Michael KreponNuclear Grand Strategy (sic) and Abolition

Lyrics of the week:

“I must’ve been through about a million girls
I’d love ’em and I’d leave ’em alone
I didn’t care how much they cried no sir
Their tears left me cold as a stone.
But then I fooled around and fell in love
I fooled around and fell in love”

–Elvin Bishop, “Fooled Around and Fell in Love”

“You think love is just fun and games
Trying to be a playboy
All you do is run around
Using hearts as play toys.
You’ve been playing daddy with every mama in town
What you gonna do when you look up one day
And see your playhouse tumbling down?
I’m gonna tear your playhouse down pretty soon
I’m gonna tear your playhouse down room by room”

–Ann Peebles, “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”

It’s a bit awkward and pretentious to link the words “nuclear weapons” and “grand strategy,” even for a nation like the United States that possesses thousands of warheads, has far-flung alliances to attend to, and practices extended deterrence. This linkage is manufactured because deterrence is part of grand strategy and nuclear weapons are part of deterrence, But the manufacturing process is defective because the battlefield use of nuclear weapons would make a hash of military campaigns, let alone strategy, let alone grand strategy.

Nuclear strategy, as Lawrence Freedman, Robert Jervis, and others have written, is an oxymoron, a stark contradiction in terms. Both deterrence and military strategy would be among the first casualties with the appearance of mushroom clouds. Seven-plus decades of non-battlefield use suggest recognition of these consequences. 

Even so, states addicted to nuclear weapons will continue to pay dearly for them. How dearly? Check out the costs of U.S. and Russian modernization programs. For second-tier possessors, see Great Britain’s decision to deploy the Dreadnought class submarine to carry Armageddon weapons while hollowing out its ability to defend national interests by conventional means.

Money is no object when states convince themselves that that they can’t do without symbols of power, status, and deterrence. To avoid Armageddon, one must be prepared for it. That’s the lesson that has been inculcated for three generations of deterrence strategists and counting. 

When an addiction is habit forming but not dangerous, like pulling weeds, there’s no harm, no foul. When a personal addiction causes self-harm and harm to others, we humans can address the problem by acknowledgement, intervention, gradual withdrawal or by going cold turkey. Alternatively, we can continue addictive behaviors.  

What about national addictions to power, status, nuclear weapons, and deterrence? Power and status are not something that are jettisoned willingly. They do change, however, for better or worse, depending on national circumstances. Nuclear deterrence requirements might change as a result, but is dropping out or going cold turkey an option? 

If a nuclear-armed state has no plausible strategic competitors, then the answer is yes: dropping out is conceivable, whether willingly or unwillingly. If a nuclear-armed state has a serious strategic competitor, then dropping out isn’t very likely.

National addictions are harder to slough off, especially when they relate to power, status, and long-held concepts of deterrence. Strong cases have been made that nuclear weapons are a dangerous and delusionary addiction. Dropping out can, however, have negative consequences for national security unless a strategic competitor follows suit. Even unilateral reductions can produce domestic political and geopolitical blowback unless a competitor buys into our rational analysis. Just as strategic competitors share addictions to nuclear weapons, withdrawal also has to be shared.

A shared addiction to nuclear deterrence has both fictional and real aspects. It’s indisputably true that nuclear deterrence has a history of failing in lesser cases. A belief system in nuclear deterrence is therefore partially based on the fiction of its success. We can also make a convincing case that escalation control is likely to be fictional once the nuclear threshold is crossed. War-fighting strategies premised on control and dominance are most likely to prompt the escalation they are designed to prevent. Passing along the hallmarks of human civilization from one generation to the next depends on this recognition.

So, what’s real about nuclear deterrence besides its costs and dangers? Its primary value rests, at least so far, in helping to prevent worst cases. There are other reasons for the absence of major conventional warfare and nuclear exchanges – reasons that have little or nothing to do with the bells and whistles that deterrence strengtheners advocate. Nonetheless, concepts of national security among nuclear-armed states have become inextricably linked to nuclear deterrence equations.

We can argue until the cows come home that such thinking is illusionary, dangerous, and misplaced, but it’s a contemporary reality. Going cold turkey isn’t an option unless strategic competitors also take the plunge, and we can verify their abstinence.

How, then, do we make progress to arrive at collective assessments among possessor states that these weapons are too deadly to actually use in warfare?  One essential way is by continuing to argue this case. The Prohibition Treaty serves this purpose. What distinguishes we humans from other creatures, besides our thumbs, is our power to reason. But reason is insufficient, as are hortatory injunctions.

We can’t solve the existential threat that nuclear weapons pose intellectually; like all other existential threats, it has to be solved politically and geopolitically. And because this is a very hard problem to solve, it has to be managed until political and geopolitical conditions point toward solutions. 

One form of management is the avoidance of dangerous military practices and harrowing crises. Success on both fronts facilitates the reduction of nuclear excess. Another form of management is by means of threat reduction treaties. A successful track record exists for bilateral nuclear arms reduction, but further reductions from New START will be challenging, given the state of U.S.-Russian relations and the current level of partisanship in Washington, which makes it very hard for a Democrat in the White House to secure treaty ratification. Multilateral nuclear arms reduction treaties will be far more difficult to negotiate.

Numbers still matter greatly. When they increase, someone’s sense of security decreases, prompting compensatory actions. If arms reduction treaties are out of reach, we can still bring the numbers down, as I have argued elsewhere, by championing and extending norms and codes of conduct.

The most essential form of management is no use. The norm of no battlefield use is reinforced by the norm of not conducting nuclear tests. The norm of nonproliferation is another essential management tool. The longer we can extend these norms, the more we clarify nuclear excess. Since these norms are the hardest to break, they are the easiest for us to defend and extend.

“Easiest” does not mean easy. Far from it. But success has been possible in the past during hard times and intense crises. Through hard work, it remains possible today. And tomorrow.

If we focus on the end state of abolition, we are likely to be disappointed every day. If we focus on extending norms critical to human wellbeing, we can succeed every day. The implications of success may seem imperceptible on a daily basis, but they can be profound as time passes.


  1. E. Rhym (History)

    Leading the world in nuclear disarmament is strategic folly. It does not engender good will of adversaries, let alone induce them to follow suit. Case-in-point: the United States took the “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War to mean nuclear modernization could be tabled for a generation (or more). Did our great power adversaries follow our lead toward Global Zero? No!

    Normative behavior, as you like to ascribe in your nonproliferation sermons, requires a level of consensus among adversaries that is historically without precedent — unless one is willing and able to enforce such norms. And therein lies the rub. Once you bring force and coercion into the equation to settle differences and establish/enforce norms, the fundamental issue becomes self-evident.

Pin It on Pinterest