Rethinking U.S. Nuclear Strategy

Georgetown associate professor of government Matthew Kroenig has written a timely book, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters, just out from Oxford University Press. Kroenig, a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council and former official in the administration of George W. Bush, is an expert on nuclear proliferation and the author of A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat (2014), where he advocated that immediate diplomatic, and, if necessary, military measures be taken against Tehran’s atomic program to halt its progress. For this latest installment of Conversations, L and L’s Lauren Weiner put questions to Professor Kroenig about the strategy book. Here is our Q and A.

Lauren Weiner: Many of the defense intellectuals studying, teaching, and writing in this area treat nuclear weapons and strategy as distinct from conventional military weapons and strategy. Why is it a good idea to, as your book proposes, get rid of this distinction?

Matthew Kroenig: I wouldn’t quite agree that my book proposes getting rid of the distinction, but it does argue that, like in the conventional realm, the nuclear balance of military power matters. Few would argue that one or two tanks is enough if your enemy has dozens. Yet when it comes to nuclear arms, scholars have maintained that one or two is more than enough to ruin anybody’s day, so a small nuclear arsenal is sufficient to deter any adversary. My thought was, if this is correct, we have a puzzle: the United States maintains a robust nuclear posture, including thousands of nuclear warheads and missile defenses, and has always pursued nuclear advantages over enemies. Faced with this obvious gap between their theory and actual practice, previous scholars insisted that the theory was right and U.S. nuclear strategy was illogical.

In contrast, my book explains the logic of American nuclear strategy. It shows how nuclear superiority limits a country’s expected damage in a war, which enhances its resolve in showdowns with other nuclear states, and ultimately strengthens nuclear deterrence.

LW: You have said that if we decided to pull back from our international commitments, a minimal rather than a robust nuclear deterrent might be sufficient—a posture matching, say, China’s. The United States did, for example, withdraw forward-deployed nuclear weapons from South Korea in the 1990s. What would be the effect or effects of continuing in that direction? 

MK: U.S. nuclear weapons are special. They underwrite international peace and security. Many other countries, like China, use nuclear weapons to defend themselves, but the United States uses its nuclear weapons to defend the entire free world. We extend our “nuclear umbrella” to over 30  formal treaty allies in Europe and Asia. This has provided geopolitical stability to the most important regions around the globe and persuaded other countries not to build their own nuclear weapons because they can rely on Washington.

Defending the entire free world, however, requires a robust nuclear posture. If the United States were to drastically cut its nuclear arsenal, or otherwise weaken its deterrence posture, there could be dangerous consequences. Nuclear-armed rivals, like Russia, China, and North Korea, could be more likely to challenge us and our allies, potentially sparking dangerous nuclear crises. Moreover, our allies might decide that they can no longer count on us for their security. Japan, South Korea, Poland, and other countries might decide to build their own nuclear weapons, leading to a cascade of proliferation in Europe and Asia.

LW: This book presents your “superiority-brinkmanship synthesis theory.” Please explain to our audience of non-nuclear-experts what this phrase means.

MK: For decades, scholars have conceptualized nuclear deterrence as a game of chicken. Nuclear-armed states don’t want to crash directly into their opponents in the form of a devastating nuclear war. But they also want to convince their adversary to swerve first when serious conflicts of interest arise.

Superiority-brinkmanship synthesis theory is a mouthful, but the logic is quite simple. In a game of chicken, we might expect the smaller car to swerve first even if a crash is bad for both. Nuclear-superior states should be more likely to get their way in high stakes crises and less likely to be challenged in the first place—and that is exactly what the data in my book show.

Since the United States might be called upon on any given day to play a game of nuclear chicken on behalf of any one of dozens of allies against formidable nuclear-armed rivals, it is no surprise that Washington chooses to drive a Hummer and not a Prius.


LW: Your argument assumes that everyone is clear on which country has an inferior atomic arsenal and which has a superior one. In the historical examples you looked at in the book, true enough, it was the nuclear-inferior nation that backed down in every case. But how would you counter the worry, today, that the North Korean dictator is not a normal adversary, and might not conform to this pattern?

MK: Nearly all of nuclear deterrence theory and strategy (and foreign policy more broadly) assumes that one’s adversaries are rational. If they are crazy, then all bets are off. After all, maybe a madman would actually prefer a nuclear conflagration over peace. Fortunately, in this case, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has shown himself to be fairly pragmatic. He wants himself and his regime to survive and he and his family have done a remarkable job of holding on to power under difficult circumstances. For these reasons, I suspect he won’t be eager to fight a war with the United States.

LW: Let’s move on to China and Russia. Russia has enjoyed a rough nuclear parity with the United States since the 1970s. In contrast, China’s capabilities (like those of North Korea) are inferior to America’s capabilities. The idea of a U.S. build-up in order to place Russia where China and North Korea currently are—that is, with a nuclear posture inferior to that of the United States—what do you say to those who see pursuing such a goal as costly and also destabilizing? 

MK: I wouldn’t recommend an arms race with Russia currently for a variety of reasons. But, you are correct that many argue that a robust U.S. nuclear posture, or superiority over Russia (or China) would be destabilizing and too costly. This is incorrect. International relations scholars have consistently shown that military parity is associated with conflict whereas preponderances of power are correlated with peace. If anything, therefore, U.S. superiority over Russia should be more stable than the current balance of terror.

And nuclear weapons are cheap. Over the years, countries with difficult budgetary problems have tended to rely more, not less, on nuclear weapons in their military strategies. They quite literally provide a lot of bang for the buck. The United States currently spends only about 5 percent of its defense budget on nukes.


LW: How well or poorly does the Defense Department’s recently released Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) align with what you’ve advocated in The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy?

MK: The new NPR is quite good and aligns nicely with the arguments in my book. This is not entirely by coincidence as the authors are friends and colleagues and we frequently share insights and recommendations on these issues. The nuclear strategy community is quite small.

Current U.S. nuclear strategy is consistent, in its main respects, with its forerunners going back decades. The fact is John F. Kennedy and Donald Trump have much in common on this score. Kennedy wanted a nuclear arsenal “second to none” and Trump wants one at “the top of the pack.” In other words, those responsible for keeping the American people safe agree that, as the subtitle of my book has it, “strategic superiority matters.”


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