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Explaining What I Do for a Living: Finding Six Words People Can Relate To

Words: Michael Krepon
Pictures: Glacier National Parks Service

Less is more. Clarity and brevity rule. Except when it comes to explaining what I do for a living. Having a job description that fits neatly on a visa application? Not in this lifetime. I’ve always needed paragraphs to explain my work — until now. Perhaps you do, too.

When I started working on nuclear issues in the early ‘70s, I called myself an “arms controller.” Lots of people knew what that meant because there were big debates and headlines about high-stakes negotiations. The only explanation needed was what part of the problem we were working on, and where we worked. Conventional? Nuclear? Space? As for our home bases, there were basically four options: Capitol Hill, the executive branch, a “think tank,” or being based at a university. If you worked at a think tank, another paragraph of explanation was needed. You think for a living? What do you do with your thoughts? And do you actually get paid to do this?

The big battles over arms control ended during the second Reagan administration when Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan wiped out several classes of nuclear-capable missiles. The end of the Cold War allowed for deep cuts in longer-range missiles and stockpiles. These were heady days. Heck, the Heritage Foundation was on board. So how did I describe my work back then? Did I do strategic arms reductions? No, folks with heavy machinery and high explosives did that. The simplest thing to say was that I did arms control. When arms control and reductions weren’t contentious, it didn’t matter what we called ourselves.

Reagan and Gorbachev were also abolitionists, and God bless them for it. Some of us are all in. For me, abolition is a goal without shortcuts. Abolition isn’t about dates and numbers; it’s about systematically reducing the military and political utility of nuclear weapons and creating conditions for reducing their requirements and numbers. I embrace the vision, but I don’t think of myself as an abolitionist. I accept nuclear deterrence conditionally and grudgingly.

We arms controllers and abolitionists came upon hard times as actuarial tables turned and Republican politics turned brutish. Treaty advocates retired and died. Capitol Hill became a breeding ground for insular and confident opponents (mostly male) who were dismissive of treaties that constrained the options of the world’s sole superpower.

This tide was kept in check during the George H.W. Bush administration, but cracks in the dam appeared during the Clinton administration’s pursuit of the Senate’s consent to ratify he Chemical Weapons Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Republican Senators were evenly divided over the former and mostly opposed the latter. Debates became fierce. The media needed shorthand to categorize the camps, and we were tagged as “arms controllers.” The tag no longer fit, but we didn’t make a big deal out of it.

Anxieties and enemies seized the country’s psyche after the 9/11 attacks as the George W. Bush administration went about slaying dragons and spreading democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush 43 took this opportunity to withdraw from treaty limits on missile defenses, which made further reductions of offensive missiles that much harder. There was a new Republican sheriff in town, with deputies inclined toward coercive rather than cooperative threat reduction. Arms controllers weren’t welcome in the Bush administration. Moderate Republicans had a hard enough time getting their feet in the door.

Without Bush 43 and the messes he made, there would be no Obama. But with Obama, victories were mostly temporary and reversible. He gave a slight fillip to the pursuit of abolition, but he had a hard enough time pushing through modest strategic arms reductions, and only then with a raft of conditions. Meanwhile, there was all gain and no pain for those on Capitol Hill who snipped away at the nuclear safety net woven over the previous quarter century. They were egged on by true believers in the disutility of arms control at Republican think tanks, and got plenty of help from Vladimir Putin, who detested treaties (mostly conventional arms) that codified Moscow’s weakness after the Cold War ended. During this painful slide, the last paragon of Republican internationalism in the Senate, Richard Lugar, lost his 2012 primary to a Tea Party candidate by twenty percentage points.

During these hard times, the question of how to define our work and our goals became increasingly urgent and unavoidable. Arms control as a concept and even as shorthand had zero traction. Abolition was making gains in Europe, but Europe is from Venus and the U.S. is from Mars. I enjoy a challenge as much as the next person, but expanding the existing base of support for abolition in the United States when the objective conditions for its realization are narrowing is not my cup of tea.

So here we are living on Bleak Street. What do we do now? We do what we’ve always done. We fight bad ideas and keep pushing for good ones. We work to reduce nuclear dangers and nuclear weapons. Above all, we protect and defend two norms – no nuclear testing, and no mushrooms clouds — with everything we’ve got. They are essential for planetary health and safety. If we succeed at these two big things, accumulated losses won’t matter over time.

This is utterly basic and easily understood. No need for paragraphs. No need for mumbo jumbo — just no nuclear testing and no mushroom clouds. Let’s not waste breath on arguments over deterrence stability. Offsetting nuclear weapons lock in nuclear dangers; they don’t provide deterrence stability. Counter the mumbo jumbo of arms race stability and crisis stability with basic truths: nuclear weapons aren’t stabilizing in arms races and crises. They just make arms races and crises more dangerous. Simple truths beat abstract language every time.

When the defenders of nuclear orthodoxy propose this or that, I recommend simple rejoinders: What are the humanitarian and environmental consequences of using this weapon? And can the first use of this weapon be justified if it leads to other mushroom clouds?

No, I haven’t thrown nuclear deterrence overboard. But I have become more critical of requirements when the defenders of nuclear orthodoxy aid and abet the cutting of the nuclear safety net by shortchanging the nuclear test ban treaty organization and by making it harder to do cooperative overflights of Russia with partners under the Open Skies Treaty. The more our nuclear safety net is cut, the more dangerous nuclear weapons become — especially those whose attributes – speed, precision, tailored yields — appear well suited for nuclear war-fighting campaigns.

So, what do I do for a living? I do my best to protect the planet and humanity from nuclear dangers and mushroom clouds. Lets not get high and mighty about this. Humility resonates far more than grandiosity. Lots of people are working to protect the planet and humanity from obvious threats. We join hands with them. This is very hard work and we’re fortunate to be able to do it. It’s taken me four and a half decades to boil down my life’s work into seven descriptive words: I work creatively to reduce nuclear dangers and prevent mushroom clouds. Is this succinct enough? If you haven’t already reached this conclusion, come on in – the water’s fine.

Michael Krepon is the co-founder of the Stimson Center, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

Michael Krepon

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