Nuclear Disarmament and Argument from Authority Writ Large

Blogging has been slightly slower than my usual prolific pace lately due mostly to the soul crushing experience that is the first year of grad school the large amount of reading one encounters in their first year of graduate study. While I try to get caught up I thought I would indulge in some shameless self-promotion. In the latest edition of Cato Journal, a public policy journal published by the Cato Institute, I have a review* of Philip Taubman’s book The Partnership: Five Former Cold Warriors and Their Quest to Ban the Bomb.

Taubman attempts to piggyback off the recent advocacy of George Schultz, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and Henry Kissinger, and to a lesser extent Sidney Drell, to tell the story of how they came to support nuclear abolition and to make his own argument for disarmament in the process. Needless to say, I was not impressed:

Commonsense solutions though are missing from The Partnership. Doing “something big” seems to be more important than doing something feasible, or simply something necessary—a fact openly acknowledged among the group. Nunn asserts that global threat reduction efforts are beginning to atrophy and “something big” is necessary to drag them back into the public consciousness. Kissinger is skeptical of the effort to abolish nuclear weapons, but he is willing to sign on to “something big” to highlight the dangers of further nuclear proliferation. Taubman never seems to consider asking whether doing “something big” might actually be counterproductive or if smaller, focused efforts might be more valuable at securing loose nuclear materials, preventing proliferation, and reducing the nuclear arsenals of the United States, Russia, China, and others.

But the point of The Partnership is not to ask those questions. Such concerns pale in comparison to the inspiration and political cover the former cold warriors gave to President Obama’s April 2009 announcement that he would seek “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Practical matters such as overcoming Israel’s policy of nuclear “opacity” or Pakistan’s desire to counter India’s conventional superiority take a back seat when the president of the United States declares his intention to do “something big.”

The whole thing can be read here (pdf).

I was probably a little harsher in my conclusion than I should have been, but there were several aspects the book that irked me. In particular, Taubman fails to engage any scholarship that does not fit with his predetermined conclusion that nuclear weapons are bad and must be abolished lest the world fall victim to disaster, and his virtual hagiography vis-à-vis Nunn, Perry, Kissinger, Drell, and in particular, Schultz, is off-putting coming from a respected journalist. Nuclear disarmament has been put on the table, however unlikely it may be, so it is important that the merits of the argument be debated seriously—something I did not feel this book accomplished.

*I should note a point in need of clarification that I just caught while rereading the review. In discussing the potential for terrorists obtaining nuclear materials I wrote, “Such stories deal with civilian nuclear facilities, not nuclear arsenals maintained for military purposes.” I was referring specifically to the examples Taubman cites, not all cases where the possibility for nuclear theft is concerned. Looking back, I can easily see how this would cause confusion, and it’s something I should have caught from the beginning.

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