Superiority Complex

Why America’s growing nuclear supremacy may make war with China more likely

If U.S.-China relations are headed for trouble, the United States faces difficult questions now about its nuclear-force posture and grand strategy. It may seem too late to debate the merits of pursuing nuclear primacy, but important decisions about it remain. The United States is reducing its nuclear arsenal to comply with arms- control treaties. By simply retiring its least-effective systems, Washington can make those reductions without affecting its nuclear primacy—and will most likely do this.

But the United States could decide instead to retire its most lethal submarine-based warheads, its highly accurate nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, and all nuclear warheads that can be set to detonate at low yields. Similarly, it could stop experimenting with GPS-guided nuclear delivery systems. And it could cancel plans to develop new long-range conventional weapons that would threaten China’s nuclear arsenal. Such decisions would come at a real cost: They would weaken U.S. coercive leverage in crises involving nuclear-armed adversaries, and they would leave future presidents who find themselves in dire circumstances with few palatable counterforce options—meaning options that wouldn’t kill millions of civilians. On the other hand, these steps might avert an arms race with China and prevent a dangerous spiraling of events during a crisis. During the latter decades of the Cold War, key measures of American nuclear-force structure were matters of intense public debate. They should be again.

More broadly, U.S. policy makers and analysts need to confront challenging questions about military strategy and foreign policy in an era of nuclear primacy. How should the United States plan to fight conventional wars against nuclear powers in a way that minimizes the odds of an inadvertent escalation? Will the United States need to adopt highly limited war aims—a reversal of the Powell Doctrine of committing overwhelming force to win decisively? Does the military need to rethink the American way of war, focused as it is on blinding and confusing the enemy? And how does the United States plan to manage an alliance system that may become strained, as its allies increasingly realize that they’re more vulnerable than the United States to nuclear threats and coercion? This asymmetry of risks conjures memories of the Cold War and of the challenges that such problems posed for the NATO alliance; the rise of China will make the U.S. and its allies confront these painful issues again.

The fundamental conundrum for the United States is this: Its current drive toward nuclear primacy is both a solution—and the problem itself. Nuclear primacy is supposed to give the United States a trump card in future disputes, allowing it to reassure allies and coerce potential enemies. But it may also trigger an arms race and raise new risks that neither America’s enemies—nor its allies—will find easy to bear.

Keir A. Lieber is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and the author of War and the Engineers: The Primacy of Politics Over Technology (2005). Daryl G. Press has worked as a consultant on military analysis projects for the U.S. Department of Defense for 13 years, and he is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College.
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