During the Cold War, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States held the upper hand when it came to nuclear weapons. The world’s two superpowers kept each other in check for 50 years through a stalemate known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), in which either side could destroy the other if attacked. But that is changing, and the shift has profound consequences, says an article co-authored by Notre Dame political scientist Kier Lieber. The article was published last March in the journal Foreign Affairs and reprinted in The New York Times.
Upon examining the tea leaves of diplomatic and Defense Department policy and running a computer model simulating the likely outcome of a pre-emptive U.S. strike against Russia and China, Lieber and Daryl Press of the University of Pennsylvania conclude that the United States will soon have the upper hand over the potential rival nations. They also conclude that the U.S. government apparently is pursuing a deliberate course of nuclear primacy.
The scholars note that the United States has significantly enhanced its nuclear arsenal since the fall of the Soviet Union, whereas Russia’s inherited arsenal has deteriorated and China has been slow to expand its nuclear capability. Further, they point out that the limited nuclear defense shield the United States is pursuing makes the most sense when viewed as an adjunct to a first-strike capability, defending against the few retaliatory missiles a devastated foe might attempt to launch.
Lieber and Press note that whether U.S. nuclear primacy is positive depends upon the ideological perspective of the observer. The political scientists point out that military hawks “will welcome the new nuclear era because they trust that U.S. dominance in both conventional and nuclear weapons will help deter aggression by other countries.” In contrast, doves will worry about U.S. nuclear dominance, fearing it will “lure Washington into more aggressive behavior.” Finally, owls, whom the authors define as those who worry about inadvertent nuclear war, will brood that threatened countries might adopt hair-trigger policies, such as giving nuclear control to low-level commanders, which could lead to tragedy.
The article, which may be read in its entirety at the Foreign Affairs website, has generated wide-ranging and intense international reaction, especially from some Russian commentators, including former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, who viewed it as provocative.
In an interview with The Observer, Gideon Rose, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, dismissed as ludicrous the idea that the article was an attempt to coerce Russia. “The reason that it struck a chord in Russia was that it made public in a very provocative way something that many security experts understood but that Russian citizens may not have,” Rose told Notre Dame’s student newspaper. “We thought it would provoke a response, but even we were surprised by just how strong the response was in Russia.”