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Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition, and the Ultimate Weapon

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Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition, and the Ultimate Weapon edited by Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes. Georgetown University Press, 2012, 256 pp.


The editors of Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age offer a collection of essays that challenge the reader to examine strategies and options in light of the breakout of new nuclear nation-states. Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes precede and follow these pieces with a thought-provoking introduction and conclusion. The former takes issue with the limited scope of Carl von Clausewitz’s On War by stating that strategy is much more than the operational strategy of battles and engagements. Nuclear strategy involves the fielding of high-end “engines of war” technologies in peacetime that nation-states do not want to use in the conduct of war. The conclusion is based upon analysis of the essays, highlighting that “proliferation is now a fact and nuclear rollback is a remote prospect at best” (p. 225).

Each essay independently contributes to the two recurring themes of rationality and interaction. Rationality can be thought of as a nation’s intellectual approach to its policy-making process, particularly the use of its nuclear strategy to achieve a favorable political end state. Interaction pits that rationality against other nation-states and introduces questions of stability versus predictability. On the one hand, for example, if opposing conventional forces pitch weak against strong, then nuclear states with weak conventional forces may well consider nuclear escalation a viable option. On the other hand, nations with comparable nuclear capabilities may seek advantage through conventional means.

One of the most fascinating early chapters in the book (chap. 2) discusses deterrence theory and its application by emerging nuclear states. This (deterrence theory) is the foundation that formalizes strategy, and it quickly becomes apparent to the reader that a myriad of subjects need to be analyzed. Having challenged Clausewitz, the editors substantiate their claims that “more is better” with a broadening discussion on several factors that affect the resultant strategy and political status quo. No reader is left doubting that nuclear strategy is a complicated, devious, and fully expansive subject. Those of us who thought we had a good understanding of it will find additional gems of knowledge to admire.

These factors include the size of a nation’s nuclear arsenal, concerns over the transfer of technology and know-how to states and nonstate proxies, and use of the program as cover for conventional aggression (p. 23). Perhaps the most important factor is the level of a nation’s desire to use nuclear weapons in war. This, the most dangerous part of any strategy, is in turn supported by a subset of related considerations. The contributor offers sound arguments about how a state on the verge of defeat could gamble by introducing nuclear weapons to the fight, hoping that the psychological shock of their use could turn defeat into victory. The point is well made and gives the reader a good example of the themes already mentioned—rationality and interaction.

Nine of twelve chapters focus on individual nation-states, and because each is a stand-alone essay, they can be read in any order. Nevertheless, their selection for inclusion is interesting in itself. China is one of the official nuclear states, having detonated a device in 1964 and thus meeting the conditions laid out in Article IX of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. At the other end of the spectrum, Japan also warrants an essay even though it is not a nuclear state. Yoshihara and Holmes include Japan because it does have a robust deterrence policy, linked closely to its relationship with the United States. Developing a nuclear weapon capability, however, is not on Japan’s near-political horizon. South Africa is featured as well, having developed a covert nuclear program that it subsequently relinquished. The nuclear and conventional impasse between India and Pakistan ensures that these two nuclear nations receive similar yet contradictory essays. The ambiguity of Iran is discussed. The motivations, policies, and strategies of North Korea come under the microscope. Since the book was published, North Korea has continued to develop and improve its nuclear technology. In hindsight, the essay offers fascinating insight into how the rationality of new nuclear states is difficult to predict with any degree of certainty. The contributors offer many surprises, and I have deliberately not expanded on the details. All I will say is that to gain full benefit, readers should question—really question—the balance of argument.

Each piece not only tells the story of nuclear technological achievement but also adds to our vocabulary of the building blocks of a nation’s nuclear strategy. Terms like credibility, nuclear umbrella, and extended deterrence join more familiar verbiage like first- and second-strike capabilities or nuclear security.

Readers benefit from the layout of Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age. No one chapter is overwhelming or contains too much information to absorb. Each one can be read as a stand-alone entity yet can still contribute to our understanding of what makes nuclear strategy. The editors’ analysis in the final chapter requires much more concentration, but at least by this stage our knowledge has prepared us for a more difficult read. Surprisingly, the generic title of the book does not really prepare readers for the level of information included within the covers.

Wing Cdr John M. Shackell, RAF, Retired
Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center
San Antonio, Texas

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.

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