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Q&A with Dr. Janne Nolan, Director of Nuclear Security

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How did you first become interested in nuclear weapons policy?

My interest in nuclear strategy evolved long ago as part of a long standing and broader interest in the politics and governance of U.S. national security.  I study nuclear issues in part as a metaphor for American democracy and its competing ideologies and internal rivalries.

Quite apart from their strategic implications, nuclear forces and nuclear war plans — the way that we have envisioned how nuclear weapons are used to deter war or, in the event of a failure of deterrence, to wage war – provide a prism into many other issues, including the ideological fault lines that bedevil discourse about national security, the influence of embedded organizations and bureaucratic politics, civil-military relations,  complex interactions of interest groups, and most importantly, in my opinion, the legacy of failure by political authorities to conduct very effective oversight over this vital area of security – beginning with the Commander-in-chief.

We have co-existed since the 1960s with an alarming disconnect between “declaratory” policy –  what we say about why we have nuclear forces – and “operational” policy – how forces would be used in the event of an actual crisis. There has never been a real debate, let alone a consensus, among our leaders about the real meaning or objectives of nuclear deterrence – deterring what, with what weapons, for what objectives? This is in part because only a handful of civilians has ever tried to acquire the expertise needed to understand the nuclear war plans, targeting assumptions, and other aspects of how forces would be used in a conflict. Until this changes, it will be difficult for any president to have meaningful influence over the nuclear posture.

How has working on this issue personally affected you?

I have had to learn about the challenges of open and fair discourse in Washington when it involves issues that invoke core values. Often the debates we have about nuclear security are not empirical and involve deeply held and cherished beliefs that may not even be about military strategy. These debates can become heated and even personal. One has to learn tact and to respect differences without caving to the conventional wisdom- of the left or the right.

What accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?

I have been very fortunate to have a few, but, one of the less heralded was the chance to serve under Robert Gates on a congressionally appointed commission he chaired in the late 1990s, after some members of Congress accused the intelligence community of politicizing the findings of a National Intelligence Estimate about the so-called Third World ballistic missile threat. The members had accused specific intelligence analysts of underestimating the threat, because of their alleged ideological opposition to missile defenses.

Under the influence and leadership of Gates, the panel’s work was thorough and impartial. When Gates revealed the panel’s principal finding to the Congress – that the only evidence of politicization we found was in the Congress and not in the IC — he calmly and courageously spoke “spoke truth to power”.

Congress ignored the Gates panel’s findings, appointing a rival commission that would offer more politically correct answers. This was a serious mistake. The Rumsfeld Commission marked a turning point in the regrettable politicization of intelligence and the unjust and damaging intimidation of our analysts  that has plagued us ever since.

Why do you think this is such a critical moment for nuclear weapons policy? What’s on the line?

It is hard to miss that we are at a threshold moment in history with regard to fundamental decisions about the future role and utility of nuclear weapons in American and global security. Aside from serving as a core deterrent, nuclear weapons increasingly are seen as rather passé – more and more of a menace than a benefit to U.S. and global security. But, there are strong and entrenched opponents of this view who cling to the hope that nuclear weapons can still be “modernized”.

It seems that contemporary military innovators long ago moved on to the challenges and promises of Global Strike or establishing a new Cyber Command. But as you can see in the partisan battle still pending over ratification of the START treaty, nuclear weapons still exert a powerful influence over American politics.  Forging a genuine, non-partisan consensus about American nuclear security is a huge and urgent challenge and a critical mission at the American Security Project.

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