“Crisis Talk” in Crisis and Nuclear Scholars’ Responsibility to Imagine

By Anna M. Weichselbraun

In the run-up to and immediately following Trump’s election, commentators weighed in on what it would mean for Trump to be in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal as commander-in-chief. The comments tended to fall into three camps: there were the nuclear abolitionists who took the horror of a Trump presidency to issue their usual call for total nuclear disarmament. The second group, the sensationalizers, was composed of establishment nonproliferation people (which include think tanks and NGOs) who expressed grave concern about Donald Trump’s capability to be a rational and responsible guardian of the nuclear arsenal, and used it to push for limited “realistic” measures such as taking nuclear weapons off high alert. Finally, the third group, the normalizers (mostly made up of arch-conservatives and military folk), praised Trump for promising to strengthen America’s nuclear arsenal and saw in this a return to a more secure homeland.

All three positions are examples of “crisis talk” described by Masco. Drawing on Roitman’s 2013 work, Masco diagnoses the present political and media logics of crisis as a “predominantly conservative modality, seeking to stabilize an existing structure within a radically contingent world.” In the article, Masco identifies the 1960s as an earlier moment of crisis when atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons led to widespread concern about radioactive fallout while civil defense was preparing U.S. citizens for a nuclear attack. This moment of crisis produced the Limited Test Ban Treaty and put in motion the process to negotiate the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons. However, “in this cold War moment of existential crisis, the nuclear danger was managed rather than removed, stabilized rather than resolved, allowing the global infrastructure of nuclear war to remain firmly in place to this day.” The election of Donald Trump has precipitated a crisis that demands an intellectual transformation in order to be able to conjure, in Masco’s words, “non-utopian positive futurities.” In response to the crisis of nuclear weapons in the 21st century, the three identified positions are, however, merely engaging in crisis talk and therefore foreclosing opportunities for a radical shift.[1]

Nuclear abolitionists argue that nuclear weapons are immoral because of the vast violence they are capable of inflicting on people and the planet. Abolitionists see the existence of nuclear weapons as a crisis of morality. Harrington has pointed out that arguments that highlight the potential violence of nuclear weapons perversely increase their power for the nuclear realists who conflate violence with power. Nuclear abolitionist crisis talk thus reinforces the assumptions of the nuclear normalizers.[2]

While some normalizers have quietly and privately expressed concern about the new commander-in-chief, their trepidation is not noticeable from their public statements. For the nuclear normalizers, the crisis lies in the urgency for modernizing the nuclear arsenal and making sure that Russia is in compliance with nuclear arms control treaties. Indeed, the normalizers believe in the force of the structure to discipline unruly leaders. Any order for a nuclear strike by the President would have to be carried out by U.S. Strategic Command whose officers, it is claimed, are highly trained in the laws of war and would not obey illegal orders. This position, instead of recognizing the challenge posed by Trump to the rational actor foundation for nuclear deterrence, normalizes Trump while perpetuating the nuclear status quo with crisis talk about an aging nuclear arsenal and new Russian threats.

The sensationalizers in the camp of nonproliferation advocates see Trump himself within the context of an unstable geopolitical security situation (Russia testing limits, North Korea testing missiles) as the ultimate crisis. But by sensationalizing Trump, they engage in crisis talk that ultimately prefers a return to the stable status quo, when presumably “rational” leaders were in charge of the nuclear arsenal. Within the nonproliferation camp, there are genuine advocates for nuclear disarmament who have adopted the nonproliferation discourse as a supposedly necessary step toward nuclear disarmament. This crisis talk that characterizes the discourse of nonproliferation advocates, however, contributes to normalizing nuclear weapons strategy. The best example of these positions are represented at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace biannual nuclear policy conference (made legible on Twitter with the hashtag #nukefest). They are the “reasonable” generally liberal voices that maintain the ear of the U.S. nuclear establishment because they understand U.S. “security needs” and how this translates into nuclear posture.

Crisis constitutes a “blind spot” that curtails narratives and limits actions

Pelopidas has recently critiqued the scholarship produced by the liberal nonproliferation community. He points out that their nuclear logics are self-censoring because they (1) conceal normative assumptions that the goal of nuclear studies is merely war avoidance (as opposed to the elimination of nuclear weapons), (2) rhetorically prohibit radical reorderings of the world due to the dominance of tropes of non-proliferation and deterrence, and (3) provide a curtailed vision of the future that is based on the present (“a world in which no one has experienced nuclear war or a catastrophic failure of nuclear deterrence”). Pelopidas criticizes this self-censorship on the grounds that scholars have a responsibility to contribute knowledge to public debates on this issue. Currently, these scholars write as if their responsibility was only to the managers of the nuclear status quo. The result of this self-censorship is that the circumscribed knowledge produced by these scholars limits the issue and its possible resolutions.[3]

I follow Pelopidas in encouraging scholars of nuclear weapons to think hard about their responsibility towards the public, and the implications of limiting the options for debate, especially given that our endangerment is collective. But beyond the built-in assumptions of this scholarship which limit the options for truly debating the planetary threat nuclear weapons pose, this scholarship also exhibits the logics of crisis, which further entrenches the incapacity to imagine alternative futures by privileging a return to the status quo, even if that is not the author’s intent. The crisis produces a need to re-achieve stability of existing conditions that denies its own unstable history and also forecloses on “non-utopian” positive futures.[1] Crisis constitutes a “blind spot” that curtails narratives and limits actions.[4]

This becomes eminently clear when we consider the humanitarian movement to ban nuclear weapons. This effort started a few years ago as a result of the frustration by non-nuclear weapons states with the slow progress of nuclear disarmament. Three conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons have taken place that the nuclear weapons states have contemptuously ignored. The first round of negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons began at the United Nations in the last week of March. What shape this treaty will take is not yet knowable, but the movement has followed the model of the treaty to ban cluster munitions and landmines. The strategy of that movement was to initiate a process of delegitimization which then gradually gains traction through a change of norms (instead of seeking perfect adherence from the beginning).

This attempt to delegitimize nuclear weapons produces violent reactions in most nuclear weapons states. And following suit, the mainstream nuclear threat reduction groups and attached scholars have been producing reasonable commentary after reasonable commentary to decry the international effort for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, criticizing it for being at the same time naive and politically motivated. They argue that a ban treaty will either have no impact at all, result in the vast proliferation of nuclear weapons, or at least be destructive of the present nonproliferation regime. Readers of Hirschman will recognize these three moves as the perversity, futility, and jeopardy arguments that characterize the rhetoric of reaction.[5] By engaging in crisis talk of this kind, nonproliferation commentators—despite their sensationalizing of Trump—are blind to how the new President exposes the nuclear orientalism of their discourse:[6] Donald Trump does not represent the “rational” and “responsible” leadership the U.S. has always flattered itself to possess. Admonishing the ban treaty effort by arguing for the continued validity of the nonproliferation regime with Trump in charge of U.S. nuclear weapons is nonsensical.

If nuclear weapons scholars continue to be captured by these logics of crisis and do not break out of the total social formation that normalizes our mode of collective endangerment as the status quo that needs to be stabilized, we limit our opportunities to actually and effectively reduce the threats to our planet, ourselves, and our collective futures

But, as Masco points out, moments of crisis also present opportunity for radical transformation. He notes that “the mid-twentieth century period of ‘crisis’” was simultaneously “one of the most productive, creating important commitments to civil rights, education, and the environment while establishing the precedents for international law and treaties to manage them.” Similarly, the current nuclear and political crisis presents opportunities to rethink long-held assumptions. The nuclear abolitionists could imagine new ways of demystifying and delegitimizing nuclear weapons precisely by denying them the power that is associated with their violence. For the nuclear normalizers, Trump presents an opportunity to question entrenched nuclear logics. In particular, this should be a moment to examine the continued relevance of outmoded Cold War alliance strategies that gave rise to the always-tenuous promise of extended deterrence. For the nonproliferation sensationalizers, Trump’s apparent hubris and impulsiveness lends itself to revealing the orientalism that undergirds the NPT’s ordering logic. Exposing that nuclear weapons are never safe (not even in the hands of the always-exceptional United States) reveals that the nuclear threat is globally shared.

According to Masco, the crisis produced by nuclear weapons and climate change as “infrastructural achievements of an American modernity” that have become “lived infrastructures, linking imaginations, affects, and institutions in a kind of total social formation.” If nuclear weapons scholars continue to be captured by these logics of crisis and do not break out of the total social formation that normalizes our mode of collective endangerment as the status quo that needs to be stabilized, we limit our opportunities to actually and effectively reduce the threats to our planet, ourselves, and our collective futures. So instead of elaborately argued take-downs of the ban movement and deferrals to “realistic” and “practical” proposals, nuclear weapons scholars should push themselves to imagine the non-utopian, yet positive conditions under which the delegitimization of nuclear weapons and their abolition can become a reality, and then to work towards realizing those conditions. This crisis in crisis demands radically new ideas.

Anna M. Weichselbraun is a Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. She received her PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago in August 2016. 

[1] Joseph Masco, “The Crisis in Crisis,” Current Anthropology 58, no. S15 (2017): S65-S76.

[2] Anne I. Harrington, “Power, Violence, and Nuclear Weapons,” Critical Studies on Security 4, no. 1 (2016): 91–112.

[3] Benoit Pelopidas, “Nuclear Weapons Scholarship as a Case of Self-Censorship in Security Studies,” Journal of Global Security Studies 1, no. 4 (2016): 326–336.

[4] Janet Roitman, Anti-Crisis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

[5] Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1991).

[6] Hugh Gusterson, “Nuclear Weapons and the Other in the Western Imagination,” Cultural Anthropology 14, no. 1 (1999): 111–143.