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The Discursive Influence of Expert Ideas – Defence Intellectuals and Cold War US Nuclear Strategy

Andras Szalai
Central European University
Andras Szalai
Central European University
Open Panel

Abstract

The history of US nuclear strategy offers an interesting case of expert idea influence: while the dominant historical narrative is filled with accounts of the enormous effect civilian strategists and their ideas had on US policies, critics note that actual correlation between expert ideas and policy outcomes is sporadic at best. The present paper analyzes the influence of expert ideas on Cold War US nuclear strategy during the debate on counterforce strategies in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It answers the question why the highly rational language of civilian strategist came to dominate the deterrence policy discourse for the better part of the Cold War. The paper departs from the position that the policy making process takes place in a realm of competing ideas. In this environment, the “baggage” new policy ideas come with is crucial: the language ideas rely on consists of ways or arguing, measures of validity, causal beliefs etc. In the competition between ideas, language is thus used to argue and to persuade, but it also sets the boundaries of the discourse relevant to the policy topic at issue. As such, the discourse generated by ideas and other elements of the policy environment socializes actors involved in the debate, leading to what Alistair Johnston calls “intersubjective convergence” on policy making. Based on this framework, and contrary to existing theoretical accounts of idea influence, the paper conceptualizes influence as discursive: ideas are influential when they monopolize the policy discourse, thereby acting as future constraints on the beliefs and perceptions of key actors. In order to avoid the pitfalls of previous rational and reflectivist approaches, the selection of ideas for policy use is explained through the concept of persuasiveness. Persuasive ideas are not merely intellectually compelling, but also fit with existing policy problems, ideas, and the general policy environment. From a discursive point of view, this entails a correspondence between the new idea and existing discourses dominating the policy issue. Thus, the paper claims, persuasiveness is able to explain strategic use, as well as discursive dominance and subsequent institutionalization.