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'Almost Trumpian in its incoherence': Critical responses to Michael Shellenberger's promotion of nuclear weapons proliferation

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Jim Green ‒ Nuclear Monitor editor

Ironically, one of the most thorough critiques of Michael Shellenberger's dangerous advocacy of nuclear weapons proliferation1,2 was written by Environmental Progress attorney Frank Jablonski and published on the Environmental Progress website.3 Shellenberger is founder and president of Environmental Progress.

Jablonski writes:3

"From Shellenberger's article2 you would conclude that, for any "weak nation", or for the "poor or weak" persons within such nations, things are bound to improve with acquisition of nuclear weapons. So, for humanitarian reasons, the imperialistic nations and hypocritical people standing in the way of that acquisition should get out of the way. No. The article's contentions are falsified by … logical untenability, things it got wrong, and things it left out. While Shellenberger's willingness to take controversial positions has often been valuable, a "contrarian" view is not always right just because it is contrarian."

Jablonski draws a parallel with NRA pro-guns propaganda:3

"The article seems to presume that if the nuclear non-proliferation framework is eliminated, nuclear capabilities will be quickly equalized through some kind of dystopian Oprah episode in which "YOU get a weapon, YOU get a weapon, EVERYBODY gets a weapon!!!". The resulting equalization of capabilities will lead to peace, kind of in the vein of the NRA slogan that "an armed (international) society is a polite society".

"This is, quite obviously, not how proliferation develops. Allowing ready access to nuclear weapons likely spreads them first to relatively strong nations that are already feeling international pressure, likely because of disturbing human rights records, hegemonic ambitions, or both. It may be hypocritical to try to deny nuclear weapons to autocracies that aspire to them, but these nations themselves can be "imperialist", i.e., aspiring hegemons seeking to dominate their neighbors.

"By introducing the possibility that a neighboring nation may seek nuclear weapons, making such weapons broadly available disadvantages nations that prefer to spend their resources on development instead of militarization. There are good reasons for nations not to want to be pressured into a nuclear arms race with aspiring hegemons. …

"Forcing the weakest nations to compete for nuclear weapons to keep up with stronger and more aggressive neighbors is a recipe for harming the "poor and weak", not helping them."

On deterrence, Jablonski writes: "the fact that deterrence works in some circumstances does not mean that removing barriers to acquisition of nuclear weapons will result in generalized deterrence and stability".3

As for Shellenberger's attack on the "hypocritical, short-sighted, and imperialistic" who would "deny weak nations the nuclear weapons they need for self-defense"2, Jablonski writes:

"Who are these "hypocritical imperialists" that want to deny nuclear weapons to "weak nations"? I suggest that they include a lot of people who don't want autocrats to get nuclear weapons, who don't want nations forced into regional nuclear arms races, who want nuclear technology directed towards human welfare, and who want no-one, ever again, to die in a nuclear war."3

'Almost Trumpian in its incoherence'

Sam Seitz, a student at Georgetown's Walsh School of Foreign Service, takes issue with Shellenberger's claims that no nuclear powers have been invaded ("a pretty misleading statistic" and "wrong"); that battle deaths worldwide have declined by 95% ("fails to prove that nuclear weapons are responsible for this trend … as we are frequently reminded, correlation and causation are not equivalent"); that Indian and Pakistani deaths in two disputed territories declined sharply after Pakistan's first nuclear weapons test in 1998 ("doesn't account for non-nuclear factors like the role of outside mediation and domestic politics"); and that Nazi Germany invaded France because the French lacked a credible deterrent ("makes very little sense and conflates several things … also silly").4

Seitz attempts to decipher one of Shellenberger's indecipherable arguments:

"Shellenberger then argues that nuclear weapons moderate state behavior because "History shows that when countries acquire the bomb, they feel increasingly vulnerable." (quote from Waltz) This makes absolutely no sense. Either nukes ensure existential security, preventing great power intervention, or they make countries more vulnerable, but to argue that nukes simultaneously make countries more and less vulnerable is almost Trumpian in its incoherence. And sure, maybe nuclear weapons promote foreign policy moderation, but that isn't the same thing as internal moderation: The Cultural Revolution occurred after China had nuclear weapons, after all."

Seitz points to another problem:

"Shellenberger presumably is only advocating for American acceptance of proliferation. After all, forcing other countries to go along with Washington is the exact kind of interference and American bullying he seems to so despise. But not every country will agree. Israel has struck nascent nuclear programs on several occasions, for example, and the Soviets almost launched an attack on the Chinese nuclear program. So, even if nuclear weapons make conflict less likely, attempting to acquire nuclear weapons actually tends to precipitate conflict as potential adversaries try desperately to stop a proliferator before it is too late. This is, after all, the reason the U.S. and its coalition partners invaded Iraq."

Shellenberger points to the same problem, asking whether latency could "also be a threat to peace?" and noting Israeli and US threats to take pre-emptive action against Iran.1 He doesn't offer an answer or explore the issue further. He might ‒ but doesn't ‒ explore scenarios such as multiple simultaneous Chernobyl- or Fukushima-scale catastrophes deliberately inflicted by warring nation-states.

Friendly fire

Even those who Shellenberger cites approvingly in support of his arguments differ with him on fundamental points. He describes Vipin Narang as an "up-and-coming star in the field of nuclear peace and security studies", but Narang doesn't share his sanguine view about nuclear weapons security.5 According to Narang:5

"Pakistan may be one or two senior radicalized officers from having a threat to, or breakdown of, command and control. We assume there will be continuity in government, and regular transitions. The trouble is chaos or irregular leadership transitions, and uncertainty about the control of nuclear weapons in the state. Kim Jong Un has signaled that he has sole authority over nuclear weapons. But when he flew Air China to Singapore to meet with Trump, what if there had been rumor the plane had been shot down en route? What is his command and control? What if he feared being shot down and put in place a "dead hand" procedure which means, "If I'm shot down, you fire a nuclear ICBM at New York?" Rumors can go viral and there have been no way for those in Pyongyang to reach Kim, and they may have assumed the worst. These are the kinds of things that scare me."

Asked by Shellenberger if it is the case that the more nuclear weapons states there are, the better, Narang responded:5

"Nuclear weapons do deter. I understand why weak nations want them. They do provide deterrence against invasion. They do provide existential protection. The question is are there some states, with certain regime types or civil-military relations, where the risks outweigh the perceived deterrence benefits?

"But states like North Korea, Pakistan, and Egypt have potentially more volatile domestic political situations than, for example Japan or Germany or India. And even India is very opaque about its management and security procedures and the US has been concerned about lax oversight even there ‒ and even the US itself is not immune to the risks of accidents, having had quite a few snafus of its own recently.

"So even in the most stable of states, the risk of accidents is real. Add to that mix the potential for violent domestic upheaval and one has to question whether having nuclear weapons possessed by a state at risk of coup or revolution is a good thing. You start getting into a world where more countries have them, there's simply more systemic risk."


1. Michael Shellenberger, 29 Aug 2018, 'For Nations Seeking Nuclear Energy, The Option To Build A Weapon Remains A Feature Not A Bug',

2. Michael Shellenberger, 6 Aug 2018, 'Who Are We To Deny Weak Nations The Nuclear Weapons They Need For Self-Defense?',

3. Frank Jablonski, 24 Aug 2018, 'Shellenberger Is Wrong About Proliferation',

4. Sam Seitz, 6 Aug 2018, 'The Nonproliferation Regime Exists for a Reason, Let's Not Tear it Up',

5. Michael Shellenberger, 28 Aug 2018, 'How Nations Go Nuclear: An Interview With M.I.T.'s Vipin Narang',