Calming Nuclear Jitters

March 26, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared in Issues in Science and Technology on March 26, 2010.

For more than a decade, foreign policymakers and international relations academics have lamented the growing gulf between their fields. The foreign‐​policy people have complained that the academy remains aloof, ignoring real world problems and instead focusing on increasingly abstruse theorizing, ornate formal models, and quantitative noodling.

The other problem, though, is that policymakers show little interest in investigating the cause‐​and‐​effect assumptions that underpin their policy decisions. Although spelling out and scrutinizing these theoretical assumptions is important for good social science, foreign‐​policy people paid little attention to the work of the few academics who are doing work on policy‐​relevant subjects. Compounding matters further is the fact that many policy‐​focused academics haven’t thought much of U.S. foreign policy in recent years. What this means is that policymakers might listen to academics’ advice on how to take a hill, but not whether to invade the country in the first place.

Accordingly, reading work like John Mueller’s is at once refreshing and frustrating (“Calming Our Nuclear Jitters,” Issues, Winter 2010). A judicious academic who writes in clear English prose and focuses on policy problems, Mueller has much to offer the policy establishment, but it seems unlikely they will accept it. Building on his previous work highlighting the declining incidence of interstate violence and the inflation of the threat posed by terrorism, Mueller now aims to “calm our nuclear jitters.”

The great service Mueller does in his book is a sort of “naming and shaming” exercise, cataloging the many erroneous predictions of doom and disaster that have constituted the bulk of popular commentary on nuclear weapons. Although most analysts are smart enough to shroud their arguments in nonfalsifiable rhetoric, Mueller documents the range of frenzied projections and uses these as a jumping‐​off point for examining the arguments of today’s doomsayers. In particular, his analysis of the likelihood of an atomic terrorist threat, the focus of the Issues article, is a bright bulb in a dark room.

That said, Mueller’s analysis of the atomic obsession fits uneasily with some of his earlier work. For instance, the takeaway lesson for Mueller is that “whatever their impact on activist rhetoric, strategic theorizing, defense budgets, and political posturing,” nukes remain “unlikely to materially shape much of our future.”

In prior work, however, Mueller has argued forcefully that ideas — presumably including activist rhetoric, strategic theorizing, and political posturing — are primary causes of material outcomes. For example, in describing how and why the Cold War ended, Mueller challenged the realist view, wondering whether “domestic changes that lead to changes in political ideas may be far more important influences on international behavior than changes in the international distribution of military capabilities.”

If ideas are as important in influencing material outcomes as Mueller has suggested in the past, then it is curious to see him acknowledge that nukes have profoundly influenced our thoughts, only to suggest that this influence has contributed — and will contribute — only trivially to outcomes.

This puzzle aside, the country would be well served if the policy establishment deigned to take up Mueller’s contrarian arguments about our atomic obsession.

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