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U.S. should tailor its nuclear arsenal for 21st century threats, says Dartmouth Professor of Government

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 10/23/09 • Media Contact: Latarsha Gatlin (603) 646-3661

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Daryl Press
Daryl Press (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

Nuclear deterrence may become far harder in the coming decades, argues Daryl G. Press, Associate Professor of Government, in a paper published on Oct. 22 in Foreign Affairs magazine. Whereas deterring nuclear attacks during peacetime is a relatively simple mission, preventing nuclear escalation during a conventional war among nuclear-armed states is a far more difficult challenge. As more potential U.S. adversaries acquire nuclear weapons, the risks of escalation will grow.

The paper titled, The Nukes We Need: Preserving the American Deterrent, notes that there is an important debate occurring in Washington about the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal: whether the U.S. should retain these weapons and what size arsenal we should keep. The article describes the coming challenges for deterrence, and explains the role of U.S. nuclear forces in preventing escalation during crises and wars. Second, it argues that some weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal are far more valuable than others. The article recommends that the U.S. retain the smallest yield weapons in its arsenal, and improve their accuracy. This would bolster deterrence by giving a U.S. president the ability to make credible retaliatory threats.

Press co-wrote the paper with Keir A. Lieber, Associate Professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. They conclude that if the United States is not careful as it cuts its arsenal, it may find itself with a force that is unusable and unable to deter attacks on the United States or its allies. In that situation, “the United States’ adversaries might conclude—perhaps correctly—that Washington’s nuclear strategy rests largely on a bluff.”

Since its founding in 1922, Foreign Affairs has been the leading forum for serious discussion of American foreign policy and international affairs. It is published by the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-profit and nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to improving the understanding of U.S. foreign policy and international affairs through the free exchange of ideas.

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Last Updated: 10/23/09