Nuclear Choices: What Really Drives Nuclear Policy Decisions?

Nuclear Choices: What Really Drives Nuclear Policy Decisions?

Nuclear weapons decisions are made based on assumptions about their inevitability and with the belief that humans have perfected control—with little public understanding of the tradeoffs at stake.

Policy choices can seem daunting and abstract, particularly when it comes to nuclear weapons. Who makes these decisions, how are they made, and what say does the public have in nuclear weapons creation or use? Dr. Benoît Pelopidas joins Dr. Emma Belcher, president of Ploughshares Fund, on Ploughshares’ Press the Button podcast to discuss these questions, the assumptions underlying nuclear policy decision making, and more.

Pelopidas is the founding director of the Nuclear Knowledges program at the Center for International Studies at Sciences Po in Paris. His recent book, Repenser Les Choix Nucléaires (Rethinking Nuclear Choices) undertakes one of the most in-depth studies of this topic in France.

He finds that current nuclear weapons decisions are made based on assumptions about their inevitability and with the belief that humans have perfected control—with little public understanding of the tradeoffs at stake. However, if you break down these assumptions and encourage more transparent debate, there is room to rethink nuclear weapons policy choices.

To start, Pelopidas addresses the issue that historically, the conversation on nuclear weapons has been left out of the public debate. In France, surveys that poll the public on this topic are rare, and when they do occur, the questions are framed with the implicit biases that nuclear weapons keep people safe and deterrence theory works. The results of these surveys show high levels of public support for France’s nuclear arsenal, which the French government can then publish to reinforce support for the nuclear program—a circular loop that benefits the nuclear status quo.

Instead of taking such surveys at face value, Pelopidas’ team analyzed how they were designed and re-invented the surveys to rid them of such biases around nuclear policy choices.

 His team found that “if you actually ask [the French public] about the implicit commitment that the nuclear state is asking of them, that is as a taxpayer, you are expected and required to fund the arsenal” or “as a French citizen, you are expected to entitle the French president to use nuclear weapons on your behalf,” then the survey results looked much different. Of those surveyed with this new approach, the level of support for nuclear weapons turned out to be below 15 percent in France, with similarly low results in the United Kingdom.

This leads to one of Pelopidas’s key conclusions: the way nuclear policy is discussed and the way nuclear choices are made in France sidelines the public.

Pelopidas shares three reasons the public is disengaged on nuclear issues. The first is that “nuclear weapons-related realities are outside of our daily world—out of sight, out of mind.” The second has to do with “our inability to believe that nuclear weapons-related catastrophes are indeed possible.” And the third “relates to official experts’ inability to give a complete picture of nuclear vulnerabilities.”

Pelopidas sees a solution to these issues in fiction and visual popular culture. He notes that films were effective in depicting the nuclear threat during the Cold War, but that existential threats of today appear in the form of viruses or climate catastrophes. The current depictions of nuclear weapons use that do exist in present-day popular culture inaccurately portray nuclear weapons as having minimal effects.

Pelopidas believes this is harmful, “manifesting the shared knowledge between the writers and the viewers that, of course, this will not happen.” He concludes, “we need to recreate popular culture that helps us overcome our disbelief in the possibility of nuclear disasters.”

To break down the illusion of control over these weapons, Pelopidas studies the role that luck plays in our security. Numerous close calls, caused by both machines and humans, have resulted in near nuclear catastrophes that were avoided largely thanks to luck. But there are challenges he finds when it comes to how we think about luck in nuclear security. He says there is a mistake in thinking that “[luck is] impossible to measure, and so because we cannot measure it, we should write, think, and give policy advice as though it doesn’t matter.” Further in his research, he found there is no real understanding of what luck means. So, to study the role of luck, Pelopidas defines it as the opposite of control.

In studying numerous cases that exhibit such an absence of control, he finds that across the board, nuclear weapons states have incentives to downplay instances where there was an absence of control.

Such incentives prove to only reinforce the status quo on nuclear policy. To better inform nuclear weapons policy and allow fair and accurate assessments by experts and by the public, Pelopidas emphasizes the importance of independent research on these issues. This can at minimum be the first step to help ensure that analysis is not merely reproducing the assumptions underlying a state’s nuclear weapons policy discourse. Moreover, this can involve citizens in discussions on what keeps them safe. As Pelopidas concludes, demanding accurate knowledge is imperative as “one catastrophic failure is radically intolerable.”

You can find the entire interview with Dr. Benoît Pelopidas here. His book Repenser les Choix Nucléaires (Rethinking Nuclear Choices) is for sale here in French; the English version is forthcoming.

Alexandra B. Hall is the Policy Associate and Special Assistant to the President at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.