As nuclear threats grow, the ranks of experts in arms control are dwindling

As nuclear threats grow, the ranks of experts in arms control are dwindling

Bryan Bender writes:

This summer, as the public is treated to a rare thriller about the development of the atomic bomb in director Christopher Nolan’s biopic Oppenheimer, the nation’s leading nuclear policy wonks like [Ed] Geist [at RAND] are more concerned than ever about the specter of a nuclear war — and warn that we are far less prepared than during the Cold War to deal with a more expansive threat. As Oppenheimer reminds us, the bomb itself was the creation of a relatively small number of geniuses assigned to the New Mexico desert in the waning days of World War II. But once it was unleashed and other major powers followed, an entire nuclear complex employing thousands of weapons engineers and technicians, political and social scientists, and diplomats sprang up to harness a humanity-erasing technology and fashion strategies to prevent the unthinkable.

Over time, however, the pervasive fear that fueled that intellectual apparatus has ebbed — and with it the urgency to restock the ranks of experts. Three decades after the Cold War ended, RAND and the broader network of government agencies, national laboratories, research universities and think tanks are struggling to meet the demands of a new — and many contend, far more dangerous — chapter in the global nuclear standoff.

The discipline’s steady decline, which only accelerated following the Sept. 11 attacks when the military pivoted to the war on global terrorism, is compounded by reduced funding from some of the leading philanthropies that funded nuclear policy studies and the graying of the last generation of practitioners both in and out of government. As for government funding, most of it — to the tune of $75 billion a year over the next decade — is dedicated to overhauling the U.S. arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers and submarines, far eclipsing investments in the humans who manage them.

More than a dozen experts across the ideological spectrum I spoke with — hawks and doves alike — agreed a renaissance is needed to rebuild lost muscle memory and fashion new strategies to deter increasingly belligerent nuclear peers and new wannabe nuclear states. And the emergence of artificial intelligence, some analysts fear, could enhance an aggressor’s nuclear first-strike capability or sow dangerous confusion among atomic adversaries.

“There just aren’t that many people who have made this a career,” said Jon Kyl, the former Republican senator from Arizona who is presiding over the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, which is poised to deliver recommendations next month on nuclear threats and strategy. “And there aren’t many of the old-timers around,” he told me. “There is a lot of wisdom that was lost.”

During the Cold War, “the nuclear weapon was the doomsday machine. It was the threat,” Rose Gottemoeller, a former deputy secretary-general of NATO and lead U.S. arms control negotiator who is also a member of the commission, told me. “The shock and trauma of the nuclear age has faded. There are other existential threats out there.”

She told me that recent experience with her students at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation underscores how the appeal of other national security pursuits is greater than nukes to many of the new generation. She said the role of other, more modern technologies in national security — such as AI, or cyber warfare — often trump the nuclear portfolio.

“This is an old technology,” Gottemoeller explained. “For young people today, they are a bit of a yawn. They are profoundly an existential threat to mankind, but they are not at the cutting-edge of technology and young people aren’t as interested in them.” [Continue reading…]

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