Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy


With sweeping changes in the Soviet Union and East Europe having shaken core assumptions of U.S. defense policy, it is time to reassess basic questions of American nuclear strategy and force requirements. In a comprehensive analysis of these issues, Charles Glaser argues that even before the recent easing of tension with the Soviet Union, the United States should have revised its nuclear strategy, rejecting deterrent threats that require the ability to destroy Soviet nuclear forces and forgoing entirely efforts ...

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With sweeping changes in the Soviet Union and East Europe having shaken core assumptions of U.S. defense policy, it is time to reassess basic questions of American nuclear strategy and force requirements. In a comprehensive analysis of these issues, Charles Glaser argues that even before the recent easing of tension with the Soviet Union, the United States should have revised its nuclear strategy, rejecting deterrent threats that require the ability to destroy Soviet nuclear forces and forgoing entirely efforts to limit damage if all-out nuclear war occurs. Changes in the Soviet Union, suggests Glaser, may be best viewed as creating an opportunity to make revisions that are more than twenty years overdue. Glaser's provocative work is organized in three parts. "The Questions behind the Questions" evaluates the basic factual and theoretical disputes that underlie disagreements about U.S. nuclear weapons policy. "Alternative Nuclear Worlds" compares "mutual assured destruction capabilities" (MAD)—a world in which both superpowers' societies are highly vulnerable to nuclear retaliation—to the basic alternatives: mutual perfect defenses, U.S. superiority, and nuclear disarmament. Would any basic alternatives be preferable to MAD? Drawing on the earlier sections of the book, "Decisions in MAD" addresses key choices facing American decision makers.

Originally published in 1990.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Editorial Reviews

Glaser (political science, U. of Michigan) argues that even before the recent easing of tension with the Soviet Union, the US should have revised its nuclear strategy, rejecting deterrent threats that require ability to destroy Soviet nuclear forces and forgoing entirely efforts to limit damage if all-out nuclear war occurs. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691606781
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 7/14/2014
  • Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
  • Pages: 392
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

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Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy

By Charles L. Glaser


Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07828-1



This book seeks to provide a comprehensive analysis of the basic issues of American nuclear strategy and force requirements. Strategic nuclear weapons play a central and controversial role in protecting U.S. interests. They are commonly believed to provide important benefits, by reducing the probability of superpower war, while at the same time creating grave dangers, by providing the Soviet Union with the ability to destroy the United States. Beyond such broad judgments, however, lies a continuing debate over which nuclear strategy can most effectively deter the Soviet Union. Further, looking to the future, many analysts hope to find policies that eliminate American vulnerability to Soviet nuclear attack, but disagree about which alternatives are most promising and about how the United States should try to move toward them.

The analysis in this book proceeds through three stages. Part I, "The Questions behind the Questions," identifies and evaluates the basic factual and theoretical disputes that underlie disagreements about U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Among the key disputes are questions about the nature of the adversary (what are Soviet intentions?), about the nature of military capabilities (can the United States acquire capabilities required to reduce the damage from a Soviet nuclear attack?), and about the role of military policy in the U.S.-Soviet relationship (will competitive American policies generate unnecessary tensions or instead convince the Soviets to cooperate?). Since facts and theories are the essential building blocks of policy analysis, assessing these basic premises establishes a solid foundation from which to analyze U.S. nuclear policy. It also enables us to cut to the core of specific policy debates, since the major divisions between analysts are usually determined by fundamental disputes.

"Alternative Nuclear Worlds" compares our current nuclear world—in which both superpowers' societies are highly vulnerable to nuclear retaliation—to the basic alternatives: mutual perfect defenses, U.S. superiority, and nuclear disarmament. Neither superpower can today protect its society; instead, both maintain the capability to virtually destroy each other following an attack against their nuclear forces. This condition in which both superpowers have assured retaliatory capabilities is often described as one of "mutual assured destruction" capabilities, and referred to by its acronym—MAD. Would any of the basic alternatives be preferable to MAD? Technological and political constraints prevent either superpower from escaping MAD for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, although currently infeasible, these alternatives need to be understood, since conclusions about U.S. nuclear strategy and force requirements should reflect long-term U.S. objectives.

"Decisions in MAD" draws on the earlier sections of the book to analyze key American choices in MAD. MAD is a condition, not a strategy; within MAD a spectrum of strategies and force postures are possible. The United States could maintain forces of moderate size or quite large ones. Probably more important are the kinds of forces the United States deploys. A key choice is between "counterforce" weapons designed to destroy Soviet nuclear forces and "countervalue" weapons that threaten primarily Soviet society. With a given nuclear force, the United States could plan only quite large attacks, or it could in addition plan an array of smaller nuclear attacks. And, in attempting to satisfy its force requirements, the United States could pursue more or less cooperative and competitive policies, which would influence the importance of arms control and unilateral restraint in American policy. Consequently, in MAD, basic questions remain: Which nuclear strategy can provide the United States with the greatest security? Closely related, which types of strategic nuclear weapons are required to support this strategy?

These questions are not new. Since the nuclear age began over 40 years ago, hundreds of books and articles have been written analyzing the implications of nuclear weapons for strategy and international politics. Although innovative ideas and approaches occasionally appear, the central issues raised by nuclear weapons were identified long ago. The broad outlines of the debate have been clear since the late 1940s and the formative theoretical work on deterrence and nuclear strategy was completed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The terms of the debate—first strike and second strike capability, counterforce and countervalue targeting, credibility of threats, crisis stability, and arms race stability—have not changed significantly. Since then scholars have explored the logic of U.S. nuclear doctrine in great detail, improved our understanding of the history of U.S. nuclear doctrine and warplans, identified important dangers that were not previously appreciated, and provided valuable technical analysis of key policy issues. Given the attention that this subject has received, to offer one more book may seem quixotic or superfluous.

I do not believe so. Despite the enormous attention that has been devoted to these issues, the existing literature suffers important weaknesses. First, underlying sources of policy disagreement are rarely explicit. As a result, why analysts actually disagree often remains obscure. The policy debate tends to focus on the details of specific options, while overlooking the more basic disagreements about the facts and theories on which the analyses are based. This burying of basic premises slows progress in resolving or at least narrowing debates, and increases the chances that the United States will pursue undesirable policies.

Second, alternatives to MAD are rarely analyzed. Instead, they are presumed to be far preferable to MAD, and as a result exert influence on current policy. However, this lack of analysis leaves us with little insight into how much and what type of influence is justified.

Third, notwithstanding the large number of arguments and counterarguments, analysis of nuclear weapons policy is rarely systematic and complete. Although the basic concepts that have guided the field are essentially sound, analysts often use them incorrectly, overlooking the conditions that limit when and how they apply, and that lead to important qualifications. Consider, for example, the debate over nuclear weapons designed to destroy Soviet nuclear forces. The standard logic holds that these counterforce weapons can increase the probability of all-out war: if both superpowers can reduce the damage they might suffer in an all-out war by launching a preemptive first strike, then each may feel pressure in a time of crisis, when nuclear war appears likely, to start the nuclear war instead of suffering the other's first strike. Yet opponents of counterforce commonly argue both that counterforce cannot limit damage in MAD and, based on the logic of preemptive strikes, that counterforce is dangerous.

More surprising, some central questions about U.S. policy in MAD have not been thoroughly addressed. For example, is counterforce dangerous in MAD? As just noted, the most prominent argument against counterforce—that in times of crisis it generates pressures for preemptive attack, thus reducing "crisis stability"—does not apply if damage limitation is understood to be infeasible. Additional possible dangers of counterforce, including other dimensions of the problem of preemptive incentives in MAD, have received far less attention. To take another example: Can arms control help reduce the probability of war when neither superpower can build its way out of MAD? Classic arms control theory focuses on the value of limiting forces that might jeopardize the superpowers' retaliatory capabilities, and therefore sheds little light on this question when retaliatory capabilities are assured.

Finally, scholars have left a gap at the intersection of theory and policy analysis. There are few analyses of key questions of U.S. strategic nuclear force requirements which lay out the full range of important competing arguments, evaluate their strengths in terms of broader theoretical and factual disputes, and reach overall assessments.

In short, therefore, this book has twin objectives. The first, and in the end the more important one, is to reach conclusions about U.S. nuclear strategy and force requirements. In addition, I have a primarily methodological objective: to demonstrate the power of rigorous analysis that starts from basic premises.

Part I: The Questions behind the Questions

Analyzing U.S. National Security Policy

To better appreciate the significance of current weaknesses in the strategic nuclear debate, it is useful to briefly review the necessary elements of policy analysis. In principle, policy analysis has a neat logical structure. It matches means to ends while taking account of constraints.

The end we are interested in here is U.S. national security. U.S. security depends upon the probability of war and the costs if war occurs. It also depends upon the United States' ability to protect allies and other areas of "vital" interest. Some also include U.S. economic health among the factors determining national security.

Strategic nuclear weapons are one of a variety of possible means for achieving U.S. security. Other military means include theater nuclear forces and conventional forces. Arms control, that is, cooperating with the Soviet Union over the size, type, and/or operation of the superpowers' arsenals is a closely related means of achieving security. In addition, the United States possesses important nonmilitary means: its foreign policy and international economic policy can play key roles in protecting its interests.

Theories play an integral part in policy analysis, providing the logical link between means and ends. They reflect beliefs and conclusions about how the world works. For example, without theories we could not judge whether, and how, the size and type of U.S. forces influence the probability of war. Deterrence theory provides the key link in most analyses of this relationship.

Theories also play a role in determining constraints. For example, beliefs about Soviet reactions to a U.S. military buildup influence judgments about whether the United States can acquire certain military capabilities. To take a specific example, judgments about whether the United States could build an effective defense against Soviet missiles depend on one's beliefs about how the Soviet Union will respond to U.S. strategic defenses. Analysts who believe that the Soviet Union will place high priority on defeating U.S. missile defenses are more likely to find that the United States cannot protect itself against Soviet attack. In turn, beliefs about Soviet responses can be based on general beliefs about how superpowers react to military threats to their vital interests.

Thus, analysts holding different theoretical convictions are likely to reach divergent policy conclusions. They may disagree about which policies are desirable and which outcomes are feasible. Resolving these policy disputes requires first identifying the theoretical disagreements, and then determining which positions are strongest.

Given the central role of theory, it is odd that policy analysis is often believed to be atheoretical. Policy analysts are necessarily applying theories. They should be the most important consumers of theorists' work. Further, policy analysts can help to generate and focus important theoretical questions. By structuring complete analyses, they can identify theories that are underdeveloped.

Possibly more obvious than the role of theories is the role of facts. Facts determine the conditions under which the relevant theories are to be applied. They are especially important because theoretical predictions are usually conditional. For example, according to contending models of how to exert international influence, the choice between cooperative and competitive policies depends on one's view of the adversary: if one's adversary is bent on expansion, then competitive policies might be necessary; on the other hand, if the adversary is a status quo power, then competitive policies are likely to be self-defeating.

Facts also play a central role in determining constraints. Continuing with the example of the feasibility of strategic defenses, whether the United States can build a highly effective defense against Soviet missiles depends heavily on how the cost of building defenses compares to the cost of building offenses that can defeat them.

Ideally, analysts would make their analysis as "transparent" as possible. They would begin with a statement of the objectives of the policies being considered. For most strategic nuclear issues this may seem superfluous—the objective is understood to be reducing the probability of large superpower war, especially nuclear war. There are exceptions, however. Certain policies—for example, greatly increasing the U.S. ability to destroy Soviet forces—might be pursued partly to reduce the costs if war occurs; other strategic nuclear policies might be directed at influencing Soviet foreign policy; still others might be pursued to reduce the economic costs of maintaining U.S. security.

Next, analysts would establish the foundations of their analysis by providing their views on the relevant facts, theories, and constraints. Beyond these basics, they could provide valuable insights by laying out which theories and facts are disputed, by explaining why certain ones were chosen over competing alternatives, and by describing the uncertainties that will be incorporated into the analysis. Then the analyst's task is to apply theories under specific conditions, eventually identifying tradeoffs between competing options and conflicting objectives. In effect, the analyst would be providing an analytic road map in which theories provide the link between available means and ends, while the specific conditions determine which theories apply and their implications. The analysis of complicated issues will remain complex, but its logic should be readily accessible.

Reaching policy conclusions requires performing net assessments—comparisons of overall benefits and costs—which in turn demands that analysts strive for "completeness," that is, they must explore the full range of options and the full range of arguments over the cost and benefits of these options. Partial analyses are easily biased and do not provide sufficient grounds for reaching an overall conclusion. When completeness is beyond their scope, analysts should explain what part of the overall issue they have explored and qualify their policy conclusions accordingly.

Among its many advantages, such transparent and complete analysis would make it relatively easy to determine where analysts disagree. They might have started from different facts and theories, have considered different options (i.e., different means and constraints), or have weighed the costs and benefits of competing options differently. With this type of analysis the policy debate could focus immediately on the points of divergence. Equally important, for a given analytic structure it would be relatively straightforward to determine the implications of different facts and theories.

Unfortunately, we see little of this type of analysis in the debate over strategic nuclear weapons. Analysts are, of course, applying theories; without them, drawing conclusions about the effects of policy would be impossible. The problem is that analysts frequently build theoretical beliefs into arguments without making them explicit and without laying out the conditions under which they apply. As a result, theoretical and factual disputes tend to lie below the surface of the policy debate and disagreements appear to hinge on the details of policy options and not upon the more fundamental disputes.

Of course, the low visibility of fundamental disputes is not entirely inadvertent. Analysts who judge that their theoretical or factual convictions will not be politically persuasive can frame policy questions in ways that are likely to yield their desired outcome while minimizing attention to underlying questions. For example, some analysts oppose arms control primarily because they believe that cooperating with the Soviet Union will decrease U.S. security. Domestic and allied support for arms control makes this a politically unpopular position, however. By framing opposition to arms control in terms of the details of a proposal, for example, the verifiability of specific provisions, analysts can avoid raising pivotal theoretical and factual questions.

Basic Disputes in the Strategic Nuclear Debate

The two chapters in Part I identify basic factual and theoretical questions on which analysis of strategic nuclear policy should be built. In presenting this foundation, I divide the debate along two related dimensions—military requirements and international political consequences.


Excerpted from Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy by Charles L. Glaser. Copyright © 1990 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Preface, ix,
Chapter One Introduction, 3,
Part I: The Questions behind the Questions,
Chapter Two Disputes over the U.S. Military Requirements of Nuclear Deterrence, 19,
Chapter Three Disputes about the International Political Consequences of Competing and Cooperating with the Soviet Union, 61,
Part II: Alternative Nuclear Worlds,
Chapter Four Why Even Good Defenses May Be Bad, 103,
Chapter Five Why U.S. Superiority Is Probably Inferior to MAD, 133,
Chapter Six Why Disarmament Is Probably More Dangerous than MAD, 166,
Part III: Decisions in MAD,
Chapter Seven Does the United States Need Counterforce in MAD?, 207,
Chapter Eight Does the United States Need ICBMs?, 257,
Chapter Nine Should the United States Deploy Limited Ballistic Missile Defenses?, 285,
Chapter Ten What Type of Arms Control in MAD?, 315,
Chapter Eleven Conclusions, 361,
Index, 371,

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