Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Newsweek misrepresents nuclear weapons scholarship

Jonathan Tepperman’s thesis in his September 7th Newsweek article “Why Obama should Learn to Love the Bomb” that “a growing and compelling body of research suggests that nuclear weapons may not, in fact, make the world more dangerous” badly misrepresents the state of scholarship on this crucial topic.

First, Tepperman references a handful of scholars to make his argument while dismissing the majority who disagree with him. George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn opposed this view in two op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and other leading scholars and practitioners participated in a 2007 conference at Stanford University, now memorialized as a 500-page volume, Reykjavik Revisited. Scores of experts are summarily excluded from Tepperman’s article.

Second, Tepperman suggests a robust understanding of how deterrence relates to today’s challenges where none exists. Nuclear deterrence scholar Sir Lawrence Freedman observed a “lost generation” of nuclear weapons specialists in remarks at the Elliott School of International Affairs this spring and Commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton, observed this summer “we have allowed an entire generation to skip class, as it were, on the subject of strategic deterrence.” More scholarship is needed to translate “nuclear optimism” and other Cold War concepts into the Twenty-first Century.

Third, in over 2,700 words on deterrence, not one of them is “accident.” This is a catastrophic flaw in characterizing scholarly debate on nuclear weapons. Kenneth Waltz, cited by Tepperman as “the leading nuclear optimist” underlines this point by co-authoring a book titled The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed with Stanford University’s Scott Sagan who has done decades of careful scholarship to demonstrate the relevance of accidents to nuclear deterrence.

Tepperman’s “iron logic” of deterrence is undermined by a more unstable plutonium logic that can only be understood by the combined lights of physics, engineering, political science, economics, and at least more than a dozen other disciplines that James Doyle of Los Alamos National Laboratory argues constitute “nuclear security science.” The nuclear future ahead of us is long, imperfect, and badly in need of more research and more informed public debate.


  1. It did not seem like Tepperman was writing an article with the sole intention of providing the reader with a literature review of nuclear deterrence. Your points about the debate, however, are well taken, and represent a clear lack within the article.

    "Third, in over 2,700 words on deterrence, not one of them is 'accident'."

    Aptly put.

    Tepperman's intended point - that the Obama administration's ("so out of character") idealistic campaign should be more carefully considered before the summit later this month - bears consideration. Many of the points he makes from the deterrence camp are relevant in today's world. Though as you say, no robust understanding of how deterrence relates to today's challenges exists, that is no reason not to shape policy using the full range of theory and evidence.

    It would be wise for Obama to consider the options carefully before presenting his position on nuclear weapons later this month.

  2. Excellent post. We need to do more to dismiss the notion that nuclear deterrence is reliable, sturdy and safe.

  3. Standard statistical techniques show that 64 years of nuclear non-use is no reason for nuclear optimism. The details are in my post "How Confident Should a Nuclear Optimist Be?" at http://nuclearrisk.org/email23.php