The Center for Foreign Policy Development at Brown University and the Public Agenda Foundation have for many years studied the role of the public in affecting key public policy issues. The guiding principle in this joint undertaking is that any resolution of troubling national issues, particularly one so crucial as arms control and nuclear weapons can only come about through full engagement of the public. This means that everyone—public, experts, and political leaders—must focus first on fundamental choices about which all Americans, whatever their level of expertise, can make judgments based on sound instincts.
The search for choices should begin by focusing on priorities, asking ourselves not just “what do we want?” but “what do we want above all else?” Specifically, Americans should weigh whether our highest priority is to avoid nuclear war, or whether there are other goals which would take precedence under some circumstance.
The only other priority that can compete with avoiding nuclear war is the goal of protecting major values Americans consider essential, such as embracing freedom and all the other concepts and material things we value for ourselves and others. In order to simplify the discussion, this can be called “protecting our interests.” The basic question is, Do Americans believe it more important to avoid a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States or to protect our other interests?
One difficulty in thinking about priorities is getting the right fix on consequences and risks. Some maintain that we cannot be sure that a nuclear war would destroy human life on earth, or even the United States. Others put it the other way around: We cannot be sure it would not. President Reagan recently put it succinctly, saying that even a nuclear exchange