The Nuclear Ivory Tower?

Jan 25, 2010

By Chris Jones

During the Cold War, academia made significant contributions to nuclear policy. Scholars like Bernard Brodie helped create valuable theories to help navigate the unprecedented geopolitical terrain of a world with nuclear powers. Other academics like Henry Kissinger and Jim Schlesinger moved from the so-called ivory tower to take high level national security positions responsible for crafting U.S. nuclear policy in this tumultuous time. Professor Michael Desch explains

Brodie, Wohlstetter and Kaufmann played central roles in shaping how the Pentagon understood the implications of the advent of nuclear weapons upon warfare . . . While the Pentagon did not always embrace their policy recommendations, there is little doubt that these academics provided the conceptual frameworks which policymakers used to think about the nuclear revolution.

As nuclear weapons fell off the radar at the end of the Cold War, so did much of the intellectual energy behind studying important concepts like deterrence. General Chilton lamented at the deterrence symposium this summer when he said:

And why is it important that we stoke the intellectual fires on the study of deterrence? Well, here I must admit to perhaps at least a partially selfish reason. It is my view that it has been the better part of two decades, since most of us in the U.S. Department of Defense have invested the appropriate time, thought and consideration to studying the topic of deterrence. . . We have had too little fresh thinking about deterrence in the last 17 years, yet the world has marched on and marched forward at an alarming pace toward greater complexity. We see it economically, technologically, socially and militarily in ways that were unimaginable a generation ago.

The study of nuclear weapons extends well beyond just deterrence but Chilton’s remarks highlight a  basic point: there has been a gap in thinking on nuclear issues. As the 1990’s focused on domestic issues like the economy and the 2000's focused on terrorism, nuclear weapons were an expensive afterthought to lug around in the post-Cold War unipolar world. Within academia specifically, Stephen Walt's recent blog post discusses the decline of scholarly demand in nuclear issues:

Interest in the topic hasn't vanished entirely since then, but there's no course of that kind at Harvard these days (or at Princeton, for that matter), and I haven't detected much student demand for one . . . In recent years, however, scholarly interest in the topic has declined dramatically. One reason is that there hasn't been that much new to say about the subject; the essential features of deterrence theory are well-established by now, and the infeasibility of any sort of "nuclear war" seems to be pretty well-understood (at least let's hope so). There have been a few important works on nuclear-related topics in recent years . . . but the end of the Cold War and the gradual reduction in the Russian and American nuclear arsenals has diminished interest in this question. With some notable exceptions, younger scholars and graduate students have tended to pursue other questions (e.g, ethnic conflict, terrorism, religion, insurgency, globalization, etc.), and interest in nuclear issues has declined . . . Who knows? Maybe someone will decide that undergraduates ought to be able to take a course on the subject at a place like Harvard.

In the past few years, nuclear issues have started to make a big comeback due in large part to the 2007 Gang of 4 op-ed. President Obama added to this momentum with his remarks in Prague and now people are anxious to see what 2010 will bring about.  All of these factors contribute to what may be a watershed moment in nuclear history.   However, as these issues start to filter back into mainstream discussion, there has not been enough discussion about the role of academia being a potentially invaluable contributor to pushing thinking forward on nuclear issues. Talking at GW last spring, Joe Cirincione explained:

Universities “change the paradigm; you change the way people are thinking about this,” argued Mr. Cirincione, who also encouraged universities to support scholars with breakthrough ideas and to do serious research in the area of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament.

How can academia best contribute to the nuclear debate? There are (at least) two major ways:

1. Cultivating the next generation

Universities operate on a quid pro quo aimed to produce a win win solution: scholars are given the time, resources, and intellectual safe haven to think and write but also teach the youngsters the basics of their field of expertise. For some, teaching may be the pride and joy of their job, while for others, it's well, a requirement. Either way, the importance of the teaching effort cannot be underestimated. As Ambassador David Newson argues:

Teachers plant seeds that shape the thinking of each new generation; this is probably the world’s most lasting contribution

As starry-eyed students sign up for classes taught by foremost experts in their respective field, these teachers will have a profound impact upon young minds being molded into the next generation of thinkers. The lack of having event undergraduate courses, as highlighted by Walt above, is regrettable and speaks to how difficult it will be to cultivate intellectual curiousity on nuclear issues.

Part of the problem, from a youth standpoint, may reside in the fact that nuclear weapons are not viewed as an “our generation” issue. During the Cold War, the advent of the nuclear weapon transformed how international relations were analyzed, producing a great deal of thinking and scholarship. The very real threat of nuclear confrontation between two superpowers a blink away from nuclear launch made it the pressing issue to be studied. While the devastating consequences of nuclear war are no less today, the general perception that nuclear war remains unlikely has largely relegated study of the issue to the back burner. Instead,  the 9/11 generation studies terrorism and counterinsurgency or the inconvenient truth generation studying how to minimize our carbon footprint. Johan Bergenas captures this in his August WPR article:

During the international Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission's concluding session in Washington this spring, Hans Blix . . . looked out over the half-empty room and noted that had the meeting been about global warming, it would likely have been teeming with younger people.

Yet it is precisely because nuclear issues are viewed as a blast from the past that young thinking on nuclear issue is so critical. Speaking as the keynote address at the Summer 2009 PONI conference, Ambassador Linton Brooks gave a phenomenal talk about abolition and why it is such a good topic for PONI members to tackle. Available in the members only section of the PONI website (application available on the PONI homepage), he argued:

PONI grew in part from the realization that at virtually all Washington meetings on nuclear issues, the participants were exactly the same people we would have encountered in the mid-1980s. One implication is that those individuals with experience in developing and articulating nuclear policy will be passing from the scene soon and need to be replaced. A less obvious—but more pressing—concern is that my generation’s Cold War experience of thinking about large-scale exchanges with a single adversary may not be the best preparation for the challenges posed by nuclear weapons in the 21st century . . . Younger analysts should have a bias in favor of looking at things of which their elders are skeptical. After all, at one time everyone know that manned flight wouldn’t influence war, that the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union was impossible, and that terrorism was of little relevance outside the Middle East. Thus, just because many in my generation doubt abolition is feasible, doesn’t mean we are right.

Generating interest in nuclear issues among he post-Cold War generation will be critical to unlocking new types of thinking.  Programs like the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellows program are a welcome start but there is much more to be done.

2. Understand the unique role academia can have influencing policy and maximize it

In addition to cultivating interest and thinking among young students, it also important to assess the degree to which academia can, or should, contribute to thinking on nuclear issues in the 21st century.  Desch explains:

Like Yale’s Bernard Brodie, Chicago’s Albert Wohlstetter and Princeton’s William Kaufmann at the dawn of the nuclear age, some of us in academia still aspire to influence America’s post-Cold War national security policy the way these towering intellectual figures shaped America’s Cold War strategy. It is not just heads-in-the-clouds academics who are nostalgic for this “golden age” of academia and government harmony. In a speech last April to the Association of American Universities, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates argued that “we must again embrace eggheads and ideas.” The key assumptions of what he dubbed the Minerva project are that “throughout the Cold War, universities were vital centers of new research” and that U.S. national security policymakers were successful in tapping intellectual “resources outside of government” to guide them in formulating policy.

Academics can provide several unique contributions to national security issues. They are able to conduct in-depth research that those working in the government don’t have the time to do. They have a higher degree of intellectual freedom, which allows them to make bolder claims. They can “think big thoughts” about fundamental issues that determine how problems are defined, how they are related to other issues, and how these problems can be approached.  They operate from a difference set of assumptions about how to think and view the world than those working in government. 

At the same time, there are some worrying trends for academia’s effort to influence policy decision-making. Joseph Nye wrote blistering op-ed on this question last April which argues:

The editors of a recent poll of more than 2,700 international relations experts declared that "the walls surrounding the ivory tower have never seemed so high." . . . Scholars are paying less attention to questions about how their work relates to the policy world, and in many departments a focus on policy can hurt one's career. Advancement comes faster for those who develop mathematical models, new methodologies or theories expressed in jargon that is unintelligible to policymakers.

This discussion of policy relevance begs the question: so what? For some, there are a number of reasons against assuming a major role of academia should be policy relevance. Stephen Walt’s response to this argument is quite good:

The prevailing "cult of irrelevance" in much of academia is both regrettable and irresponsible. . . . In exchange for job security, a decent living and a high level of intellectual autonomy, our fellow citizens have a right to expect us to take our teaching responsibilities seriously and to use our knowledge to address serious issues. For political scientists, that ought to mean using our knowledge to address important matters of concern in the real world, and to contribute to the broader public discourse on these topics. That doesn't mean we should spend our days writing op-eds (or blogs!), but neither does it mean that we should studiously avoid any engagement with controversial real-world topics . . . Yet a surprising number of my fellow scholars seem to hold the opposite view. Either they try to cut deals to keep their teaching to a minimum or they devote vast amounts of time to researching topics that are of interest only to a handful of their fellow scholars. Even worse, anyone who does engage the real world gets derided for doing "policy analysis" and younger scholars who show an interest in this sort of activity are less likely to be taken seriously and less like to rise within the profession. What sort of incentive structure is that? . . . . After all, should scholars in the Ivory Tower really be proud that so few people care about what we have to say?

Reading through articles by authors like Walt, Calhoun, and Desch, there are a number of culprits responsible for contributing to this increasing “cult of irrelevance.” Examples include the rise of think thinks which can often produce more timely yet sometimes less rigorous scholarship, problematic incentive structures within academic departments, and policy makers and an American public who are wary of what academics have to say, unless it suits their argument. Each of these are unfortunate and will not be easy to fix but 21st century nuclear issues are a prime example of where academia can, and should, be able to make an impact on the policy discussion. Ambassador Brooks closed his keynote speech by saying:

Sound policy, like sound science, requires us to challenge our assumptions from time to time. This may be one of those times. Some believe abolition offers a bright future for humanity. Others see it as a dangerous fantasy. But none of us understands it. If your professional career advances that understanding, you will have made a major contribution, both intellectually and to national security policy. I hope some of you will take up the challenge.

Nuclear issues, embodied by what Strobe Talbott called the “holy grail” of zero, are incredibly complex. They will require innovative solutions to a variety of political, strategic, and technical problems.  Academia can play a valuable role in answering important questions: how does deterrence work in a 21st century where you have 9ish nuclear powers and undeterrable terrorists? What are the obstacles facing the transition to a world without nuclear weapons? How can they be solved?  Michael Desch put it right in his conclusion:

I am not saying that we academics are any smarter than policymakers or that we are unbiased. I am simply suggesting that we have useful knowledge people in government do not have and our biases are different than those of policymakers. Academics ought to be part of the larger debate, as the president and secretary of defense recognize, because we have an important contribution to make to it.

Academics and policy makers must both take notice of this. Academics have to produce work that policy makers can use, while policy makers have to make a concerted effort to tap the valuable contributions that academia can make.  A problem like trying to create a world without nuclear weapons is so complex that those working on the issue will need all the help they can get.