Jeffrey LewisKissinger on Offense/Defense Mix

Another entry from Michael Krepon’s shoebox, this one from Henry Kissinger — in his days as an academic — on the right mix of offensive and defensive strategic forces:

The tensions between strategic offenses and defenses has been a constant thread in the history and arms control negotiations. In the late 1950s crude strategic missile defenses were still far more advanced than the notion of negotiating treaties with the Soviet Union.

During this time, Henry Kissinger was thinking and writing about what an ideal arms control agreement might look like that covered offenses and defenses from his academic base at Harvard University. He then was given the rare opportunity to negotiate the first strategic arms control agreements while serving as President Richard M. Nixon’s national security adviser. Negotiating outcomes in the 1972 SALT I Interim Agreement and the ABM Treaty bore little resemblance to the prescriptions found in Kissinger’s article, Arms Control, Inspections and Surprise Attack, which appeared in the July 1960 issue of Foreign Affairs:

“What measures can reduce the incentive to make a surprise attack? An all-out nuclear attack is likely to result from one of two motives. An aggressor may feel sufficiently confident that a sudden attack could reduce the counterblow to acceptable proportions. Or a threatened country may feel so vulnerable that it seeks to lessen the danger through a preemptive attack. Thus a control system will add to stability if it complicates the calculations of the attacker and facilitates those of the defender.”


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    Somehow I’m reminded of Alan Greenspan, formerly a believer in a rational actor model.

  2. Magoo Nair (History)

    This is all very well if the so called defender can accurately define the attacker. Nuclear deterrence is no longer a strategy affecting clearly laid down actors and loses its psychological edge in the inability to clearly define the deterrer and the deterree. An inability to come to grips with the evolving deterrence theories in the period 2000-2002 has resulted in threats of pre-emptive attacks and other unusable strategic fumbling.

    It is time the nuclear weapon states appreciate the failing nature of deterrence and opt for total nuclear disarmament.

  3. bradley laing (History)

    —From the New York Times website:

    Published: May 17, 2009
    WASHINGTON — Members of Congress have been told in confidential briefings that Pakistan is rapidly adding to its nuclear arsenal even while racked by insurgency, raising questions on Capitol Hill about whether billions of dollars in proposed military aid might be diverted to Pakistan’s nuclear program.

  4. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    “Thus a control system will add to stability if it complicates the calculations of the attacker and facilitates those of the defender.”

    How do you do that? I’m at a loss for a believable way by which some ‘control system’ could be made such that an attacker has to overcome some hurdle in order launch an attack. I’m not part of the arms community, so anyone out there with pointers to some relevant, believable, negotiable means in the literature please point me to it.

    I’m reminded of reading some of the late 1960’s lit on why or why not to build the old Sentinal/Safeguard system. There at least the debate of to deploy or not to deploy was more relevent. The articles I’ve been reading say that if defense systems were built, both sides would be driven to huge arsenals where the logic of striking first would drive to runaway. Is that not what we got with the ABM treaty? I’m not saying the ABM treaty was not effective. Effective or not, we came out of the Cold War, so I’d vote for it again. However it did not seem to change the logic of striking first. I’m including Sentinal/Safeguard in my argument because by my understanding of the R-36’s ability to attack the Minuteman system, even a very ineffective system would upset the attack calculations. Again, not that it matters now, but when policy ideas are so far out of engineering reality are we served by the concept of arms control for the sake of arms control?

  5. Major Lemon (History)

    I guess Kissinger got smarter when he landed the job with Dick. Harvard afterall is not the place where you get that much hands on experience in bombing people.

  6. bobbymike (History)

    Those bi-polar world, beliefs are almost meaningless today. Just take two headlines from “Global Security Newswire” today. 1) US and Russia optomistic about arms control talks, 2) Pakistan to expand nuclear arsenal.

    I thought the common wisdom was that the world will follow the US and Russia. It was and always has been total bunk. Other countries will do what they want and the current administration better begin to learn this lesson. We need to modernize our nuclear triad not cut it further.

  7. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Bobbymike, really how could the United States be coming up short in nuclear strike capability? What new systems are out there that might nullify the U.S. ability to wipe out any other nations arsenal, conventional military, and populace? We could build down to a much lower level and still maintain such an ability.

    You did hit on very important point though. That the new emerging third world powers transitioning to second world status, and have nuclear development programs are following their own lead. I’ve been quite interested in how Iran uses almost as much Zoroastrian references in their propaganda as they do their own spin on Islam. Like Iran, the emerging nuclear powers are pursuing a meme far outside the scope of the colonial norm of the past 400 years. Further complicating this is the lack of a conventional spectrum of systems for use in posturing and with which to link the use of nuclear weapons. Some of these nations will go from losing one conventional battle to having to make a life or death decision on whether to go nuclear or not. For the third world nuclear weapons are a means of bypassing developing a modern economy to prove their ethnic, or governmental greatness and to obtain a sort of life insurance policy. For nations like Iran and Israel who are trying to prove a form of ethnic superiority it’s hard to make arms control arguments even when the large powers are willing to disarm. How do you use western/modern policy to deny someone a talisman of racial/religious greatness?

  8. Steven Dolley (History)

    It’s a total strawman argument to suggest that the US has no leadership role on nuclear arms control, simply because Pakistan might be expanding its arsenal at the same time the US and Russia are talking.

    It’s a complete caricature of the case for US leadership to say that case depends on all Nth nations immediately and reflexively following every arms control move the US and/or Russia make.

    Sustained and significant nuclear weapons reductions by the US and the rest of the P-5 are necessary to the viability of nonproliferation, regardless of whether NNWS’s move in lockstep with the US. They never had and never will, but that’s not the expectation or the point.