 to 20 states that possess the bomb—well, we’re at nine. That’s not great. But it’s way better than anyone had reason to expect.

Even Iran, if it crosses the nuclear threshold, knows that others will cross it, others in its neighborhood. And the most likely new entrants would be, in my judgment, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. So I don’t think the Iranians are crazy. I think they’re wily. I think they can dangerously overestimate how much they can push and pull others in this negotiation. But I think we have a shot at preventing them from getting the bomb. I hope it’s diplomatically. If it’s not, I think their nuclear facilities will be bombed.

Mecklin: I see a future where maybe Iran doesn’t make a bomb; it just keeps the capability to get there very quickly, creates a hedge. And then I see all sorts of other countries making that same kind of hedge, which is not exactly proliferation. But it’s—whatever—proliferation light. Right?

Krepon: Hedging has already started in the region. And it matters greatly how much countries hedge. And so if Iran tries to position itself just short at the bomb, with lots of enriched fissile material, then I don’t think that is a stable or sustainable situation. And I don’t think the United States Congress will accept it. I don’t think Israel will accept it. And it’s not at all clear to me that the Biden administration will accept it.

Mecklin: Well, that’s a cheery thought. In your book, you talk about deterrence and diplomacy being two sides of a coin, and in some combination, that’s what’s kept us safe for 75 years. I see that the coin being weighted heavily on the side of deterrence. It’s an automatic thing that the United States always spends maximally on [nuclear weapons and associated systems], which drives Russia and China and other countries to go in that direction, too. So the nuclear spending is always pushing against and in some cases overwhelming diplomacy, because it’s almost automatic. The politics are so strong, the military-industrial complex situation is so strong. Is there a way to restrain that?

Krepon: It’s hard for us to imagine a president saying nowadays what President Eisenhower said as he was leaving office and characterizing the overfeeding of the military-industrial complex as theft. But I’m going to reframe this picture. It is absolutely true that if we weighed deterrence against diplomacy as mechanisms to keep the nuclear peace, almost all the money goes to deterrence.

But if we look without fear or favor to the constituent elements of nuclear peace, the prevention of battlefield use of nuclear weapons is the fundamental part of the nuclear peace. Deterrence is one key to that. But there are other parts, as well. Deterrence, I’m saying, contributes a dime to the dollar spent on actual prevention. Diplomacy contributes 90 cents of every dollar spent in terms of preventing battlefield use.

Why North Korea may use nuclear weapons first, and why current US policy toward Pyongyang is unsustainable

If you look at the US national budget for defense and diplomacy, it’s out of whack. I happen to believe it’s true that deterrence does contribute to the absence of mushroom clouds, in some part. But deterrence is extremely dangerous. It’s meant to be dangerous. It is prone to failure. There have already been two border wars between nuclear armed states. And there are border skirmishes between nuclear armed states on the subcontinent. So there’s no guarantee that deterrence will prevent the battlefield use of nuclear weapons in the future. What has helped deterrence—and which has been necessary because of the failures of deterrence and the dangerousness of deterrence—has been diplomacy.

So what are the other constituent elements of preventing mushroom clouds in warfare? Well, diplomacy, and particularly the diplomacy of arms control, which takes many forms. It is opening lines of communication. It is preventing nuclear testing, which deterrence strategists want. But since every test of a nuclear weapon is an advertisement for military utility, not testing them is crucial in maintaining nuclear peace and significantly reducing nuclear forces. Deterrence doesn’t do that. Arms Control has done that in the past, through treaties and confidence and security building measures. That’s diplomacy. Deterrence is the backdrop. The diplomacy of arms control consists of the active measures that prevent the battlefield use of nuclear weapons.

And I can name—and I do in my book—many, many essential elements of nuclear peace that are absolutely crucial, because deterrence is so dangerous. So we may pay nine cents out of 10 in terms of deterrence, nuclear forces, the defense budget. But the one measly cent that we spend on diplomacy goes a long way.

Mecklin: Okay, but the architecture of the situation is completely different now. Through most of the Cold War, it was the United States and Russia; they just had to basically agree, and that could set things up for arms control to work. Now, as you lay out in your book, there’s the United States, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, in all sorts of bilateral and triangular relationships. You mentioned in your book something about some new forum that includes all of these countries in some way, in hopes of reaching agreement on arms controls, whether it’s tacit or whatever. Why don’t you just talk about that a little bit.

Krepon: The situation is so much more complex now. During the Cold War, there were just two parties, two rivals. Their force structures were roughly comparable. We could do treaties, we could do numbers. That was really hard, but we succeeded at it. Now we have four pairs of nuclear rivals, three of the four don’t talk to each other in any substantive way about nuclear weapons. They hardly talk to each other anyway. So there are no effective lines of communication. There’s no trust in lines of communication.

There are very few confidence- and security-building measures between India and Pakistan. There are none to speak of, between India and China and what they’ve got are being shredded along their disputed border. And the US is having a real hard time talking to China. So how do we get all four pairs of nuclear-armed rivals to sit down and have substantive conversation? And what do we talk about, if we can even get everybody around the same table?

My view is that the old-fashioned, Cold War, P5 approach—the United States, Russia, China, England, France—that’s so yesterday. They can still do some useful things to reduce nuclear temperature. But I think we have to look at Asia, which is the rising arena of nuclear competition. And so I want to bring the P5 and India and Pakistan to the same table.

One old gray beard who worked on arms control was a man named Herbert York. He was the first director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory; the Bulletin has published his work. He was somebody I listened to very closely. And one of the things he told me was that when the scope of a problem seems just too hard to make headway, you just might have a better chance of success if you enlarge the scope of the problem. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but I think Herb York was onto something. And I borrowed from him in thinking that we ought to put together a forum for the P5 plus India and Pakistan, where we only talk about norms, norms to prevent the battlefield use of nuclear weapons, norms to extend the moratorium on nuclear testing, norms to extend a moratorium on nuclear nonproliferation, norms for confidence and security building measures.

While we all have different security issues, we do have common generic problems that might lend themselves to norm building. And it’s going to be super hard to do. It could easily fail. I’m not sure we can get China to the table. But if the P4 (the P5 minus China) and India and Pakistan all want to sit at this table—and believe me, India and Pakistan would like to sit at this table; it’s a matter of status to them—I think it would be hard for China to be standoffish. So it’s one way to bring China in.

It’s a way to encourage bilateral conversations, during breaks, so to speak. But there have to be strict ground rules for this thing to work. You cannot put a bilateral dispute on the table for discussion; that will never work. And it has to be forbidden, frankly, as a condition for sitting at the table. We’re not going to talk about the Kashmir dispute. We’re not going to talk about Afghanistan. And we’re only going to talk about [nuclear] norm building. And since right now, we have no purchase on the India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry, the India-China rivalry, and by the way, we have no purchase yet on the US- China rivalry. Maybe we can make some headway by doing this, not as a substitute for bilateral negotiations or conversations, but in addition.

The short march to China’s hydrogen bomb

Mecklin: Let me play a little devil’s advocate here. It’s, in my view, more likely that we just have to wait for some leaders to die. And when we…


Krepon: I’m going to remind you of something that you already know: Sometimes it’s darkest before the dawn. Both of us lived through the first Reagan administration, and those were some very dark times. And lo and behold, somebody died; in fact, a whole procession of sclerotic Soviet leaders died. And somebody new came upon the scene, and all of a sudden, there was daylight, there was sunshine. And there was a golden decade of advancement of arms control. So look, I’m not a Pollyanna, I get it. These are dark times.

But you don’t succeed in this business unless you persevere. And you don’t succeed in this business by being a cynic or a pessimist. You have to try to hold on to your sense of optimism and keep plugging.

Mecklin: I was merely observing. There are world realities: When Donald Trump was president, we were not going to have substantive arms control. That’s just the person, you know; that person has to go away. And I’m not sure about Xi in China. I don’t know him. And I don’t think most world leaders do, really. But it seems like a pretty aggressive regime.

Now, getting to a touchy and maybe a final issue. We’ve talked about all these nuclear powers except for the one that pretends it isn’t a nuclear power, Israel. Having a nuclear arsenal and not saying it has one seems to greatly complicate things and to make the Middle East a very dangerous place. And I was wondering: If you’re getting to arms control and nuclear norms, don’t the Israelis have to say, “Yes, we have a nuclear arsenal. And yes, we’ll sit at that table too.”

Krepon: I don’t want Israel or North Korea at that table because they detract more than they add. But I’m going to, again, try and reframe the picture. The reasons why our current circumstances are so dangerous, post-Donald Trump, is because two major powers are dissatisfied with the status quo. China wants Taiwan, and Russia under Putin wants to claw back some of what it has lost through NATO expansion. And the nuclear dangers of the world tend to accumulate around leaders who are dissatisfied with the status quo. So, back to Israel: Israel is satisfied with the status quo. It will be very dissatisfied if Iran seeks to change the status quo with respect to nuclear weapons. The status quo powers aren’t the problem with respect to nuclear danger; it’s the states that have significant grievances and wish to change the status quo.

Mecklin: So is there anything that you talk about in your book that you think important to be discussed before we wrap up here?

Krepon: I’m going to suggest one additional area. You know, some of us are old enough to have witnessed ups as well as downs. And it’s so crucial for our field, to have new people, new energy, new readers of the Bulletin come in. And they’ve got to feel pretty depressed about the situation, with good reason.

I’d like to speak to that depression. Our tribe of arms controllers and disarmers, we’re a disparate collection; we sometimes argue with each other. But we often forget how much has been accomplished in the past, because we get so upset about the present. When I entered the field, and started paying attention, real attention, in the 1970s, there were tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the US and Soviet inventories; there was nuclear testing all of the time. And nuclear testing didn’t stop in the atmosphere until 1980. That was China’s last test in the atmosphere.

I remember going through horrific crises, nuclear-tinged crises. I remember when the Soviets walked out of negotiations, and things looked terribly bleak. And yet, look how much has been accomplished by previous generations. Deep cuts in nuclear forces, no nuclear testing. Very slow-motion proliferation; 190 states believe in nonproliferation and abide by the rules. We have conventions abolishing chemical and biological weapons that are in effect, and that nuclear armed states abide by. For the most part; there are always outliers.

There’s also a convention about abolishing nuclear weapons, but the nuclear armed states aren’t a part of it. We have come a long way. And things have been even darker than they seem today.

So my message to new talent and new energy, which is so essential for this field, is: Keep plugging. Perseverance is the key; you don’t succeed without perseverance. You’re going to get knocked down, but you can pick yourself up again. And you can succeed in the future, after you have failed in the past. That is the history of successful arms control and disarmament.

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Scott Mansbridge
Scott Mansbridge
2 years ago

Excellent information, well written!