Jeffrey LewisMinimum Means Review in ACT

Brad Roberts has a civil, but largely negative review of my book in the latest edition of Arms Control Today. It points out some things that I could have done better.

But one thing really annoys me.

Roberts says that I blame the US for driving instability:

His assessment of the problem strikes me as a bit lopsided, with its singular emphasis on the United States as the driver of instability and his convenient assumption that changes are not already afoot in the Chinese posture.

Actually, that’s opposite of what I said, which was that the US is not the driver of instability:

China is less likely to fundamentally revise its nuclear weapons and arms control policies in response to changes in the objective balance of capabilities—prompted for example by the deployment of a missile defense system to intercept Chinese ballistic missiles—than as a result of Chinese internal politics and bureaucratic interests. [Minimum Means, 2.]

The possibility remains, however, that Chinese leaders will eventually lose confidence in their deterrent. A loss of confidence would likely result from many factors not related to quantitative measures of capability such as capability of a U.S. missile defense system to intercept Chinese ballistic missiles. Internal Chinese politics, rather than external pressure, is likely to be decisive. [Minimum Means, 201.]

What I did say was that the view of strategic modernization outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review had an “opportunity cost”—that if collapsing Chinese confidence in their deterrent was a policy goal, then we wouldn’t take steps to reassure the Chinese. In other words, we are not the singular driver, but rather we have the singular opportunity to reinforce China’s current posture.

I like Brad and I don’t think he is deliberately misrepresenting the contents of my book. But Brad made the same objection to my talk at the Carnegie Endowment about a year and a half ago and I made the same reply.

So I am a little tired of having this debate.

Late Update: Mike Levi, and like four other people, have written in to say “Book reviews always feel harsher to the author than they are. it struck me as a pretty positive review.” As someone who has doled out some pretty harsh reviews, well, what goes around …

Brad Roberts Responds


Along with the editor of Arms Control Today, I have been wondering why I had not heard anything from you in response to my review of your book in the May issue. Then I learned that you had posted a response at your website. Having now read and digested what’s posted there, let me add the following. I would post this there so that others might see it by the opportunity seems to have passed.

First, as you are upset about what you perceive to be my confusion about your bottom line on the driver of China’s nuclear future, I suggest you look to your book, not me. The book perpetuates the confusion first discussed over a year ago. On the one hand, the text includes the two statements you cite in your blog, from pages 2 and 201, arguing that internal factors will likely be decisive over external factors in shaping the future of China’s nuclear forces. On the other hand, the book offers the following arguments:

  • “The evident problem with Beijing’s choice is that China’s nuclear forces will be subjected to increasing pressure by the evolving capability and declaratory policy of U.S. strategic forces.” Page 2.
  • “The evolving capability and declaratory doctrine of U.S. strategic forces pose a challenge for China’ nuclear posture.” Page 141.
  • “Whether or not the United States will accept China’s possession of the minimum means of reprisal is now the central issue for the future of both countries’ nuclear forces.” Page 199.
  • “Although a catastrophic loss of confidence in its deterrent would, in theory, open China up to nuclear coercion by the United States, this is unlikely to be the only result or an enduring relationship. Many options are available to China, including increasing the size of its arsenal, rushing mobile ballistic missiles into ‘operational training,’ keeping forces on alert, and developing asymmetric responses…” Page 202

This certainly creates the appearance of a contradiction: is the US the “central issue” or not decisive? Perhaps the logic is straight in your head but it seems contradictory in the book and, as a reader, I was left to weigh only what you had put in print. So how did I do that? The text on pages 2 and 201 is offered without elaboration. There is no discussion of the internal factors that could lead to different Chinese nuclear policies nor of their weight relative to external factors. The reader must conclude that these are suppositions on your part. In contrast, the text on page 141 introduces an entire chapter, which forcefully demonstrates the potential impact of the US nuclear posture on the logic of Chinese restraint. The text on page 199 sets up the closing 6 pages of the book, which are all about what the US should do to keep the burden off of the Chinese nuclear posture. That closing section is not about internal factors or about how the US might influence those internal factors. So I arrived at my characterization of your argument because I read your book with care and attention—and not because I willfully ignored what you said a year ago or because I missed the two pieces of text that you cite in your blog.

This brings me to my second point: about the word “civil.” I worked hard to strike that tone and I’m glad that it came through. This has nothing to do with you or your work and everything to do with my regret about the increasingly acrimonious character of life in America’s “public space.” Debate has given way to “point scoring.” Differences of interpretation and substance are explained away with assertions about the suspect integrity or motivations of people. As you well know, the lack of civility is especially pronounced on China policy, where ideologues of all stripes stand ready to police our thoughts at every opportunity. Although I blame many of our national leaders for setting the wrong tone in the bully pulpit, I think all of us as individuals have a personal responsibility. So I ask: what can I do to restore a bit of civility?

I accept a personal responsibility to conduct myself in a way that does not cast an aspersion, directly or indirectly, on the motivations or intelligence of someone who may see things differently from me. So I wrote a review of your work that discusses the ideas there and raises no questions about you, your motivations, your skills, or your patriotism. I tried to raise the debate, not attack you. I cannot help but be struck by the very different character of your entries on your blog. In a few brief comments you complain about me three different times, stating that you are annoyed, fatigued, and crabby toward me. I am not the only one so struck: I heard about the blog in rapid succession from three different people, and they did not use the word “civil” to characterize it; their words were “whiny,” “petulant,” and “condescending.” I take it that your answer to the question posed above (about restoring civility) is: “not my responsibility.” Too bad; but of course it is your reputation to do with as you see fit. But it’s also our “public space.”

Brad Roberts


  1. James O'Brien

    Yeah, when I read the review, I thought there might have been some previous animosity.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Well, I don’t know if it is animosity. He’s always been perfectly polite to me in the past. And I like him personally, despite our disagreement about what I believe.

    But I sometimes feel like he wants to place me in a particular role in the policy debate, whether I fit that role or not. And makes me sort of crabby.

  3. John Field (History)

    Personally, I think the book is very good.

    If Brad’s point is that there is uncertainty about China’s future strategic directions, fine, we can all agree.

    On the other hand, all things being equal in the face of uncertainty, I believe that there needs to be a rather strong presumption against the concentration of force in the absence of necessity. So, Jeffrey’s consistent picture of China’s strategic restraint weighs heavily on arguments for US force buildup in the absence of strong arguments to the contrary NOT the other way around as it seems that Brad might be implying.

    I see Jeffrey’s book as an important contribution, and I am delighted to have it on my shelf.

  4. Robot Economist (History)

    Dr. Lewis – If you think Dr. Roberts is hard to deal with as a colleague, try being one of his students! His criticism has always been as polite as it is brutal, but I thought his review was positive.

    You’re totally right about his tendency to categorize people within the arms control policy debate though.

  5. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    Funny you should complain about someone trying to “place me in a particular role in the policy debate, whether I fit that role or not”. I recall having a discussion with you on the bus to the Tokyo airport where you were less than sympathetic to my own concerns about this unfortunate tendency among some of our colleagues.

  6. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Part of the issue, I suppose is that he is a big person with a gruff voice. So, even when he’s being polite, it seems more rough than perhaps he intends.

    I do think it is interesting that most people seem to think the review is very positive. I suppose it is just a combination of him hitting my pet peeve and imagining him saying what he’s written.

    Anyay, I don’t think Brad’s “hard to deal with” as a colleague—at least he is always polite and helpful, which is what counts.

    As for being pigeon-holed, perhaps I am slowly learning empathy.

  7. Robot Economist (History)

    “Hard” was the wrong word. His praise doesn’t come easily and you definitely earned some. Sure, he didn’t like some of your logic, but that’s because he sees the future of nonproliferation policy differently.

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