Seventy-five years ago with the American atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world—it was said—was transformed. The desolation of those two Japanese cities, hotly debated to have caused the end of World War II, also inaugurated the start of what we have come to call the Atomic Age. It was a world in which the conventional wisdom of strategy, war, and territoriality was suspended in favor of new doctrines of deterrence and mutually assured destruction.
But what if it wasn’t? What if the nuclear revolution was not a revolution at all, but an evolution at best, an increase—unquestionably on orders of magnitude—of humankind’s terrifying destructive power, but not a disruption of the actual logic of war, or even of military strategy. What if the world in the Atomic Age looks a lot like the world in, well, just about any other age? What if the revolution was, if not a myth, greatly exaggerated?
That is the argument of Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press in The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in an Atomic Age. Unquestionably, they argue, nuclear weapons changed military doctrines. But they did not change the fundamental rules of power politics, of competitive geopolitical rivalry, of arms races, of ever-larger conventional forces, not like we were assured that they would. Hence, their nuclear puzzle: “If nuclear-armed countries are fundamentally secure from attack, why don’t they act accordingly?” If strategic nuclear reprisal guarantees our security, why are we still spending so much on it?
The Myth of Nuclear Revolution is a very short, easily read book. It is, in some ways, an excellent primer on nuclear doctrine for the past 75 years. It does an enviable job of summarizing and synthesizing nuclear posture on the part of the great powers, periodizing and analyzing how and why different deterrence strategies were adopted. Despite its clear-eyed criticism of a widely held assumption in international politics, the theory of the nuclear revolution, it is far from abolitionist. The book bears in its dedication—to the author’s children—not a hope for a world without nuclear weapons, but one “in which careful scholarship and smart policies minimize the terror inherent in these weapons while maximizing the prospects for an enduring nuclear peace.” On almost every page the authors remind us that nuclear weapons are the best tools of deterrence ever created. On the last page they even write “nuclear weapons have made the world a better place.”
How to answer their puzzle, then? The clue, they argue, is that though they believe nuclear weapons are causally related to great-power peace, there is a flaw in the logic “linking nuclear stalemate to pacified international politics.” Nuclear weapons do not automatically create stalemates. In fact, the stalemate on which deterrence is often predicated is nearly impossible to achieve, unlikely to be maintained, and does not even ultimately resolve a country’s deterrence requirements.
Each of these objections is broken down in their own chapter. In the first, they outline how the mere creation of nuclear weapons is not enough to trigger a stalemate. One must have not only the weapons, but the credible forces necessary to use them in retaliation. There are several schools of thought on this, including existential deterrence (merely having them is enough to deter), minimum deterrence (not mere possession, but minimally credible deterrence), assured retaliation (truly robust deterrence, guaranteed response), and finally assured destruction (such robust deterrence that catastrophic annihilation is assured in response). The nature of great power politics, argue the authors, ensures that no single school of thought will dominate, and history teaches us that in fact it is the more pessimistic schools of thought that tend to persuade. It is not enough to merely have a nuclear weapon. To deter, one must have a substantial enough arsenal that opening such a conflict is totally irrational and unthinkable. In a world of imperfect intelligence which magnifies persistent fear, this logic leads to arms races.
Which suggests their second criticism of stalemate: the fiction of its stability. Even if a credible deterrent is achieved, other powers are constantly competing to ensure their own deterrents, which will work to undermine each other’s deterrents. The more successful they are, the more they try to escape the stalemate, the greater the danger. So states will work very hard to ensure supremacy where possible, and this is a long, extremely expensive, game.
Finally, the authors do not even credit nuclear weapons with credible conventional deterrence. If states must build a nuclear arsenal to deter conventional as well as nuclear attacks, then scalable escalation is a necessary feature. This “stability-instability paradox” is well known to deterrence theorists: if initiating a nuclear war is unthinkable, no country would do so in response to limited conventional attacks. Debates are many about the real-world application of this paradox, but some argue this is the reason for the proliferation of proxy conflicts between great powers. When direct nuclear conflict is unthinkable, wars must be fought by other means—including, often, other actors.
All of which puzzles together the author’s main argument, which is simply that nuclear weapons have not revolutionized great power politics. Our age is not so unique as we might hope to believe. The atomic age works a lot like the ages before it. But, of course, few Christian realists at Providence would need to be told this: a nuclear world undoubtedly introduces new moral, and strategic, questions into war, but it does not suspend the human condition, nor does it disrupt the logic of great power politics. Regrettably, the perennial problems of both remain constant, even in an enlightened age. Stalemates are not stable.
The policy implications the authors conclude with are bleak. First, they argue that the future of nuclear arms reductions is dark. Technological innovation only fuels breaking nuclear stalemates, escalating arms races, reproducing insecurity. This, second, means they predict an escalating arms race as both rising powers and innovation break stalemates or rupture the deterrence of existing weapons. Third, though, they do not predict mass proliferation to non-nuclear powers, the price of admission to the club now becoming so high, the counterforce capabilities growing so sophisticated, that the costs may outweigh the benefits.
This is a serious, if short and simple book. The core argument deserves a wide readership, though one that I think would be wider if it were distilled into an article. Much of what is insightful and useful to the security community could be condensed from this book, though the book itself may stand in as a longer, more generic introduction to initiates. Admittedly, the authors do not take abolitionist arguments terribly seriously, which in my opinion is a shame. Even Christian realists like Herbert Butterfield gave significant moral pause around the use and even possession of nuclear weapons. No doubt there is a place for serious talk of the “unintended consequences” of the abolitionist argument (129), but this book will not be one of them. It will, however, feed an important argument to decenter, demystify, and demythologize the nuclear revolution in international relations. That, I think, is an important and laudable step, even if I do not share the authors’ enthusiasm for nuclear weapons having made the world “a better place.”