Seminar: Conventional War and Nuclear Escalation

A project of the Center for Global Security Research (CGSR), the Nuclear Crossroads Initiative brings the laboratory, academic, and policy communities together to address the most pressing issues at the intersection of nuclear deterrence and proliferation in the 21st century.

CGSR was pleased to host the inaugural Nuclear Crossroads seminar July 15th, 2014, with two of the top experts on U.S. strategic nuclear policy. Professors Keir Lieber of Georgetown University and Daryl Press of Dartmouth College reexamined the question of whether nuclear weapons are likely to be used again.

According to the conventional wisdom, nuclear weapons still pose major risks, but the threat of deliberate nuclear attack on the United States or its allies is extremely remote. Instead, analysts stress the nuclear dangers posed by fanatical or delusional leaders, stateless terrorists, misperceptions, and accidents. Because nuclear deterrence is largely irrelevant to dealing with those dangers, many analysts and policymakers have pushed non-proliferation and fissile material security as the core U.S. national security objectives. Nuclear forces – warheads, delivery systems, and associated infrastructures – are thus increasingly viewed as relics of a bygone era.

Dr. Lieber and Dr. Press argue the conventional wisdom is dangerously wrong for four reasons. First, nuclear weapons are just as salient today as they were in the past. Many of America’s current potential adversaries – and other countries around the world – face the exact problem that NATO faced in the Cold War: how to deter an adversary that possesses overwhelming conventional military power. They rely on nuclear weapons for this critical task, just as the United States and NATO relied upon them during the Cold War. Second, relatively weaker states face powerful rational incentives to employ nuclear weapons during a conventional war against a much stronger adversary. Third, the logic of wartime nuclear escalation shaped the defense plans and nuclear employment doctrines of several nuclear states in the past, and it continues to do so today. Fourth, several aspects of modern warfare exacerbate the incentives for the weak to escalate conflicts rather than accept battlefield defeat. Conventional conflicts among nuclear-armed states will therefore unleash strong escalatory dynamics. Professors Lieber and Press conclude with the implications for U.S. national security policy, force structure, and the nuclear weapons complex.

Keir Lieber is Associate Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University (Ph.D. University of Chicago). Professor Lieber is the author of War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics over Technology, and an expert in nuclear deterrence and international relations theory. Daryl G. Press is Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College (Ph.D. Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and author of Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats, a book on decision-making during military crises. Dr. Lieber and Dr. Press have published widely on U.S. national security policy and nuclear deterrence in the leading academic and foreign policy publications, including International Security, Security Studies, Foreign Affairs, and the Atlantic Monthly.

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DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here do not represent LLNL or the U.S. government.