Jeffrey LewisAtomic Topiary

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to size US nuclear forces, whether to some number of targets, or capabilities or with some other metric. (Hint: some other metric.) More on that soon, but I wanted to share a funny story I came across.

The late-Clinton force sizing construct was “lead and hedge” — i.e. to “lead strategic arms control efforts toward START II or smaller force levels, but retain the ability to hedge by returning to START I levels.”

The concept, straightforward though timid, was impossible to translate for a Russia which, in the mid-1990s, had rather fewer hedge-fund managers than it does today. David Ottaway and Steve Coll offered a very funny, contemporaneous account in the Washington Post:

[Secretary of Defense William J.] Perry called the new policy “leading and hedging.” The United States would continue to lead the way toward smaller nuclear arsenals and lower alert levels but would hedge by maintaining its ability to rebuild nuclear forces quickly and by keeping some of its nuclear missiles on Cold War-style alert.

This proved hard to explain to the Russians. When Perry and [Assistant Secretary of Defense Ashton] Carter first outlined the new policy to Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev at a meeting in New York, an interpreter translated “lead” as “dominate.” There was not an obvious Russian word for “hedge”; sometimes it came out as “shrubbery” and other times as “ability to break out from treaty commitments.” The mix-ups soon became lore in Moscow.

Lead and tend shrubbery. Come to think of it, that may not make any less sense than our current approach.


  1. Christhian

    My favorite book used to be Schelling’s “The strategy of conflict” until I found an abandoned copy of Kaplan’s “The Wizards of Armageddon”. There are so many parts I like ot this book that it is difficult to choose a specific chapter or paragraph. However, I give it a try: “As the new Generation occupied positions of power, the story of nuclear strategy came full circle and started all over again, as if the debates, the desillusionments and the discreditings of the early-to-mid 1960s had never ocurred. Counterforce, no-cities, limited nuclear war, tit-for-tat, the coercive strategy again came to dominate the defense world” (Chapter 25).

  2. Ray Duray (History)


    Re: Navy reverses course on new destroyers —

    I’m wondering if you have any insights into what threat the DDG-1000 destroyers were incapable of defending against? According to the Wired article on the termination of the Zumwalt-class destroyers, there is a “classified” threat that makes the Zumwalt essentially an expensive sitting duck.

    TIA for any comment, Ray