Michael KreponNitze’s Strategic Concept

In 1985, obstructionists and nuclear deal makers in Ronald Reagan’s administration fought pitched battles over the President’s divided mind. Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger and his allies appealed at every turn to President Reagan’s strong attachment to the Strategic Defense Initiative and his deep antipathy toward the Soviet Union. Secretary of State George Shultz and his allies countered by appealing to Reagan’s anti-nuclear sentiment and his confidence in heroic deal making. Paul Nitze was George Shultz’s Svengali.

The trick was to figure out a way to pull the antipodal tendencies in Reagan’s mind together, and to do so in a way that could not be opposed by obstructionists. Nitze proved up to this task.

Speaking at the Philadelphia World Affairs Council on February 20, 1985, Nitze unveiled a Reagan-blessed “strategic concept” that could be summarized in a mere four sentences:

“For the next ten years, we should seek a radical reduction in the number and power of existing and planned offensive and defensive nuclear arms, whether land-based, space-based, or otherwise. We should even now be looking forward to a period of transition, beginning possibly ten years from now, to effective non-nuclear defensive forces, including defenses against offensive nuclear arms. This period of transition should lead to the eventual elimination of nuclear arms, both offensive and defensive. A nuclear-free world is an ultimate objective to which we, the Soviet Union, and all other nations can agree.” [The text prepared for delivery was slightly different.]

Nitze proposed to operationalize this 1,000 word strategic concept into three time frames – a near term, a transition phase, and an ultimate phase. In the near term — a ten-year period – nuclear deterrence would remain very much in place. At the same time, the United States and the Soviet Union would undertake “radical reductions in the number and power of strategic and intermediate-range nuclear arms.” Research on the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative would continue during this time, “as permitted” by the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

During the transition period to follow, the United States would increasingly rely on missile defenses, while also seeking the stabilization of the relationship between offensive and defensive nuclear arms. This transition period, which would be undertaken “as a cooperative endeavor with the Soviets,” could lead “to the eventual elimination of all nuclear arms.”

In order to prioritize and secure deep cuts in nuclear forces, Shultz and Nitze needed to impose criteria that would govern the deployment of U.S. missile defenses. Nitze did so in Philadelphia, announcing three common sense guidelines: missile defenses needed to be feasible, survivable, and cost-effective at the margin – meaning that an increment of missile defense needed to cost less than an increment of nuclear offense. “If the new technologies cannot meet these standards,” said Nitze, “we are not about to deploy them.”

In this sly and simple way, deal makers in the Reagan administration won their extended bureaucratic contest with obstructionists – although actual results would take a few years longer. The ambitious national missile defenses that Hawks were counting on to block deals could not meet Nitze’s common sense criteria. But how could obstructionists find credible fault with them?

Nitze went on to explain that the transition period could last decades, during which missile defense deployments meeting his criteria would be pursued and deployed “at a measured pace.” Deterrence during the transition would rest on a combination of nuclear arms and missile defenses.

As for the ultimate phase, “Given the right technical and political conditions, we would hope to continue the reduction of nuclear weapons down to zero.” Nuclear abolition “would be accompanied by widespread deployments of effective non-nuclear defenses” to guard against cheating and break out. Deterrence would then rest on the ability to deny a successful attack by defensive means: “The strategic relationship could then be characterized as one of mutual assured security.”

Nitze, as well as Reagan, had antipodal tendencies. Whenever he was on the outside looking in, he was a merciless critic of those who, in his view, failed to appreciate compelling complexities. And now, here he was, in an intense period of the Cold War, proposing a strategic concept that seemed utterly simplistic and naive. On the inside, the “Silver Fox” was an “inveterate problem solver… result-oriented to a fault,” in Richard Perle’s scornful characterization.

Nitze didn’t care about being exposed to criticism by the high priests of nuclear deterrence theory. He outranked them. The criticism was, in any effect, muted. Nitze was granted exceptional leeway to play this game. Deal makers and Doves saw great value in positioning SDI behind the queue of deep cuts, so they withheld their critical faculties. Hard-liners were stymied by Nitze’s hawkish credentials, and by a public line that they couldn’t oppose.

Nitze got the job done: His assignment was to find coherence in President Reagan’s divided mind. In so doing, he succeeded in making what he described as “a silk purse out of a sow’s ear,” using SDI to secure deep cuts in nuclear weapons. National security adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane characterized this gambit as “the greatest sting operation in history.”

Only later did we learn that Nitze was not relying on simple artifice to achieve immense negotiating achievements. He, like Ronald Reagan, had come to believe in nuclear abolition and in transitioning away from a world threatened by nuclear excess. Some who sing Ronald Reagan’s praises – including Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney – now take a far different tack, finding fault with New Start Treaty because they feel uncomfortable about deeper cuts in nuclear arms that the Treaty mandates, the Pentagon approves, George Shultz endorses, and that Reagan himself would have applauded.

Romney & Co. also assert that New START limits missile defenses. This charge is utterly false. Missile defense constraints are no longer imposed by treaty, as was the case during the Reagan era. Nitze’s criteria, however, continue to apply. If Republican critics of New START succeed in blocking ratification on the basis of this repeated falsehood, they will invite budget cuts on their favored programs.

[Aspiring Wonks: If you want to read more about this period, try Strobe Talbott’s The Master of the Game, Paul Nitze and the Nuclear Peace (1988), from which these quotes are drawn.]


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    > and cost-effective at the margin – meaning that an increment of missile defense needed to cost less than an increment of nuclear offense.

    Could you discuss that a bit, please?

    I confess that I never really understood what the “cost” part meant. If both costs apply to one side, it seems to be at most an investment strategy. (Leaving aside the problem of the non-equivalence of the offensive and defensive missions: what the heck is an “increment” of offense or defense?). On the other hand, if one cost applies to side A and the other to side B, there’s the problem that A and B may not recon costs in the same way. If there’s one thing the US found out about the USSR, it was that Soviet assignments of weapons system costs didn’t come close to matching what US analysts thought they should be.

  2. anon (History)

    It was never meant to mean an absolute comparison of dollar costs. What Nitze was saying was that it would be destabilizing, and cost-crazy, to deploy defenses if it were easier and less costly to overwhelm those defenses with offensive weapons. The costs (monetary, opportunity, and otherwise) of offensive deployments were relatively well known, and it was also known (or assumed) that the Soviet Union seemed quite willing to bear the costs of an offensive buildup. So, if the technologies we deployed for missile defense were more costly than the Soviet offenses (again, not just dollar costs), then we should not deploy them. If we spent x amount of treasure and time to deploy defenses that could stop 10 warheads, and it only took them 1/2 of that amount of treasure and time to deploy 20 more warheads, then we should not be deploying those defenses….

    By arguing that the costs should be compared at the margins, Nitze seemed to be excluding, from the U.S. costs, the cost of actually developing the technology in the first place. Given that offenses were far more mature at the time, defenses would always lose that comparison. They had a better chance (although not much of one) of winning the cost comparison at the margin, if you were considering exotic space-based multi-intercept capable technologies (like an x-ray laser).

  3. krepon (History)

    Thanks, Anon & Allen. One enduring value, in my view, of the Nitze criteria is that they help us to distinguish between cases. BMD against major powers is very hard to do successfully, and likely to prompt increments in offenses that are both doable and unwelcome. BMD against outliers with rudimentary missile capabilities isn’t easy, but it’s a lot easier. It is also less likely to gin up negative net effects at the margin. The political ramifications for these two cases are also very different. Think about the proliferation consequences of asserting to friendly states in very troubled regions that theater BMD simply won’t work and is not worth the expense…


  4. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Nuclear Weapons and Ballistic Missile Defense are, and long have been, matters of religion rather than reason for the right.

    Reason will never be able to overcome that religion.

  5. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Nitze was just transcribing what were already standard non-technical critical responses to SDI from people who understood the realities well enough: the proposed leaktight defenses that would render nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete would in fact not be feasible (i.e. would not really work), would not be survivable if deployed in any form (functional or not) and to the extent that they might be effective at all would be easily overwhelmed at lower cost by adding more nuke missiles.

    I don’t know if Mr. Krepon’s account of the internal politics of Reagan’s mind is accurate, but I recall that the political effect of Nitze’s criteria was more to legitimize the Star Wars boondoggle by stealing the critics’ thunder. It’s as if an administration proposed a $10 Bn program to develop perpetual motion machines, and in answer to critics some senior statesman explains to the public that the program won’t go into production unless the machines are feasible, reliable, and produce more energy than it costs to make and run them. And with that reassurance, the $10 Bn program sails ahead.

    Now we are told that BMD against the likes of Iran and North Korea really does make sense. No, it doesn’t. We are still spending 10 gigabucks per year on these follies and the defenses we have would not be effective even against a few Iranian or North Korean missiles equipped with known countermeasures that would be easier for them to implement than the still hypothetical ICBMs would be.

    Theatre BMD is only effective because and to the extent that the missiles it is supposed to neutralize are bare of countermeasures, and that is true only because they are intended as cheap tactical or terror weapons with conventional warheads. The effectiveness of tactical BMD is nowhere near good enough to neutralize a nuclear threat, and there is no good reason to think it ever will be. Thus the argument that without it, allies would be more likely to go nuclear, is not very compelling. Sure, the symbolism of passing out the Patriots seems like it might be a bit of a help, more as a way of demonstrating US commitment than of making people feel safe behind a BMD shield, but there are other ways of achieving the same effect. I expect our alliances and nonproliferation strategies would survive without these particular totems. Again, such weapons in no way neutralize the threat posed by (or deterrent value of) North Korean or potential Iranian nuclear weapons.

  6. Greg R. Lawson (History)

    What about reauthorizing the previous START Treaty with the nuclear limits associated with the SORT Treaty, as agreed to by former Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in 2002? Those limits were still dramatic, 1700-2200, for each side as opposed to the 1550 in the new START. Further, if tied to pre-existing verification mechanisms of START I, those limits would still embrace a willingness to de-emphasize a confrontational posture between the US and Russia, while not unduly limiting US flexibility in what could easily degrade into bad deal.

    As for missile defense, perhaps, it would be useful to stop focusing on “national missile defense” and retain the focus on theatre defense and or boost phase intercepts off of naval platforms.

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