Rethinking Nuclear Choices


On Tuesday, July 19th the Sciences Po American Foundation invited Professor Benoît Pelopidas to engage in conversation with Anne Scattolin, ED of the Foundation, in a European Affairs Webinar series titled: “Rethinking Nuclear Choices. A conversation with Benoit Pelopidas.”  Professor Pelopidas is the Founding Director of the Nuclear Knowledges Program at Sciences Po, where he used to hold the Chair in Excellence in Security Studies. The professor brought his depth of expertise to the discussion, sharing insights from his most recent book Repenser les choix nucléaires: La séduction de l'impossible, which will soon be published in English. This discussion was followed by a Q&A with Dr. Emmanuel Kattan, Director of the Alliance Program between Columbia University, École Polytechnique, SciencesPo, and Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. 

The discussion began with an introduction to the Nuclear Knowledges Program in which Professor Pelopidas highlighted two distinctive features. First, the program categorically refuses any stakeholder funding so as to avoid conflicts of interest in the production of knowledge. Second, the program creates interdisciplinary methodologies to produce knowledge where there is a gap between existing knowledge and available evidence. Responding to the first question regarding Iran and a potential new wave of nuclear proliferation, Pelopidas brought attention to a gap between discourse around proliferation and the available evidence, pointing out “Regardless of the criteria we use to assess proliferation, contrary to what experts have said, the post-cold war period is an unprecedentedly low moment of proliferation.” 

Nuclear weapon programs in the world 1945-2021

The desire for proliferation, he continued, is far from universal, and indeed renunciation is more frequent than maintained proliferations at three levels: (1) among all states at least 143 have never had any nuclear weapons activities, (2) among states with nuclear weapons activities 30 out of 40 have discontinued such activities, and (3) among host states 15 have ceased hosting and did not acquire any nuclear weapons. He added that no nuclear-weapon state today has reached that status without the help of at least one permanent member of the UN Security Council and that none of them has a perfect non-proliferation track-record. Desire for nuclear weapons is therefore fueled and facilitated by the diffusion of a discourse valuing this technology and the sharing of the technology itself. Although we often think of proliferation as the spread of nuclear weapons to new actors, we ignore the idea of vertical proliferations, the increase of existing stockpiles or the extension of lifespan for such weapons. He summed up that a new wave of proliferation would depend on whether nuclear weapons possessors continue helping to spread them as well as the lessons drawn from the war in Ukraine about the desirability of nuclear weapons. 

The discussion shifted to Ukraine and the remaining possibility of the Russian Federation using nuclear weapons, “It is a reminder,” Pelopidas says, “that we still live in a world of nuclear vulnerability and that there is no protection against nuclear strikes either deliberate or accidental.” On confidence in the fact that we have so far avoided unwanted nuclear explosions, the professor underlined that the key is to be able to distinguish cases where avoidance of accidental detonation was due to control practices from those in which control practices were not sufficient to avoid this unwanted outcome. Sharing findings from his own work Pelopidas revealed, “It is now possible to assess the role of luck in the absence of unwanted nuclear explosions so far, and once you craft an adequate methodology to do so you find that luck was necessary in key episodes of the nuclear age.” Considering the level of opacity regarding ‘close calls’ in nuclear weapons holding states and the long timeline in declassifying such information, he continued that this estimation of the role of luck is likely underestimated. 

The conversation then turned to the common claim in France that there exists a consensus of citizens support for nuclear weapons policies. The Nuclear Knowledges Program, interested in these questions concerning a gap in the dominant discourse and the available evidence, found when investigating the evidence cited for this claim, a poorly designed survey that produced results with a validity problem. The survey incorporated the normative and value judgments underpinning French nuclear policy in the question as if they were unquestionable truths, therefore priming respondents to express support for those policies. From conducting their own surveys, they found a low level of support for nuclear policies, with the only attitude that received a majority of support being one of disempowerment and disengagement. Pelopidas summed up, “The key finding is even though the message is we have produced consensus and we’ve produced support, no, what we’ve produced is a citizenry that has accepted the fact that it is entirely powerless on these issues. If there is a consensus it would be on the level of political parties, but certainly not of public opinion.” 

The discussion returned to Russia, addressing the widespread claim that if Ukraine had retained nuclear weapons, it would not have been invaded by Russia. Professor Pelopidas considers this a “fantasy counterfactual,” concurring with his colleague Maria Rublee. This is for two reasons, first it ignores all consequences of Ukraine keeping its arsenal up until the Russian invasion and overlooks the fact that there was little desire for such an outcome in Ukraine at the time while the members of the P5 would not have let Ukraine keep over 4000 nuclear weapons.

Next the discussion turned to the heart of Professor Pelopidas’ most recent book, a new framework to think about nuclear weapons policy options centered around vulnerability. He highlights three contributions achieved by reframing in terms of vulnerability, first a rectification of mischaracterizing the desire for weapons and drivers of proliferations, second an ability to account for a wider range of past, present and future dangers, avoiding illusions of security and control and third a more consistently justified set of choices for nuclear weapons policy. As the discussion expanded to the broader question of what the future may look like for nuclear weapons policies, Professor Pelopidas responded there is a need for consistent justifications of existing policies. He insists that the book shows that four key arguments supporting the idea that there is no alternative to existing policies are incomplete or incorrect. He adds that in order to make choices with clarity about the long-term future of nuclear weapons policy planning, we need to lay out possible futures without assuming that future threats will be the ones that can be deterred by our existing arsenals. The key goal is to be able to have clearly justified alternative answers to the question: which weapons systems for which defense policy for the next seventy years. This is what he calls “desacralizing without conventionalizing nuclear weapons.” Independent research is crucial to clarify those bets without falling for illusions of perfect control, presentism or transparency of the future. 

In the Q&A that followed Kattan returned to the idea of control practices, inquiring whether there ought to be regulated and enforced universal control practices. In his response Pelopidas underscored the lack of transparency and knowledge that is available about control practices. “Our knowledge of the answer is uneven from one case to the other, and as we try to improve that knowledge, what we will get from the institutions in charge of insuring the safety and security of  the weapons, we will be a reassuring narrative. I have found evidence of such reassurance in the face of close calls or accidents in French and US archives; we need to keep that in mind,” he warned. Next Kattan asked about the extent of the threat of a terrorist group acquiring nuclear material and creating a “dirty” bomb. Pelopidas first acknowledged that this is not an area of scholarship he has worked on. He further noted that if the threat is defined as the explosion of a nuclear device and not only as its acquisition, then the existing scholarship suggests that the success of such an endeavor requires that the perpetrators succeed at a series of steps. Failing at one of the steps would be enough to make the explosion impossible. 

To conclude the Q&A Kattan inquired over whether the public are sufficiently informed about nuclear weapons and aware of the risks that exist. Responding in the negative, Pelopidas emphasized that a lack of knowledge and awareness should not be blamed on the public themselves but viewed as a symptom of the scarcity of nonpartisan knowledge and limits of nuclear education.

Expanding his remarks to include those well informed about nuclear weapons, Pelopidas highlighted the problem of epistemic vulnerability as a temptation to overlook the gap between what we think we know and the evidence we can provide. After two years of interviews with elite policymakers, military personnel and activists, he has concluded that even for them it is hard to believe in what they know: these weapons can actually go off. To combat this epistemic vulnerability, Pelopidas offered ways and criteria to distinguish between independent research and advocacy (Is there a conflict of interest in the funding of the expert? Are categories and judgments of actors naturalized as if they were neutral?) He then turned to fiction and aesthetic gestures which put us viewers in a world where it becomes believable that we live in a world in which nuclear weapons can go off. This was an effective tool throughout the cold war, however in the interim the existential dangers referred to have become climate disaster or a virus. “There is research and education work to be done,” concluded Pelopidas, “there is also work to be done on the imagination to allow us to possess an imagination that matches our condition of nuclear vulnerability.” 

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