The Price of Supremacy

Unlike the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China isn't anything resembling a peer of the United States when it comes to nuclear weapons. Yes, the PRC has nukes. And, yes, the PRC even has nukes capable of hitting the United States. But it doesn't have all that many, nor as they particularly sophisticated. What's more, as Kier Lieber and Daryl Press note in the current Atlantic, the gap appears to be growing, "the United States is pursuing capabilities that are rendering MAD obsolete, and the resulting nuclear imbalance of power could dramatically exacerbate America’s rivalry with China."

America's "counterforce" capabilities -- the ability to "win" a nuclear war -- are much, much, much more advanced than China's. This means China can't be confident that it's second-strike nuclear deterrent would prevent us from nuking China. But that means China may, in a tense standoffy moment, feel the need to be much more proactive with its own arsenal than you would expect in a MAD situation. If the Chinese believe an America first strike would result in victory, then launching a first strike looks like a good idea for the Chinese. And if Americans think a Chinese first strike makes sense from a Chinese perspective, but that an American first strike will result in victory, then a US first strike looks like a good idea for Americans. But if the Chinese knows that . . . and if the Americans know the Chinese know that . . . and the Chinese know the Americans know they know that . . . etc., etc., etc.

At any rate, it's a fascinating -- and disturbing -- article. For more on this see Benjamin Schwarz's column written where their academic study was completed, this post from Brad Plumer and this one one Robert Farley both from back in 2006, and Lieber and Press' March '06 article in Foreign Affairs.

National Archives photo of Operation Ivy via PINGNews.

Presented by

Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Politics

Just In