Janne Nolan: Nuclear Pragmatist


Janne Nolan has died. A faculty member at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the time of her death, Nolan was a leading voice on nuclear policy for almost a generation. Now that she has passed away, many are trying to make sense of her legacy. Nolan has been rightly memorialized as an eloquent advocate for ethical leadership, a pioneering scholar, a dear friend, and a loyal mentor to dozens of professionals, many of whom are now leaders in their own right.

But a look at how Nolan’s views have been portrayed over the years suggests something of the chimerical. Where did she stand on nuclear policy? Was she, as one memorial wrote, “an ardent advocate of denuclearization?” Or was she a moderate, “new-center” Democrat, as she was described in 1991?

I only had the good fortune to work with Nolan for four years. This was a small spell in her long career, but in that short period we spoke almost every day, sometimes for hours. I worked to expand the reputation and reach of her organization, the Nuclear Security Working Group. Together we launched a Congressional fellowship program that has been rightly lauded as one of Nolan’s major achievements.

One thing I learned while working with Nolan is that she was skeptical of the nuclear arms control community’s prevailing approach to reducing the risks of nuclear war. This approach generally entails advocating for a checklist of policy priorities ranging from securing U.S. ratification of major treaties to reducing the roles and numbers of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. Nolan was dubious of proposals such as issuing a pledge foregoing the option of a nuclear first strike, eliminating land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, or scrapping a recently proposed low-yield nuclear warhead. The rationale behind these proposals is that nuclear weapons are inherently dangerous, and that as long as they exist, states should find ways to reduce their reliance on them, eventually finding ways to eliminate them.

Nolan probably agreed with the sentiment behind many of these proposals, but she also sympathized with some of the arguments made by the rival camp in the U.S. nuclear policy debate, which tends to argue that the best way to prevent nuclear war is to field a robust nuclear deterrent. Because these camps tend to divide along party lines, Nolan was skeptical that any progress could be made toward reducing the risk of nuclear war without a stable domestic and international consensus.

Instead, she advocated a renewed commitment to the ultimate goal of preventing nuclear war, by both the arms control community and its detractors. Nolan believed that as long as nuclear issues were politically contentious, the “policy checklist” approach would distract from finding solutions that could survive the election cycle. Instead, she advocated for dialogue between both camps, with the hope of identifying previously unacknowledged areas of agreement.

In short, Nolan was a pragmatist. Her writings suggest a begrudging acceptance that, as long as nuclear weapons existed, leaders had a responsibility to move beyond a policy agenda and engage with the operational side of nuclear policy — how nuclear weapons can bolster or undermine security, how they might be used, and how their spread could be deterred and controlled. Any other approach would result in innovations that would be short-lived, politically contentious, and therefore susceptible to reversal by future administrations. She was also an institutionalist, a quiet proponent of the view that the most important game was the inside game. Populism and public rhetoric troubled her as much as interest-group politics.

Getting Nolan’s legacy right is critically important. Her pragmatism was an integral part of who she was and why she connected with so many people. But Nolan’s pragmatic approach to national and nuclear security also speaks directly to contemporary challenges. In her final years, Nolan grew increasingly concerned that the pragmatic center was once again being overshadowed by activists from the far left and right. Forged in the nuclear debates of the 1980s and 1990s, when she served as an adviser to the Gary Hart and Bill Clinton presidential campaigns, Nolan worried that reasonable, unglamorous efforts to reduce nuclear risks would be slighted in favor of ambitious, idealistic initiatives that were unlikely to gain much political support. Rather than confront hard choices and seek political consensus, she feared that the loudest voices in the room would drown each other out and seek quick (but short-lived) tactical victories, only to face a bitter and vengeful reversal down the road.

Nolan on Nuclear Weapons and Disarmament

Although she believed that their potential for rapid and large-scale destruction made nuclear weapons uniquely evil, Nolan also recognized that nuclear weapons were deeply integrated into world politics. Unlike proponents of the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty, she believed it would be prohibitively difficult to pursue disarmament without addressing the underlying political conditions that drive states to seek out nuclear deterrence. For instance, Nolan was dubious of the disarmament camp’s claims that the United States could reduce its reliance on nuclear deterrence due to conventional warfighting superiority. This line of reasoning first became popular in the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the sole remaining superpower. Some analysts seized the moment to argue that the United States could afford to reduce its reliance on nuclear deterrence and sustain its conventional overmatch through innovation. Today, many disarmament and arms control advocates similarly cite American superiority, particularly in cyber and power-projection capabilities, to argue that the United States could rely almost entirely on conventional capabilities to deter aggression against the homeland and its allies.

But, as Nolan argued in a 1994 study of post-Cold War security challenges, Global Engagement, smaller and weaker powers would not accept U.S. military superiority for long if they viewed American political interests as illegitimate. States that stood to lose from U.S. efforts to limit access to critical technologies, set economic rules of the road, or promote democracy would naturally find U.S. military capabilities threatening. Weaker detractors would then be incentivized to  pursue asymmetric strategies, including nuclear deterrence, to prevail politically in future disputes. Moreover, the asymmetry of interests between the United States and weaker regional challengers would only further fuel the search for ways to offset U.S. dominance. “As such,” Nolan presaged in 1994, “the ability of the United States to prevent or manage international crises effectively will be affected by decisions made by regional powers, which in turn will be influenced by their perceptions of U.S. intent.”

This security environment would eventually lead the United States, once again, to lean on nuclear deterrence. As the United States is (re)learning in Asia and the Middle East, regional powers will continue to resist their own nuclear disarmament so long as American military superiority is seen to serve political orders that are perceived as threatening.

Debates about nuclear policy often take place in a vacuum, seemingly isolated from domestic and international political dynamics by a veil of technical knowledge and theoretical abstraction. One of Nolan’s principal convictions was that nuclear experts need to bring politics back into the conversation — not to make nuclear debates more partisan, but to situate the consideration of nuclear issues in a deeper understanding of the motives and constraints of political leaders here and abroad. She believed that nuclear strategy is really about core values and grand strategy, including beliefs about what constitutes security, the price that should be paid for it, and the role the United States should play in the world.

Guardians and Politicians

Nolan’s pragmatism is also key to making sense of her acclaimed studies of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, particularly her most well-known book, Guardians of the Arsenal, published in 1989. Often read as a chronicle of bureaucratic malfeasance or as a paean to flexible options, Guardians is better understood as a cautionary tale about what happens when presidents make nuclear policy through speechifying. Successive presidents, she observed, have tried to shape nuclear policy through “declaratory policy” — official statements about when and how the United States might use its nuclear weapons. But from her perch in the Senate (as Hart’s national security adviser and liaison to the Armed Services Committee), Nolan knew that U.S. nuclear policy was, at its core, the sum total of decisions about forces, operational plans, and nuclear command and control that made only certain nuclear operations feasible. Declaratory policies such as “Flexible Response” would remain a useful fiction — a myth — so long as presidential administrations failed to align what they said with how forces were postured, procured, and operated.

Yet Nolan did not believe that this fundamental disconnect between declaratory and operational policy was deliberate nor immutable. She did not believe that “presidents…got pretty much the sort of war plans they wanted,” as nuclear historian Marc Trachtenberg wrote in an influential review of Guardians.  Rather, Nolan believed that there was something about politics as a vocation that drove leaders to be profoundly disinterested in the details of nuclear planning. She would say that politicians liked to talk about peace, and nuclear war made for bad press. Or, from the vantage point of a political scientist, the problem was that politicians were motivated primarily by their careers and legacies, neither of which were served by focusing on operational decisions that would rarely be tested.

The danger of presidential inattention, of course, is that a president could find themselves in a crisis with a fixed set of options that was devised months or years prior. In such situations, presidents in fact do not like the sorts of war plans that get prepared when their attention is focused elsewhere. Guardians recounts a moment in 1974 when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger requested a limited nuclear option to deter a Soviet invasion of Iran. The Pentagon returned with a plan to aim 200 nuclear weapons at targets in the southern Soviet Union, killing millions. Kissinger rejected the plan as excessive and dangerous.

Six months later, Nolan wrote, the service chiefs returned a plan to destroy two main roadways to block the flow of Soviet forces into Iran. The option met the brief, but it didn’t fit the bill: Kissinger dressed down the uniforms for failing to a provide an option that would show resolve and deter a determined Soviet leadership. “The problem,” Nolan wrote, “is not that the military wasn’t responding to civilian requests for options, but that the civilians had no idea how to operationalize their abstract concepts…in terms that military planners could work with.”

Nolan understood that governance-by-experts was somewhat unavoidable in the modern era. For her, the solution — however fleeting — was not to scrap the experts but to tighten the link between presidents and the bureaucracy, in part by demanding that political authorities exercise their constitutional responsibility to exercise oversight over planning military operations. Nolan couldn’t fault the “nuclear priesthood” for struggling to translate politicians’ abstract concepts into executable options — only one of these groups party to the interaction was duly elected by the American people.

Many of these nuclear clerics were, in fact, Nolan’s close friends and colleagues. Reagan and Bush administration official Franklin C. Miller embodied Nolan’s model of civilian oversight. Miller became possibly the first civilian to review the military’s raw nuclear targeting data. According to Miller, military planners thwarted “for decades” efforts by Pentagon civilians to scrutinize the actual target base underlying U.S. nuclear war plans. In the course of his review, which took place during the Reagan administration, Miller and his team uncovered a planning apparatus that produced a series of “options” that all involved thousands of prompt, massive, and redundant strikes. Miller’s subsequent reforms allowed the United States to reduce the number of nuclear weapons deemed necessary to carry out certain military missions from 10,000 to under 6,000.

Today, Miller is the target of fierce criticism by many in the arms control community. Nolan disagreed with Miller on many issues, but she still deeply admired his commitment to public service, his intellect, and his pragmatism. She also used to joke that Miller had single-handedly eliminated more nuclear weapons than any arms control agreement negotiated to date.

Getting Together to Argue

It was Nolan’s ability to connect with people from camps across the nuclear security community that made it possible for her Nuclear Security Working Group to play a role in the New START ratification debate. Nolan founded the Nuclear Security Working Group in 2009 to provide a platform for the views of what she often called, unfashionably, “the permanent Washington.” In 2010, she grew deeply concerned that Congressional staffers were approaching a ratification vote without hearing an unvarnished expert perspective on the security benefits of the treaty. Through her vast network of professional and personal relationships, she made it possible for retired military and civilian officials, many of whom served in U.S. Strategic Command, to help educate Congressional staff on the relationship between arms control, force planning, and deterrence.

In contrast, Nolan had little patience for activists who were willing to sacrifice meaningful but incremental progress on the altar of ideological purity. In the early 1980s, the treaty in question was the second Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT II). As Nolan described in Guardians, SALT II triggered disillusionment among disarmament activists about negotiated arms treaties. Activists were especially galled by the need to build consensus for such treaties by agreeing to fund new weapons systems, like the MX “Peacekeeper” missile.

Part of arms control’s lack of appeal, she hypothesized, was that it was premised on compromise. “Viciously attacked by the right and enjoying only lukewarm support by the left,” the SALT II treaty gave both sides something to hate. For the right, arms control was capitulation to an evil empire. For the left, it was a “ratification of the arms race… the epitome of the failure of experts and bureaucrats.” In short, arms control was uncool. As Nolan often joked, trying to engage politicians and activists on Cold War arms control was like “introducing Eisenhower to the cast of Hair.”

The reaction to SALT II’s manifest squareness was the nuclear freeze movement, which presented a simple and attractive solution: a ban on developments and deployments of new nuclear missiles. Like the current attempt to promote a Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, the freeze movement appealed to a demoralized activist left, many of whom saw career experts as ineffectual and insufficiently committed to the cause. Yet the freeze movement did little to end the arms race. Certainly, it forced the Reagan administration and its allies in Congress to demonstrate their support for negotiated arms control with the Soviet Union. Votes on the freeze largely fell along party lines, however. The greater irony is that votes on the Freeze provided political cover to more than 90 members of Congress (labeled by the movement as “Freeze Phonies” who, in 1983, proceeded to cancel out their votes for the MX missile with a “yes” vote on a non-binding resolution endorsing the freeze).

Nolan’s work is replete with examples of the perfect slaying the good in nuclear policy. The conclusion to Guardians recounts an incident in 1988 when Sen. Sam Nunn stunned a gathering of arms control advocates by endorsing research into limited missile defenses. Nunn’s argument was that if funds were already programmed for research, at the very least they could be reprogrammed to study whether a limited missile shield could protect against unauthorized launches. But to the assembled arms control brain trust, she wrote, “Nunn’s speech was eclipsed in that one moment of extraordinary bad taste. The new champion of arms control had just committed an act of ultimate heresy. Defenses? No way. Nunn’s a captive of [political] right.”

The left’s tendency to cannibalize its more centrist allies was also a central theme of Nolan’s many stories about her years in the Senate. Then, as now, the Democratic party held a majority in the House of Representatives but had to contend with Republican control of the Senate and the White House. Then, as now, Senate democrats were a beleaguered insurgency, constrained by minority status but granted no quarter by an energized left.

Hart disagreed with elements of the Reagan agenda but also feared being accused of capitulating to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Nolan agreed to take a meeting with a prominent freeze advocate. The advocate then showed up with a larger crowd than anticipated and proceeded to occupy the office, demanding that Hart take a stronger stance on the arms race.

Nolan recalled listening for a moment before pointing out that the Democrats were in the minority. They could filibuster legislation but at the cost of trading away other priorities. What they could do was attempt to link sustained modernization funding to continued negotiations with the Soviet Union on mutual verifiable limits, such as those contained in SALT II. But this approach was not, to the crowd, “doing enough.” Nolan then asked the group whether they had attempted to engage Senate Republicans—the people who were in the strongest position to meet their demands. The answer? “They didn’t take our meeting.”

Nolan founded the Nuclear Security Working Group to provide an institutional home for experts and career public servants, civilian and military, to promote bipartisan dialogue on nuclear issues. The Group takes few public positions other than maintaining that, as a matter of principle, diplomacy and security are mutually reinforcing. As I mentioned above, the Nuclear Security Working Group also operates a Congressional fellowship program, which is something of an attempt to recreate the Senate that Nolan knew and loved by growing the cadre of informed, capable professionals who see value in bipartisan compromise.

It remains to be seen whether a pragmatic, non-partisan approach to nuclear issues can survive the present moment. Perhaps the political fundamentals have changed so dramatically that Nolan’s approach is outdated. Yet Nolan might argue that even if the scope of the politically possible has narrowed, it is not altogether clear that the effort to reduce nuclear risks is best served by staking out positions that play well on TV but leave big questions unanswered. Certainly, the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty falls into this category. But the Nolan school of nuclear policy also calls for some skepticism that symbolic innovations, such as adopting a No First Use pledge, are fit for purpose. Conversely, if such innovations do imply changes to operational capabilities, proponents should be forthright about their ultimate aims. If the notional end of such initiatives is a safer and more secure world, then the means themselves are not sacrosanct, and should reflect the underlying commitments and political realities that continue to shape American nuclear policy to date.


Brian Radzinsky is a PhD Candidate-in-Residence at the George Washington University’s Institute for Security and Conflict Studies and, since 2017, has served as the deputy director of the Nuclear Security Working Group (NSWG). The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the members or affiliates of the NSWG.

Image: NSWG