Caitlin Talmadge’s recent article in International Security is a major intellectual contribution to a predominantly U.S.-centric debate on the likelihood of Chinese nuclear escalation in a conventional conflict with the United States. In particular, Talmadge’s article is to be commended for providing one of the most rigorous accounts of the scope of a hypothetical U.S. military campaign against China over Taiwan, and relatedly, how this campaign might threaten Chinese nuclear assets, thereby creating operational conditions that might inadvertently push China to go nuclear. Yet this U.S. military-technical challenge is not, for the author, the key issue. Rather, in determining ‘would China go nuclear?’ the author offers another, slightly less developed, answer: it depends on what Chinese leaders believe or think.
In “Alliance Coercion and Nuclear Restraint,” Gene Gerzhoy offers a novel theory of how alliances can prevent nuclear proliferation. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which holds that alliances prevent proliferation by reassuring the client state and providing a substitute for an indigenous arsenal, Gerzhoy argues that clients in threatening security environments will nonetheless be interested in nuclear weapons since they can never have full confidence in their patrons’ present and future commitments. As a result, in order to prevent a client from going nuclear, the patron must employ threats of military abandonment, coupled with an assurance that its security commitment will be maintained (or increased) if the client complies and gives up its nuclear program. Whether these threats are successful, according to Gerzhoy, depends on the degree to which the client is militarily dependent on its patron. The article tests the theory with an in-depth examination of U.S. policy toward West Germany’s nuclear ambitions in the 1950s and 1960s. Consistent with the theory, Gerzhoy finds that West Germany was interested in nuclear weapons despite American protection, and that it only gave up these ambitions as a result of American coercion and assurances.
In the aftermath of India’s five nuclear tests in May 1998, one analyst suggested that the motivations underlying its quest for nuclear weapons could be traced to ideas of national modernity and the lack of suitable scrutiny of a secretive scientific enclave. The same assessment argued that explanations that adduced material factors such as extant threats from the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were simply chimerical. Others, in a similar vein, contended that the origins of the program could be found in India’s quest for status and prestige. Both accounts, though seemingly plausible, were actually quite flawed. The first was a heavily interpretive analysis, which attributed a series of motives on the basis of ambiguous evidence to a host of key individuals who had helped shape the early stages of India’s civilian nuclear program. More to the point, it mostly ignored the very compelling security threats at critical junctures that had led to the militarization of the program.
In this smart, provocative piece, Austin Long and Brendan Rittenhouse Green issue a ringing challenge to the conventional wisdom about the viability of secure, second-strike nuclear forces. As they note at the outset, “the ability of a nuclear force to absorb a preemptive attack and nonetheless retaliate with enough weapons to cause unacceptable damage” is “one of the central concepts in nuclear analysis” (38). The combination of an exponential increase in firepower (such that all that came before was deemed ‘conventional’) and secure, or survivable, long-range airpower (land- and sea-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, specifically mobile ICBMs and SLBMs) has long been thought to render nuclear weapons revolutionary. Indeed, scholars and analysts who focus on nuclear politics and strategy and the historical development of military power and strategy, particularly on military revolutions, have embraced the notion of a nuclear revolution. However, Long and Green argue, second-strike mobile land- or sea-based ballistic missile nuclear forces are not as invulnerable to preemptive attack as some have assumed. “The United States,” they write, “has invested massive resources into intelligence capabilities for a first strike, including successful innovation in tracking submarines and mobile missiles.” (41). The heart of their piece is devoted to a systematically developed, carefully researched, well-documented account of the development of the Cold-War intelligence programs that enabled the United States to find and track relocatable Soviet nuclear assets (aka targets)—mobile ICBMs and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)—and the continuing post-Cold War development of intelligence capabilities in the hunt for mobile missiles. Long and Green’s bottom line, or “principal claim,” is that “American intelligence for counterforce operations has been far better than most knowledgeable experts have believed” (42). In other words, intelligence, or the lack of intelligence, is not an obstacle to the employment of preemptive, first-strike, counterforce capabilities.
Easy answers to the numerous problems posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons will not be found in Paul Bracken’s The Second Nuclear Age: Strategy, Danger, and the New Power Politics. In fact, Bracken has very little to say about what are often considered to be the perennial nuclear issues of the post-Cold War world. How should America, Western Europe and Israel deal with the problem of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons? Will the nuclear rivalry between Pakistan and India become as stable as the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union eventually became? What countries are likely to pursue and/or acquire nuclear weapons in the coming decades? How can the nuclear proliferation regime be strengthened and extended into the twenty-first century?
Many scholars and policymakers concerned with the proliferation of nuclear weapons assume that the passage of time has made it much easier for states and terrorist groups to achieve their nuclear ambitions. For example, in their book The Nuclear Express, Thomas Reed and Danny Stillman reflect this common assumption: “Any well-industrialized society with the intellectual firepower, economic resources, and government determination can join the nuclear club less than three years from go.”