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Strategic Thinking, Deterrence and the US Ballistic Missile Defense Project: From Truman to Obama

Strategic Thinking, Deterrence and the US Ballistic Missile Defense Project: From Truman to Obama by Rueben Steff. Ashgate, 2013, 226 pp.

Strategic Thinking, Deterrence and the US Ballistic Missile Defense Project is the latest of many books attempting to establish that the pursuit of a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system caused great-power balancing against the United States in the international system. Rueben Steff, a recent PhD graduate from the department of politics at the University of Otago in New Zealand, takes a neoclassical realist approach to the topic by examining domestic political forces and international power structure changes to make his case.

Steff’s main point is that existing scholarship in the debate has neglected clear evidence of hard balancing against US-based unipolarity. This hard balancing is spurred by the US pursuit of the technology as well as soft external balancing on behalf of Russia and China. He posits this has led to clear security dilemma dynamics, and that BMD balancing has led to a clear shift in the international balance of power. To make his case, Steff uses qualitative historical case studies from 1945 to the present, examining the main drivers of the US pursuit of missile defense. Principally, he compares the effects of the thinking from two major groups of strategic thinkers, the arms control school and the nuclear war-fighting school, and their influence on US political leaders.

Steff provides an academic overview of the concepts that underpin deterrence and realist international relations theory in his opening chapter. This is useful as a short primer on the topic but is built upon well-established academic work by many of the big thinkers in the realist camp and adds nothing to existing literature. In the second chapter, he does an adequate job drawing connections between the two competing groups of nuclear strategic thinkers and demonstrates how their thoughts and beliefs became key components of US defense policy through successive administrations. Another useful overview concerns the debate as to whether BMD should be a major component of US deterrence strategy, but it also fails to add significantly to existing literature. Significantly, while he manages to clearly define most of the concepts and ideas integral to the debate, he fails to draw a clear distinction between the two that are most central to his argument: counterproliferation versus nonproliferation. This is a critical issue, as he attempts to use the contrast between these two distinct approaches as the cornerstone of his analysis of the Bush administration’s rationale for abrogating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and choosing to aggressively pursue an operational BMD system. His failure to make a precise distinction between the two concepts significantly weakens the clarity and impact of his analysis.

While the first two chapters are useful for someone with little or no background in the subject, Steff ultimately fails to make his case in the rest of the book for two principal reasons. First, like many before him, he overdetermines the impact that individual technological capabilities can have on the complex international system. He places far too much emphasis on the Bush administration’s pursuit of BMD as the principal reason for Russia’s recapitalization of its nuclear force during the first decade of this century, going so far as to state that the Russians were willing to reduce their nuclear posture in the interest of maintaining peace. Steff, however, ignores the critical role nuclear weapons play in defining Russia’s role in the international system. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ensuing Russian economic meltdown, and the severe deterioration of its conventional military capability, a credible offensive nuclear capability became even more important as Russia struggled to maintain its position as a dominant international player. The impetus to improve nuclear forces would have existed despite any action taken by the United States, either for or against BMD. He also overdetermines the role of the BMD program in China’s capitalization of its modern military capability starting in the 1990s, ignoring the evidence that it was, in fact, the US performance during Desert Storm that put the world on notice that conventional warfare had changed, requiring that any great power would have to adapt to a faster, more precise opponent to survive.

The second reason Steff is unsuccessful in making his case is structural. This book is clearly a dissertation that was not significantly adapted before publication. It contains far too much review of existing theory for even a semi-familiar reader, and the body of the work is broken into sharp blocks driven by the requirements of the academic audience for which it was written. The writing is inconsistent, and there are several sourcing errors, ranging from out of sequence footnote numbering in one case to unclear abbreviated references in the footnotes themselves. While the author bears some responsibility for these failings, the brunt of the blame is surely borne by the publisher. This is not a work that is ready for print. Additionally, much of what he presents as Russian and Chinese strategic thought regarding BMD is taken from Internet-based news aggregation websites, which greatly reduces the credibility and analytical impact of the evidence he uses to support his argument.

Steff argues that the US pursuit of a BMD system is the grounds for hard balancing by Russia and China against a unipolar United States, with a resulting shift in the international balance of power. He clearly wrestled with the challenge of establishing BMD’s role in the stability of the international system but did establish his grasp of deterrence and realist international relations theory, which is consistent with the requirements for producing a successful dissertation. However, a significant amount of primary source research, rewriting, and a less technologically determined argument is necessary before this book can make a convincing case.

Col Raymond P. Omara, USAF 


"The views expressed 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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