- The SAIS Review Interviews Sharon Weiner
October 11, 2019
What initially got you interested in nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy?
I always thought I would study the defense budget and how to better allocate money between defense and social needs. But there aren't a lot of courses on that. I was getting my master's degree in Europe, and, at my university, people were having a Hiroshima Day protest, where people were outlining people's bodies on the sidewalk and walls in black paint—basically the ash residue of someone after a nuclear flash. That just made me think more about things I had always ignored. Coming from a part of the Midwest that was definitely in the middle of the nuclear weapons zone, I started thinking about nuclear issues. The more I studied deterrence and nuclear weapons strategy, the more it seemed like a story people were telling themselves instead of a rational way to deal with threats. So, I thought, "This would be fun to study." So I did, and I still am.
And what exactly do you mean when you say "story?"
Think about deterrence. Deterrence in some ways is like a psychological relationship that surrounds us all. For instance, parents deter their kids: "Don't touch that or you'll get in trouble." But when it comes to nuclear weapons, we somehow assume people are going to treat these threats rationally, despite the fact that throughout the history of international relations, misperception has brought about war many times. And a misperception in a nuclear relationship could easily bring about the end civilization.
This lack of critical thinking about deterrence has actually gotten worse over time, as if deterrence as a strategy is a fully vetted, completely known, [End Page 159] solid set of truths when, in fact, it's not. It's a psychological relationship with people that involves a whole lot of perception and a lot of assumptions about uncertainty. In the nuclear weapons community and actually in a fair amount in scholarship, there's a lack of attention to things that we assume, and we talk about them as if they are unquestionably true. But they're not. They're assumptions and there are other assumptions that in many cases are equally rational. Well why did we make these assumptions and sort of deify them until they are unquestionable?
Additionally, this type of thinking seems to be prevalent in government. For example, when I worked in the government, I found that many people in the nuclear weapons community had no memory of the Cold War. They were taught that deterrence works and they never seemed to question that assumption. They didn't learn the debates between shelling and deterrence. I think that's dangerous because it assumes that deterrence will always work as its outlined in a textbook. But if our adversaries don't agree on that, then we're in trouble.
So, because there hasn't been a nuclear war, do you feel that we have, for lack of a better term, gotten lucky?
In some ways I think we have gotten lucky. We've gotten lucky that states with disagreements have chosen not to solve them by force, and the states that have chosen to solve them by force have not had nuclear weapons. Indeed, they've chosen genocide and a whole bunch of other horrible things we would like to avoid. But in the end, I don't think you can attribute this to just luck. There is some sobering aspect to nuclear weapons.
That said, I think that that sobering overlay over deterrence is getting less and less because now people are talking about nuclear warfighting strategies (the idea that you can have small nuclear weapons and control escalation). Well the notion that you can control escalation is a fairytale.
What has your experience been working with Congress and in the Pentagon?
By and large, the amount of attention that most members of Congress give to nuclear weapons is close to zero. And I think that...