Taking Stock

Blog Post

Taking Stock

The advent of a New Year and a new administration are as good a time as any for taking stock. Decades of hard work to reduce nuclear dangers are at risk. The most consequential but least heralded achievement of the Cold War – the role of diplomacy in reversing a strategic arms race and helping to prevent mushroom clouds on battlefields – is ancient history for most of our fellow citizens. Worse, the Republican Party now widely denigrates nuclear diplomacy.

Slightly more than half of the U.S. population will feel like it is wandering in the wilderness for the next four years. Our lamentations will shift from a President who has not accomplished enough to a President who is endangering far too much. Hard challenges lie ahead. Our campaigns will mostly be about stopping bad ideas, not pushing good ones through the Congress. Prevention will be defined as accomplishment.

Dwelling in the desert has its purposes. It is a good place to find clarity and a renewed sense of resolve. Think of it this way: these spaces have nurtured the world’s great religions. Our tasks are comparatively modest but still essential. One is reformulating what we have, somewhat lazily, called “arms control.” The challenges ahead call for a new formulation – one that fits contemporary and future dangers, and one that lends itself to bringing converts on board.

There are two “wings” to the arms-control community – Washington-oriented NGOs and grassroots organizations. A strong inside game requires a strong outside game to succeed, and vice versa. Both wings will be in need of reinforcement for the zigs and zags of the Trump Administration. As a denizen of the Washington-based NGO world, I am in no position to comment on the needs of grassroots organizations for the coming battles. Organizers are hereby invited to offer their own suggestions in the comments section, below. I will confine myself to the world I know best.

In tough times, it is necessary but insufficient to fight the good fight. In my experience, time spent in opposition is the best time to pursue three additional objectives: building organizational strength, mentoring a rising generation of committed talent, and pursuing more persuasive outreach efforts. During hard times, public concerns over nuclear dangers grow. Good people are ready to enlist. (Many of our most effective contributors today enlisted during the Reagan Administration.) It’s our collective responsibility to channel this influx of talent and energy – not only for immediate challenges, but also for the long haul.

The Scoville and Stanton Fellowship programs have been enormously successful. The Stimson Center and other D.C.-based NGOs have become stronger because of them. The Scoville program provides us with free entry-level positions, six to nine months in duration. Stanton Fellowships are geared toward PhDs. They have generated relevant academic research, replenished teaching talent at the college level, and provided a new influx of pedigreed talent inclined toward public policy at NGOs and research centers.

Continued entry-level opportunities will be critical over the next four years. Just as critical will be keeping young talent on board and providing them with career paths. If we take as a given the need for NGOs to expend more effort as well as replenish over the next four years, it follows that NGOs will need more slots to do this work. Yes, consider this special pleading. But the logic is hard to refute.

As for fellowships at the post-doctoral level, I am not in a position to say when a saturation point has been or will be reached. Stimson’s South Asia programming has operated on the assumption that there can never be enough outstanding teachers and courses on issues relating to nuclear dangers. Accordingly, we are creating free on-line open courses that draw on the expertise of dozens of teachers and practitioners. Courses, mentors, and serendipity are tried-and-true conveyor belts for talent into the field.

As for public outreach, I’m reminded of an old United Airlines commercial, where the boss gathers his sales force and hands each one an airline ticket, saying something like, “Our customers no longer know us. Working the phones isn’t enough. Go out there and reintroduce yourself.” Working the internet is no longer enough, either.

My sense is that we (speaking again of my fellow D.C.-based NGOs) have good reason to reintroduce ourselves to our fellow citizens in ways that can broaden our base of support. Getting on airplanes is one way, something I have not done enough of during the Obama Administration. New public outreach initiatives are necessary – in red states and between the coasts. As are additional outreach programs on Capitol Hill.

It would also be useful for us to reassess the arguments and frames we use to elicit support. Most fundamentally, many of our fellow citizens are no longer persuaded by the necessity of “arms control.” This frame speaks to the past, not the future. It’s fine for shorthand (myself included, being a longstanding contributor to ArmsControlWonk.com), but we really mean something different, something more clearly understandable and supportable: Our life’s work is to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons.

The critiques of “arms control” are by now well rehearsed: treaty X or agreement Y doesn’t accomplish enough and, besides, our adversary will cheat. This frame places arms controllers on the defensive – unless the agreement reached is well beyond expectations or is negotiated by a hawkish Republican president. Playing defense gets harder when the adversary doesn’t abide by our preferred interpretations of compromises reached, or infringes on obligations in non-militarily significant ways.

Detailed explanations then become necessary, but they don’t shift the terms of debate. Opponents still make hay over minutiae. Public support for meaningful accomplishments is diminished by diversionary tactics and fake news. More problems are invited by relying on terminology that is far too abstract, like “strategic stability,” “deterrence stability,” and “arms race stability.” These terms are gobbledygook to most of our fellow citizens, who are looking for concrete measures of assurance that nuclear dangers are being reduced.

I have advocated shifting the frame from arms control and stability to reducing nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons. Setting terms of debate at the outset requires focusing on accomplishments and the dangers of rejecting diplomacy for military options: “This agreement reduces nuclear dangers by X, Y, and Z. If you don’t think this is enough, how exactly do you propose to do better? And what do you propose to do when you cannot do better?” If we make a relentless habit of this, the burden of proof in domestic debates can be reversed. This frame is equally applicable when opposing unwise initiatives that increase nuclear dangers.

The Obama Administration employed this argumentation poorly, getting lost in extended expostulation and refutation. That’s what happens when opponents frame the terms of debate when negotiations are ongoing, while an administration is tight-lipped – even about its negotiating objectives – until negotiations are concluded. It’s also what happens when those we are negotiating with behave badly, when accomplishments like New START appear to be too modest, and when the President is painted as weak in protecting U.S. national security interests.

President Obama compounded these problems by initially setting the frame as abolition. Everything he subsequently did was denigrated by supporters and vigilantly opposed by defenders of nuclear deterrence. The Obama Administration made an uphill climb steeper by failing to find a compelling framework for its efforts after geopolitical trends made a hash of the end-state of abolition. Comb through a dozen speeches by administration officials on various nuclear-related topics to see what I mean. You’ll find a nod to the Prague speech, a polite shuttling aside of classical references to arms control, and a litany of policy objectives.

Articulating a compelling rationale for action will not erase the partisan divide that throttled the Obama Administration, but it can help frame future debates on more favorable terms. If you have reservations about the frame of reducing nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons, what would be better?

Mere tactics? Point well taken. We are also obliged to construct new strategies to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons to stop the unraveling of the accomplishments of the Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Clinton Administrations, and to build for the future. This, too, is part of our “to do” list while sojourning in the wilderness.

Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk on January 9, 2017.