The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy

Matthew Kroenig

Overview:  In 1984, Robert Jervis published a wide-ranging critique of American nuclear strategy, entitled “The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy,” in which he argued that much of the thinking by nuclear strategists and decision-makers within the US federal government had, over the previous decades, been based on a flawed understanding of the nature of both nuclear deterrence and strategic stability.  He suggested that the United States need only possess the ability to strike back at Soviet nuclear forces in order to deter them from launching a surprise attack on the US or its allies.  Any capability in excess of this was unnecessary and, even more problematically, destabilizing.

For both Schelling and Jervis, threats issued by a state with a numerical inferiority could be viewed as equivalently credible, if not more so, than those issued by one with a larger and thus more destructive capability if the stakes involved were greater for the numerically inferior state.   Matthew Kroenig’s recently released, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, is in many ways a direct rebuttal to Jervis, Schelling, and the many scholarly works published since that echo these sentiments.  In it, he lays out a detailed argument as to why such an approach is at best incomplete, if not wholly misguided.

Kroenig begins by reviewing the classic logic of the brinkmanship game, which suggests that once each state in a two-player game possesses a second-strike capability, any additional capability should not affect the outcome of the game.  If both sides escalate to nuclear war, each player in the game is affected equally (destruction).  The winner of the game is thus determined not by whether one possesses more or less capability, but which, as mentioned previously, is more resolute and/or risk-acceptant.  Kroenig smartly points out, as he has in previous scholarship, that it is obviously not the case that two states with drastically different sized nuclear arsenals would suffer in the same way in such a situation.  Were such an exchange to occur between the United States and China, for example, the comparatively small size of the Chinese nuclear force combined with the US’ ability to destroy much of the Chinese nuclear arsenal before its use would virtually guarantee a US victory.