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  • Does Nuclear Superiority Matter?
  • Alia Awadallah (bio)
Review of Matthew Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

In The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters, author Matthew Kroenig promises to deliver a novel theory on why American nuclear superiority matters. Kroenig focuses on numerical superiority, arguing that a nation's warhead count is a decent enough proxy for overall superiority. His objective is to settle a longstanding question in the nuclear community: if numerical superiority makes no difference in nuclear war, why do American policymakers pursue it relentlessly? Kroenig argues that numerical superiority does in fact matter and provides compelling evidence to back up his argument. His findings, while limited in scope, represent an important contribution to nuclear strategy and have major policy ramifications for both nuclear and non-nuclear states.

Kroenig's background is well-suited to answering this question, given his mix of academic expertise and policy experience. Kroenig is a tenured professor at Georgetown University and formerly served in the Department of Defense and Central Intelligence Agency, in addition to advising a number of presidential candidates on foreign policy.

In the first chapter, Kroenig introduces his "superiority-brinkmanship synthesis theory," which argues that nuclear superiority increases a state's willingness to take risks in international disputes. This appetite for risk strengthens the resolve of state leaders, allowing them to play games of nuclear brinkmanship and ultimately coerce their adversaries. The author is clearly aware that his theory will face sharp scrutiny, specifically from academics who believe that once states possess second strike capability, numerical superiority no longer matters. Kroenig spends the rest of the book rigorously testing his theory and preempting criticism. The first few chapters test the cost of nuclear exchanges in terms of human casualties and the destruction of military targets or major cities. In all cases, the tests reveal that numerical superiority would enable a state to inflict significantly greater damage on its adversary. Kroenig also maintains that nuclear superiority also matters for international political crises by allowing the superior state to demonstrate greater resolve. [End Page 193]

Kroenig then examines historical standoffs between nuclear-armed states, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kargil Crisis, the Sino-Soviet Border War, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The main purpose of these case studies is to illustrate that decision-makers were conscious of the nuclear balance of power and based their actions at least partly on that balance. The second half of the book seeks to dismantle arguments against nuclear superiority, such as the perception that it is too expensive and the fear that nuclear superiority will lead to a bilateral arms race or widespread nuclear proliferation.

The book's greatest strength and weakness is that it attempts to explain what most policymakers may not even understand themselves. Kroenig is adamant that US policymakers know intuitively what his tests prove empirically: the size of our nuclear force matters, even beyond the ability to retaliate against a first strike. The Cuban Missile Crisis provides the best evidence for this argument, as historical records suggest the Soviet Union's leaders were keenly aware of the Soviet Union's inferiority during the conflict.1 The other cases are not as convincing. Kroenig is correct that the perceptions and resolve of policymakers matters a great deal. However, further examination in the form of interviews and analysis of contemporary crises would go a long way in strengthening his argument. So would a more thorough examination of policymaker perceptions on the importance of relative versus absolute vulnerability to nuclear war.

Kroenig effectively demonstrates why new states will not necessarily acquire nuclear weapons in response to a US nuclear build up. He is less successful in arguing that a build-up will not lead other major nuclear powers, such as Russia, to expand their own arsenals. Kroenig asserts that Russia and others will seek to acquire more warheads regardless of US actions. In this case, the Cuban Missile Crisis contradicts Kroenig's theory since the standoff did in fact lead Khrushchev to acquire additional nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities, for the explicit purpose of not losing a similar confrontation...


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pp. 193-195
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