Scare Tactics

in Program

By Michael Krepon – 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

That constitutes a smart game plan for treaty backers? One
approach, again 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.


This essay was also posted on


Photo Credit: “New START Negotiations, Russian Mission in Geneva” U.S. Mission:
Eric Bridiers, April 2010-10-22



Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices