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We Don’t Know as Much About Nuclear Strategy as We Think We Do

June 03, 2024
Eleni Ekmektsioglou

Eleni Ekmektsioglou

The destructive potential of the nuclear bomb changed warfighting forever. A Cold War lexicon emerged to describe a new geopolitical environment defined by concepts such as mutual assured destruction (MAD), damage limitation, and limited nuclear war. These concepts continue to inform strategic thought as intelligence reports predict rapid growth and modernization of China’s nuclear arsenal. Amid speculation of an imminent shift in Beijing’s nuclear strategy, Cold War-era ideas have been treated by experts as gospel. After all, if the Cold War was won thanks to these theories, why question them?

However, that logic is misguided. Cold War nuclear theory was developed to answer specific questions in a unique security environment against an enemy with distinct characteristics. These theories can be informative, but they should not be treated as axioms to guide U.S. nuclear policy vis-à-vis China for a number of reasons.

First, the way China values and understands the bomb is different than the Soviet Union—and that matters. Unlike the Soviet Union, China regards its nuclear arsenal as an instrument to counter coercion with limited military value. Chinese President Xi Jinping told the French newspaper Le Figaro that China views the nuclear bomb as a means of leverage during peacetime rather than a tool for escalation control during wartime, as the Soviet Union did.

The stark difference between Chinese and Soviet views of the bomb reminds us that deterrence is the injection of influence into an adversary’s cost-benefit calculations, which are not limited to material variables. Each state defines what it wants and what it is willing to pay to achieve it—the so-called balance of resolve—differently. While one could calculate the balance of capabilities in a specific crisis scenario, the balance of resolve factors in non-material variables such as nationalism, status concerns, or even leaders’ personalities. For that, regional expertise and a deep understanding of what the competitor values are more useful than one-size-fits-all Cold War theories.

Second, the distribution of power in East Asia’s regional environment challenges Cold War-derived theories further. Whereas these theories were premised on a bipolar world order, today, the international system is moving towards multi-polarity, with two important nuclear players, India and Pakistan, sitting at China’s southern flank. China’s nuclear strategy needs to take into account more than one nuclear competitor, which was not the case for the United States and Soviet Union during the Cold War. The China-India-Pakistan nuclear relationship further complicates any U.S. attempt to assess a limited nuclear war scenario given the potential for unintended escalation between the three nations.

Finally, despite an impressive body of Cold War literature on nuclear coercion and nuclear escalation management, we have no way of knowing if these strategies actually work because, luckily, nuclear war never broke out. Concepts of nuclear crisis or intrawar deterrence are difficult to define and impossible to observe without the use of arbitrarily chosen proxy variables.

In other words, there is no definitive proof that popular theories of controlled nuclear escalation or limited nuclear strikes would materialize in a real operational environment. As a matter of fact, we have ample evidence showing the opposite. The U.S. Armed Forces have been wargaming these theories for decades, proving their limitations. For instance, the U.S. Strategic Command’s annual wargame, Global Thunder, features options for the limited use of nuclear weapons. Every single year, the wargame has shown that limited nuclear strikes lead to a full-scale escalation, contradicting well-consolidated Cold War wisdom.

Today, nostalgia for the Cold War is being used to justify strategic concepts that were supposedly tested and validated. But we don’t really know what the magic ingredient behind Cold War deterrence was. What we do know—based on U.S. and Soviet archives—is that both powers experienced insecurity that led to strategic or intelligence blunders such as the U.S. bomber and missile gaps or the Soviet’s decision to develop the Perimeter system. Deterrence was a moving target that the greatest strategic minds in Washington and Moscow sought to get a hold of. Nothing was certain, and there were no unquestionable strategic truths.

As the historian Francis Gavin wrote, “the correct reaction to the dangers and uncertainty surrounding nuclear crises and possible nuclear war is seriousness and epistemological humility.” Despite the intellectual comfort of using Cold War theoretical concepts to understand the world, we need to do so with caution.

We may have come out of the Cold War with more questions than answers. We must acknowledge this. Humility is far safer than overconfidence when dealing with nuclear weapons.

Eleni Ekmektsioglou is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Technology and International Security at the UC Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation (IGCC). 

Thumbnail credit: National Archives

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