A new American president gets little training for his most awesome responsibility -- handling nuclear crises. His briefing lasts a few hours on a hectic early day in office. Says a Harvard scholar after interviewing former presidents and top defense officials: ``It's like force feeding them with a firehose.''
Train presidents better for managing nuclear crises. That is one of the relatively noncontroversial steps that a group of Harvard defense experts puts forward to make nuclear war less likely.
Too much of the debate over nuclear war has been dominated by hawks, who seek peace through strength, and doves, who fear arms-race escalation, according to these experts.
Hawks and doves have important concerns, says Harvard Prof. Joseph S. Nye Jr. But meanwhile, ``there are significant things people can do to reduce the risk of nuclear war.''
Professor Nye and two colleagues call their plan the ``owl's agenda.''
It contains some hawkish steps, such as spending more money on building stronger conventional forces in Western Europe so that NATO no longer relies on battlefield nuclear weapons there. It contains some dovish goals, such as finding long-range alternatives to nuclear deterrence.
It contains many easier steps in between, such as opening hot lines to nuclear-equipped nations besides the Soviet Union, avoiding a ``decapitation'' strategy of knocking out Soviet leaders in a nuclear exchange, establishing safety procedures for nuclear-armed submarines so that only the president can order nuclear launches.
The owls are Dr. Nye, new director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a State Department and National Security Council official in the Carter administration; Graham Allison, dean of the Kennedy school; and Albert Carnesale, academic dean at the Kennedy school and a former SALT I negotiator.
The three presented the owl's agenda last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Their book, ``Hawks, Doves, and Owls: An Agenda for Avoiding Nuclear War,'' will be published early this month.
Already, Defense Department officials have asked the owls for briefings, and House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Les Aspin (D) of Wisconsin will hold hearings on the plan June 11.
Nye, Allison, and Carnesale interviewed more than 40 former top-level decisionmakers in the nuclear-command hierarchy and discussed the issues with prominent Soviet strategists as well.
The most likely scenario to bring about nuclear war begins with the escalation of a conventional conflict, like the events that led to World War I, Dr. Allison says. Then, a nuclear exchange would occur through ``a combination of accidents and malfunctions and unintended consequences.''
One way to make this scenario less likely is through better crisis-management training. Allison stresses the importance of capturing the lessons of past administrations to pass along to new ones.
Some of the owl's agenda is not controversial, but it's not on anyone's priority list. ``Many such things just don't fit the in-box pattern of government,'' Nye says.
The most difficult aspect of the owl's agenda is finding alternatives to deterrence and its balance of terror. A space-based defensive system like the Strategic Defense Initiative is ``not promising, but worth exploring,'' Allison says.
The owls put more hope in international politics. Could the US-Soviet relationship change as much as the French-German relationship has changed since World War II? Allison asks.