According to conventional wisdom, the likelihood of a sovereign nation using nuclear weapons deliberately on the United States or its allies is extremely small. This perceived low probability has moved analyst to stress the nuclear dangers posed by irrational and delusional leaders, stateless terrorists, misperceptions and accidents. Since formal nuclear deterrence strategy does not tackle these dangers, many analysts and policymakers have highlighted non-proliferation and fissile material security as the core of the US national security strategy. Nuclear forces, including warheads, delivery systems and associated infrastructures are thus more commonly viewed as relics of the Cold War era.
Dr. Lieber argues the conventional wisdom is dangerously wrong for four reasons. First, nuclear weapons are just as salient today as they were in the past. Many of America’s current potential adversaries — and other countries around the world — face the exact problem NATO faced in the Cold War: how to deter an adversary that possesses overwhelming conventional military power. They rely on nuclear weapons for this critical task, just as the United States and NATO relied upon them during the Cold War. Second, relatively weaker states face powerful rational incentives to employ nuclear weapons during a conventional war against a much stronger adversary.Third, the logic of wartime nuclear escalation shaped the defense plans and nuclear employment doctrines of several nuclear states in the past, and it continues to do so today. Fourth, several aspects of modern warfare exacerbate the incentives for the weak to escalate conflicts rather than accept battlefield defeat. Conventional conflicts among nuclear-armed states will therefore unleash strong escalatory dynamics. Professors Lieber conclude with the implications for US national security policy, force structure, and the nuclear weapons complex.
Keir Lieber is Associate Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University (Ph.D. University of Chicago). Professor Lieber is the author of War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology, and an expert in nuclear deterrence and international relations theory.