In a little under three decades, nuclear weapons have gone from center stage to a sideshow in U.S. defense strategy. Since the 1990s, the United States has drastically reduced its stockpile and concentrated on its conventional and irregular warfare capabilities. Nuclear weapons policy has focused overwhelmingly on stemming proliferation to countries such as Iran and North Korea, and prominent political and national security figures have even called for abolishing nuclear weapons altogether. What was once the core of the country’s Cold War strategy has been reduced to an afterthought.
Immediately after the Cold War, when the United States enjoyed unprecedented global power, this approach seemed reasonable. Washington didn’t need much of a nuclear strategy against Iraq or Serbia. But now, great-power competition has returned. Russia wants to upend the post–Cold War status quo in Europe. A rising China seeks ascendancy, first over Asia and ultimately beyond. To accomplish this, each country has developed military forces ideally suited to fight and defeat the United States in a future war. And modern, mobile nuclear capabilities are a key part of their strategies.
These capabilities could allow Russia or China to pressure or attack U.S. allies and to block any efforts by the United States to fight back. This should cause great alarm among U.S. policymakers: American grand strategy is rooted in a network of alliances designed to maintain favorable regional balances of power and protect U.S. access and trade across the globe. These alliances work as long as they can be credibly defended against outside challengers. But if Russia and China can win wars against the United States in Europe and Asia, respectively, then these revisionist states will press their advantage—with painful and possibly disastrous consequences for U.S. interests in the world.
Washington’s task is clear. It must demonstrate to Moscow and Beijing that any attempt to use force against U.S. friends and allies would likely fail and would certainly result
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