CIVICA Research Excellence Tours: Benoit Pelopidas on Nuclear Weapons Futures


CIVICA Research Excellence Tours are designed to develop the scientific identity of the CIVICA alliance within the global academic community. During these visits, leading scholars present their research, share their expertise, and meet with faculty and early-stage researchers at the host institutions.

CIVICA Research Excellence Tours are designed to develop the scientific identity of the CIVICA alliance within the global academic community. During these visits, leading scholars present their research, share their expertise, and meet with faculty and early-stage researchers at the host institutions.  

The current CIVICA Research Excellence Tour features Professor Benoit Pelopidas from Sciences Po. His next appearance will be at Central European University (CEU) in Vienna on March 1 at 3:30pm. The talk, “Scoping Nuclear Weapons Futures”, draws upon Pelopidas’s research, the NUCLEAR project, a European Research Council funded project, which mobilises interdisciplinary methods in order to assess accepted claims about nuclear realities. This work explores nuclear vulnerabilities and the ways in which decision making regarding nuclear weapons are bound by intellectual categories, institutional governance of knowledge, readings of the past regarding events and trends, as well as the imaginary of possible futures.  

Pelopidas founded the programme Nuclear Knowledges at Sciences Po. He is also an affiliate of the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University and has been a frequent visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Programme on Science and Global Security. 

In advance of Pelopidas’s CEU appearance, we spoke with him regarding aspects of nuclear weapons policies and security studies. This is an edited interview conducted February 20, 2022.  

I understand that interdisciplinarity is a key aspect of the NUCLEAR project. Why must this topic be approached in such a way? 

The starting point of the NUCLEAR project was to identify the claims mobilised to justify the scope of nuclear weapons policy choices and confront those claims with available evidence. When the evidence provided to support those claims did not match or was insufficient, we  sought adequate evidence. This is where the need for an interdisciplinary team comes into play because the variety of those claims required a variety of sources and methods. 

For instance, nuclear weapon states issue claims about the credibility of past nuclear arsenals. In the French case, to assess the validity of one claim about the credibility of the first-generation French nuclear arsenal, one had to do historical research on primary sources on allied countries and counties of potential enemies to see what they thought about the credibility of this force, instead of repeating the common mistake that if the French believed their weapons were credible, then they were. Assessing the claim also required technical analysis of the performance of the arsenal. So, there's the interdisciplinarity between international history and technical analysis conducted by an engineer to assess the performance of the arsenal.  

Another example is related to a claim to justify nuclear weapons policy choices and the popularity of the policy with its constituencies in France and the UK. In these cases, we needed a survey methodologist to be able to identify and possibly document biases and existing surveys. We also conducted our own surveys to see whether the findings were sound.  

A third example addressed claims about the fact that we've avoided unwanted nuclear explosions so far thanks to perfect control over the arsenals and the crises. In order to assess that claim, you need to first do conceptual work to distinguish cases in which avoidance of unwanted explosions was due to perfect control, from a whole set of cases which required something else - which are actually cases of luck. Then you need further conceptual work to create a typology for the cases in which control could not explain the outcome, and then you still need archival research and interviews to document all those cases systematically.  

Overall, the effort to reassess the claims that define the scope of the public conversation independently require interdisciplinary methodologies simply because of the nature of those claims.  

What do you mean by nuclear weapons futures? 

Our starting point is to document how imagined futures have a crucial influence on the policy options we allow ourselves to think about. Insisting on the constitutive importance of those imagined futures is one of the main contributions of the NUCLEAR project. This is because a lot of the discussion today assumes that the future will be some form of a continuation of trends identifiable today.  

The answers one assumes to the key questions of whether and when at least one unwanted nuclear explosion is expected to happen, whether it is inevitable or not, and how damaging it is expected to be shape the order of priorities and the possibilities for remediation. I'm putting implicit future claims on the table so that the choices become clearer. The further you push the moment of unwanted nuclear explosions into the distant future and the least damaging you imagine it to be, the easiest it becomes to justify status quo and to find status quo acceptable, at least politically. 

Another observation on this topic of futurity - we operate under at least three timelines: modernisation, dismantlement, explosions. The first one entails the current plans of life extension and modernisation of the weapons of the nuclear weapon states which, depending on the scale, takes us all the way to 2050 or 2090. In France, the Minister of the Army talked about the next generation of nuclear-armed submarines planned for sailing until 2090, so we're now talking about a longer period of time than the one between France’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and today. It is the longue durée of industrial planning. At the same time, we have studies that show that if there is a desire to dismantle nuclear arsenals worldwide, if no political obstacle exists, the dismantlement process would take no more than ten years. To me that's an interesting and important timeline to keep in mind. Short of a civilisation ending event in this period, nuclear or not, nuclear weapons will be around for at least ten more years and possibly much longer. A third timeline separates us from the moment when unwanted nuclear explosions happen. Depending when one assumes that moment happens changes the scope of possible choices, as we just discussed.  

You emphasized in a recent talk on the NUCLEAR project that, “You cannot choose not to be affected by nuclear weapons policies.” How should citizens understand this? 

This is really at the heart of the NUCLEAR project, which attempts to reconnect nuclear weapons policies with democratic politics. The starting point is that citizens do not encounter nuclear realities in their everyday life, except in times of crisis. Our surveys have suggested that, when asked about the type of emotions the thought of nuclear weapons or nuclear war triggers in them, European citizens include fear, depression, anxiety - emotions that most of us simply want to reject. That gives a premium to reassuring discourses and to the illusion that nuclear explosions are simply not possible. When citizens are faced with the possibility to think about nuclear weapons policies, they frequently have the following attitude: “Either catastrophic nuclear events happen in my lifetime and it's likely that most people I care about will be dead and that I will not be able to do much about it anyway or they do not and then, if I ignore them, life will be more joyful”. They then proceed to ignore the issue because as we just said, nuclear weapons carry negative emotions. 

My intervention is to show that this alternative would make sense if we could choose not to be affected by nuclear weapons policies at all. But the bottom line is, unfortunately, that we don't have that choice. The choice we do have is to be passive or active in the face of nuclear realities, because whether or not catastrophic nuclear explosions happen, we're already mobilised by nuclear weapons policies, as citizens, taxpayers and targets.  

If you are in a nuclear weapon state or a nuclear hosting state, you are mobilised because as a citizen you delegate your authority. The head of state of a nuclear weapon state implements a national nuclear doctrine of the country on your behalf, simply due to the features of the technology of delivery vehicles which no longer allow for democratic deliberation. The invention of ballistic missiles means the acceleration of delivery of nuclear violence to the target travels roughly 20 times faster than the previous generation of delivery vehicles, meaning there is under an hour between launch and impact. There is no time for any form of democratic deliberation, so the head of state would implement the national nuclear weapons policy on the behalf of the citizens and expect that they have delegated their authority to him or her in that respect. Similarly in a nuclear weapon state and, to a lesser extent, in a nuclear hosting state, as a taxpayer you are expected to contribute to the maintenance and modernisation of the arsenal. Finally, given that Russian and US nuclear forces are sized based on the goal of targeting and destroying enemy nuclear forces before they are launched should deterrence fail, having nuclear weapons on one’s territory turns one’s country into a primary target. As a result, citizens are expected to accept to be targeted as a requirement of the practice of nuclear deterrence with an adversary possessing a large nuclear arsenal.  Even in non-nuclear weapons states you're still mobilised as a potential target because of the consequences of nuclear war, which are not limited to the nuclear weapon states.  

So those are the three ways in which you are already mobilised by nuclear politics whether or not unwanted nuclear explosions happen in your lifetime.  

What the about present-day declarations of leaders invoking the role of nuclear weapons? How do you think about threats such as those from Putin regarding Russia’s nuclear weapons? 

We have lost sight of a reality, which has been there since the early 1960s - that nuclear weapons explosions remain possible. Since then, states can no longer protect their populations against explosions, whether deliberate or accidental. We have lost sight of this fundamental nuclear vulnerability. I'm not making a controversial claim, but rather a forgotten or neglected one. Those threats remind us of a possibility that we had forgotten. Something else to keep in mind is that we hear, “That will not happen because it wouldn't be rational.” I find those claims perplexing for two reasons.  

First, this exactly what most experts said to explain why the Russian invasion of Ukraine was not going to happen, and then it happened. They still treat expected utility calculation as a good predictor of the Russian leader’s behavior, even when it was demonstrated that it did not hold. I think that we need to update our priors.  

The second reason is that it would be excessive to assume that every leader wants to survive at all costs. We have precedents of both kinds in nuclear history: those in which nuclear armed states have lost wars and did not use nuclear weapons despite the looming defeat, and we’ve also had a leader who thought that his regime was dead and as a result of that he may launch nuclear war in order not to die for nothing. Fidel Castro at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis sent a letter on October 26, 1962, to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev essentially saying he expected the U.S. to invade imminently inviting Khrushchev to escalate. So, let's not assume that nuclear-armed leaders who are losing will always lose peacefully. 

From your research and writing about the Cuban Missile Crisis, what is sometimes misunderstood about this historical event? 

I want to emphasize three findings about the role of luck in the avoidance of unwanted nuclear explosions in Cuba. First, luck was necessary. Second, it took four decades to discover that finding, so our knowledge of the role of luck in the avoidance of unwanted nuclear explosions is probably an underestimation given the remaining opacity of most nuclear weapons states regarding their past close calls. Third, experts display retrospective illusions of control and denial of the role of luck

Often, we hear that the crisis ended “peacefully” because Khrushchev and Kennedy were mutually deterred and controlled the situation perfectly. This is half true: we have good empirical evidence that indeed, nuclear threats had a deterrent effect on both in that they were concerned about escalation. The other half though, is that we know they didn't have complete control over their arsenals. The ability to use nuclear weapons in the West and in Cuba was delegated, or if not delegated, people had the physical capacity to use the weapons. Four decades later, we discovered that it took the particular initiative of a man named Vasily Arkhipov for the outcome of the crisis not to be at least a nuclear explosion. Therefore, it would be faulty to retrospectively claim that the non-nuclear outcome of the crisis is a success of perfect control. 

It took four decades to discover, through the conferences of oral history, where then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara learned that the Soviet submarines around Cuba carried a torpedo with a nuclear warhead roughly the size of the Hiroshima bomb. He didn't know that when the U.S. forced those submarines to surface by dropping practice depth charges on them. Even in that case of a crisis exceptionally well-studied, it took at least three decades to learn this lesson. And the United States and the UK are uniquely transparent about their past cases of close calls so we should keep in mind that we still know very little about the last three to five decades of nuclear history globally and about the more distant nuclear past outside the US and UK. As a result of this opacity, it is very likely that we are underestimating the role of luck in avoiding unwanted nuclear explosions so far.  

The third finding I would like to emphasize is about confirmation bias in the expert community and a reluctance to acknowledge the role of luck. I'm proud to say it is now established in the scholarship. In the archives we have two authoritative interpreters of the Cuban Missile Crisis from different intellectual traditions, neither of whom updated their assessment in light of new information in the 1990s. Confirmation bias ends up becoming a retrospective illusion of control - an excessive hypothesis that no explosion means success of control, instead of thinking that no explosion means no explosion or something else. 

On the occasion of the CIVICA Research Excellence Tour, what would you like to point out about the role of academics contributing knowledge to the world’s most pressing issues?  

Allow me to point out four elements about scholarly responsibility regarding the most pressing issues: the power of independent research, free from conflict of interest in uncovering realities that previously were said to be impossible to access, the fact that new knowledge can contribute to democratic deliberation, the possibility of direct policy impact, the need for scholars of existential threats to work together. 

With nuclear politics, the default attitude is an assumption of secrecy or technical complexity such that one could never reach a meaningful form of knowledge. So the good news of the NUCLEAR project is precisely that by adhering to very strict standards of refusal of conflict of interest and to the interdisciplinary methodology we discussed, we managed to discover new knowledge. In a relatively short amount of time, we uncovered the role of luck in the avoidance of unwanted nuclear explosions, we reassessed the effects of French nuclear testing in Polynesia, and we documented the effects of conflict of interest on knowledge production in the nuclear field. We documented European citizens' attitudes toward nuclear weapons.  

Such findings allow for more consistent democratic choice about nuclear weapons policy instead of an illusion of consistent justifications of existing policies or absence of alternatives. It's important to me that my role is not one of advocacy but instead of clarifying the available choices and articulate consistent justifications for each.  

And then sometimes there is direct policy impact. Let me give you two examples. First, in the US in 2020, there was a proposal to restart nuclear testing in the U.S. The bill did not pass, and a letter was sent by senators and then circulated to all the U.S. Congress showing the attitude of the American public and the U.S. allies in Europe. Those results were published by my team. Second, at a Harvard conference on the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the final word was given to former Secretary of Defense William Perry. He said one of the most important findings in nuclear history is the role of luck in the avoidance of unwanted nuclear explosions during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I very modestly treat that as evidence that maybe somehow our findings have a larger impact. 

Finally, if you look at the debate about nuclear weapons futures all the way to the end of the century, the geopolitics of this future, even in 2090 or 2100 don't seem to be affected by catastrophic collapse of biodiversity or catastrophic climate change. The assumed earth of 2090 looks like the earth of today. Similarly, if you look at the IPCC reports which talk about 2050 and 2100, there are no nuclear weapons related accidents in there, or for that matter, not much of nuclear weapons at all. There is a need for cross-fertilization of scholarship on existential threats to move beyond the unwarranted assumption that they have no impact on each other. 

Register here for the upcoming “Scoping Nuclear Weapons Futures” talks at CEU and the Hertie School and subscribe here for the CIVICA Research newsletter.