Nuclear Exchange

Ken Adelman thinks John Mueller is too dismissive of the nuclear threat.

John Mueller's article rebutting nuclear hysteria ("Think Again: Nuclear Weapons," January/February 2010) itself becomes hysterical when deeming North Korea's "couple of nuclear tests" as "mere fizzles" and the nonproliferation regime as "lash[ing] out mindlessly at phantom threats."

It's an easy piece to deride, or even mock, but it does make a few key points.

One is the futility, if not silliness, of U.S. President Barack Obama's dream of a world with zero nukes. Many otherwise serious, sensible, and realistic practitioners of national security -- Sam Nunn, William Perry, George Shultz, even Henry Kissinger -- have bought into this utopian vision.

As a fashionable end-of-career display of virtue and abiding concern for humankind, it's understandable. As a real pursuit by a presidential administration or even an NGO with money and talent, it's a big waste of time and money. Both are better spent on the serious security problems civilization now faces.

Second, Mueller makes the critical point that nuclear disarmament is proceeding much faster and more extensively than most anti-nuke advocates -- including, ironically, U.S. President Ronald Reagan -- imagined in the 1970s and 1980s. For the Russian and U.S. arsenals to drop from 70,000 to 10,000 is mind-bending.

So the Boris Karloffian gloom-and-doom background music on any drama about nuclear weapons is contradicted by the facts. The number of nukes is plummeting: good news. And the security surrounding them is improving: even better news. On the other hand, they are spreading: really bad news.

Mueller is wrong to be dismissive of North Korea and Iran getting their hands on the bomb. Sure, they might use it primarily for deterrence. But it's us who would be deterred, which I sure don't like. Saddam Hussein having the most primitive, poorly targetable nuke in 1990 would have deterred us from liberating Kuwait. That mad tyrant would thus have controlled Middle East oil (once the Saudi regime succumbed to his wishes, as it would have). A fearful prospect, made possible by nukes.

Mueller is spot-on when explaining how reducing nuclear weapons happens faster, easier, and smarter outside formal arms talks. I championed the notion more than 25 years ago, but the arms control crowd dismissed it fervently then, as it will Mueller's provocative article now.

—Ken Adelman
Former Director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency
Aspen, Colo.

John Mueller replies:

I am happy to hear that Ken Adelman was championing the notion of the negative arms race on the inside 25 years ago. I was doing so on the outside -- in the Wall Street Journal in 1988 and in this magazine's winter 1989-1990 issue -- obviously with the same lack of effectiveness.

But if the foreign-policy establishment rejected Adelman's good idea then, it substantially embraces his terrible one now: that a nuke or two in the hands of a militarily weak regime gives it the capability to dominate its neighborhood. As noted in my article, the neighbor's response to such a rocket-rattling rogue would not be to succumb in fear, but to join an alliance of convenience to oppose the threat -- rather like the one that quickly formed against Saddam when he invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The confident assertion that Saddam could have deterred a military effort to liberate Kuwait with a "primitive, poorly targetable" nuke is equally questionable. Reliant on an army that had twice refused to fight for him, Saddam was not suicidal. And, as Colin Powell points out in his memoirs, even several, sophisticated, tactical nuclear weapons would be incapable of doing serious damage to a target like a dispersed armored division.

Interestingly, Adelman does not seem very concerned that Iran or North Korea might actually use a nuke or transfer it to others. Rather, applying the kind of thinking that got us into the disaster in Iraq, his message is that we must do everything possible (including killing a lot of people) to prevent those countries from obtaining the weapons so that we can more comfortably invade them later. This is not, I would modestly suggest, a promising approach for dissuading them from pursuing nuclear arms.


Model Behavior

Political scientists Stephen Majeski and David Sylvan question the usefulness of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's predictioneering.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita's article ("Recipe for Failure," November 2009) and The Predictioneer's Game, the book from which it is drawn, present political outcomes as stemming from the preferences of individual politicians, groups, or states. However, the choice in many situations is between particular policies and not eventual outcomes. Because Bueno de Mesquita ignores the relation between preferences and concrete policies, his model explains much less than he thinks it does.

Whether they're deciding what the United States should do in Afghanistan or which course of action the international community should follow on global warming, leaders face choices about specific policies. Should combat forces be sent to a particular province at a particular time? Should cap-and-trade arrangements of particular sorts be implemented over a certain period of time?

The fact that particular actors may have preferences for certain outcomes means little-at least without some kind of assessment as to the probability that a given policy will result in a specific outcome. Because, as we have discussed elsewhere, those assessments are often anything but exact, in practice, policymaking revolves around which policy options are already in place, most easily adjusted, or readily available: in other words, around organizational capabilities and not actors' preferences.

Bueno de Mesquita's model appears to work because all the heavy lifting about policy alternatives has already been done. He simply feeds the existing policy options into the model as a starting point. Hence, the decisions he models as being taken by actors with specific outcome preferences are tantamount to cutting the ribbon after a construction project has finished.

Stephen Majeski
Professor of Political Science
University of Washington
Seattle, Wash.


David Sylvan
Professor of Political Science
Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies
Geneva, Switzerland

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita replies:

I thank Stephen Majeski and David Sylvan -- longtime critics of my efforts to model foreign affairs -- for taking the time to try to think about the policy process from a modeler's point of view. Unfortunately, I have, apparently, not been clear enough for them to have properly understood my approach and how it is used in practice. Their ribbon-cutting metaphor misses the mark.

As I explain in
The Predictioneer's Game and elsewhere, one of the essential methods of predicting outcomes is to focus on alternative what-if scenarios and alternative ways of framing issues. The modeling effort provides the opportunity to look at alternative strategies and alternative policies, sorting out analytically which are likely to produce better or worse outcomes and then attempting to frame the issues around the preferred policies and approaches of the decision-makers whose interests one is trying to analyze.

Organizational capabilities, of course, constrain choices. But that is one of the reasons why my model's inputs examine what stakeholders say they want rather than what might be their true preference. After all, the positions they stake out on issues are strategically chosen, taking into account what they think is feasible given the personal and organizational constraints they face.

The Predictioneer's Game opens with an example of just such institutional and organizational constraints shaping policy positions when it discusses the differences between the actions of Leopold II in Belgium and in the Congo Free State. Perhaps when Majeski and Sylvan have a chance to read the full book they will see that there is no incompatibility between my approach and their perspective except for the formalization of the logic in my models.