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Analysis of the Nuclear Risk Reduction Agenda

Nuclear risk analysis will not save us

In a context of intensifying great power competition and deep divergences of view between nuclear and non-nuclear powers on the urgency of nuclear abolition, ‘nuclear risk reduction’ has gained renewed attention as a pragmatic framework for managing and reducing nuclear dangers. The pitch is simple. With more fundamental policy changes either undesirable or out of reach, government officials, parliamentarians, and civil society actors invested in nuclear arms control and disarmament should focus their efforts on humanity’s ‘shared interest’ in curtailing the risk of nuclear weapon use. This means collectively identifying, analysing, and sequestering so-called nuclear risk scenarios.

Centring the nuclear policy conversation on the risk of use, so goes the argument, promises to slash political polarisation between nuclear and non-nuclear powers, increase trust between states, and, most fundamentally, help manage or gradually depress nuclear dangers—perhaps even to the point of a ‘permanent escape’ from nuclear jeopardy. There is broad support among experts and officials, including many supporters of abolition, for devoting time and resources to discussing nuclear risk and risk reduction measures across domestic, bilateral, and multilateral political forums.

In a new article for International Affairs, we interrogate the assumptions underpinning the line of thinking set out above and conclude that the diplomatic orientation variously referred to as the nuclear risk reduction ‘framework’, ‘template’, ‘agenda’, or ‘approach’ offers a false promise for those seeking durable, shared solutions to the nuclear predicament.

To be clear, our gripe in this article is not with specific diplomatic measures or attempts at progressively reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in world politics. We do not mean to suggest that limited technical or diplomatic measures—be it the fitting of electronic locks on warheads, maintenance of systems for crisis communications, or doctrinal changes—cannot be worthwhile or even risk reducing in an objective sense. Instead, our contention is that these measures are not categorically derivable from risk analysis, that nuclear risks and deterrence cannot be reliably ‘managed’ over the long term, and that risk analysis offers a poor overarching framework for those eager to advance nuclear devaluing and disarmament. Advocates of the latter, we suggest, would be better off anchoring their demands either in explicit normative commitments or a general ethic of restraint.

We see three big problems for the risk reduction agenda. The first is that meaningful risk analysis requires access to a level of knowledge and foresight that is quite simply unattainable in the secretive and often contingent world of nuclear politics—a world where even a single error could prove disastrous. Epistemic errors and knowledge gaps could end up leading policymakers down dangerous paths. A second challenge is that risk thinking often encourages an unduly instrumental view of complex techno-political systems, inviting potentially catastrophic overconfidence. As we show in the article, central luminaries of the risk reduction school have systematically underestimated the chances of disaster, placing outsized faith in leaders’ ability to maintain control in difficult situations. The third and final problem we identify is that the risk reduction framework is too indeterminate to steer diplomatic action. As a result, discussions of nuclear risk can easily be coopted, and nuclear-armed leaders cannot be held accountable for their actions one way or another.

Tellingly, the risk reduction agenda has lent itself to everything from calls for deep nuclear stockpile reductions to demands for new nuclear weapons acquisitions and a resumption of explosive nuclear testing. And as long as nuclear risks remain effectively unmeasurable, risk analysis cannot adjudicate these disagreements. What’s more, and contrary to what its proponents often claim, the risk reduction agenda is severely circumscribed by the putative requirements of nuclear deterrence. Deterrence practices, after all, are necessarily ‘risky’ as the credibility of nuclear deterrence, in particular extended nuclear deterrence, depends on ‘threats that leave something to chance’.

Proponents of the nuclear risk reduction agenda would be right to point out that the current international security environment does not look particularly conducive to radical nuclear policy changes. Implementing common-sense measures of restraint would be better than doing nothing, they might argue. We do not disagree. Our objection is that the radical uncertainty that defines the nuclear world renders ‘risk reduction’ a poor overarching frame for diplomatic action; the discourse of risk, we suggest, does not offer advantageous terrain for advocates of change. If what proponents of nuclear risk reduction really want to do is to promote nuclear de-alerting, new or improved communication hotlines, ‘deterrence only’ postures, risk reduction centres, or the adoption of no-first use policies, they should just do that and not invite a discussion about unmeasurable risks that can easily be coopted by those eager to do the opposite. The search for a consensus-based, ‘pragmatic’ approach to nuclear arms control and disarmament—a nuclear politics without politics—is in vain.

Feature image by Kilian Karger via Unsplash.

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