Nuclear Idealism, Nuclear Realism

by Leon Wieseltier | March 11, 1985

This week in Prague, Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a new version of the START treaty, renewing their commitment to nuclear arms reduction. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also unveiled newly built nuclear centrifuges. And, in a well-timed TNR cover story, Peter Scoblic posed the incisive, probing question: What good is the time-tested doctrine of deterrence in an era where rogue states and terrorists have ready access to nuclear material? In this week’s archives piece, we look back to Leon Wieseltier’s 1985 article “Nuclear Realism, Nuclear Idealism,” in which he examined Ronald Reagan’s proposed “Star Wars” SDI missile defense system. With piercing insight, Wieseltier dismantled the prevailing arguments for the system. “SDI deserves to be dismissed on its own terms,” Wieseltier wrote. “A perfect defense of populations is impossible and an imperfect defense of populations is ignorable, at least from the standpoint of saving us from the present situation.” Wieseltier’s piece is a bona fide classic in the generations-long debate about the proper role of nuclear weapons.

Ronald Reagan owes Jonathan Schell an apology.

Item. In mid-January the administration unveiled what it called a new "strategic concept," drafted by Paul Nitze and approved by President Reagan for the arms control negotiations in Geneva that will begin in a few weeks. The document is a prescription for the next decade and it is a whole paragraph long. It is immensely important for the purpose of understanding the strategic mentality that currently rules the American roost. The Nitze concept calls for three things—for three miracles, really—in consecutive order. First, "a radical reduction in the number and power of existing and planned offensive and defensive nuclear arms." Second, "a period of transition, beginning possibly ten years from now, to effective non-nuclear defensive forces, including defenses against offensive nuclear arms." Third, "the eventual elimination of nuclear arms ... a nuclear free world."

Students of philology of strategy will recognize all this to read "deep cuts," "Star Wars," and, well, the end of days. Not much that is new, in short. It is the provenance of the scheme, however, that is striking. It may be found, in more vaporous form, in The Abolition by Jonathan Schell. In the second chapter of his second book Schell proposes a scheme for the abolition of nuclear weapons that calls first for dramatic arms control (in his case, in the form of a freeze at present levels), then "an agreement abolishing nuclear weapons" (from his mouth to God's ears), and finally strategic defenses. The defense of defenses on pages 112-118 could have come as easily from the offices of the Pentagon as from the offices of The New Yorker. It must be said to Schell's credit, however, that he had the wit to precede strategic defense with multilateral disarmament. It does not add to the practicality of his proposal, but it protects it from the many technological and strategic objections to which the administration's version of defenses is vulnerable.

Item: On January 27 The New York Times Magazine contained an article called "Defense in Space Is Not Star Wars" by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Robert Jastrow, and Max Kampelman. Kampelman has been appointed to head the American delegations to Geneva. The article rehearsed the standard arguments for strategic defenses, by its most arresting sentences were its first and its last. "Faith moves mountains," these hard-headed hawks began. And they ended with the stricture that "the aim of making nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete should be encouraged and not savaged." Now take your mind back to 1982, and recall the savaging of Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth, by those with just these men's views, for making just their point. "To reinvent politics, to reinvent the world": Schell's formula for the faith that moves mountains practically entered the language as an example of loony loftiness. It was roundly and rightly mocked. But suddenly the Reagan administration's intellectuals have lost their inhibitions. The spirits of the national security establishment may soar again.

What happened? The answer is simple. The president made a speech. On March 23, 1983, Reagan declared for "Star Wars." He said that populations could be defended against nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons could be made obsolete. Intellectual life in Washington has never been the same. Good thing the president didn't declare for phlogiston, or that the world is flat. For proximity to power apparently confuses the mind. Not even science can withstand the immense intellectual authority of the presidential seal.  And so a process of mental modification and rhetorical revision began that has transformed the false into the true. Jonathan Schell is a dreamer. Ronald Reagan is a visionary. The double standard is breathtaking.

In fact they are both dreamers. And Schell owes his hundreds of thousands of readers an apology, too. Who said that we need world government to meet the nuclear predicament? his second book asks angrily. The answer is, Schell in his first book. And who said that deterrence is dangerous and devoid of instruction? his second book asks angrily again. The answer again is, Schell in his first book. When political writers change their minds, they owe an explanation. But the strategic and philosophical convergence of Ronald Reagan and Jonathan Schell is more than an ironic complication of the intellectual climate. It casts an interesting light on the nuclear debate.


Since the advent of the nuclear age, the debate has been between the camps of nuclear idealism and nuclear realism. Nuclear idealism believes in transformation; nuclear realism believes in management. By nuclear idealism I mean the many abolitionisms that have accumulated in the alarmed decades of the recent past—the abolition of nuclear weapons, the abolition of the arms race, the abolition of war, the abolition of the system of sovereign states, the abolition of the evil in man. By nuclear realism I mean the many refinements of technology, strategy, diplomacy, and politics that have been designed simply to prevent the macabre machinery from going off. The' idealists will be satisfied by disarmament; the realists, by deterrence and arms control.

The nuclear debate has been distorted by the notion that idealism and realism are mutually exclusive. It would be more sensible to see them rather as a division of labor. As Irving Howe has observed in a different context, there is the politics of the near and the politics of the far. There is nothing the matter with nuclear idealism, with the search for a final release from this fact of our life, unless it denies that they also serve who merely superintend the instruments of mass destruction. There is nothing the matter with nuclear realism, with the careful calibration of arsenals and balances, unless it denies that the danger of mass destruction still remains after all that the deterrers and the arms controllers can do.

But the idealists' argument against the realists is proving more successful than the realists' argument against the idealists. After all, it is hard to argue against the vision of a world without these ugly things; hard to be satisfied in your heart with the idea that the greatest peril in human history should be met with concepts of management; hard to fill the streets with people in the name of "flexible options" and "bargaining chips." Until recently the political appeal of idealism seemed the same as the political appeal of the left, Then lightning struck. Ronald Reagan joined the camp of the idealists.

That was the real significance of his Star Wars speech. It was the first time that the man confessed to a fear of nuclear war, and to a fantasy about a world without nuclear weapons. No more smiles and smugness about limited nuclear exchanges and the like. Reagan finally agreed that the American people are right to worry. Thus overnight Reagan started to turn the sentimental foundation of the peace movement, which was battening upon the same fear and the same fantasy, to his advantage. It might even be said that Reagan became part of the peace movement. He merely had a different path to peace. The path was defenses, or what he called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). There has always existed in the American strategic community a tradition of right-wing nuclear idealism, for which defenses are the answer. It differs from its left-wing counterpart, however, in being tolerant of offensive nuclear devices and doctrines. Many of these idealists of the right found jobs in the administration. The president left the strategic meanings of Star Wars to them. Its psychological and political meanings, however, were plain, The selling of Star Wars began.


There are those to whom it need not be sold and there are those to whom it cannot be sold. There are scientists, soldiers, and strategists in both camps. The administration understood that the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, could not be convinced. The group's report on ballistic missile defenses, issued recently by Vintage Books as The Fallacy of Star Wars, offers impressive scientific objections to space-based missile defenses and antisatellite weapons. The Reagan administration resolved to work around the laws of physics with the laws of politics. The plan is working. At times the Reaganites have behaved a little basely, as in their frequently heard feeling that the scientific opposition to Star Wars is politically inspired. In one instance they tried to suppress a background paper of the Office of Technology Assessment, "Directed Energy Missile Defense in Space" by Dr. Ashton B. Carter of Harvard, which dissented rigorously from the official enthusiasm for SDI. An independent panel of strategists and scientists forced the administration to reconsider, and the excellent paper was released.

The laws of physics require proof. The laws of politics do not. The political objective of the sellers of Star Wars was not consensus. but credulity. The idea of strategic defenses had to be made legitimate before it could be made into strategy. To be sure, the idea is legitimate. In the end it stands or falls on whether it is feasible. Those who argue that it is feasible are for it, and those who argue that it is not feasible are against it. The culprits in the Star Wars debate, in other words, are not at the extremes. The culprits are in the middle. They are those who do not believe that Star Wars or "total defense" or "population defense" is feasible, but still refuse to argue fully against it. Instead they invent a variety of halfway houses that allow them to remain with the community of influence that has grown up around the president's idea. They are nuclear realists at the court of the nuclear idealists.

Henry Kissinger, who suddenly sees some merit in Star Wars, is an example. The worst examples of all, however, are the conservative Democrats. These people who have kept the discussion of national security honest, and told liberals the truth about the moral and political importance of defense, are this time corrupting the discussion, and lying to liberals.


There are three ways in which a lot of people in Washington are having it both ways on Star Wars. The first is what is known as "point defense." In the current argot of the administration, this is called" transitional defense." It is the idea of a ground-based system to defend our missile silos or more generally our strategic installations. Nothing exotic or extraterrestrial; the technology for it, as the Army keeps reminding the president, already exists. The task of defending a limited area is much easier than the task of defending the whole country. According to Lieutenant Genera James A. Abrahamson, the director of SDI, such a system of defense could be deployed before the end of the decade. Though it is being vaunted in the editorial columns and Op-Ed pages as a bold and original approach to the current discussion of defense, the idea is about as old as ballistic missiles themselves. Its justification, then and now, is the "enhancement" of deterrence. That is, a defense of our strategic forces would leave us still more secure against the possibility of a Soviet strike, by adding yet another complication for Soviet planners, another reason for the Soviets not to launch.

This is all very good, but it is all beside the point. It is not the enhancement of deterrence that the president wants, but the transcendence of deterrence. To be sure, the enhancement of deterrence is always interesting and important; and there are many ways (most of them terrestrial) to enhance it . But it is a concept of management, not a concept of transformation. The Star Wars debate must be about transformation. In this the president is right. "Point defense" contributes nothing to the critical discussion of nuclear idealism. It proposes a change in degree. The president and the people want to know about a change in kind. ("Point defense," moreover, has its own problems, notably the probability of Soviet counter measures based on technology that already exists in its arsenal, and the probability of a race in defensive arms.)

The second excuse for suffering Star Wars gladly is the "window of vulnerability." In their Times Magazine article, Brzezinski, Jastrow, and Kampelman perform a remarkable act of intellectual resuscitation. They argue that space-based defenses are necessary because of the possibility of a Soviet first strike against our land-based missile force. If this has a slightly anachronistic ring, it is no wonder. The Scowcroft Commission, you will recall, retired the "window of vulnerability" rather cogently a few years ago. It did so by showing that the window (which is open on both sides, incidentally, as the "Gang of Three" recognizes) may be closed by changing the way we base our nuclear missiles. The Scowcroft Commission proposed a move toward "Midgetman," a mobile single-warhead missile that would be harder to hit and a less attractive target. The Gang doubts that "Midgetman" is the answer. (Such doubt is more and more in the air around the administration; the makers of the Scowcroft bargain had better heed it. ) They say it is expensive, which is an odd objection from supporters of Star Wars. And they wonder how and where it may be deployed, forgetting that faith moves mountains.

The Gang's general proposition is that strategic problems on earth require solutions in space. (They might consider, for example, the extent to which the "window of vulnerability" argument for SDI weakens the "window of vulnerability" argument for the MX.) It is an interesting proposition, but it must be proved. Meanwhile solutions on earth for problems on earth seem more sensible—first, because some plausible solutions have been suggested, and second, because solutions in space will bring problems in space. The notion that the militarization of space brings no new risks is ridiculous. It might simply push back the frontiers of our insecurity; satellites are more vulnerable than missiles. More to the point, however, the Gang's proposition is not the president's proposition. Mr. Reagan did not kindle to Star Wars because of his brooding about basing modes. This is one strategic idea that he did not develop because of the"window of vulnerability." It will profit the debate nothing to pretend that the reason for Star Wars is anything other than the ridding of the earth of nuclear weapons.

The third way to be for Star Wars without believing in it is to say that it serves arms control. This is the best way. Nothing silences criticism so swiftly as the mention of arms control. This is also the most brazen way. It defies both the history and the theory of arms control. It flies in the face of the Reagan administration's own analysis of arms control and of strategic defenses. And it exploits a popular expectation of arms control that deserves to be retired.


The argument is that SDI is a "bargaining chip," that it provides American negotiators with the leverage at the table to make a comprehensive strategic arms deal in which SDI would be surrendered. This is not the first time that the attempt has been made to fool American liberals with banter about bargaining chips. There is an obvious contradiction at the heart of the theory of the bargaining chip. Consider the logic. What matters most to us, the theory runs, we will give away. The most sophisticated products of our technology, the most expensive programs of our economy, the most subtle instruments of our strategy are the enemy's for the asking. Now this is simply not credible. States do not behave this way; nor should they. It is to Reagan's credit that he has had no truck with this cynical theory. The president has made it perfectly clear (as have other administration officials) that he has no intention of giving Star Wars away, most recently in an interview with Bernard Weinraub of The New York Times. This is as it should be, if the president believes that it will change our fate. If Star Wars will make possible the protection of our population, as the president says, it would be nothing less than an act of treason to stop the program or to share the program. Idealists make poor negotiators.

If Star Wars works, it must not be a bargaining chip. If Star Wars doesn't work, it cannot be a bargaining chip. The bargaining chip argument, then, is a bit of a swindle. (As was the same argument for the MX. Either we need the missile or we do not.) Nor is that all. A bargaining chip argument about an administration with a principled skepticism toward arms control carries little weight. The Gang, for example, which includes the chief American arms control negotiator, remarked rather proudly of SDI that "it brought the Russians back to the bargaining table." Maybe; but these same gentlemen disparaged only a few pages previously, and not sorrowfully, the possibility of a deal. And this is not the last time that Kampelman may find himself caught in contradiction. It will be amusing, for example, to watch the American team in Geneva attack the Soviets' ABM installation and advance the case for antiballistic missile defense in the same breath.

The Soviets, moreover, may not respond to Star Wars precisely as the bargaining-chip argument expects them to respond. According to the argument, the prospect of American defensive weapons will provoke a significant reduction in Soviet offensive weapons. The opposite, however, may be the case. SDI may have the consequence of increasing the importance of Soviet CBMs. The traditional response to a shield is a second sword. As Brent Scowcroft recently observed, "As a Practical matter it would be very difficult to induce the Soviets to reduce their offensive forces if they faced the prospect of a strategic defense for which they might need those offensive forces to penetrate." This is completely consistent with what we know about our own behavior in such circumstances. When the Soviets, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, set out toward an ABM system, we did not lower the level of our offensive power, We increased it, by MIRVing. It is now commonly agreed that MIRVing was responsible for the present precariousness of land-based missiles; and the cutting edge of thinking about arms control in recent years has been the search for safe ways of "de-MIRVing." SDI may have the effect, however, of re-MIRVing-that is, of placing an unprecedented strategic premium on the number of warheads. The more defense, the more offense. That seems to be the rule.


This doesn't mean that SDI deserves to be dismissed just because it is bad for arms control. Not everything that is bad for arms control is bad for us. Arms control must be fudged by its terms and its consequences. It is mischievous to encourage an eschatological expectation of arms control. Such an expectation is already widespread enough; even Reagan has evidenced it. The media's melodramatic treatment of the meetings in Geneva muddies things more, The American people are being set up for a disappointment. There doesn't appear to be much that the forthcoming talks can accomplish. We will not surrender what the Soviets value most, the Strategic Defense Initiative, because we value it most; and they will not surrender what we value most, the most advanced systems of the Strategic Rocket Forces, because they value it most. More important, all these testimonials to arms control represent a misunderstanding of its essential modesty. If Ronald Reagan and Konstantin Chernenko were to sign a treaty drafted by George Kennan, according to which each side would reduce its arsenal by half, each side would still hold in its possession the power to destroy the world. Arms control, then, will not free us from what we fear; it will merely help us manage it. It is, in other words, the quintessential exercise of nuclear realism. It cannot be defended as anything more.


Still, it deserves to be defended. And so does nuclear realism generally. In the matter of preventing nuclear war, to accomplish a little is to accomplish a lot. The magnitude of the danger itself is the reason. The prospect of the destruction of the world of nature and the world of culture would seem to call rather plainly for the strong medicine of nuclear idealism, for the various abolitionisms to which many people in recent years have understandably aspired. But the contrary is closer to the mark. The most responsible attitude toward a danger so great is to stick close to it, and to think coolly about it. Indeed, it should inspire a whole new respect for the here and the now. These things could go off.

A few years ago nuclear realism had to be defended against the peace movement, and its agitation for disarmament. Now it must be defended against he president, and his agitation for defense. SDI deserves to be dismissed on its own terms; a perfect defense of populations is impossible and an imperfect defense of populations is ignorable, at least from the standpoint of saving us from the present situation. (In the most judicious essay I have read on the subject, Harold Brown concludes that "the combinations of limitations—scientific, technological, systems engineering, cost—and especially the potential countermeasures make the prospect of a perfect or neat perfect defense negligibly low.") But it must also be dismissed for its interference with the public's understanding of its own predicament. The president is lulling the American People. He is part and parcel of the peace movement in this respect, too. He has joined with it (and the Catholic bishops) in the delegitimation of deterrence. Deterrence may be a sad description of reality, but it is a true description of reality. It will remain a true description for many years to come. Complicity, says the peace movement of such a description. Defeatism, says the president. But is it complicity to dispel illusion? Is it defeatism to suggest that the impossible will not come to pass? Nobody likes the danger we are in. But more dangerous still is the distraction from the danger.

The good news about Reagan's proposal is its radicalism, which represents an entirely appropriate amount of alarm. The bad news about his proposal is also its radicalism. It is a florid fantasy. There can be no unradical response, therefore, to the primary problem that Reagan has put. There is no middle this time. You area nuclear idealist or you are a nuclear realist. The idealists have found each other. Now the realists must.

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