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Flawed Logics: Strategic Nuclear Arms Control from Truman to Obama

Flawed Logics: Strategic Nuclear Arms Control from Truman to Obama by James H. Lebovic. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013, 289 pp., $45.00.

James H. Lebovic is a professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University and author of a number of books. Flawed Logics was forged in his years of focus on the politics and partisanship of the Cold War era, and his thoughts were further influenced by a concern for the possibility that man faced the potential of nuclear obliteration. According to Lebovic, Flawed Logics is his plea for humility and civility during our contemporary time that is no less difficult than the preceding history of nuclear weapons. Whether such a plea can be found in this work is debatable. If so, it is hidden in what Lebovic calls “a critical intellectual history of bilateral nuclear arms negotiations.” In this critical intellectual history, Lebovic offers that policymakers, both hawks and doves, applied flawed logic in the pursuit of their various positions, resulting in outcomes that were neither as good nor as bad as the various sides proclaimed. This thesis, however, does not stand alone, as he also considers the implications this flawed logic has for realist theory.

As advertised, Lebovic contemplates the logical failings of both the proponents and opponents of various arms control endeavors from Truman to the current administration. In so doing, he captures in a linear fashion the historical events and the policy concepts associated with strategic nuclear arms control over the years; however, the book becomes excessively tedious as Lebovic frames his flawed-logic argument. Rarely, if ever, does he argue that logic was applied in forming a position for or against a specific arms control objective. As a result, the book amounts to little more than intellectual hindsight, which comes easy to the political scientist with the luxury of history in the post–Cold War era. While readers will occasionally enjoy a challenge to some of their positions that Lebovic may convincingly argue are based in flawed logic, there is also the likelihood they will regularly question the point of the book.

If Lebovic’s primary thesis were to stand alone, the book would arguably have little point. However, he seems intent on correlating his flawed-logic thesis to realist theory. For the reader, this can be somewhat confusing, because Lebovic outlines contradicting positions vis-à-vis how policymakers (or states) make decisions. He initially claims realists are correct when they argue that states pursue treaties to address concerns associated with assumptions of relative advantage. But then he argues policymakers pursue their positions based on prevalent beliefs and domestic politics as much as the security threat. Such an assumption is the antithesis to the former, which suggests he does not truly share an affinity with realist theory. Despite his initial claim, Lebovic finishes his argument by indicating the culmination of all his examples of flawed logic in strategic arms control negotiations show that the realist argument, whatever that may be, suffers two key deficiencies: realists are unable to account for the US selective response to foreign capabilities, and they fail to recognize the extent policymakers depended upon trusting the USSR in pursuit of arms control. For Lebovic, this prevents realists from understanding the beliefs of policymakers. And from this conclusion, he makes a somewhat disconnected leap to the realization that potentially a large and robust nuclear arsenal would undermine US security rather than provide for it.

The limitation in Lebovic’s preoccupation with realist theory is that Flawed Logics had the potential to be quite intriguing. If one were to assume he is correct and essentially every attempt to develop arms control was rife with illogical policy positions, one might ask what the implications were for their final outcomes. What does such flawed logic mean for either the success or failure of US strategic arms control? Would it not seem only natural that if policymakers did indeed continuously take illogical positions in forming policy that most of their pursuits would end in failure? What does it mean if flawed logic ends in success? If only this were his point. Instead, Lebovic takes a pass on what might have been the most intriguing exploration of the flawed-logic thesis. In the preface, he acknowledges that he makes no claim policymakers’ illogical approach to arms control translated into success or failure. In doing so, Lebovic rejected an opportunity to explore some truly profound questions of how policy is crafted and implemented. Further, he may have missed an opportunity to provide future policymakers with the tools to develop better policy.

Flawed Logics represents great potential but fails to deliver enough value to justify the cost of the book. The reader will gain from a fairly comprehensive and well-researched historical account of strategic nuclear arms control, and there is potential Lebovic will challenge the logical basis of some readers’ own beliefs associated with those historic events; however, the book can become excessively tedious when trying to correlate his thesis to a relevant point. Had Lebovic been more explicit in his intent to challenge realist theory by emphasizing its inability to account for the flawed logic of policymakers, the book might have been a better read, but this is not the case. Further Lebovic intentionally avoids considering the implications of flawed logic as it relates to specific arms control successes or failures. Again, Flawed Logics represents great and, in this case, intriguing potential that is not met. Ultimately, the analytical component of the thesis amounts to little more than observations, which inherently raises questions about the quality of the work.

Capt Joshua D. Bower, USAF

Defense Threat Reduction Agency

"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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