The Perils of Primacy

When too much power means not enough security

In a feat of technical sophistication and strategic insight, Lieber and Press have modeled a U.S. first strike against Russia. (Although China is Washington's most probable great-power rival, the authors argue, Russia presents a "hard case" for their contention that America has achieved nuclear ascendancy.) That model, which they presented at the Council on Foreign Relations in October, has been vetted by most of the top civilian defense analysts. To be conservative, it assumes that U.S. nuclear weapons will perform with much less accuracy and reliability than should be expected. Even so, the authors conclude, a U.S. attack today would destroy the entire Russian nuclear arsenal. To grossly oversimplify: the erosion of Russian capabilities, combined with new, overwhelming warhead yields and the "accuracy revolution" in U.S. nuclear forces, has largely obviated the problems of "fratricide" (the prospect that U.S. missiles on the attack would destroy each other, leaving their targets safe) that once helped make a disarming strike impossible to achieve.

Lieber and Press emphasize that their analysis doesn't prove that a U.S. first strike would succeed, but it highlights a development that is grave if only because it's one that prudent planners in Russia and China, who conduct similar analyses, are no doubt already surmising: that their countries can no longer be confident of having a viable deterrent. Surely adding to their alarm is the realization that the nuclear imbalance, troubling enough already, will only grow in the coming years. Washington's withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and its concomitant pursuit of a national missile-defense system will greatly enhance its offensive nuclear capabilities, because although critics of missile defense correctly argue that it could never shield America from a massive full-scale nuclear attack, it could quite plausibly deal with the very few missiles an adversary might have left to deploy after a U.S. first strike. What's more, the United States is actively pursuing a series of initiatives—including further advances in anti-submarine and anti-satellite warfare; in missile accuracy and potency; and in wide-area remote sensing, aimed at finding "relocatable" targets such as mobile ICBMs—that will render Russia's and China's nuclear forces all the more vulnerable.

To be sure, America's emerging nuclear hegemony could bring benefits, including potential leverage vis-à-vis our superpower counterparts in such areas of competition as the Balkans and Taiwan. It will also force China to divert defense resources from its power-projection efforts in East Asia. (This, however, would be both a blessing and a curse: "We should expect a new, prolonged, and intense nuclear arms race," Lieber and Press conclude.) But whether or not America has deliberately pursued the ability to win a nuclear conflict, that capability will increase the risk of great-power war. U.S.-Chinese relations are bound to be edgy or worse for the foreseeable future, and although relations between Washington and Moscow are nowhere near their Cold War nadir, actual and potential strains remain formidable. Each country has nuclear-armed missiles that can be delivered against the other within minutes—and in America's nuclear-war plans the overwhelming number of targets remain inside Russia. Most important, any shift in the nuclear balance itself will engender a volatility that could cause seemingly small conflicts between countries to quickly spiral.

Confronted with the growing nuclear imbalance, Russia and China will be forced to try to redress it; but given America's advantages, that effort, as Lieber and Press note, could take well over a decade. Until a nuclear stalemate is restored—if it ever is—Moscow and Beijing will surely buy deterrence by spreading out their nuclear forces, decentralizing their command-and-control systems, and implementing "launch on warning" policies. If more than half a century of analyzing nuclear dangers and "crisis stability" has taught us anything, it is that all these steps can cause crises to escalate uncontrollably. They could trigger the unauthorized or accidental use of nuclear weapons; this could lead to inadvertent nuclear war.

American military preponderance now embraces the entire "spectrum of conflict," as Pentagon planners put it. That is to say, we're miles ahead of everyone in every type of warfare. But if that preponderance is leading to a world in which Russian and Chinese launch commanders are fingering nuclear hair triggers, the game may not be worth the candle. Without any public scrutiny or debate the United States has emerged as the nuclear hegemon, in possession of a destabilizing first-strike capability. It does not matter whether this has come about by accident or design, or whether America's motives are worthy or malign; the condition itself is the problem. The ramifications of this state of affairs are of the gravest significance to America's security—and the world's. It's time for scrutiny and debate to begin.

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic.
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Benjamin Schwarz is the former literary and national editor for The Atlantic. He is writing a book about Winston Churchill for Random House. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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