The wellspring of a new, clear nuclear vision

Deproliferator1.0THE DEPROLIFERATOR — Few fields are as lacking in fresh perspectives as nuclear weapons. Entire decades have been spent by nuclear strategists deliberating which state would strike first and how many weapons the victim would have left to retaliate. Then they came up with deterrence. What a concept — as if equally armed forces had never arrived at a standoff before.

Nor is disarmament any more creative. At one end of the spectrum, we hear guileless pleas to “ban the bomb” or “go to zero.” At the other end, realists, ever willing to sell the farm out from under disarmament, haggle. A recent example: “To procure a test ban treaty, we need to put off advocating a no-first-use policy on nuclear weapons.”

Much of this kind of thinking is the product of think tanks. Ostensibly engaged in research and advocacy, many not only publicize just what pleases their donors but lobby for them too. Still, policy institutes with integrity do exist and, a year ago, one was inaugurated that has the potential to break new ground.

The Madrona Institute is based in New Mexico and the state of Washington (common to both of which is the bonsai-like tree that is its namesake ). Its origins aren’t in research, but in the hands-on experience that one of its founders, Merle Lefkoff, a long-time international mediator, has with “back-channel” diplomacy, including in conflict zones.

Her co-founders are Ron Zee and Roger Morris (the well-known historian whose books have chronicled the careers of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, among others). As they explain on their website, traditional diplomacy “often reinforces the fiction that people are entirely rational, that outcomes of deliberation can be controlled in order to reach pre-determined goals.”

Worse, “fixed agendas are specified ahead of time, and the discussions generally proceed in incremental steps toward a fixed ‘objective.’ When suddenly the group appears to move ‘backwards,’ people often give up.”

But Madrona believes that “in problem solving groups, human beings do not move in incremental, linear steps. When people sit down together to tackle a big problem, the deliberations are organic, non-linear. . . and feedback changes the thinking at the negotiating table.” Also, “Our experience is that a combination of seclusion and candor, under the radar screen of outside scrutiny or media attention, offers the best chance for cutting edge and often-unprecedented discussion of the problem at hand.”

Besides back-channel diplomacy, Madrona’s method derives from the study of complex systems as pioneered at the Santa Fe Institute — the standard-bearer for break-the-mold think tanks. Those unfamiliar with complexity science may be intimidated by its name. But it helps to think of it as, in its own words, “a multi-disciplinary collaboration in pursuit of understanding the common themes that arise in natural, artificial, and social systems.” For example, the fundamental principles of organization, once learned, can be equally applied to biology, physics, or economics.

Thus does Madrona seek to unite, as its website observes, “a diverse body of whole systems and complexity thinkers. [Complexity science] has rarely, if ever, been invited to converge, converse, and contribute to peacemaking and conflict resolution.” In hopes of expediting a breakthrough, Madrona seeds its dialogues, which it has just begun hosting, with not only individuals who are expert in the subject of that particular dialogue, but hail from a variety of disciplines. Among the criteria that Madrona uses to select participants is “their demonstrated ability to think creatively outside the orthodoxy that permeates traditional diplomacy and peacemaking initiatives.”

Not only aren’t the discussions linear, but the individuals who run the meetings “work to build trusting relationships [and] encourage a ‘leaderless process,’ granting all participants equal power and authority.” Nor is Madrona “attached to a particular goal. . . we seek only an outcome perceived by the participants to be useful — whatever that outcome may be.”

Also integral to the process is scenario building. “Out of the co-creation of a shared story comes the possibility for movement. … Several meetings of the group are anticipated as a way to continue to refine strategic direction [and] deepen relationships [to facilitate the] joint action that informs top-level peacemaking.”

As suggested above, disarmament cries out for this approach. In fact, it was the subject of the inaugural dialogue held in October by Madrona, which described it thusly:

The seeming intractability of the disarmament issue, as evidenced by the glacial pace of progress, argues for innovative ways of framing that issue. … The purpose of this policy dialogue is to apply complexity thinking to the nuclear chessboard to uncover promising new policy paths toward a nuclear-weapon-free planet.

The dialogue was broken out into four groups that imagined the future under different circumstances and within varying timeframes. For example, the group of which this author was part envisioned a nuclear terrorist attack and how the world responds over the ensuing five years.

The worst-case scenario — despite destruction of the global economy, mass proliferation — is all too well-known. We presented instead a vision of the United States, as well as the world, seizing the opportunity created by the crisis to not only halt proliferation, but use that success to join in other multinational initiatives. In subsequent posts, summaries of those scenarios will be presented.

First posted at the Faster Times.

1 reply »

  1. The Madrona Institute sounds about right to me. I’ve heard plenty of arguments about how diplomacy works, but frankly, most of them add up to how diplomacy doesn’t work very well. And all too often the term “think tank” ends up being an oxymoron…maybe “rationalization tank”, but not much in the way of serious thought.