Book Review: Nuclear Strategies

By James A. Chisem

Henry A. Kissinger. Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957)

Robert Jervis. The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984)

In his paradigm shifting treatise, On War, the nineteenth century Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously declared that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” In the years following Clausewitz’s untimely death in 1831, this insight took on an almost axiomatic quality in cabinet rooms and war colleges across the Western world. However, the dawn of the nuclear age seemed to turn the relationship between political purpose and armed force on its head. As arms control efforts faltered and the Cold War intensified, decision-makers in Washington and Moscow were left asking the same question: if the likely outcome of a conflict involving atomic weapons and hydrogen bombs is mutual annihilation, then what rational policy objective could be achieved by their possession or use?

One man who thought he had an answer was an American academic at Yale University called Bernard Brodie. In a prophetic essay published just a few months after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he outlined the new principles of strategy and statecraft: “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.” Only a few stubborn traditionalists rejected such logic, but the theory and praxis of nuclear deterrence proved to be far more complicated, contradictory, and contentious than Brodie’s epigrammatic phrase had promised. Fortunately, two of the most distinguished names in strategic studies, Henry Kissinger and Robert Jervis, are on hand to make the key debates about nuclear strategy a little bit easier to understand.


Though published three decades apart, both of their books are valuable works of synthesis which distil and repackage a wider body of scholarship; both were written as a critique of the prevailing American nuclear doctrine; both exploit a wide range of diverse sources, demonstrating an intimate knowledge of the intellectual, historical, and technical dimensions of the nuclear question; and both combine rigorous scholarly analysis with lucid, engaging prose, making them accessible to and suitable for scholars, policymakers, and the public at large. But that is where the similarities end. When it comes to the fundamentals of deterrence theory—that is, how best to utilise nuclear weapons as an instrument of policy—the authors draw very different conclusions.

Kissinger makes the case for a strategic doctrine based on the notion of deterrence by denial. Such a posture requires a state to develop strategies of limited nuclear war in order to discourage or stop low-level aggression without triggering an all-out conflagration. Jervis, on the other hand, argues in favour of deterrence by punishment. The first part of his book deals with the enduring salience of the “nuclear revolution”, while the rest is dedicated to explaining the inconsistencies and dangers of “countervailing strategies”. On the whole, Jervis’ book is the more thought-provoking and convincing of the two, though both have their fair share of strengths and shortcomings.


The most significant difference between the two authors is their approach to the issue of credibility. As many former cold warriors will attest, deterrence is as much a metaphysical phenomenon as it is a physical one; it is a process which involves signalling and bargaining, and its success or failure depends upon the perception and actions of multiple actors. For it to work, State A and State B must be able to convince one another that certain proscribed behaviours will lead to war and that war will be more costly than remaining at peace.

In the opening pages of Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons, Kissinger contends that punishment deterrence—a strategy which calls for an all-out nuclear response to hostile infringements of the status-quo—does not fulfil this criterion. Since the outcome of a sizeable nuclear strike by one advanced nuclear state against another would most certainly be a response in kind, Kissinger suggests that strategic nuclear forces can only really deter a direct pre-emptive attack. In his view, a policy of ‘All-or-Nothing’ leaves a state with two equally unpalatable options in the face of threats to its non-vital interests: namely, suicide or surrender. This makes it very difficult to deter a revisionist state from engaging in minor acts of aggression and undermines the integrity of ‘extended deterrence’.[1] To illustrate this point, Kissinger asks the reader to consider whether an American president would respond to a Soviet invasion of Western Europe with a nuclear attack on the Russian heartland if that meant the destruction of the United States. Not surprisingly, he believes that such a scenario is fanciful.

In spite of Kissinger’s memorable turn of phrase and masterful grasp of detail, there is good reason to doubt the validity of his analysis. As Jervis points out, the intersection of existential uncertainty, the enormous destructive power of nuclear weapons, and mutual second-strike capabilities, is more than enough to discourage states from trespassing directly onto an adversary’s turf or provoking major crises. Kissinger fails to recognise that, in the nuclear age, the use of force involves a considerable “but hard-to-measure possibility of mutually-undesired-escalation” (p.134). The mere fear of war—of instigating a series of events that might end in a nuclear holocaust—makes states remarkably willing not only to abstain from overtly-aggressive behaviour but also to make concessions if tensions begin to rise. It is hard to deny that history is on Jervis’ side here, though to be fair to Kissinger he was writing at a time when the nature of the nuclear revolution was still the subject of great debate. During the Cold War, American and Soviet statesmen were compelled time and time again to step back from the brink for fear of the potential consequences. It is arguable that the reality of mutual assured destruction was the crucial factor which stopped the 1961 Berlin Crisis and the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis from escalating.


It is not just Kissinger’s appraisal of punishment deterrence that falls short of the mark: his proposed alternative of “nuclear warfighting” does not stand up to scrutiny either. In short, Kissinger argues that a state must seek military superiority across the board—from conventional forces to tactical and theatre nuclear weapons­—for deterrence to be credible. If it is able to realise this goal, then it should be in a position to deny an adversary the ability to achieve its political objectives through the use of force. According to Kissinger, a state with the means to provide a graduated response to aggression will be able to fight a limited nuclear war and win it. At some point, its opponent will recognise that its only options are to escalate into a position of inferiority, start a thermonuclear war, or sue for peace. Faced with such a choice, rational leaders will undoubtedly be forced to opt for the latter. In theory, then, a strategy designed to achieve escalation dominance allows a state to use force with discrimination and do so without endangering its own survival.

There are a number of problems with this line of reasoning, several of which Jervis explores in his book. To begin with, Kissinger fails to explain how war limitation and termination would actually work. It requires a stretch of the imagination to believe that a weakened nation would lay down its arms in the middle of a localised nuclear skirmish when it still had the capacity to wipe the other side off the face of the earth. To even contemplate such an action, its leaders would have to be absolutely confident that the other side would not use the opportunity to launch a pre-emptive strike. That level of trust barely exists between international rivals at the best of times, never mind the worst. It is also important to note, as Jervis does in chapter four, that deterrence is far more difficult once a war has begun. The Clausewitzian pairing of ‘friction’ and the ‘fog of war’ would be particularly destabilising during a limited nuclear exchange. As countless actors endeavour to use imperfect and constantly changing information to interpret the meaning of one another’s actions and respond appropriately, the pressure to be the first to deliver a knockout blow may become overwhelming.

Given the fact that Kissinger is not advocating preventative war, it is tempting to underplay the significance of all this. Nevertheless, as Jervis observes, the adoption of a “countervailing strategy raises the risk that decision-makers will talk themselves into believing that high-levels of conventional violence and even limited nuclear wars could be kept under control” (p.145). As a result, they might be less inclined to act cautiously in a crisis situation.


Kissinger’s evasion of these issues is frustrating and puzzling in equal measure. There are a number of times in his book when he appears on the verge of furnishing some genuinely novel insight, only to be thwarted by his own reluctance to move beyond the patterns, concepts, and mentalities of the pre-nuclear world. This nostalgia for the age of Metternich and Bismarck­—when means and ends were generally in alignment­—often leads Kissinger down the path of self-contradiction. The most conspicuous example of this is his treatment of the Soviet Union. In order to buttress his evaluation of punishment deterrence and justify the policy of deterrence by denial, Kissinger portrays the Kremlin as belligerent, revolutionary, and bent on expansion. And yet, these are the same vices that would make the Soviets unlikely to cooperate with the United States in the event of a limited nuclear war. All things considered, it is rather odd that one of the twentieth century’s most ardent realist thinkers is willing to place so much faith in the capacity of human beings to be calm, fair, and rational under the most extreme circumstances.

One of the most interesting aspects of Jervis’ book is his attempt to explain why otherwise exceptional scholars are so inconsistent in their approach to the basics of nuclear strategy. He devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of this conundrum, suggesting that strategies of limited nuclear war stem from an inability on the part of some to comprehend or acknowledge the profound consequences of the nuclear revolution. In essence, the desire to treat nuclear weapons as just another tool in the arsenal represents a dangerous attempt to escape the mutual vulnerability which exists between states with second-strike capabilities.

Whilst Jervis’ theory is persuasive, he is actually guilty of committing a similar sin. Throughout the book, he is keen to stress that there is no such thing as a rational nuclear strategy, so much so that one wonders why he did not drop the word ‘American’ from the title. This might seem like a trivial point to make, but it has far-reaching implications. Jervis’ model of deterrence is based on a very narrow understanding of rationality, one which causes him to over-emphasise the stability of the nuclear balance. Mutual assured destruction may well be an existential condition, but decision-makers have to be perpetually aware of this for it to have the desired effect. The very fact that Jervis’ book is a response to the kind of strategies that he deems redundant and risky undermines many of his central claims. It is a shame, then, that he chooses not to explore the alternatives to nuclear deterrence. To Kissinger’s credit, he deals with the issues of disarmament, arms control, and non-nuclear defence in a comprehensive manner.


Jervis’ The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy provides the reader with a systematic introduction to the nuclear dilemma. It is concise, clear, nuanced, and ultimately more persuasive than Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy. Jervis manages to combine a penetrating defence of punishment deterrence and an equally trenchant critique of nuclear warfighting with an innovative account of why ostensibly erudite individuals are frequently drawn to the latter. If there is one criticism to be made of Jervis’ book, it is that it overplays the idea that safety is the sturdy child of terror. Nonetheless, students of strategy and international relations would do well to begin their investigation of this challenging topic by reading both books. Taken together, they neatly frame the key questions and debates about nuclear weapons which taxed the greatest minds of the twentieth century and will no doubt continue to tax the greatest minds of the twenty first.

James A. Chisem is an editor and writer at Atlantic Bulletin.

Image: still from War Games 1983 Making-Of featurette.


[1] “Extended deterrence” refers to the threat by a state to use nuclear weapons to protect its allies.


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