For six decades, nuclear weapons have shaped the behavior of states -- largely for the better, as the destructive potential of such weapons has encouraged extreme caution during conflicts, which has helped prevent disasters. But the stability of the atomic age has bred complacency and reduced policymakers’ fluency with the nuances and practicalities of nuclear strategy. Those trained in the dark arts of deterrence are growing older and are not being replaced, even though the weapons live on. It is therefore important for fresh eyes to look at the dilemmas created by nuclear weapons.
Nichols provides a succinct history of those dilemmas and a sharp critique of Washington’s recent moves away from traditional deterrence theory and toward introducing “operational” elements into nuclear policy. He shows how post–Cold War attempts to bring clarity to U.S. nuclear policy have resulted instead in an approach that depends on ambiguity, and he asks whether it is realistic to expect military organizations to implement deliberately vague ideas. After demonstrating just how hard it would be to find a rational reason for a country to use nuclear weapons under any circumstances -- even after suffering a first-strike nuclear attack -- Nichols argues that the United States should adopt a minimalist approach to deterrence by limiting its stock of nuclear weapons, reducing the centrality of nuclear arms in U.S. national security policy, and developing better conventional weapons and better strategies to deal with crises. Such an approach, he argues, would also allow the United States to wean its allies off their dependence on extended U.S. nuclear deterrence and encourage them to take more responsibility for their own defense. In making this argument, Nichols perhaps understates the powerful political symbolism of the nuclear guarantees Washington offers.
The contributors to Larsen and Kartchner’s collection focus on how the United States might respond if a relatively small number of nuclear weapons were used in a conflict and examine possible methods for bringing such a conflict to an end. They offer a speculative but serious and well-informed journey through a variety of scenarios and contingencies, reminding readers that nuclear policy is a two-way street: U.S. policymakers’ efforts to develop credible answers to the problems of the atomic age are inevitably shaped by the way other states pose their own nuclear questions.