Nuclear Revolution Theory Survives Attack
The Revolution That Failed: Nuclear Competition, Arms Control,
and the Cold War
By Brendan Rittenhouse Green
(Cambridge University Press, 2020)
Reviewed by George Perkovich
The title gives away the ambition and, ultimately, the shortcoming of this book. Brendan Rittenhouse Green argues that the “nuclear revolution” theory posed by Robert Jervis, Kenneth Waltz, Charles Glaser, and others was and is wrong. This bold claim is sure to draw attention, but Green’s project depends on a straw-man version of the nuclear revolution theory. More regrettably, the theoretical debate running through the book diverts readers from the revealing archival reportage of the sometimes surreal nuclear posture and arms control policy debates of the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, from 1969 to 1979.
Green sketches the straw theory on Page 1. The theory of “the nuclear revolution, often referred to as Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD), he writes,
drains all of the competition out of the international system. With victory on the battlefield impossible, the military balance is stalemated: states can no longer be stronger than one another, or exploit their relative strength in international bargaining. Further nuclear capabilities are therefore useless, and the military incentives for arms races and wars disappear. Likewise, because the defender of the status quo holds the advantage in the balance of resolve, challenges to the international order are destined to fail and will not be launched. Peace should prevail between nuclear powers, the status quo should be entrenched, and the traditional motors of great power rivalry should run out of gas.
He continues, “The nuclear revolution’s logic would appear to brook no argument, at least not among rational men and women…. Nuclear stalemate appears as a kind of brute fact, one that produces a nearly irresistible force locking rational states into stable force postures.”
Jervis and Glasercan defend themselves, but it is difficult to imagine them saying the MAD theory removes all international competition. The evidence to the contrary appeared every night on the broadcast news: Vietnam, the 1973 Middle East war, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Angola, Afghanistan. The theory simply said it would be insane for U.S. and Soviet leaders to attack each other’s homeland or that of treaty-protected allies. Nuclear competitors could be stronger than one another, but once they could guarantee massive nuclear retaliation to an adversary’s first strike, nuclear superiority should not be expected to give them a significant advantage in international bargaining or coercion. Challenges to the international order could come from many sources, including anti-colonial movements, political and technological revolutions, economic supply chain disruptions, and the rise of new powers.
Finally, the theory says nuclear competition should wane, not that it will. Regardless of how their rationality is assessed, people may still compete and seek advantage or dominance, including in nuclear forces. The nuclear revolution theory says they will not successfully escape from being deterred from initiating major aggression against an adversary with a survivable nuclear arsenal.
Green recognizes much of this. He acknowledges that “the Cold War blessedly ended without real political instability—a major war, crisis, or challenge to the status quo.” Oddly, he gives that fundamental conclusion second place, which enables him to say the nuclear revolution theory failed. He then offers his own theory to explain why “Washington consistently chose nuclear force postures characterized by military competition which seek to gain military advantages over rivals that could be converted into bargaining leverage in a crisis or time of peace,” instead of accepting the stability of the theory of MAD.
Green’s theory has two mechanisms, “the Delicate Nuclear Balance and Comparative Constitutional Fitness,” which together seek to “explain both the intense Cold War nuclear competition that occurred after nuclear stalemate was achieved and its bizarre juxtaposition against arms control talks.” He says the nuclear balance appeared delicate, rather than stable, because one side could imagine that itself or an adversary could find a new technology that would provide a significant advantage. A side with a perceived advantage could be emboldened to act aggressively rather than remain deterred. The worst-case analysis would have each side assume the other was seeking such advantage. That could create incentives to act preemptively before the balance of power got worse in the run-up to war or as war escalates. Conceivably, arms control could ameliorate these uncertainties and manage competition, but competitive urges and domestic political-economic interests created other rationales that precluded robust arms control, he argues.
Although Green acknowledges that “nuclear stalemate persisted throughout the Cold War, in spite of superpower attempts to undermine it,” he asserts that “effective peacetime competition can provide large political benefits, whether or not a state ever escapes nuclear stalemate.” Nuclear superiority or the perception of it “enhances general deterrence, diverts enemy resources, and can force important political adjustments in its grand strategy, while also bolstering alliance cohesion,” he writes.
Green scrupulously notes that the narrative and the theories he propounds focus on only two countries, the United States and the Soviet Union, in one decade, 1969–1979. Moreover, the driving challenge for the United States was the exceptional one of providing extended nuclear deterrence to allies. No other country does that. Yet, Green’s frequent use of the present tense and “states” as a general noun rather than specific proper nouns give a grander impression of his theory’s reach.
There are many things to say about all this. To start, the leverage that nuclear competition supposedly provides to change adversaries’ behavior is rather abstract. The declassified U.S. documents that fill Green’s narrative show Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter and their top advisers talking like theorists playing a game. Meanwhile, in the real world, the nuclear balance had almost no effect on the Vietnam peace negotiations and war; the 1973 Middle East war and subsequent Camp David negotiations; the contests in Angola, Ethiopia, and El Salvador; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Green mentions none of these real-world developments. Yet, if the nuclear balance were a meaningful bargaining tool, one would expect this could be demonstrated through real-world episodes.
Indeed, the omission of Nixon’s attempt to use nuclear superiority to make Moscow behave differently regarding Vietnam is particularly curious. As William Burr and Jeffrey Kimball documented in their important book Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War, in October 1969, Nixon, with National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger at his side, secretly ordered a worldwide alert of U.S. nuclear forces to scare Moscow into “persuading Hanoi to make the military and political concessions desired by Washington and Saigon at the negotiating table in Paris.”1 If ever there was an example of the competitive logic Green discusses, here it was. Yet, no mention occurs in the book. If Green had addressed it, he would have been forced to conclude that the nuclear balance and this alert did not affect the Soviet leadership in any way. Nixon’s belief that he would have had to appear crazy to make Soviet leaders believe the nuclear threat confirms the basic proposition of the nuclear revolution theory. Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann demonstrate the uselessness of nuclear weapons for compelling adversaries to change behavior in their important book Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy. Green does not refer to their work either.
Rationality—how to define it, contextualize it, and apply it to nuclear policymaking—shadows this book. The nuclear revolution theory depends on rationality in the sense that decision-makers are assumed to prefer stability over instability and want to avoid self-destructive war and allocate resources efficiently on socially beneficial projects. Yet, that grand strategic rationality does not necessarily motivate individuals, parties, and organizations at moments short of an actual decision to launch nuclear weapons.
The president of the United States and reportedly the president of Russia plus one or two military advisers would ultimately decide whether to launch their country’s nuclear weapons. Their decision-making would determine whether the rationality supposed in the nuclear revolution theory holds in practice. Below that level, subsidiary individuals and institutions use instrumental rationality to pursue various lower-level interests, such as contracts for military-industrial businesses, defense budgets for weapons labs and military services, jobs for congressional districts, and votes for members of Congress.
Green’s account of the domestic political-economic drivers of nuclear competition captures some of this when he writes that each state’s actions were “influenced by their different economies, political institutions, civil-military politics, ideology, and vulnerability to public opinion.” These attributes combine to determine a state’s “comparative constitutional fitness,” in the formulation Green borrows from Aaron Friedberg. Green, however, exaggerates the role of strategic logic in the policymaking process. As Scott Sagan has noted,2 Green misses how staff in the nuclear weapons command did not listen to or follow guidance in the period Green covers and later.
That should not be surprising. What military leaders and war-fighting organizations would voluntarily accept being deterred from seeking ways to defeat their adversaries? Their jobs and their professional identities are to be undeterred. What the nuclear revolution means is that they will not succeed when it comes to direct, large-scale conflict against adversaries with assured nuclear retaliatory forces, and political leaders should be able to recognize this. Military and clandestine operators may find ways to conduct covert operations in third countries. They may try information operations, subversion, cyberespionage, and perhaps sabotage. They will look for ways to conduct limited nuclear wars. Someone else will have to impose on them the restraints of the MAD theory.
Similarly, individuals and enterprises that design and build nuclear weapons systems rationally pursue a range of interests and purposes that may not be necessary for nuclear deterrence. These impulses help drive competition for nuclear superiority and countermeasures to the other side’s quest for the same. Siegfried Hecker, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997, tells the story about how, in the mid-1990s after the Cold War ended, he sometimes enlivened meetings with Russian counterparts by saying, “Throughout the Cold War, everyone thought we were competing with you—with Arzamas-16 and Chelyabinsk-70. It is true that the Soviet Union was our adversary, but for Los Alamos, the real enemy was Livermore [National Laboratory].” The room would break into laughter. One of the Russian leaders would typically reply, “It was the same with us. Chelyabinsk (or Arzamas) was our enemy.”3
The interests and forces that propel some actors toward an arms race led others to invent arms control, which is supposed to be an instrument of restraint against irrationality, wantonness, and suicidal violence. Yet, the same interests that drive individuals and institutions to compete against mutual deterrence drive them to compete through arms control by gaming the restraints and seeking the putative advantages of competition.
“MAD has no explanation for why Cold War arms control became the Seinfeld of great power politics: a wildly popular show about nothing,” Green writes in his clever style. His explanation is that Washington wanted technological competition to gain leverage over Moscow and impress allies and “was not well suited for negotiating arms control with the Soviet Union” because the ability of presidents to maneuver was weakened by congressional pressure against defense spending and for arms control.
For Green, that is why the United States “used arms control in a competitive fashion, aiming to channel the competition toward its qualitative strengths” while seeking to limit the number of weapons to compensate for tighter defense budgets. Green mentions, almost in passing, that the constitutional requirement for a supermajority in the Senate to ratify treaties also could complicate greater arms control progress.
The quip about Seinfeld obscures the fact that the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, combined with successive treaties to limit and then reduce offensive missiles, helped avoid an even more wasteful strategic arms race. These measures stabilized the Cold War competition for 30 years and helped end it without a superpower war, the essential purposes of arms control.
The abstractness of the book’s academic theorizing glosses over both the macrolevel irrationality of nuclear arms racing and the perversity of the microlevel rationalities that drive participants. Washington’s approach to nuclear arms control is not very different from its approach to gun control. There is a core of voters fixated on being unrestrained, and many politicians who feel the issue is not worth losing votes over, even though the result is more murderous and expensive for the American people than gun control would probably be. Rich lobbying organizations such as the National Rifle Association gain outsized influence with congressional candidates. The routine threat of the filibuster to require 60 senatorial votes to move legislation enables a motivated minority to prevail. What might rationally be the best outcome for society as a whole is not so politically or economically good for the particular actors who combine to make policy, and they smartly mobilize to get their way.
When Green moves from explicating the archival record to arguing the superiority of his theories, it sometimes seems like he is trying to prove he is the smartest kid in the class. Important stuff gets lost in the process. For example, he quotes a passage from Jervis to set up a critique of the nuclear revolution theory: “[O]nce ‘both sides have second strike capability, crises should not be frequent…. [T]he knowledge that war would be suicide coupled with the bargaining advantage possessed by the side defending the status quo means that would[-]be expansionists should be loath to instigate confrontations.’” Green ends the quote there, but Jervis’s next line is, “Furthermore, [those crises] that occur usually should be in peripheral areas and be initiated, not by the superpowers themselves, but by local actors.”4 This omitted line describes a lot of what ensued in the real world and remains so challenging with extended deterrence.
Indeed, Jervis’ text holds up very well on rereading and is ultimately more instructive. For example, Jervis writes that he “would propose the hypothesis that American foreign policy toward the [Soviet Union] has more often suffered from the difficulty of making the Soviets believe its promises than from that of making them believe its threats.”5 For all of Green’s theorizing about bargaining, he never explores the importance of convincing the other side that one will make and keep positive promises to ease competition or pressure if the adversary changes its threatening behavior.
That omission could be relevant to future U.S. relations with China and North Korea. Nuclear balances may be delicate as Green emphasizes in the U.S.-Soviet case. Yet U.S. nuclear capabilities have eclipsed Chinese capabilities for decades, and the gap between U.S. and North Korean capabilities is also enormous. Even so, Washington is unable to compel either one to change its behavior, and it is deterred from attacking both. Is the basic theory of nuclear revolution wrong? It does not seem so. Nuclear revolution theory suggests, however, that the United States needs to be more equitable in what it proposes and accepts in arms control negotiations.
As long as major war between nuclear-armed states does not occur, the revolution has not failed. Instead, Green’s book describes the ultimately futile quest by Nixon, Kissinger, and others in Washington and Moscow to arms-race away from nuclear deterrence in search of useable nuclear superiority. That history is being repeated today. Were Green to widen his aperture and show how irrelevant the differences in the nuclear balance were to the successes and failures of the United States and Soviet Union, it would be a useful cautionary tale, more aptly called “The Counter-Revolution That Failed.” For, even if one believed that competing with the United States caused the Soviet Union to collapse, nuclear weapons still have not provided Washington or Moscow with bargaining leverage to change each other’s behavior today.
2. Scott D. Sagan, “Nuclear Revelations About the Nuclear Revolution,” in Book Review Roundtable: The Revolution That Failed, June 14, 2021, https://tnsr.org/roundtable/book-review-roundtable-the-revolution-that-failed/.
George Perkovich is the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Chair and vice president for studies, overseeing the Technology and International Affairs Program, and the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP).