The Bridging the Gap book series at Oxford University Press publishes works that are theoretically grounded and policy relevant. The co-editors—Bruce Jentleson, Steve Weber, and I—marked the formal launch of the series in 2018 with the publication of Georgetown University Professor Matthew Kroenig’s The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy.

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Sir Julian Corbett (courtesy D.M. Schurman), Project Gutenberg

When the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, Washington and Beijing were on good terms–the military balance between the two countries was not politically salient. Much has happened in the ensuing decades. While American attention turned towards battling Iraq in two wars, responding to the threat posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan and around the world, and in dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/DAESH) as the latest manifestation of the jihadist threat, the status quo was changing in Asia. China has emerged not only as a global economic and political power, but also as a conventional military power in the Western Pacific that possesses a small nuclear arsenal that under permissive circumstances can hold a few United States (U.S.) cities at risk. The conventional and nuclear balance in Asia is shifting from one of overwhelming U.S. preponderance to a situation in which things might become a bit more sporting.

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Narang coverHow do we understand the nuclear strategies of regional powers and how successful are those strategies in deterring conflict? These are obviously important questions for students of world politics, but unfortunately they are also questions that have been largely ignored as scholars focused their attention on the nuclear superpowers of the bipolar era. Of course, the relative lack of attention paid to regional nuclear powers would not matter all that much if these states acted similarly to the superpowers, but it is clear that they have acted quite differently. For example, none of the regional nuclear powers has attempted to build the large arsenals possessed by the superpowers during the Cold War. In his important and ambitious new book, Vipin Narang attempts to explain the decisions made by regional nuclear powers and to develop a new theoretical framework that will be relevant to understanding the current and future dynamics of what he calls the “second nuclear age”(1).

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The following piece is a response to part of the Forum on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons.”

In his recent Jack Ruina Nuclear Age lecture at MIT, Robert Jervis – arguably our most important scholar of nuclear dynamics – reminded his audience how little we actually know about the influence of nuclear weapons. “Their impact on world politics is hard to discern.” Everywhere one looks, Jervis pointed out, there are puzzles that remain stubbornly immune to definitive answers. Would the Cold War have happened at all without nuclear weapons, or would it have unfolded in much the same way? Do nuclear weapons stabilize international relations or make the world more dangerous? Why don’t more countries have nuclear weapons? Why did American decision-makers pursue strategies and deployments that seem to have disregarded the fundamental insights scholars had proposed about the meaning of the nuclear revolution? Why is this gap even larger when you look beyond the United States to the eight other nuclear-weapons states? Were scholars prescribing when they thought they were describing? Did the nuclear balance matter, and if so, when and in what ways? Were all conflicts between nuclear states in some sense nuclear wars? What role did credibility play in nuclear politics, given that deterrence is based on a threat to use nuclear weapons few actually believed? Perhaps most importantly, how have our ideas about nuclear weapons changed over time, and how have these changes affected the realities of nuclear weapons? Jervis’s remarkable meditation was a pointed reminder that we lack certainty on these issues, and must be humble in our efforts to understand these terrifying, horrific weapons. The great challenge for scholars is “to recapture the strangeness of the nuclear world.”

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By US Air Force (US Air Force) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Peacekeeper re-entry vehicles

Over the past decade, two intellectual renaissances have emerged in the field of nuclear security studies. The first is in political science, where exciting new research has been published about such important subjects as the causes of nuclear weapons proliferation, the linkages between the growth of civilian nuclear power and the spread of nuclear weapons, deterrence and compellence theory and practice, and the consequences of new states acquiring atomic arsenals. A second renaissance is occurring in history, as new archives have opened up and scholars are studying such important subjects as Cold War crises, the evolution of international institutions such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and the history of medium powers and smaller states that decided to pursue or decided to stop pursing nuclear weapons.

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