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The Ukes and Their Nukes

Why the Bomb wouldn't have helped Kiev protect Crimea from Russia.

Vladimir Putin's justification for invading Crimea may be more contorted than even his girlfriend, but the discussion of whether nuclear weapons would have helped Ukraine defend itself has been nearly as bad.

In 1994, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan gave up the Soviet nuclear weapons they inherited after the breakup of the USSR. Now, the usual suspects, including the strategic planning staff at the Wall Street Journal editorial page and peacocking Ukrainian politicians, are arguing that none of the past weeks' nastiness would have happened if Kiev had kept the Bomb. In most of these accounts, a nuclear arsenal is some sort of magic wand that can wave away all of Putin's bullying and, for more partisan sorts, swiftly return us to the glorious past when it was Morning in America. If only that were so. (Well, the part about stopping Volodya's bullying -- I'll take a pass on a reprise of the Reagan administration.) The reality is that nuclear weapons wouldn't have saved Crimea and can't protect Kiev from Moscow.

I'll spare you the review of the academic literature on whether states with nuclear weapons (or more nuclear weapons, or better nuclear weapons) are more likely to get their way in dealing with other countries. There is a healthy debate over at the Duck of Minerva that can introduce you to the contours of that discussion. Here, I will simply say that you can find a study to support any particular view. I think there are severe methodological and data problems with many of the studies. At best, I'd say the most interesting hypotheses about how nuclear weapons affect outcomes in the international system remain unproven.

A brief survey of similar crises, however, offers no reason to think a Ukrainian bomb would have deterred Moscow from seizing Crimea. In 1973, Israel possessed both nuclear weapons and, to Anwar Sadat's annoyance, the Sinai Peninsula. On Yom Kippur of that year, the Egyptian military launched a surprise attack across the Suez Canal in an attempt to retake the peninsula. (The Syrians joined in for good measure, attempting to retake the Golan Heights.) Similarly, in 1982, the United Kingdom had nuclear weapons and, to the irritation of Argentina's ruling military junta, the Falkland Islands. The British also had Attila the Hen herself, Margaret Thatcher -- no small matter given the tendency of the most shrill American partisans to blame President Obama for everything. No matter, while the Brits were dancing to "Seven Tears" by the Goombay Dance Band, Argentina seized the Falklands. (Don't ask the Argentines how that turned out, it's a sore subject.) Leaders in Cairo and Buenos Aires had calculated that the territory in question wasn't an integral part of their intended victim's homeland and that fighting would remain conventional -- which it did. Israel and the United Kingdom responded with conventional forces, not nuclear weapons.

We now have a crisis over Crimea for precisely the same reason that fighting broke out over Sinai and the Falkland Islands: Putin figures Ukraine and the world will accept Russia's devouring of Crimea on the pretext that it isn't a "real" part of Ukraine. And, although I think that's a very dangerous distinction for us to draw, Putin seems to be getting away with it. Ukraine always had a credibility problem when it came to defending Crimea. Nuclear weapons don't solve credibility problems like this; they suffer from them.

What's more, unlike fences, good nukes do not necessarily make good neighbors. And, unlike Egypt or Argentina, Russia has nuclear weapons. While popular ideas about nuclear weapons tend to emphasize deterrence, there is another phenomenon worth considering: the so-called stability/instability paradox. The idea originated with Glenn Snyder, but our modern conception really belongs to Robert Jervis. Up to a certain point, the argument goes, nuclear deterrence makes the world safe for conventional warfare. When a nuclear-armed Pakistan seized Kargil from a nuclear-armed India or provided material support to terrorists who marauded through Mumbai, plenty of analysts in New Delhi concluded that India's nuclear weapons simply don't deter low-level conventional aggression below the "nuclear overhang." If Moscow wants to fund motorcycle gangs and other thugs to destabilize the Ukrainian government and whip up internal tensions, it can do that whether or not Ukraine is nuclear-armed. For those people advocating a Ukrainian bomb, take a look at Israel. If nuclear weapons are so great, why are the Israelis so worried about Iran getting one? Won't stable deterrence usher in a new era of peace and prosperity in the Middle East? Not necessarily. A nuclear-armed Iran may well feel emboldened to expand its support to Hezbollah and other proxies that will attack Israel. Nuclear weapons don't do jack about biker gangs and suicide bombers.

What nuclear weapons might do reasonably well is to provide a measure of deterrence against existential threats, such as the Russians completing devouring Ukraine. Although I think analysts tend to downplay the credibility challenges to using nuclear weapons, completely annihilating a nuclear-armed state seems, well, sort of dangerous. Even Vladimir Putin, shirtless and astride a bear, would probably think twice about thundering into Kiev if the Ukes had the bomb. But look closely, and even this idea has some interesting subtleties. In 2008, Putin's tanks rolled in to Georgia and then ... stopped. Russia could have taken Tbilisi, swallowing Georgia up in one little bite. But something stopped Moscow then, just as Moscow -- for the moment -- has stopped in Ukraine. What was it? Because whatever it was seems like a far more promising route to secure Ukrainian territorial integrity than nuclear weapons.

Part of the reason that Russian armor did not roll all the way into Tbilisi has to do with Putin's reluctance to break completely with the West. He and his cronies have bank accounts, vacation homes, and girlfriends stashed outside of Mother Russia. Putin might think the collapse of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster, but there is enough Russian money floating around London these days to suggest that it wasn't all bad. Deterring Putin from dismembering Ukraine or his other neighbors means convincing him that the West takes Ukraine's independence and territorially integrity seriously -- deadly seriously.

Which is why Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in the first place. A lot of folks are sending around John Mearsheimer's old polemic, "The Case for a Ukrainian Nuclear Deterrent." (Interestingly, his of-a-theme 1990 article "Back to the Future," which forecast that Germany and France would turn on one another in a resumption of great-power competition, gets less circulation. Scholars always look smarter when someone curates their work.) One of the overlooked passages is Mearsheimer's prediction that "it is unlikely that Ukraine will transfer its remaining nuclear weapons to Russia, the state it fears most." Of course, he was wrong about that. One might ask why, if Mearsheimer was so wrong about what motivated Ukraine's leadership, we should we believe the rest of his fairy tale about why states do what they do. But let's leave that aside for the moment. Instead, let's focus on why Ukraine gave the weapons back.

One reason is that, with the breakup of the Soviet Union, the weapons on Ukrainian territory were disconnected from the systems of production and command that had sustained and controlled them. But the most important reason centers on how Ukrainian leaders conceived of their post-Soviet identity. A lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, in which Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan surrendered their Soviet nuclear weapons for security guarantees from the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. It is worth noting that those three states surrendered their nuclear weapons and joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) not because they believed the West was likely to come to their defense in the event Russia attacked, but because they believed that Western support was unlikely unless they demonstrated that they were a normal European country. Joining international agreements and becoming a responsible member of the international community was a way of asserting their sovereignty, of persuading the West that they weren't simply Russian client-states accidentally cut loose from Moscow. Ukraine, obviously, has done better than, say, Belarus in this regard. In some ways, that decision proved correct -- Ukraine's troubles arise from the fact that plenty of Ukrainians see a European, not a Russian, future for their country.

In contrast to the spare neorealist conspiracy theories about the rational pursuit of interest under conditions of anarchy, the most interesting scholarship today emphasizes how leaders conceive of themselves and those interests. In the case of Ukraine's then-foreign minister, the country's identity was absolutely clear in 1993: "100 percent European." Eschewing the NPT and building nuclear weapons might have provided some small measure of security to Kiev in the most extreme instances, but it would have undermined the country's claim that it belonged in the West.

If Ukraine wants to preserve its independence from Moscow, Kiev has to complete its turn westward. Over the long run, that means reforming its economy and political institutions to the point that it can join the European Union and NATO. Of course, at the moment, Kiev needs to make sure there is a long run. That means managing Moscow. The strategy of placating a larger neighbor is usually called Finlandization, after Helsinki's accommodation of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Finlandization has a bad name as a weak sort of policy, although it is worth noting that the approach worked precisely because the Finns had inflicted terrible losses on the Soviets when they tried to seize borderlands during the 1939-1940 Winter War. The Soviets won, but the Finns fought hard enough that Stalin didn't want seconds. The world wouldn't see cold-weather fighting like that again until the Battle of Hoth. If Ukraine can persuade Russia that, after a point, it will fight, then deterrence with a little accommodation might see Kiev through Putin's lifetime. Finland managed to achieve this without nuclear weapons, as did its neutral neighbor, Sweden. (Though Sweden's renunciation of nuclear weapons came only after it came very close to building the bomb.) Accommodating Moscow is not a bad policy, given the substantial number of people in Ukraine who retain ties to Russia.

Kiev's long-term future lies in the West. And that's where nuclear weapons would become a tremendous liability. Although the North Atlantic allies had been reluctant to further antagonize Moscow with another round of NATO expansion, that may change now -- if Kiev can demonstrate that it is really a European country that needs only to end Russia's meddling to transition to a normal European society. Nuclear weapons, whatever benefits one might imagine they confer, aren't a part of that story.

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COLUMN

Cass Sunstein Is Sleeping on the Couch Tonight

Is Obama's groupthink guru (and Amb. Samantha Power's husband) opening a window on White House dysfunction?

Cass Sunstein, the former head of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, has long advocated the notion that people left to their own devices often make bad choices and that government has a responsibility to "nudge" people toward better outcomes than they would select for themselves. But now he argues that government, left to its own devices, also makes bad choices. (Wait, wasn't he supposed to fix this problem?) This is a welcome Damascene conversion from someone who advocates expanding the Bill of Rights to include the right to education, a home, health care, and protection against monopolies. Sunstein's realization is a damning criticism of the Obama administration's philosophy of government and, incidentally, of its approach to foreign policy, in which Sunstein's wife, Samantha Power, ambassador to the United Nations, plays a starring role. 

In an article in the Journal of Institutional Economics, Sunstein and his co-author, Reid Hastie, argue that the very process of deliberation serves to amplify mistakes. They argue that the process of deliberation often conveys to individuals disincentives for providing information that would produce better outcomes. Specifically, they highlight the way people self-censor "out of respect for the information publicly announced by others" or to avoid "the disapproval of relevant others." All this is a fancy way of saying that groups tend to reinforce their initial biases through selective information. Sunstein and Hastie conclude -- much as the butterfly flapping its wings causes a hurricane -- that these "micro mistakes" lead to macro policy failures, even catastrophes. And the Syria policy of Barack Obama's administration illustrates their arguments rather neatly. 

The authors argue that corroboration by other members of a respected group raises confidence in its own judgments and reduces the variance of opinion, whether or not their taken position is correct, leading to "sharing a view in which they firmly believe, but which turns out to be wrong." Groups actually don't defer to internal experts; they tend to adopt positions that the majority supports. Sunstein might have drawn from the vast data trove provided by a National Security Council staff that included his wife (one of America's leading human rights experts) yet consistently avoided values-based policies and prides itself on being "realist."

In evaluating whether groups correct for or compound the errors of the individuals that compose them, Sunstein and Hastie identify four particular types of error: amplifying mistakes, cascade effects, growing extremism, and the dominance of shared information. Let's take them one by one.

Drinking the Kool-Aid.
In this type of error, the biases individuals bring to the table cause them to give undue weight to corroborative information. The administration believes that the president was elected to end the wars in the Middle East, that military force achieves no political purposes, that intervention cultivates international hostility, and that international cooperation is the only means of solving foreign-policy problems. So it's easy to see that the administration would not have been open to data suggesting that problems in Syria would worsen absent early intervention, that discreet uses of allied force could affect the military balance between the Syrian government and rebels, and that countries in the region would welcome us dealing a setback to Syrian barbarism and Iranian proxies -- not to mention that there are compelling moral and practical interests in acting even when other states will not.

How can it be that the Obama administration has clung so long to a hopelessly failing policy on Syria? "Groups are more likely than individuals to escalate their commitment to a course of action that is failing, and even more so, if members identify strongly with the groups to which they belong," write Sunstein and Hastie. Political appointees generally identify with their administration, especially so if they consider the politician they work for "transformational," which the Obama appointees most certainly do.

Keeping your head down.
These occur when "participants ignore their private knowledge and rely instead on the publicly stated judgments of others." Take the example of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in March 2011, when she described Bashar al-Assad as a reformer. After Syrian security forces were killing peaceful protesters for months, this stated opinion carried administration policy. But experts like Ambassador Robert Ford in Damascus knew that things were going from bad to worse in Syria. Yet no clarion calls of "never again" rang forth from those who had successfully intervened in the Balkan wars or who compellingly chronicled the Rwandan genocide. Clinton had silenced the Cassandras. But the Cassandras were right.

A second type of cascade effect is said by Sunstein and Hastie to occur when people anticipate and seek to avoid censure within a group, an example of which might occur if, say, a prominent human rights activist and chronicler of an earlier administration that failed to act to prevent mass violence was previously denied a diplomatic post because of her impolitic description of she who would become secretary of state. One can see why someone like this might not want to speak up again. Such activity certainly disincentivizes correcting the mistakes of others.

Yet another type of cascade is caused when groups "draw an undue inference from some failure, thinking that similar plans will fail too." Like if the Obama administration concludes that all interventions must be like the Iraq intervention and therefore all outcomes of interventions will be like the outcomes of Iraq. Or that since the intervention in Iraq faced international condemnation, an intervention in Syria would be likewise received.

Sticking to your guns.
Sunstein and Hastie highlight research showing that "members of a deliberating group end up adopting a more extreme version of the position toward which they tended before deliberation began," and they argue that "the problem is especially severe for groups of like-minded people." Put simply, people reinforce each other's biases, leading to more extreme positions that reflect their "pre-deliberation tendencies" (i.e., their incoming beliefs before they even started talking). This goes some way in explaining the Obama administration's predilection for announcing policy reviews that serve only to confirm the previous policy. After allowing President Obama's Syria red line on chemical weapons to be crossed, the White House announced with much fanfare a review of Syria policy, which resulted in reconfirming for the president that he'd been right all along about doing nothing and that no good options are available.

It's on a need-to-know basis.
Institutions harbor knowledge that should lead them to accurate understandings, but because of their group dynamics, they suppress that knowledge. As Sunstein and Hastie describe it, "members tended to share positive information about the winning candidate and negative information about the losers. They suppressed negative information about the winner and positive information about the losers." So it is with the Obama administration's characterizations of the parties to the Syrian conflict: They overweight the concern about Islamic extremists that prevents us from giving them weapons or training to negate the advantages of the Assad regime. Assad's forces are the beneficiaries of Iranian weapons and the actual participation of Iranian soldiers who are also Islamic extremists, but that information is not considered relevant. Moreover, as policy became more opposed to intervention, administration sources increasingly drew attention to concerns about Islamist rebels, never acknowledging that these choices were affecting the pace of radicalization and the strength of the most virulent al Qaeda-linked groups.

Meanwhile, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations defends the administration's policy, saying, "President Obama has put in play every single tool in the toolbox, short of military action.... I'd be careful about suggesting we are not taking the atrocities seriously. This is something the president gets briefed on every day. He's always asking what we can do." She then gives context to the policy by explaining that "there are other interests at play," such as oil prices and the U.S. economy, and castigating the administration's critics for supporting a "single-issue" policy when it comes to Syria. Sunstein had a fine case study for his theories without even leaving home.

Samantha Power was once a veritable Delacroix Liberty Leading the People, crying "Never again!" She made her career saying that no longer would America stand by while governments committed mass murder. It was this ringing moral clarity that made her so valuable an asset to the Obama campaign and administration -- and that is precisely why its absence in the Obama administration's foreign policy is such a disappointment. 

Cass Sunstein's work in behavioral economics may shed some insight into why: the dynamic of policymaking in the administration itself. As Sunstein and his co-author say, "a confident, cohesive, but error-prone group, giving effect to the mistakes of individual members, is nothing to celebrate. On the contrary, it might be extremely dangerous, both to itself and to others."

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