Alex Bollfrass, MPA
The dangers from nuclear weapons are often explained as terrible outgrowths of inhuman rationality. Dr. Strangelove stands as the paragon symbol of the madness in MAD, in which detached and logically consistent decision-making leads to catastrophe. But the trouble with nuclear weapons today is exactly the opposite. Instead of rational choices leading to irrational outcomes, now we find that it is irrational psychological processes that are leading nuclear policymakers astray.
To implement a sustainable strategy to protect Americans from nuclear dangers, decisions cannot be distorted by the psychological idiosyncrasies from which we all suffer. These foibles can be overcome, but first we must understand how they can impact the way national security decision-makers view their nuclear choices.
A Clear and Present Risk
Applying lessons from psychological research, the biggest scope for miscalculation is in deciding between present and future risk. As humans, we have a difficult time understanding risk and making decisions on questions with complex trade-offs. Studies have shown that that we are especially vulnerable to postponing difficult actions if the consequences of inaction – however grave – are in the future. Thus, when deciding how to mitigate the nuclear threat we end up overvaluing the US nuclear weapon arsenal at the expense of pushing for universal denuclearization, the only true way to protect against nuclear annihilation.
But such a course correction invariably produces short-term risks and trade-offs. The product of our reluctance to embrace these short-term obstacles is a nuclear weapons policy that implicitly accepts that weapons will continue to spread to more nations. The problem with that is that the likelihood that they will be used increases with the number of states deploying such weapons, as does the danger that they will fall into the arms of terrorist organizations.
There are steps we could take to shift the proliferation danger into a lower gear, but these come at a cost. Placing all uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities under multinational control would be an enormous nonproliferation achievement, but would be vehemently resisted by the nuclear industry. Similarly, the implementation of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “Additional Protocol” safeguards would prevent the exploitation of nationally-controlled nuclear reactors for building nuclear weapons. Getting more than the current 94 countries (all without nuclear weapons) to sign up and agree to these intrusive “anytime, anywhere” inspections would require significant concessions from the US and other nuclear weapon states, such as limiting their weapons’ capabilities as well as reducing their numbers.
Despite President Obama’s “Nuclear Security Summit” denuclearization initiative, given the difficulty of these short-term measures and the nebulous distance of their benefits, it is unlikely the administration and Congress will act to protect Americans from this gathering threat. This difficulty of translating good intentions for the future into unpleasant action today is familiar to everyone from dieters to well-intentioned savers.
The Final Count-up
We habitually take on more risk if we stand to gain something, but suddenly develop much greater caution if there is a chance of a loss. This status-quo bias also finds expression in what psychologists call an “endowment effect,” which was first demonstrated in a lab with subjects who consistently believed that the value of coffee mugs they owned were worth more than mugs they had no ownership claim over.
The same phenomenon exists in our nuclear debates and policies. We think about how many weapons we are willing to give up, which feels like a major security sacrifice, instead of surveying the strategic landscape and counting up the number of nuclear warheads necessary to fulfill the missions assigned to them.
This irrational overvaluation makes it hard to agree to the nonproliferation measures that aim to prevent nuclear weapons from falling into the wrong hands. To see this fallacy in motion, witness the favorite talking point of nuclear weapons hawks: our arsenal is at the lowest level since the Eisenhower administration. Referencing such an absurdly high baseline has little analytical use, while it creates the impression that we have very few nuclear weapons and any reductions would therefore be dangerous.
Fortunately, we can overcome these psychological impediments to a smarter nuclear strategy that balances the trade-offs of risks today and in the future. Several nations have demonstrated that it is possible. South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus went so far as to dispose of their nuclear arsenals. Throughout the nuclear age, more governments have started nuclear weapons programs and abandoned them than brought the programs to completion.
The US need not go that far, but the next time a senator denounces an arms control measure with Russia or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as too big a concession, it is worth asking which part of the Senator’s brain this judgment comes from.