Nuclear Strategy: Can There Be a Happy Ending?

Courtesy Reuters

Our policies for preventing nuclear war, mercifully, have never been tested to the point of failure. This cannot be said of our policies that have sought to reverse, or at least to halt, the expansion of nuclear arsenals threatening our annihilation. For more than two decades now, the United States, using both diplomacy and self-restraint, has tried—and failed—to halt the nuclear arms competition with the Soviet Union.

The most important reason for seeking to manage and control the nuclear arms competition is to reduce the risk of nuclear war. The U.S. pursuit of these linked objectives, however, has been under the spell of a particular theory from the mid-1960s until recently. This theory holds that "the two sides" can limit or reduce their nuclear weaponry if, and only if, they both consent to leave their territory totally vulnerable to each other’s nuclear attack. Such consensual vulnerability constitutes "strategic stability," according to the theory, and is the best, if not the only, way to prevent nuclear war for the indefinite future.

In the real world, nuclear forces are built and managed not by two indistinguishable "sides," but by very distinct governments and military organizations. These, in turn, are run by people, people who are ignorant of many facts, people who can be gripped by anger or fear, people who make mistakes—sometimes dreadful mistakes.

The intellectual poverty of the consensual vulnerability theory accounts for much of the current opposition to strategic defense. Of course, like most theories that gain throngs of adherents, this theory contains a kernel of truth. Up to a point, the nuclear age has led to "two sides" mutually vulnerable to each other’s retaliation. So any military expert may say some valid things about mutual nuclear vulnerability without considering how governments really function, or how people think and act. So too, any surveyor can measure a plot of land without considering the shape of the earth. But we cannot navigate to a distant

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