Nuclear Deterrence: Past and Future

Along with a co-author (Keir Lieber, Georgetown University), I am writing a book and a series of articles that explore how nuclear deterrence worked during the Cold War, and investigate the stability of deterrence in the future.

Book Project:
Exploding Deterrence: the Past and Future of Nuclear Weapons

This book explores one of the central questions of great-power politics in the nuclear age: what type of nuclear arsenal is needed to reliably deter nuclear war? American analysts hotly debated this question during the Cold War. Doves claimed that even a small U.S. nuclear force would deter Soviet aggression; Hawks warned that only a massive, survivable arsenal could reliably keep aggressors at bay. But scholars were unable to adjudicate these claims or test the various schools of nuclear deterrence theory. Without access to the most sensitive deliberations about war and peace inside the Kremlin, it was impossible to know how U.S. nuclear posture affected Soviet decisions. That critical evidence was unavailable then, and it still is today.

In this book we clear the intellectual roadblock by reversing the research question. Instead of asking how much U.S. nuclear capability was needed to deter the Soviets, we study the effect of various levels of Soviet nuclear capability on U.S. decision making. Relying on declassified American and British documents from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, we explore a series of questions. How large and capable a nuclear arsenal did the Soviet Union need in order to deter the Western allies from using nuclear weapons in the event of major war? How did U.S. and NATO strategies, war plans, and thoughts about nuclear weapons change throughout the Cold War, and was there a strong connection between Soviet force posture and Western plans? What was the role of the nuclear taboo in constraining nuclear war?

Our archival research on U.S. and British decision-making overturns much of the conventional wisdom about nuclear deterrence, and our findings suggest that major deterrent challenges lie ahead. We hope that this book will be the best test to date of the various schools of nuclear deterrence, and that it will re-cast the role of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The book also offers fresh evidence that casts doubt on the strength of the "nuclear taboo," and analyzes how new trends are creating challenge for nuclear deterrence in the coming decades. We have presented early drafts of papers based on this research at Dartmouth College, Notre Dame University, the University of Chicago, and Princeton University.

"Changes in the Nuclear Balance of Power"

For decades, nuclear weapons have been synonymous with stalemate and slaughter. Technological change, however, is rendering false many of these "old truths" about nuclear weaponry. My coauthor and I use a variety of unclassified models to assess how the accuracy revolution - which has revolutionized conventional war - is transforming nuclear weapons and undermining the foundations of deterrence. Our first set of articles on this topic ("The End of MAD," International Security, and "The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy," Foreign Affairs) demonstrated that little-noticed changes in the U.S. nuclear arsenal have vastly increased the U.S. ability to wage and win nuclear wars. More recently, we have used a variety of modeling tools to demonstrate that the accuracy revolution is making low-casualty nuclear conflict a possibility for the first time. ("The Nukes We Need," Foreign Affairs, and the accompanying technical appendix.) These findings bring a mix of good and bad news for the United States: while they may reduce U.S. vulnerability to nuclear coercion, they may also blur the nuclear threshold and increase the odds of nuclear warfare. We have presented our results - the modeling work and the strategic analysis - at Draper Laboratories, Lincoln Laboratories, the U.K. Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) in Aldermaston, and the United States Strategic Command (Offutt Air Force Base, Omaha, Nebraska).

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Economic Globalization, Energy, and Security

Along with a co-author, (Eugene Gholz, UT Austin) I am working on a project that investigates the effects of economic globalization on war, and the effects of war on the global economy. The conventional wisdom holds that globalization has created so much interdependence that disruptions (such as from war) could cause serious economic consequences around the world. On the one hand, this interdependence is said to be an important cause of peace; on the other hand, tight interdependence implies that even faraway troubles threaten the economies of the major economic powers, potentially drawing them into far-away conflicts.

Gholz and I are exploring how the globalized economy has responded to major shocks; recently we have focused on the economic consequences of energy sector disruptions (e.g., conflicts in oil-producing regions, and attacks on tankers). This research has produced one article in Security Studies that offers a theory that identifies the conditions in which wars create significant economic damage around the world. We have also published a paper for the Cato Institute that examines how the oil industry in particular responds to shocks. In another article (currently under review at an academic journal) we develop a theory of cartel bargaining - and cartel responses to shocks - which we test using monthly country-level data on oil production and price levels. We have also discussed our findings in an op-ed in the New York Times (2009), and in an article in the American Interest (forthcoming). We are currently drafting an article comparing Russia's demonstrated ability to use the "energy weapon" by restricting natural gas sales to Europe with China's apparent efforts to acquire major stakes of equity oil in the developing world.

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