What’s Our Central Organizing Principle?

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Every successful business, cause or social movement needs a central organizing principle, including the Nuclear Enterprise and the Arms Control Enterprise. Under the cloak of safe-sounding deterrence, the Nuclear Enterprise in the United States and Russia is built around Gates of Hell nuclear war-fighting capabilities. The result is excessive numbers of targets and warheads, big-ticket items, and their costly replacements. The Nuclear Enterprise remains successful. It has shrunk over time and has been confined in some respects, but still retains substantial political backing and commands significant resources from taxpayers.

The Arms Control Enterprise, on the other hand, is shaky, despite past successes. The name of this enterprise doesn’t fit any more and, more problematic, it lacks a central organizing principle. Readers of ACW are invited to dwell on this circumstance and to offer suggestions.

Central organizing principles matter greatly. When they are right, they lend impetus to big policies and coherence to small initiatives. When they are absent, everything seems ad hoc. When they are wrong, expect very bad news. Central organizing principles lay behind the success of U.S. national security strategy during the Cold War and its failure after 9/11.

With the advent of the Cold War, there was bipartisan support for a central organizing principle of Containment. Containment was a big success story. Its meaning was clear and persuasive. It had bipartisan backing. Its methods could be inferred, but not too specifically, which was also helpful. And it put the onus on the Soviet Union to break the bonds of containment. If Moscow sought to change thestatus quo in Europe, it would be the Kremlin’s fault. The United States and its allies would be in the right to respond.

Some Conservatives didn’t like Containment. They preferred a central organizing principle of Rollback. Rollback’s meaning was clear, and its methods could also be inferred. But Rollback wasn’t a persuasive central organizing principle during the Cold War. It was extremely dangerous and it could not count on bipartisan support. The onus for Rollback’s success fell squarely on the United States, and would require actions that could provoke a major conventional or nuclear war.

Rollback made a comeback after the 9/11 attacks. It was the central organizing principle behind President George W. Bush’s first National Security Strategy. Rollback was now directed toward the defeat of tyrants and terrorists who could acquire weapons of mass destruction. Rollback would replace them with the promotion of democracy.

This central organizing principle was unfurled at a time when there were no effective domestic or international checks and balances against excess. The U.S. homeland had been attacked in a dramatic way, resulting in grievous losses. No one could deny the validity of punishing responses against the perpetrators. Russia was certainly in no position to object. But then hubris kicked in. The Bush Administration extended its central organizing principle beyond Afghanistan to Iraq. And then, the United States had a pair of trillion-dollar wars on its hands. Extrication took place when the Islamic State was rising along with severe domestic division — and when Russia and China were seeking openings to exploit.

To repeat: the choice of a central organizing principle matters greatly. The first central organizing principle for dealing with the advent of the Bomb was General and Complete Disarmament. Or at least that’s what the superpowers said. In actuality, this was just a hollow incantation until they could figure out something else.

The answer came courtesy of a brilliant group of conceptualizers in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts. They came up with the central organizing principle of Arms Control. (Aspiring wonks: to capture the spirit and intellectual ferment of this time, I continue to recommend two books, both published in 1961: Thomas C. Schelling and Morton H. Halperin’s Strategy and Arms Control, and Donald G. Brennan’s edited volume Arms Control, Disarmament, and National Security.)

Some of these conceptualizers came to Washington to serve in the Kennedy Administration. Others arrived in 1969 with a new Republican administration. Arms control was practiced for almost three decades. At the outset, it was hard to come up with arms-control proposals, and even harder to convince the Kremlin to reach agreements. And soon enough, it also became hard to maintain enough of a domestic consensus in the United States to keep the process going.

Despite these difficulties, there were significant accomplishments. The superpowers acknowledged and codified national vulnerability to missile attacks, and they agreed to place limits on the most powerful means of destroying each other’s society. But these advances weren’t sufficient. They didn’t alleviate anxieties or reduce superpower nuclear arsenals.

By the early 1980s, the American public was ready for the new central organizing concept, and was receptive to the pursuit of nuclear arms reductions championed by President Ronald Reagan. But Reagan also championed Astrodome-like strategic defenses and American military dominance, so it was hard to figure out whether his new central organizing principle was sincerely held. The answer came in Reagan’s second term. He not only wanted deep cuts in strategic forces, but also their complete abolition.

The strategic arms-reduction treaties negotiated just before and after the demise of the Soviet Union were path-breaking. But this path didn’t have a clear destination. Other priorities intervened. President Bill Clinton necessarily focused on the nuclear dangers attendant to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and President George W. Bush was consumed with the fallout from 9/11, including the specter of nuclear terrorism. The Republican Party found little to like about arms control, and cut ties to President Reagan’s legacy by resisting further strategic arms reductions. As Vladimir Putin expanded Russia’s sphere of influence and as China’s military strength rose, support for the treaty-making Arms Control Enterprise barely had a pulse in the Republican Party. President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Prague about his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, and then moved on to more pressing problems, especially Iran.

So where does this leave us? Arms control is old school, redolent of the ‘60s. It’s now shorthand for a larger body of work, but there’s no propulsion behind these words. Nonproliferation remains central, but many states view this construct as serving the interests of those who want to preserve their special status as nuclear-weapon states (NWS). Without more of an impulse for strategic arms reductions, the divide between the haves and have-nots will grow. Strategic-arms reductions have to be part of the new central organizing principle, but they will become very complicated after the next US-Russia tranche.

The central organizing principle of disarmament – just nuclear, not “general and complete,” as in the early days – runs into resistance from the NWS. Abolition is an end state, not a driver. Making an end state the central organizing principle doesn’t help achieve intermediate steps. The Humanitarian Pledge movement faces this same quandary. It helps to clarify the horrific consequences of nuclear weapons’ use, but then what? Action plans consisting of multiple steps and a plethora of “shoulds” and “musts” don’t get the job done.

The Arms Control Enterprise is in need of a new central organizing concept, one that can gain a working consensus in the United States and not be subject to the vetoes of spoilers abroad. This time around, conceptualization can’t be made exclusively in the USA. Asia is where stockpiles are growing; without input and buy-in from Asia, any new central organizing concept won’t have legs. And yes, Putin’s Russia will have to be on board, as well as pragmatic leaders of non-nuclear-weapon states.

Central organizing principles work best when they convey a clear and compelling sense of purpose; the more concise, the better – even though the new concept will necessarily cover a wide range of activities.

So, what do you have in mind?

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on January 26, 2016.

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