When It Comes to Nuclear Deterrence, Realists Are Actually Dreamers

Realists are reluctant to support disarmament lest their credibility be threatened. Pictured: thermonuclear bombs. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Realists are reluctant to support disarmament lest their credibility be threatened. Pictured: thermonuclear bombs. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists analysis titled How nuclear realists falsely frame the nuclear weapons debate Ward Wilson reports widespread dissatisfaction with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), much of it manifest at its five-year review conference (RevCon) this month. The author of Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons (Mariner Books, 2013) writes:

The potential unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty is causing a careful reexamination of the assumptions that underlie the entire nuclear weapons debate. … Rather than being a stale debate that occasions stifled yawns, the debate about nuclear weapons is suddenly full of surprising new developments.

Perhaps the most interesting new thinking involves the familiar framing of the debate as a contest between realists and idealists. It turns out this division was not really a distinction created for intellectual clarity but a sort of gerrymandering that aimed to fix the outcome of the debate. This gerrymandering has been so successful, with one side in the debate losing so consistently, that most people now hesitate to be associated with the losers. In the United States, where this framing is most prevalent and shapes the debate most strongly, enthusiastic support for disarmament (except in the most far-off, one-day, maybe-someday terms) is tantamount to professional suicide.

Wilson, who moves in both the disarmament world and the ostensibly more circumspect arms control circle, has hit the contrarian nail on the head. Like your credit rating, the credibility rating of policymakers and media would take a serious hit if they presented disarmament as a viable alternative.

Politicians, for example, rightly see that in the current environment taking an anti-nuclear position is a quick way to be branded as starry-eyed, inexperienced, and unrealistic. … Opinion shapers and thought leaders draw back as well. … Because opposition to nuclear weapons has been cast as “idealism,” journalists who take disarmament arguments seriously risk their credibility with colleagues.

“Even anti-nuclear activists,” Wilson adds, “are likely to see themselves as Don Quixotes, tilting valiantly at targets they know they cannot dislodge, but bound by honor to keep on with the hopeless fight.”

Without giving too much of Wilson’s analysis away, lest you forgo following the link to it, I would just add that he believes that realists put too much faith on leaders behaving rationally in a crisis. To sum up:

Far from being realists, proponents of nuclear weapons seem to be “nuclear romantics.” In their enthusiasm for technology, they have exaggerated the weapons’ significance in world affairs, and they have imbued them with quasi-magical powers (which mostly go by the name “nuclear deterrence”). … their claim that they are realists does not stand up to scrutiny. Realism is pessimistic, even about the powers of technology. Realism doesn’t believe that human nature can be easily remade. And realism believes in facts on the ground.