Stephen M. Walt: Rethinking the "Nuclear Revolution"





Ever since graduate school, I've been a firm believer in the "nuclear revolution." The term refers to the belief that the invention of nuclear weapons constituted a fundamental shift in the nature of warfare, and conceivably in international relations itself. As Bernard Brodie put it in The Absolute Weapon (1946): "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." (Hmmm. Given that we've fought at least five significant wars since World War II, and a host of minor conflicts, we don't seem to be following Brodie's advice).

The idea of the "nuclear revolution" goes further than that, however. As refined by scholars like Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Glenn Snyder, Robert Jervis, Kenneth Waltz, and Stephen Van Evera, nuclear weapons are said to provide states with the ability to protect their sovereignty and independence not via direct defense but rather through deterrence. Instead of defending one's borders or vital interests with conventional military forces, states could deter enemy attack by threatening to inflict unacceptable damage on an aggressor. As long as they possessed a secure second-strike retaliatory force, in short, they could deter attack by threatening to make an aggressor's losses outweigh its gains. As Winston Churchill famously put it, peace had become "the sturdy child of terror, and survival the twin brother of annihilation."...
[Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.]

I've long accepted the core tenets of this basic argument, and I've taught it to my students for years. But lately I've started wondering about just how far-reaching this "revolution" really was. Although I still accept the core logic, the existence of nuclear weapons doesn't seem to have had the far-reaching political effects that Jervis and others anticipated.

Consider: the United States has a very large and sophisticated nuclear arsenal, and a very secure "second-strike" capacity. It could easily devastate any country foolish enough to attack us. Yet the United States also maintains a large and expensive Navy, a sizeable and expensive air force, and significant ground and amphibious too. And the justification for this is not the need to defend human rights, or even spread democracy (though both claims get invoked from time to time); rather, we maintain these forces because we think they are essential to our national security....

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