The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in the Atomic Age

  • Published

The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in the Atomic Age by Kier A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press. Cornell University Press, 2020, 169 pp. 

The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution is a monograph that challenges assumptions and highlights the limitations of the nuclear revolution theory. The authors analyze data and historical examples and not only show how but why this classic deterrence theory falls short.

Keir Lieber is the Center for Security Studies director and a professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government. He is an expert and a prolific writer in the international relations and nuclear deterrence fields.

Daryl Press is an associate professor of government and coordinator for the Dartmouth University Dickey Postdoctoral Fellows Program. His research focuses on balance of power and deterrence and has had many articles published in academic journals and periodicals.

As the world grapples with the return of great power conflict, China’s increasing emphasis on nuclear capabilities, the potential of arms-racing, and Russian nuclear threats in the (currently) conventional Ukraine fight, the book is a timely and relevant reevaluation of one of the foundational theories of nuclear deterrence: the theory of nuclear revolution. The authors go as far as to call it a myth. Theories explain observed phenomenon, but when they prove to lack predictive abilities, they can become myths or fanciful stories of worlds that do not exist. The Greeks told myths of Helios pulling the sun across the sky with his chariot, but that did not explain why the stars seemed to move.  Biblical teaching preached an earth centric universe, but it took Copernicus and Galileo to challenge convention and use observational astronomy to promote the reality of the heliocentric universe.  Lieber and Press argue that the theory of the nuclear revolution is a myth and fails to accurately describe and therefore predict deterrence behavior in both peace and war time.  This is due to three attributes of the nuclear puzzle, for which the nuclear revolution theory fails to account:  1) nuclear stalemate is difficult to achieve; 2) once achieved, stalemate is not necessarily enduring; and 3) achieving conventional deterrence under stalemate can be challenging. 

It is useful to begin with a definition of the theory of nuclear revolution before detailing the lacuna of the theory. As the authors explain, the world exists in a state of international anarchy that drives states to “expand their power relative to rivals, engage in expensive arms races, encircle each other with alliances, and seek to control strategic territory and scarce natural resources.”

The nuclear revolution theory stipulates that, for nuclear powers, the danger of escalation is so great it undermines the logic of security competition and should therefore effectively eliminate it. “According to the logic of the theory, since war cannot be won, geopolitical competition is senseless; in turn, countries need not compete intensely for power and security” (125). The problem of course, is that has not proven to be the case.  Equally as problematic, the lack of adherence to the tenets of the nuclear revolution theory has been placed at the feet of incompetent or illogical leaders, rather than a flawed theory. Lieber and Press argue otherwise.

In this short but complex book, Lieber and Press use history to elucidate how continued security competition in the nuclear age is not illogical but a sound practice given the anarchical state of international affairs. Broken down into four succinct and sensible chapters, the authors guide the readers through a new way of looking at the actions and decisions of nuclear states.  Unlike so many explanations of nuclear deterrence, rather than use theories as thought exercises for how leaders should behave, Lieber and Press offer an alternative explanation as to why nuclear powers behave as they do. They do not chastise actors for not following a prescribed theory and do not offer solutions to problems that exist only in a world that ought to be. 

Lieber and Press argue nuclear weapons are the best instruments available for deterrence, but while many explanations of deterrence mainly focus on the goal of achieving stalemate in peacetime, nuclear weapons must also be effective in crisis; that is, they must be resilient. The authors, clearly establishing this point, step through prevalent ideas concerning just how much nuclear capability is enough to achieve nuclear stalemate, then proceed to dismantle arguments for existential deterrence, minimum deterrence, and assured retaliation, leaving only assured destruction intact.

They then note that once stalemate is achieved, it cannot be assumed to exist in perpetuity. Gains in accuracy, intelligence, and resiliency will continue to challenge the established stalemate, justifying arms racing. Furthermore, the difficulty of establishing conventional deterrence in stalemate makes the remaining hallmarks of security competitions (alliance building, controlling strategic territory and resource, etc.) understandable and even rational.

While Lieber and Press’s explanation of the nuclear puzzle uses historic examples, the real utility is in the development of future strategy. The authors rightfully caveat this monograph is not one theory to rule them all but rather a launching pad to reevaluate nuclear strategy, not with the hope of what we would like to be real but what is. Nuclear disarmament may be noble, and minimal deterrence theory may make sense in thought experiments, but in the real world, Russia is making nuclear threats, and China is increasing its nuclear capabilities. Myths may offer fanciful explanations for how the universe works, but we cannot deny the reality.

To borrow a saying attributed to Admiral Charles Richard, commander of United States Strategic Command: the United States nuclear deterrent is the foundation of the entire US defense strategy. Therefore, this book is a must-read for any nuclear operation professional and conventional strategists of all kinds.   

Lieutenant Colonel Mary Yelnicker, 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."