Lessons in Humility and Adaptability From Thelonious Monk

The strategic thinking around nuclear deterrence and disarmament could learn a thing or two from an unconventional source.

It is time to ditch the bridge-building framework for navigating the tensions between nuclear deterrence and disarmament. These tensions have defied bridge-building efforts and complicated the review process for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), culminating in entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Since 2016, I have witnessed the frighteningly contentious state of the politics around the nuclear bridge-building framework while working at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs throughout the entire negotiation process of the TPNW, NATO, and a US national laboratory. The tone of this discourse often leads people to forgo complex analysis and realistic compromise and pick sides in a zero-sum game in which proponents and critics of the new treaty increasingly talk past each other and resort to ad hominem attacks, virtually eliminating the possibility of bridge-building. In this environment, the framework has lost its practical and conceptual utility.

The current global strategic challenge demands a new conceptual framework that transcends rather than emphasizes divisions. Through my experiences jumping across major communities of this debate, I have come to understand and respect the positions of both proponents and critics of the TPNW. I am a strategic analysis professional who finds the use of nuclear weapons abhorrent and at the same time supports nuclear deterrence. Contrary to what one might think possible in the current political environment around this topic, these positions are not mutually exclusive, and I believe there are many people who agree.

The arrival of the Biden administration and its reassertion of US leadership in arms control presents an opportunity to revisit the conceptual framework for this space. One potential replacement comes from jazz, which transcends musical divisions. Like jazz, nuclear diplomacy ought to be a dynamic and negotiated swing among members of an ensemble who contribute unique instruments, technique, expression, and improvisation with a shared sense of feel and purpose rather than a bridge between separate communities with irreconcilable ideas or zero-sum motivations. The jazz concept of swing provides a more inclusive framework that rejects polarized divisions and instead embraces diversity of ideas and experiences, mutual respect, and creativity within the bounds of an agreed but fluid and flexible direction. For nuclear diplomacy, the direction is toward international peace and security, in accordance with the UN Charter and the NPT.

Ego and insecurity can kill the growth process. Frankie excelled at playing fast, but he floundered in expression and feel at a slow tempo.

Drawing from jazz, the United States and its allies should adapt their diplomacy strategy toward nuclear disarmament proponents by engaging in a formal discussion about the moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence within the NPT review process that they have treated as taboo since the 2010 Review Conference, which first put the topic on the agenda.


In 1984, drummer Frankie Dunlop recalled how jazz legend and pianist Thelonious Monk gave him an important lesson on swing during their first gig together at a major jazz club in New York City two decades earlier:

We were in the back room and Monk said, ‘You want to solo and play fast all the time. All drummers are that way. When you’re playing fast, soloing, and throwing your sticks, you think you’re really playing. In your estimation, that’s the hardest. Well, you know, it’s really harder to play slow than it is to play fast, and to swing and create something while you’re doing it.’ Monk finished talking to me, and we went up to the stand… He started off the tune with an extra-slow tempo… I was wondering if I was doing it… I thought, “Oh, my God.” I was playing slow, which was the hardest thing for me… Monk would… say, ‘Okay Frankie, come on now…I told you it ain’t easy to swing when you’re playing slow. I told you that, didn’t I?’

Frankie’s story highlights two important elements of/lessons for strategic thinking: humility and adaptability. Ego and insecurity can kill the growth process. Frankie excelled at playing fast, but he floundered in expression and feel at a slow tempo. When Monk exposed his weaknesses in front of a large audience of musical peers, he embraced the lesson of humility as an opportunity to grow. Furthermore, pushing forward the bounds of art requires adaptability. Frankie had to study the musical context introduced to him by Monk, and Monk had to invest in Frankie to pass on his understanding of swing and achieve his vision of a musical rhythm section, thereby creating something new. Monk and Frankie negotiated their swing until they found the pocket.

These lessons in humility and adaptability are a useful guide for efforts at navigating a negotiated swing among nuclear deterrence proponents and critics within the NPT review process.


The nature and consequences of the changes to the international nuclear arms control architecture upon entry into force of the TPNW remain to be understood, but some things will be different for the United States and its allies. These changes were foreshadowed during the treaty negotiations by the diplomatic beating that the Netherlands took on behalf of the nuclear weapon states and their allies with admirable persistence and tact as the only representative of a nuclear alliance to participate in the process as the constant and reliable voice of dissent.

In its current strategic approach to the TPNW, allied governments are like Frankie in his approach to jazz before his lesson from Monk: Tons of confidence, passion, and potential, but with little sense for the new strategic environment introduced by nuclear disarmament proponents.

Nuclear disarmament proponents have slowly and steadily shifted the international nuclear arms control architecture away from state security concerns and toward human security concerns, therein becoming capable strategic players and further complicating the global strategic challenge. Their “Monks” and “Frankies” have been at the top of their game for a long time, creating and implementing a strategy that emphasizes the different strengths of civil society and non-nuclear weapon states. They achieved their preferred political and legal outcomes through democratic means by iteratively building upon the agreed language of the 2010 NPT Review Conference that expressed “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons.”

While nuclear disarmament proponents took control of the swing, allied governments reactively sought to delegitimize their efforts by adopting a strategy that was at first dismissive and then obstructive. Their strategy failed, however, and further polarized the discourse, thereby unintentionally giving strength to nuclear disarmament proponents from civil society whose comparative political advantage is exploiting polarization. Several lessons in humility emerge from this period:

  1. The danger of deaf ears: In general, allied governments were preoccupied with the increasing challenges to the international arms control architecture from more commonly considered strategic players, such as major powers and regional actors. Against this backdrop, they were at first dismissive toward the efforts of the nuclear disarmament community, believing that non-nuclear weapon states would come around as they always had when the international arms control architecture fell under duress. As the UN General Assembly Resolution calling for the negotiation of the TPNW was introduced and adopted in 2016, many allied governments shifted to an obstructive approach by boycotting the negotiations, backpedaling on past commitments from the NPT review process, and urging states to withdraw from the TPNW, but it was too late — nuclear disarmament proponents found the pocket.
  2. The hubris of the insecure: When allied governments engaged in the discussions led by nuclear disarmament proponents, they treated the question of morality as taboo, reasoning, like former US State Department attorney Newell Highsmith on page six of this monograph, that philosophical and moral debates “cannot be ‘proven’ one way or another.” Instead of engaging directly in a discourse about the morality of nuclear deterrence, allied governments talked past nuclear disarmament proponents about its legality and practical reality as a tool of statecraft in the current international security environment, i.e., precisely the paradigm that TPNW proponents reject. By treating morality as taboo, allied governments ceded control of the moral, legal, and security narratives to nuclear disarmament proponents, inadvertently reinforcing their normative efforts to stigmatize nuclear deterrence instead of delegitimizing them.
  3. The folly of underestimating the challenger: Many allied governments underestimated civil society actors, failing to recognize that they have become capable strategic players within the international nuclear arms control architecture. Civil society swings on an entirely different level to the extent that it does not share the same responsibilities or rules of diplomatic engagement as governments. Unlike governments, civil society actors can embrace polarized narratives and discourse to achieve their preferred strategic objectives. Nuclear disarmament proponents from civil society do this to great effect. For example, some nuclear disarmament proponents described the NATO statement about entry into force of the TPNW as an escalation of a “misinformation campaign” and “a slap in the face to the majority of the world’s countries,” instead of recognizing it as a carefully negotiated representation of the legitimate concerns and complex views of allied governments and societies that reject polarization and support both nuclear deterrence and disarmament. This is also observed in efforts to polarize the debate along generational lines. The prevailing taboo across allied governments acts as a force multiplier on the success of these polarized narratives.


Like Frankie after his lesson from Monk, the United States and its allies must reflect upon these lessons, adapt, and grow. Maintaining course after entry into force of the TPNW will inadvertently strengthen nuclear disarmament proponents through two mechanisms. First, it will reinforce their normative stigmatization efforts, thereby degrading the credibility of allied nuclear deterrence without spreading the normative pressure equally across the nuclear powers. Second, it will further polarize nuclear deterrence proponents and critics, increasing the toxicity of the discourse and potentially undermining the NPT without providing strategic benefit to outweigh this high cost. Instead, allied governments should adapt to reinforce the credibility of their deterrence posture as well as the NPT review process and pull other nuclear powers into the discussion. Breaking the reigning taboo on the moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence can contribute to this effort.

Reinforcing the credibility of nuclear deterrence is a strong yet overlooked strategic benefit to engaging in discussions about the moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence. After all, the moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence make it an effective conflict prevention strategy. By treating this assertion as taboo, allied governments degrade the credibility of their deterrence posture.

Like jazz, nuclear diplomacy ought to be a dynamic and negotiated swing among members of an ensemble who contribute unique instruments, technique, expression, and improvisation with a shared sense of feel and purpose rather than a bridge between separate communities with irreconcilable ideas or zero-sum motivations.

A deeper understanding of the moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence would contribute to thinking about multi-domain, multi-regional escalation management across the entire spectrum of conflict. It would strengthen US alliances and defense and deterrence posture by better preparing allies should nuclear deterrence ever fail. As political leaders responsible for nuclear weapons use attest, nuclear deterrence is as much an uniquely heavy and lonesome moral burden as it is a military, political, and strategic debate. In the deciding moment, the question that transcends all others related to the credibility of nuclear deterrence is entirely moral: Will they push the button?

A question of such importance to the credibility of nuclear deterrence should not be treated as taboo, especially when nuclear disarmament proponents are strategically targeting allied governments with their stigmatization efforts while ignoring nuclear modernization and strategy in Russia, China, and countries that are not members of the NPT. Paradoxically, the answer to this question must always be a confident and decisive “yes,” or else nuclear deterrence is weakened, and the risk of conflict increases, potentially escalating to catastrophic moral failure across multiple regions and strategic domains, not necessarily including the use of nuclear weapons. The twofold morally paradoxical imperative of nuclear strategy lies in, on the one hand, ensuring that nuclear deterrence is credible while preventing the use of nuclear weapons, and, on the other hand, re-establishing nuclear deterrence should the nuclear threshold ever be crossed. With entry into force of the TPNW, leaders across the allied community must confidently navigate these complex moral paradoxes.

It is noteworthy that the moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence were last systematically analyzed at the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s. The international security environment and global norms have changed significantly since then, particularly after entry into force of the TPNW, so this topic merits discussion and study.

Beyond reinforcing the credibility of nuclear deterrence, a formal discussion about the moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence would be a significant step towards transcending the current divisions within the NPT review process, which some worry may “degenerate into a Hobbesian defray” at the forthcoming Review Conference. Allied governments can lead this discussion without making a commitment to join the TPNW or compromising their legal position on nuclear weapons and customary international law. Furthermore, this approach would complement efforts aimed at risk reduction and enhancing arms control verification in all its aspects not limited to nuclear disarmament through creative, inclusive, and constructive approaches like the Creating the Environment for Nuclear Disarmament initiative. This proactive step may help prevent entry into force of the TPNW from rocking the foundation of the global nuclear nonproliferation regime that has been firmly rooted in the three pillars of the NPT since 1970, particularly against the backdrop of the deteriorating international arms control architecture writ large.

Finally, this approach may shift the focus of the exceptionally capable and driven nuclear disarmament proponents onto Russia and China, who have thus far watched allied governments struggle through an unsolicited solo. As I have argued elsewhere, Russia attempts to exacerbate the pressure by pushing strategic narratives about US nuclear alliances that align with those of nuclear disarmament proponents. Alarmingly, some nuclear disarmament proponents appear to praise China’s approach to the TPNW while turning a blind eye to its nuclear modernization. If nuclear disarmament proponents do not want to use their voice to bring other nuclear powers into the fold of their criticism, then it becomes both a strategic necessity and a democratic responsibility of allied governments to do what they can to help them shift focus. A discussion about the moral paradoxes of nuclear deterrence can help reframe and rebalance the security discourse.


The United States and its allies began adapting to major power rivalry, increased competition across multiple domains, and an erosion of the international arms control architecture during the Trump administration, but their ego is bruised when it comes to the tensions between nuclear deterrence and disarmament. They are Frankie sitting in the spotlight with the world watching, bewildered, embarrassed, and angry that they can’t muster a swinging rudiment to the tempo set by their own civil societies. This is a good place to be, but they must embrace humility and adapt their diplomacy strategy toward TPNW proponents.

Frankie learned to swing — so can allied governments.

Lesley Kucharski is a Counterproliferation Analyst at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The views expressed here are her personal views and should not be attributed to her employer or its sponsors.