Complexity studies can drive new and innovative approaches in nuclear decision-making by drawing on lessons from other fields and providing policymakers with alternative pathways.
In light of increased challenges to international security, the risks of nuclear confrontation and escalation due to misunderstanding, misperception or miscalculation are changing. This is partly due to the increased complexity surrounding nuclear weapons policies, as a result of the turbulent security environment which has led to increased uncertainties in nuclear deterrence policies and decision-making.
In 2014, Chatham House conducted a study, Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy. The authors of that study applied a risk-based approach to cases of near nuclear use, and pointed out that individual decision-making is important in averting nuclear war. By examining cases of near nuclear use, the authors of that study indicated that nuclear incidents (often caused by ‘sloppy practices’) have frequently been averted by human judgment. Building on Chatham House’s earlier work, the authors of this research paper apply the lenses of uncertainty and complexity to nuclear weapons policy, including nuclear decision-making.
There is of course a great deal of debate around what constitutes a near nuclear miss incident, what types of action lead to escalatory dynamics, and whether certain cases in history were close calls or not. From the perspective of complexity and an analysis of alternative pathways in nuclear decision-making, such debate is not pertinent. What is of importance from the perspective of this analysis is understanding the role of complexity in nuclear decision-making and nuclear weapons policy.
The classic study of nuclear weapons policy thus far has been simplistic. It focuses on understanding the problem and analysing it based on existing information, then finding solutions to the problem. In other words, it follows the classic academic research methodology of understanding, analysing, then solving. The classic methodology is also simplistic because it calls for limiting the research scope to a single level of analysis (e.g. to choose between nuclear weapons policy and nuclear decision-making), and to construct a cause-and-effect relationship between independent and dependent variables. Rather, nuclear weapons policy and nuclear decision-making are mutually reinforcing, and change in one area may result in change in another. In a complex issue, understanding the problem and navigating it is a connected process; in other words, the formulation of the problem is a problem in its own right.
Nuclear weapons policies, including nuclear non-proliferation and arms control, are highly contested, and experts do not agree on the problems, let alone the solutions. This is a fundamental characteristic of a ‘wicked problem’.
This study takes both nuclear weapons policies and nuclear decision-making as its principal levels of analysis. This is mainly because of the interconnections between the two, and because they have an impact on and are influenced by the overall security environment. For instance, ever since the 1960s nuclear deterrence has been a dominant theory in the nuclear weapons policy realm. Deterrence as a policy tool has rested on assumptions – such as the assumption that states are rational actors – and perceptions as regards the intent and capabilities of the adversary. This policy tool has a direct impact on how decision-makers, both at the chief and lower levels of decision-making (e.g. presidents, prime ministers, officers or operators), act in times of crisis. Nuclear weapons policies, including nuclear non-proliferation and arms control, are highly contested, and experts do not agree on the problems, let alone the solutions. This is a fundamental characteristic of a ‘wicked problem’.
The current global health crisis has further accentuated the need for reliable, timely and trustworthy information in times of great threat, and has tested decision-makers’ abilities to provide guidance to the public while also managing major uncertainties and a high degree of complexity. Complex systems modelling has been a significant part of the search for solutions and predictions, and has for several years been integrated into not only health policymaking but also discussions related to climate change. However, the nuclear communities still have to fully grasp the value of complexity science.
While the climate change discourse has gained traction, particularly with the utilization of climate modelling approaches to demonstrate the range of potential harms, the discussion around nuclear non-proliferation, disarmament and arms control has stalled. Experts have been pointing to the facts and the need for nuclear risk reduction, disarmament and arms control to prevent future catastrophes. But, just like Cassandra in Greek mythology, who was given the gift of predicting the future, nuclear weapons policy experts are cursed never to be believed.