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Inadvertent Βαη νκ·Posen Nuclear War? Escalation and NATO's Northern Flank Could a major EastWest conventional war be kept conventional? American policymakers in­ creasingly seem to think so. Recent discussions of such a clash reflect the belief that protracted conventional conflict is possible, if only the West fields sufficient conventional forces and acquires an adequate industrial mobiliza­ tion base. Indeed, the Reagan Administration has embraced the idea of preparing for a long conventional war, as evidenced by its concern with the mobilization potential of the American defense industry.1 Underlying this policy is the belief that the United States should be prepared to fight a war that, in duration and character, resembles World War II. American decision­ makers seem confident of their ability to avoid nuclear escalation in such a war if they so desire. That confidence is dangerousand unwarranted. It fails to takeinto account that intense conventional operations may cause nuclear escalation by threat­ ening or destroying strategic nuclear forces. The operational requirements (or preferences) for conducting a conventional war may thus unleash enor­ mous, and possibly uncontrollable, escalatory pressures despite the desires of American or Soviet policymakers. Moreover, the potential sources of such escalation are deeply rooted in the nature of the force structures and military strategies of the superpowers, as well as in the technological and geograph­ ical circumstancesof large-scale East-West conflict. If the escalatory pressures While the author bears sole responsibility for all views expressed here, he is grateful to Bruce G. Blair, Joshua Epstein, William W. Kaufmann, John Mearsheimer, Stephen Van Evera, and Kenneth Waltz for their suggestions. Barry Posen is a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow. This article was written while he was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. 1. See, for example, the accounts of Secretary Weinberger's views in George Wilson, "Wein­ berger Order: Plan for Wider War," The Boston Globe, July 17, 1981; and Richard Halloran, "Weinberger Tells of New Conventional-Force Strategy," The New York Times, May 7, 1981. For further indications of the Administration's views on this subject, see also Richard Halloran, "Needed: A Leader for the Joint Chiefs,"The New York Times, February 1, 1982; Richard Halloran, "Reagan Selling Navy Budget as Heart of Military Mission," The New York Times, April 11, 1982; and Caspar W. Weinberger, Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress, FY 1983, pp. 1-13, 16-17, 28-29. International Security, Fall 1982 (Vol. 7, No. 2) 0162-2889/82/010028-27 $02 50/0© 1982 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College and of the Massachusetts Inshtute of Technology. Strategy and Nuclear Deterrence \ 86 that could attend a major conventional war are to be prevented from driving decision-makers toward decisions they neither intend nor wish to make, those pressures must be recognized and guarded against by the leaders of both superpowers.2 Moreover, underestimating the escalatory risks that would accompany conventional war has several significant negative consequences, even in peacetime. First, American decision-makers pay insufficient attention to the details of conventional posture and operations essential to the limitation of war. Too many agree with the observation that "both sides understand conventional warfare, they know that it can be controlled in the present age."3 Second, leaders who fail to appreciate fully the dangers of nuclear escalation may not be cautious enough about both the initiation and the conduct of direct confrontations between Soviet and American military power. Third, nuclear deterrence may be undermined by excessive public confidence in the limitability of superpower conventional war. The "threat to lose control" isan importantelement of NATO's flexible response strategy, and must be preserved. It would be unfortunate if the public pronounce­ ments of Western strategists encouraged the Soviets to believe that they could easily avoid nuclear punishment for "conventional" aggression. Fourth, emphasis on protracted conventional conflict weakens Western Eu­ rope's confidence in America's nuclear guarantee. Emphasizing instead the difficulty of keeping conventional warconventional might ameliorate Alliance fears that the U.S. nuclear umbrella no longer shields them. Unfortunately, surprisingly little attention has been devoted to analyzing and understanding this path to nuclear war. Escalation has generally been conceived of as either a rational policy choice, in which a leadership decides to preempt or to escalate in the face of a conventional defeat, or as an accident, the result of mechanical failure, unauthorized use, or insanity. But escalation arising out of the normal conduct of intense conventional conflict falls between these two categories: it...


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