Michael KreponNuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy

In a workshop in Islamabad today, one of the Pakistani presenters quoted from Henry Kissinger’s Big Splash on nuclear issues, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. This book was first published in 1957. It carried the imprimatur of the Council on Foreign Relations, which convened a study group on these matters. The study group, chaired by Gordon Dean, included such luminaries as McGeorge Bundy, James Gavin, and Paul Nitze. Kissinger drew from these deliberations. He took aim at an easy target: an all-or-nothing nuclear doctrine that the Eisenhower administration seemed to embrace. Here are some excerpts:

In the nuclear age, by the time a threat has become unambiguous it may be too late to resist it.

We cannot base all our plans on the assumption that war, if it comes, will be inevitably all-out. We must strive for a strategic doctrine which gives our diplomacy the greatest freedom of action and which addresses itself to the question of whether the nuclear age presents only risks or whether it does not also offer opportunities.

Deterrence is greatest when military strength is coupled with the willingness to employ it. It is achieved when one side’s readiness to run risks in relation to the other is high; it is least effective when the willingness to run risks is low, however powerful the military capability.

The key to a successful policy of limited war is to keep the challenge to the opponent, whether diplomatic or military, below the threshold which would unleash an all-out war. The greater the risk in relation to the challenge, the less total the response is likely to be. The more the challenge approximates the risks posed by all-out war, the more difficult it will be to limit the conflict.

If [U.S. & Soviet] military staffs could become clear about a doctrine of limited war, we could then use the disarmament negotiations to seek a measure of acceptance of it by the other side.

In a preface to the abridged version of the book published in 1969, Arthur Dean called Kissinger’s work “the most profound and constructive study that has yet been made of one of the toughest problems facing our country.” William W. Kaufmann’s book review in World Politics, The Crisis in Military Affairs [Vol. 10, No. 4 (Jul., 1958), pp. 579-603] was less generous:

Nowhere does he take stock of domestic and foreign attitudes toward these [nuclear] weapons in order to determine to what extent they are politically manageable. We are left to suppose that the controversies over fallout, weapons testing, and the use of nuclear bombs in warfare do not reflect the existence of important political forces at work, and that by the simple expedient of a firm stand in favor of nuclear armaments, the United States can overcome the doubts and fears that have become associated with them. Nowhere is this failure to take the political environment into account more disturbing than in Kissinger’s discussion of limited nuclear war.


  1. hass (History)

    This is all very nice…but how would Kissinger like it if OTHER countries play by the same rules?

  2. Martin Hellman (History)

    Thanks for Kissinger’s quote about deterrence being most effective (I’d say only effective) when you’re willing to take large risks. I made that point in one of my posts — but added the obvious conclusion that deterrence is therefore a very risky strategy. Why has that escaped so many, and why do we still see deterrence as essential to our security?

  3. Andrew Riedy (History)

    Henry Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy would be best left collecting dust on the bookshelf of history, only to be referenced when reiterating early analytical mistakes of the Cold War era. It is simply the musings of a statesman who had much to gain by touting the use of nuclear weapons in international politics.

    In Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Kissinger attempts to sell the idea that a limited nuclear war is a plausible outcome of a crisis between two nuclear armed states. His logic stems from an artificial distinction between a limited and general nuclear war. In contrast to others who maintain that the nuclear threshold is one that should not be crossed, Kissinger puts forth that the strategic strike is one that should be avoided so as to prevent putting the opponent in a corner. Anything less than a strategic strike was fair play. Logic such as Kissinger’s clearly opens the floor to debate as to what a strategic strike is, what the adversary values … I could go on ad nauseum.

    In contrast to Kissinger’s flimsy logic, stands Thomas Schelling with his famous work, Arms and Influence. In it, Schelling recognizes that a crisis situation is defined by uncertainty, with the essence of a crisis being unpredictability. He maintains that the ability of statesmen to control events in crisis is much more tenuous than some (Kissinger) think.

    Schelling holds that the real distinction in warfare lies between conventional and nuclear, not limited and general nuclear, as Kissinger would like his readers to believe. He goes on to say that once a nuclear conflict is initiated, “there is a high probability that the war will either go up or down by an order of magnitude, rather than run the tactical nuclear course that was planned for.”

    Schelling, unlike Kissinger, had a firm grasp on the nature of conflict and the most likely outcome of such. His analysis is partly to thank for the non-use of nuclear weapons throughout the Cold War and for the continuation of the taboo that surrounds nuclear weapons.

    Unlike Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Arms and Influence is a book that should be required reading for anyone studying international relations. It is an analytical achievement, which stands in stark contrast to Kissinger’s bathroom reading.

    Kissinger’s flawed logic helped precipitate the manufacturing of thousands of nuclear weapons and if it is being pulled off the shelf by Pakistani Statesmen, we’ve got some problems. Combined with the recent launching of India’s first SSBN, the strategic tension between the two countries looks only to become tenser. One key difference between US-Soviet relations and Indo-Pakistani relations is that there is no periphery in the latter case, which renders void just about any possibility of a limited nuclear war, even if it is possible.