Michael KreponThe Well-Read Wonk

Quote of the week:

“That which can be named must exist.

That which is named can be written.

That which is written shall be remembered.

That which is remembered lives.”

Egyptian Book of the Dead

Moving on to the next fight over nuclear weapons and arms control is necessary, sometimes all consuming, and work/life affirming. It is therefore hard to step back and find the time to consider larger questions. Because we take deep dives, there is value in being prompted to come up for air and to see new ways to look at familiar problems. This is what Francis Gavin does in his collection of essays, Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy.

For example, arms controllers and deterrence strategists in the United States view nonproliferation as a global good. We may disagree about how best to affirm and extend the norm of nonproliferation, but we’re on the same page in terms of the goal of prevention. We don’t view this as a selfish pursuit.

Gavin uses another term to describe nonproliferation — “inhibition.” He sees inhibition as an enduring element of U.S. grand strategy:

“The strategies of inhibition were developed to stem the power-equalizing effects of nuclear weapons and are motivated by a self-interested desire to safeguard U.S. security and preserve its dominant power.”

There’s validity to this view, but it’s the norm that matters most, not the motives, whether selfish or unselfish, that seek its realization. But Gavin’s point is worth dwelling on, if for no other reason that others do. In the 1990s, when people like me were making the rounds in India and Pakistan to clarify the downside risks of going down the nuclear deterrence rabbit hole, we were called “nonproliferation ayatollahs.”

Both countries are now offering political scientists a wealth of data about whether the Bomb stabilizes a nuclear-armed rivalry. Familiar patterns have emerged over the past quarter-century. The Bomb has added to other strong rationales for leaders to avoid a major war. It hasn’t prevented limited warfare but has helped to reduce the scope of violence — so far. And it won’t prevent close calls because the Bomb abets risk-taking behavior and intensifies crises.

What about the concept of nuclear parity as a means to stabilize a strategic competition? This concept is not in play for southern Asia, but it was employed for the superpower competition. Republican and Democratic administrations endorsed this concept using different words like “sufficiency” and “essential equivalence.” Embracing the concept in rhetorical terms was a precondition of negotiating success, since neither rival was willing to concede inferiority.

But here’s the rub: Gavin reminds us that the acceptance of parity was a polite fiction. The superpower competition didn’t flag despite rough numerical parity until the Soviet Union was on its last legs. Both Washington and Moscow continued to seek advantage because neither could accept being placed at a disadvantage. After the quantitative balance was seemingly settled, this played out with qualitative upgrades, especially by means of MIRVs, counterforce capabilities, and cruise missiles.

John F. Kennedy was the last President who succeeded at nuclear arms control while embracing primacy. (JFK secured the first ever limits on nuclear testing and the necessary super-majority in the Senate by arguing that the Limited Test Ban Treaty would extend U.S. superiority.) Ever since, the administration that rhetorically embraced primacy (e.g., Ronald Reagan’s first term) succeeded in super-charging the strategic competition while failing at arms control; the administration that cashed in the pursuit of primacy succeeded far beyond expectations. (See Reagan’s second term.)

Gavin offers another reason for the non-acceptance of parity, one that we usually don’t consider:

“If the United States had accepted nuclear parity with the Soviet Union, few patron states would have believed its promise to defend them while risking their own nuclear annihilation.”

On U.S. nuclear deterrence and its extravagant requirements, Gavin’s take is similarly thought provoking:

“Why does the United States threaten to use nuclear weapons, or to unleash a process that might lead to catastrophic nuclear use, over conflicts that are not remotely existential?”

The reasons have as much to do with domestic politics, interest groups, symbology, and geopolitics as with deterrence theory.

Nuclear weapons are powerful enough, and yet we confer even more power to them. Deterrence orthodoxy holds that these weapons can leverage outcomes even when not used and determine winners (in relative terms) when they are used. Orthodoxy leaves us in thrall to nuclear numerology, so much so that unilateral reductions in warheads and their delivery vehicles are deemed an invitation to destabilization, and thus must not be pursued.

All of this is based on deductive reasoning – about how competitors think about nuclear weapons and how they might be used when crises spill over into warfare. Deductive reasoning is based on numbers, weapon characteristics, and deciphering documents on the strategy of warfare.

The form of deductive reasoning that decipherers engage in can lead us astray for at least two reasons. First, we humans tend to impute our reasoning to others. Thus, for example, further reductions in U.S. (and Russian) force levels might encourage China to sprint to catch up.

This is possible, but is it probable? Might Beijing instead choose to modernize its strategic forces so as to ensure retaliatory capabilities, but not seek parity? Might Beijing be content with lower numbers so as to allocate more resources on military capabilities that have demonstrated or promise to have decisive effect without having to cross the nuclear threshold? We can’t be sure, but the answer is likely to depend, in good measure, on the extent to which Chinese strategists buy into western deterrence orthodoxy.

The second reason for caution in relying on decipherers to guide our choices is that they are, by trade, literalists. This isn’t an occupational hazard; it’s an occupational necessity. They take what has been written by foreign military and deterrence strategists with the utmost seriousness. It’s their job.

It’s the job of arms controllers in the United States to call for deeper cuts. But to make cuts without Russian reciprocity is to invite a domestic backlash, thereby empowering deterrence strategists in both countries. Because we have invested so much power in nuclear weapons, the best way to downsize – and to downsize the influence of deterrence strategists — is to continue to do so in parallel.

Moscow, far more than Washington, faces hard budgetary choices between usable instruments of national security and weapons that haven’t been used for three-quarters of a century. The reallocation of defense resources ought to be a common interest, since both countries still stand atop tall mountains of nuclear capability. The safest way down is to climb down together. There is certainly sufficient nuclear excess to do so without inviting either destabilization or a Chinese sprint.

Deterrence orthodoxy in both countries now argues against modest, let alone deep reductions. Conventional wisdom holds that Moscow resists reductions because of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty’s demise. This is certainly a constraint for deep cuts, but not for modest ones, since the prospect of effective national missile defenses is no closer than when the ABM Treaty was in force. Those who dwell in worst cases believe otherwise, and there’s the rub: the superstructure of deterrence orthodoxy is built upon the foundation of worst-case thinking.

Even in the absence of reciprocal reductions in deployed warheads, U.S. nuclear force structure will continue to shrink because new bombers, submarines and missiles are so damn expensive. The Strategic Air Command used to have over 600 “heavy” bombers to execute nuclear warfighting plans. Now there are about one-tenth that number. The Navy once had 41 submarines carrying ballistic missiles; this number is likely to shrink to twelve. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara sized out the Triad in the 1960s, there were slightly more than 1,000 missiles based in silos. There are 400 today. There’s nothing magic about this number. With further reductions driven by cost savings, their warheads can be reallocated. By mutual and verifiable agreement, they can be reduced.

Arms controllers argue with deterrence strategists about this without dwelling on fundamental questions. Gavin raises hard questions, but doesn’t offer answers to them:

“Is war an inescapable part of human life? And if so, can it be constrained, or will every available means be used to win?”

Arms controllers and deterrence strategists agree that war appears to be a feature of international relations, which is why we argue so intensely about how best to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. As for Gavin’s second question, the historical record suggests that many of these wars have not been won, and that the use of weapons of mass destruction is not inevitable. And that while the norm of nonuse grows stronger as time passes, it can still be broken.

Take, for example, chemical weapons. They were widely used during World War I, but not after the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of poisonous and asphyxiating gasses in warfare. Chemical weapons were not used during World War II. There were, however, occasional instances of use since then, most notably by Egypt in Yemen in the 1960s and by Iraq against Iran in the 1980s. More recently, Bashar al-Assad has used chemical weapons against his domestic foes in Syria, while Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-Un have presumably authorized their use as instruments to kill or severely injure “enemies of the state.”

These few outliers clarify the value of norms against use, production and possession codified in the Geneva Protocol and the 1992 Chemical Weapons Convention. The norm against using nuclear weapons on battlefields is comparatively newer but stronger. Ditto for the use of biological weapons in warfare, even though this norm, codified in the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, has no means to enforce or verify its restraints.

Thus, the answer to Gavin’s meta-question is that every available means has not and will not necessarily be used in warfare. It’s the job of arms controllers and deterrence strategists to extend these norms, even as we fight over the wisest ways to do so.


  1. Andrew (History)

    A very needed and apt analysis that does not fully investigate the neural consequences of war

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