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When Do Leaders Change Course? Theories of Success and the American Withdrawal from Beirut, 1983–1984

When Do Leaders Change Course? Theories of Success and the American Withdrawal from Beirut, 1983–1984

Why did the United States withdraw from Lebanon in February 1984? How did new information shape policymakers’ proposals to expand, maintain, or terminate the intervention? Drawing upon declassified records, we challenge the conventional narrative that the…

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Rethinking the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy

Nuclear weapons have long played a central but often unappreciated role in American grand strategy. In spite of the unimaginable consequences of their use in war, we know far less about how the bomb shapes U.S. national security and world politics than we…

Disentangling Grand Strategy: International Relations Theory and U.S. Grand Strategy

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This article assesses the underlying sources of disagreement among competing scholarly treatments of U.S. grand strategy. It argues that much of the debate centers on differing conceptions of the roles of power and domestic and international institutions in…

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In this paper, I review three major purposes for arms control negotiations — disarmament, stability, and advantage. In the first part of the paper, I compare the three purposes against the causes of war literature to show that each provides a defensible…

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What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield

Amidst acute geopolitical flux, the study of grand strategy is necessary for scholars and strategists alike. As a framework for scholarship, it trains attention on the highest-order questions of international relations: why, how, and for what purposes states…

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In asymmetric alliances, a superior state provides security to a weaker ally, who in exchange surrenders its autonomy to its stronger protector. But what happens when the weaker state’s vital interests clash with its stronger ally’s preferences? In 2011…

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Unbeatable: Social Resources, Military Adaptation, and the Afghan Taliban

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Scholars, like contemporary observers, continue to argue heatedly over the quality of President Ronald Reagan’s strategy, diplomacy, and leadership. This paper focuses on a fascinating paradox of his presidency: By seeking to talk to Soviet leaders and end…

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                    [post_content] => A crowd gathered on the shores of Beirut’s Green Beach on Feb. 26, 1984 to watch as the last company of U.S. Marines departed from Lebanon. Remnants of a 1,800-strong peacekeeping mission, the Marines had arrived 18 months earlier to help restore stability and encourage the withdrawal of Israeli and Syrian forces from the country. The Reagan administration maintained that the peacekeepers’ presence was vital to national reconciliation and ending Lebanon’s civil war, and their operations had steadily expanded as the security situation in the country deteriorated. Then, on Oct. 23, 1983, a suicide bomber affiliated with a pro-Iranian Shia faction detonated his truck within the Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport, killing 241 Americans.[1] The memory of the attack hung over the troops four months later, and their redeployment was widely seen as a retreat. “No more wounded, no more killed,” one gunnery sergeant explained to a New York Times reporter, summarizing the prevailing sentiment. “All these people want us to do is go home.”[2]

Nearly three decades later, the image of the withdrawing marines has been fixed in the minds of academics, policymakers, and the general public alike as an integral element of the popular refrain that U.S. foreign policy is constrained by an extreme sensitivity to casualties.[3] Like the Nixon administration in Vietnam and the Clinton administration in Somalia, the argument goes, the Reagan administration was driven from Lebanon because policymakers feared the political repercussions of mounting losses. More generally, scholars still differ over whether the withdrawal was a shrewd political calculation designed to safeguard the president’s re-election chances, an impulsive reaction to a human tragedy, or a strategic course correction that foreshadowed Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s eponymous doctrine on the use of force. But they all agree, as Israeli historian Benny Morris writes, that the “massive loss of life … instantly broke Washington’s resolve.”[4]

Yet, these conventional arguments cannot explain the timing or the character of the U.S. departure from Lebanon. In fact, they obscure more than illuminate how policymakers responded to an unanticipated high-casualty event. Drawing upon newly accessible government records, this article argues that the Beirut barracks bombing did not, as is widely believed, precipitate a decision to withdraw. Although the attack strengthened a pre-existing movement for withdrawal, it did the same for a second, more influential faction within the administration that pushed successfully for an expansion and hardening of U.S. military involvement in Lebanon even as popular and congressional opposition to the intervention mounted. Ultimately, only the collapse of the Lebanese national army in early February 1984 — an event unrelated to the October truck attack — compelled Ronald Reagan to accept the mission’s failure and order the marines to redeploy.

Our findings imply that policymakers’ responses to casualties are conditioned by their existing theories about an operation’s probability of success or failure. We find that individual policymakers who already opposed the U.S. intervention in Lebanon interpreted the violence of the barracks attack as evidence for their previously established views on the feasibility (or infeasibility) of the peacekeeping mission. Similarly, the attack hardened the position of intervention advocates, who continued to push for an expansion in U.S. military involvement despite the mounting human and political danger. In both instances, public attitudes toward the intervention did not determine policymakers’ support for expanding, maintaining, or terminating the peacekeeping mission. We therefore conclude that the barracks bombing was not the determining factor in the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon as many have presumed. Rather than lend clarity about the appropriate course of action, the bombing heightened divisions within the administration as policymakers integrated the attack into their pre-existing but competing theories of success (or failure) of the Lebanon mission.

This article addresses two related questions: First, why did the United States withdraw from Lebanon? Second, and more broadly, how did policymakers use new information from Beirut in decisions about expanding, maintaining, or terminating the intervention? The opening two sections briefly survey the literature on the relationship between casualties, public opinion, and U.S. foreign policy, highlighting how elite decision-makers weigh public pressure and interpret new information from the field when considering withdrawal from limited military interventions. The third section details alternative explanations for the U.S. response to the barracks bombing. Next, we outline the counterfactual method we employ to identify, construct, and assess alternative causal pathways for explaining the withdrawal. A brief history of the U.S. military withdrawal from Lebanon constitutes the fifth section, followed by a counterfactual assessment to test our theory and assess American decision-makers’ calculations between the October 1983 bombing and the Marines’ departure in February 1984. Finally, the conclusion returns to the question of why the Reagan administration terminated the peacekeeping mission and considers the implications this case has on popular, scholarly, and policy debates about military withdrawals.

Weighing the “Bodybag Effect”[5]

The history of the Reagan administration’s intervention in Lebanon has played a fundamental role in shaping popular and academic attitudes toward the effect that casualties have had on U.S. foreign policy and the role of public opinion in crafting that policy. The barracks bombing was the U.S. military’s first major casualty event since the end of the Vietnam War, and for some it played into a growing literature highlighting the public’s power to curtail military commitments when confronted with evidence of growing human costs.[6] Weinberger’s 1984 announcement of a new military doctrine defining, among other criteria, the need for “reasonable assurances” of public support for future interventions seemed to provide additional confirmation of this thesis. Media and academic discourses about Lebanon conform closely with the theory that the barracks bombing catalyzed the Marines’ departure.[7] Three decades later, Beirut remains a popular case study of the effects of casualties on U.S. foreign policy, contributing to a vast literature that frames public opinion as the “essential domino” in decisions to maintain, expand, or terminate military interventions.[8] In one camp, scholars have expanded upon John Mueller’s landmark theory of a reflexive and casualty-sensitive American electorate, contending that popular support for an intervention declines — and the risk of political backlash grows — as the costs of an intervention accumulate.[9] Conversely, a second school of thought emphasizes the public’s capacity to make rational calculations and weigh the costs of an intervention against its perceived strategic importance and the odds of success. Informed by the United States’ post-Cold War humanitarian operations and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this literature suggests that a variety of contextual factors, including the type of operation, elite framing of the conflict, and the perceived probability of victory, help inform the public’s tolerance for casualties and provide opportunities for decision-makers to sustain costly interventions under certain circumstances.[10] [quote id="1"] Both views are united, however, by the common position that popular attitudes function as a strong brake on the use of force.[11] If the public is willing to punish elected leaders for the costs of a military intervention, the argument goes, U.S. presidential administrations can be expected, once presented with evidence of declining popular support, to terminate interventions in hopes of avoiding an electoral backlash. The Beirut example has emerged as a common demonstration of this dynamic. Researchers have seized upon the fact that the Reagan administration announced its withdrawal shortly after the president formally declared his intention to run for re-election. Yet, the complete history of the U.S. experience in Lebanon challenges both of these public opinion models. Closer analysis of public and White House polling data reveals that national attitudes did not decline uniformly in response to the barracks attack. To the contrary, support for the U.S. intervention in Lebanon grew in the wake of the bombing and continued to fluctuate over the intervention’s remaining four months. Even as public attitudes soured over the winter of 1983–84, the decline in support was neither as precipitous as is commonly argued nor as influential. Indeed, when the White House announced its decision to withdraw in early February 1984, public support for the intervention was “not significantly different from what it was in early October 1983, before the truck bombing occurred.”[12] Moreover, the Reagan administration continued to expand and harden U.S. military involvement in Lebanon for several months after the tragedy, even as the perceived danger of future losses increased. Rather than distance himself from a growing political liability — as both the reflexive and rational public models anticipate a savvy political leader would do — the president vociferously defended the intervention both in public and private. And even as the announcement of his re-election campaign neared, and despite worsening poll numbers, Reagan continued to tie himself to the imbroglio.

Weighing a Strategic Course Correction

A second popular interpretation of the withdrawal from Lebanon upholds the case as a rare example of prudent course correction. Skeptical of the peacekeeping mission, those subscribing to this explanation argue that the bombing forced Reagan to acknowledge that the costs of maintaining the intervention outweighed the anticipated benefits. Avoiding the temptation to double down on a losing mission, the president chose to cut his losses and terminate the mission before additional American lives were lost.[13] This view hews closely to theoretical arguments within the literature on bargaining models of war, especially notions of Bayesian updating.[14] Such updating occurs when rational political actors combine new information from the field with prior expectations to adjust their outlooks on the future. In the context of a military operation, positive information like a battlefield success might encourage policymakers, governments, or populations to expand their political objectives or to adjust their strategy to seek desired ends more efficiently. If new information suggests that an adversary is stronger than expected or that the costs of success are higher than anticipated — a devastating attack on one’s military forces, for example — decision-makers should narrow their objectives and begin seeking an end to the operation. These calculations depend largely on the actor’s prior assessments; even the most damning information from the battlefield may only slowly overcome deeply held expectations that events will ultimately work out as originally anticipated.[15] Nonetheless, a Bayesian perspective suggests that new negative information from the field should reliably and consistently degrade expectations for, and thus approaches to, an intervention. At first glance, this framework provides an appealingly simple explanation for the Reagan administration’s behavior in the wake of the Beirut barracks bombing: Since the cost of the intervention — namely, the loss of 241 Americans — and the expectation of future attacks exceeded the benefits of maintaining the mission, withdrawal was consequently in order. A surprise injection of negative information from the field precipitated careful strategic reassessment. Yet, a closer examination of the Reagan administration’s deliberations reveals that policymakers did not uniformly interpret the attack and update their expectations as the Bayesian model might predict. Instead, officials retreated into their pre-established camps and offered two diverging understandings of the tragedy’s significance. Opponents of the U.S. military intervention, notably Defense Secretary Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., seized upon the Marine losses as a confirmation of their prior belief that U.S. objectives in Lebanon could not be achieved at an acceptable cost. Most interestingly, however, advocates of the intervention drew the inverse conclusion, construing the bloodshed as evidence that the U.S. military presence was vital to preserving hopes for a negotiated settlement to the Lebanese civil war. President Reagan, Secretary of State George Shultz, and National Security Adviser Robert “Bud” McFarlane each upheld the bombing as an additional reason to maintain — or even expand — U.S. involvement in the country and reassert Washington’s resolve.[16] Reagan reassured the American people that “The multinational force was attacked precisely because it is … accomplishing its mission.”[17] If neither pressure from a casualty-adverse public nor reflexive strategic reassessment explains the Reagan administration’s reaction to the bombing and the decision-making surrounding the ultimate withdrawal, what does?

Theories of Success, Theories of Failure

The divergent interpretations of the bombing were largely conditioned on policymakers’ previous beliefs regarding the efficacy and value of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon. We call these views their “theory of success” or “theory of failure.” We use theory of success and theory of failure in reference to the causal logic underpinning why a particular action is expected to lead, or not lead, to a desired political objective.[18] Beliefs of this kind animate each facet of policymakers’ deliberations — including definition of priorities, assessment of risk, and evaluation of potential instruments of power — by providing a unifying framework to bind specific decisions to more general political aims.[19] Functionally, theories of success determine the shape of action, providing the sinew connecting a government’s efforts with its goals. In the case of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon, policymakers’ established theories of success or failure informed their immediate reaction to the barracks bombing and their policy recommendations in the months that followed. Unlike in pure Bayesian models, the attack produced a range of interpretations among decision-makers because this new information was filtered through the lens of their prior views. Those who supported the intervention and believed that the United States could still achieve its aims viewed the attack as further evidence of the need to maintain or expand the peacekeeping mission. Conversely, those who opposed the deployment of U.S. forces to Lebanon saw the casualties as confirmation of the intervention’s futility and as an additional reason to disengage. Everyone agreed the bombing was a tragedy, but not everyone took the attack as evidence that the United States had faced a setback calling its mission into question. Indeed, by providing added evidence for their preferred courses of action, and thereby deepening the fractures within the administration, the bombings increased the “stickiness,” or durability, of policymakers’ theories of success (or impending failure). Thus, the outcome of the Reagan administration’s deliberations in the months after the barracks bombing was not pre-ordained by the scale of the losses or expectations of domestic political backlash. It was, however, increasingly influenced by theories U.S. leaders already held about the mission. A counterfactual analysis of the events leading to the U.S. military withdrawal from Lebanon reveals an alternative explanation for the administration’s ultimate decision to disengage from the country. Until the very end, optimists like Reagan and Shultz maintained their conviction that the Marine presence would help bring stability to the troubled region, even as the security situation in Lebanon deteriorated and negotiations faltered. Only in early February 1984, when a series of local crises threatened and ultimately overwhelmed the Lebanese Armed Forces, did the Cabinet finally form the consensus necessary to persuade Reagan to order the redeployment. The collapse of the Lebanese forces provided conclusive evidence that the president’s theory of success, which posited that the Lebanese government could, with sufficient U.S. support, reassert control without a wider American ground presence, was no longer viable. What occurred was not a thoughtful withdrawal or a maneuver to placate domestic electoral pressures in the face of disconfirming evidence. Rather, confronted with the decision to either terminate or massively escalate U.S. involvement, Reagan finally conceded defeat.

A Counterfactual History

To assess the effect that the Marine barracks bombing had on U.S. policy in Lebanon, we combine historical analysis of the Reagan administration’s internal deliberations with counterfactual examination of three inflection points that occurred between the Oct. 23, 1983, attack and the Feb. 7, 1984, decision to terminate the peacekeeping mission. Once derided by historians and political scientists alike, counterfactual analysis offers a powerful qualitative tool to test theories of causality.[20] Because it challenges researchers to envision alternative unrealized futures, counterfactual analysis also illuminates flaws in established narratives and provides a safeguard against confirmation bias, making it a valuable method to re-evaluate the popular Lebanese example. By comparing possible outcomes against actual events, we seek to “weigh” the bombing’s significance as a driver of U.S. decision-making and to judge the effect of public opinion and rational strategic reassessment on the administration’s decision-making. To control against indefensible extrapolations, we draw upon multiple related analytical frameworks.[21] We blend inductive historical and theory-guided analysis to “describe, explain, interpret, [and] understand a single case as an end in itself.”[22] We employ theory as a guide to identify causal pathways and to help select likely or feasible counterfactual scenarios. Deep analysis of the historical record is also necessary to identify potential turning points, assess realistic alternatives, and weigh the probability of potential consequences. As a historically-minded political scientist and a historian versed in political theory, we aim to conduct an interdisciplinary study that draws equally from both traditions. [quote id="2"] Toward this end, we conducted archival work to build a rich case study of decision-making with regard to Lebanon between October 1983 and February 1984.[23] Declassified government records, oral histories, memoirs, and contemporary news reporting allowed us to reconstruct the Reagan administration’s internal debates and to trace changes in that debate across time.[24] By carefully following a causal chain from origin to outcome, we can identify policymakers’ assumptions, isolate points of contention, and delineate a range of alternative outcomes that were possible at the time.[25] Tracing the decision-making process this way serves as a check against common cognitive distortions like hindsight bias, or the tendency to see past occurrences as obvious and the future as predictable. It also forms a foundation from which to build realistic alternatives.[26] In identifying turning points during this period for counterfactual comparison, we prioritized instances in which: (1) the Reagan administration engaged in a high-level debate over whether to expand, contract, or terminate the peacekeeping mission in Lebanon; (2) the ultimate outcome was contingent on specific, isolatable variables (e.g., the presence of an individual or the occurrence of an event); and (3) an alternative could be extrapolated with minimal speculation. To avoid what historian Francis Gavin has termed the “fallacy of focusing on the last out,” we also selected examples from across the four-month period in question.[27] Broadening our temporal lens allows us to account for fluctuations over time, to consider cumulative effects, and to build a rich causal narrative that accounts for individual learning, the dynamics of decision-making, and the “stickiness” of theories of success or failure over time. Three moments satisfied our criteria. First, the October 23 bombing, which required many things to go right for the attackers, including acquiring the explosives and securing a determined suicide bomber, and many to go wrong for the United States and its allies, namely, an overabundance of intelligence and the inability to interdict the truck.[28] Second, the botched December 3 raid against Syrian targets that led to the death of one American pilot and the capture of a second. And third, the mass defection of the Lebanese Armed Forces in February 1984, an outcome contingent on the success of a risky anti-government offensive. In evaluating each example, we define a clear counterfactual antecedent (e.g., the Lebanese forces did not collapse), a set of hypothesized consequences (e.g., the U.S. decision to stay), and a causal path (e.g., because the Lebanese government remained stable, American officials could still argue for supporting it).[29]

Withdrawing from Lebanon, a Brief History

Lebanon forced its way onto the Reagan administration’s agenda in April 1981, when a confrontation between Israeli-backed Christian militants and Syrian deterrent forces stationed in the Bekaa Valley nearly provoked a fifth Arab-Israeli war. To avert a regional conflict, the president dispatched career diplomat Philip Habib to broker a new framework delineating Syrian, Palestinian, and Israeli zones of operations in Lebanon. Habib’s tireless mediation succeeded in defusing a series of confrontations over the next 16 months. Nevertheless, Israeli preparations for a major ground offensive continued despite U.S. protests.[30] On June 6, 1982, the long-planned Israeli invasion began. Within one week, the Israel Defense Forces had laid siege to Beirut in an effort to evict and destroy the Palestine Liberation Organization and thereby secure Israel’s northern border region. After inconclusive negotiations, the Reagan administration announced in July of that year that the president had agreed, in principle, to deploy U.S. marines to Lebanon. In August, the first contingent disembarked in Beirut as part of the Multinational Force tasked with overseeing the evacuation of Palestinian and Syrian fighters from the city.[31] Despite the ferocity of the fighting in Lebanon, the congressional reaction to Reagan’s commitment of U.S. forces was mixed. Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker expressed private reservations, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee convened an emergency session to review the administration’s proposal.[32] The White House averted more sustained opposition, however, by insisting on its intent to comply with the provisions of the War Powers Act. Under the terms of the Lebanese government’s invitation, U.S. forces were authorized to participate on a “limited and temporary basis” not to exceed 30 days, and they were equipped with unloaded weapons consistent with a non-combat mission. “I want to emphasize that there is no intention or expectation that U.S. Armed Forces will become involved in hostilities,” Reagan wrote to Congress, underscoring that Habib had secured guarantees from all armed parties in the city.[33] The first marines arrived ashore on Aug. 24, 1982. The Palestine Liberation Organization evacuation was completed quickly and without incident, and on September 8 — nearly two weeks before the mission’s scheduled end — the Pentagon announced the Marines’ early departure. They sailed from Lebanon two days later under banners reading “Mission Accomplished Farewell.”[34] Their withdrawal proved premature. Within days, President-Elect Bashir Gemayel, leader of Lebanon’s far-right Christian Phalange militia, was assassinated and the Israel Defense Forces re-entered Beirut, where they allowed Maronite fighters to massacre hundreds of Palestinian refugees.[35] Horrified by the carnage, and eager to dispel accusations of U.S. complicity, Reagan ordered the Marines to return to Beirut as part of a reconstituted multinational force tasked with three expanded political objectives: (1) to facilitate the withdrawal of Syrian and Israeli forces from Lebanon; (2) to strengthen the Lebanese national army; and (3) to assist the central government’s efforts to restore stability.[36] Over the next year, Reagan authorized gradual expansions in the Marine mission even as negotiations for the withdrawal of foreign forces stalled and efforts to strengthen the Lebanese Armed Forces faltered.[37] Determined to dispel the memory of Vietnam, and confident in what he saw as America’s unique obligation to promote peace abroad, Reagan envisioned the troops playing an indispensable role in promoting a lasting peace in Lebanon. His convictions were encouraged by optimistic assessments from Shultz, his secretary of state, and National Security Adviser William Clark. Reagan approved Lebanese government requests to expand the Marines’ patrol zone and launch an ambitious military modernization program over the fall of 1982.[38] By January 1983, the marines could be seen serving alongside Lebanese soldiers at observation posts and checkpoints throughout the capital.[39] These new responsibilities chipped away at U.S. claims of neutrality in the country’s civil war, eroding Lebanese popular support for the peacekeeping presence and bringing American diplomats and marines into the crosshairs. Attacks on the Multinational Force ticked upward in February and March, compelling the Marines to tighten coordination with Lebanese government forces.[40] On April 17, 1983, Shia militants supported by both Iran and Syria detonated a car bomb outside the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 58.[41] The attack precipitated a final push to secure an Israeli-Lebanese withdrawal arrangement, but the resulting written agreement was stymied by Syrian opposition.[42] Denouncing the continued U.S. presence, Syria increased its support for Druze and Shia factions in the mountainous Shouf District overlooking Beirut, intensifying a simmering standoff over Phalange encroachment.[43] As the fighting spread over the summer, attacks on Americans spiked. From August 4 to September 7, clashes killed four marines and wounded another 28, more than a threefold increase in total casualties over the previous 10-month period.[44] A series of pitched confrontations in September between the Lebanese Armed Forces and militias in the mountains prompted expansions to the rules of engagement for U.S. forces, which now directly supported the government of Lebanon with artillery and naval fire.[45] [quote id="3"] By the fall of 1983, progress toward all three U.S. objectives in Lebanon had stalled. Congress authorized an 18-month extension to the Marines’ mandate in September, but public attitudes toward the already-unpopular intervention declined as the security situation worsened — by mid-September only 17 percent of adult Americans favored continued U.S. participation.[46] Intelligence analysts cautioned that the opportunity for a negotiated withdrawal of foreign forces had passed and that Lebanon’s de facto partition was all but inevitable. “All the indicators are now moving the wrong way on our policy commitment,” CIA analyst Graham Fuller warned the agency’s deputy director, John McMahon. “We must be ready to face the fact that we have reached the end of the road.”[47] Policymakers recognized that they had arrived at a decision point, but they disagreed bitterly over how, or whether, a continued U.S. military presence could accelerate a negotiated settlement in Lebanon. In one camp, Defense Secretary Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Vessey, who had opposed the decision to deploy the Marines a year earlier, pushed Reagan to draw down the U.S. presence, arguing that the administration’s initial theory of success was, by now, strategically bankrupt. The intensifying conflict, they argued, demonstrated the mission’s futility and increased the odds of a miscalculation or confrontation that might alienate Arab opinion and strain the U.S. military’s limited resources in the region.[48] “Our whole policy, including the MNF presence and the buildup of the [Lebanese Armed Forces], was premised on achieving a diplomatic success. … Absent this, there was no military action that could succeed, unless we declared war and tried to force the occupying troops out of Lebanon,” Weinberger later wrote. “Our position was becoming increasingly dangerous, and was in fact useless.”[49] Yet Secretary of State Shultz, National Security Adviser Clark, and Bud McFarlane, who replaced Clark in early October 1983, contended that the administration’s objectives remained within reach. This camp expressed confidence in America’s capacity to promote peace in Lebanon, and espoused a theory of success in which the peacekeepers’ presence would bolster confidence in the Lebanese government, encourage Israeli and Syrian concessions, and accelerate the process of national reconciliation. Appealing to Reagan’s fear that his predecessors, cowed by the U.S. failure in Vietnam, had neglected American alliances and undermined the country’s reputation, they upheld Lebanon as a litmus test for American power in the world. The conflict, this camp argued in memoranda and private conversations, was both a “historic opportunity” to secure America’s position in a strategic region and a gamble that placed U.S. “credibility as a great power [at] stake.”[50] The world was watching to see what the United States would do when tested, and Shultz, Clark, and McFarlane urged the president to deploy additional marines as part of an expanded mission to support the Lebanese Armed Forces in reasserting government control beyond the capital.[51] The impasse deepened the administration’s internal fractures, and the debate stretched on without resolution into October. As governor of California and later as president, Reagan frequently demonstrated a willingness to cut his political losses and reverse course on a range of domestic matters, a strategy that his advisers described as “damage limitation” and that commentators viewed as a signature “tactical realism.”[52] He worried about escalating the crisis, and he listened to Weinberger’s warnings. Yet Shultz, Clark, and McFarlane’s arguments appealed to the president’s deeply held conviction that diplomacy worked best when backed by demonstrations of strength. Reagan still believed that the United States could secure a negotiated withdrawal of Syrian and Israeli forces from Lebanon, and he continued to view the Marine presence as an important symbol of American staying power. But Reagan was characteristically disinclined to mediate between his advisers, and he deferred the question of whether to augment the peacekeeping mission during repeated National Security Planning Group meetings in early October.[53] As a result, the national security leaders were already deeply divided over Lebanon when news of the barracks bombing reached Washington. The Marine Barracks Bombing — Oct. 23, 1983 Early on the morning of Oct. 23, 1983, Marine sentries stationed at Beirut International Airport observed a yellow Mercedes truck circling a public parking lot south of their compound. The Marines had suffered an unusual spate of casualties over the previous two weeks, and the sentries had been instructed to watch for suspicious vehicles. But there had been so many warnings — and the details were so sparse — that the guards dismissed the circling truck until, at 6:22 a.m., the driver picked up speed and turned toward the compound. As the marines scrambled to load their weapons, the driver maneuvered past the guard post and crashed into the barracks building, where he detonated the truck’s explosive load. The blast leveled the structure, killing 241 Americans.[54] The attack shocked the Reagan administration. McFarlane, a week into his new role as national security adviser, recalled that the president was stricken by early reports of American casualties. But Reagan’s grief was soon replaced by anger. “Those sons of bitches,” he swore as the first reports of casualties trickled back to Washington. “Let’s find a way to go after them.”[55] Within days, the intelligence community had gathered conclusive evidence of Syrian and Iranian culpability, including intercepted communications and an eye witness who shadowed the explosive-laden truck after it left the Iranian embassy in Beirut.[56] “If there ever was a 24-karat gold document, this was it,” a participant close to the process recalled. “This was not something from the third cousin of the fourth wife of Muhammed the taxicab driver.”[57] But while McFarlane, Shultz, and the National Security Council staff pressed for rapid reprisals to deter further attacks,[58] Weinberger and Vessey urged the president to defer a decision until after a scheduled trip to East Asia in early November.[59] If advocates of the Multinational Force viewed the bombing as evidence of the need for a peacekeeping force in Lebanon, the Department of Defense interpreted the attack as further confirmation that the Marines’ objectives were unattainable and feared that a confrontation might drag the Marines deeper into a quagmire. Dismissing the intelligence linking Syria and Iran to the attack, Weinberger and Vessey insisted that there was still insufficient evidence to justify military action.[60] Emboldened, the defense secretary renewed his campaign to persuade the president to bring the marines home.[61] In retrospect, these officials’ reactions to the Beirut bombing were emblematic of a pattern of behavior that persisted over the course of the Marine mission in Lebanon. Rather than re-evaluate their positions, policymakers instead sought to fit the new information into their pre-established theories of the intervention’s viability. New information often served to reinforce their arguments, worsening divisions within the administration and decreasing the possibility of compromise or consensus. When reports from the field did not conform with their prior expectations, Weinberger and others disputed the news and doubled down on their already established positions. The defense secretary eventually succeeded in persuading Reagan to defer a decision on retaliation until he returned to Washington in mid-November. Yet, the president’s confidence in the Marines’ mission in Lebanon deepened in the days after the bombing. In conversations with his advisers and public statements, Reagan underscored the importance of maintaining the course, cautioning his advisers that adversaries were watching the administration’s next steps.[62] Within days, he approved a series of presidential directives reasserting the importance of a U.S. military presence in Lebanon and modifying the Marines’ rules of engagement to allow U.S. forces to support Lebanese Armed Forces operations outside Beirut, including positions “in danger of being overrun by hostile forces.”[63] Notably, these directives were based on drafts circulated in advance of the October 23 bombing and were signed after only minor corrections.[64] In addition, he dispatched Marine Commandant P.X. Kelley to assess efforts to fortify American positions and evaluate whether additional security measures were needed.[65] With these actions, Reagan demonstrated his intention to maintain the U.S. presence in Lebanon, regardless of the risks. “What the President did not want to do, above all, was … to be seen as running away,” recalled McFarlane. “To the contrary, the barracks bombing seemed to strengthen his resolve to stay.”[66] [quote id="4"] Reagan was not alone in this view. Neither Shultz nor McFarlane wavered in his support for the intervention, and both pushed the president to demonstrate his continued commitment to the cause.[67] Even the president’s political advisers, typically sensitive to partisan winds, urged continuity. “Stability in the Middle East — and progress toward peace there — is vital to world peace,” Edwin Meese III, one of the president’s closest confidants, wrote to Reagan the day after the bombing, reiterating the president’s concern that the U.S. commitment to Lebanon had become a litmus test of America’s reliability as an ally. “If we are driven out of Lebanon, the radicals, the rejectionists, the violent will have won,” he warned, suggesting that a failure of resolve would be interpreted as a green light to challenge U.S. interests elsewhere.[68] Shultz echoed Meese’s warning in nearly identical terms during briefings on Capitol Hill, adding that “the presence of our Marines has been a crucial pillar of the structure of stability that is needed to make a political solution possible.”[69] Implicit in both arguments was an understanding that the attack threatened to derail the administration’s broader effort to establish a reputation for resolve, one manifested in the figure of the marines themselves.[70] The documentary evidence reveals that concern for public attitudes played almost no role in decision-makers’ arguments for retaliation or the president’s decision to defer military action. Official deliberations, whether during National Security Council meetings or in written memoranda, concentrated on the continued prospect of success and the effects that both retaliation and withdrawal could have on U.S. credibility abroad. In fact, Reagan dismissed media speculation that the bombing would harm his political future as the work of “whining” journalists, suggesting it was a ploy to retaliate for the Defense Department’s decision to limit access to Grenada, where U.S. troops had landed on October 25. “The press is trying to give this the Vietnam treatment but don’t think the people will buy it,” he wrote in his diary.[71] To the contrary, Reagan believed that the American public would support the Marines’ mission if they understood its global importance and were presented with evidence that progress was being made. “We must show that the cause was worth dying for,” he insisted to his advisers.[72] A presidential directive elaborated on this logic, forecasting that the appearance of passivity — particularly during an election season — would undermine American security interests and encourage foreign adversaries by signaling that the administration was vulnerable at home.[73] To avert this outcome, Reagan hand-drafted an address, televised on Oct. 27, 1983, making the case for continuing the peacekeeping mission.[74] Staring straight into the camera, he rebuffed accusations that his administration lacked a coherent strategy and emphasized his confidence in the prospects for success, insisting that the goal of a stable and secure Lebanon remained within reach so long as the “physical presence of the marines lends support to both the Lebanese government and its army.” The efforts of the Multinational Force had already moved Lebanon a step closer to stability and order, he argued, claiming that “with our assistance and training” the Lebanese government had “set up its own army … able to hold the lines and maintain the defensive perimeter around Beirut.”[75] Yet, Reagan did more than seek to justify his administration’s past actions. He also used the speech to outline a powerful argument for expanding the U.S. role in Lebanon, a process laid out in a classified directive he signed the next day.[76] Emphasizing the Middle East’s strategic importance, he described Lebanon as the fulcrum of his administration’s efforts to roll back Soviet influence, preserve and expand the Middle East peace process, and restore American credibility abroad. The crisis in Lebanon, he argued, reflected a broader, global struggle to rebuild American power and persuade the country’s enemies that the United States remained willing to use force despite its humiliation in Vietnam. “If terrorism and intimidation succeed … [i]t won’t just be Lebanon sentenced to a future of chaos,” he warned. The strength of the United States rested, he argued, in its willingness and ability to assume the risks inherent to promoting stability. “We’re not somewhere else in the world protecting someone else’s interests; we’re there protecting our own,” he cautioned.[77] Reagan’s gamble paid off. The president’s address produced, in his words, a “complete turnaround” in popular attitudes, and Republican National Committee polling showed general support for the administration’s efforts in Lebanon lasting through early November.[78] The administration’s favored pollster, Richard Wirthlin, emphasized the upward trend, noting that surveys indicated two-thirds of the electorate agreed that “Americans should not be driven out of Lebanon.” These surveys also showed that the U.S. public was in “strong agreement” with the president’s assertion “that the U.S. peacekeeping force in Lebanon was attacked precisely because it was doing its job” and generally supported a long-term U.S. role in Lebanon. Although “the vast majority of the electorate express concern that the situation in Lebanon might plunge the U.S. into another Vietnam, there is also a strong feeling that the outcome there is important to the defense interests of the United States,” Wirthlin’s report concluded, affirming Reagan’s impulse. “The idea of yielding to terrorist action is offensive to the American public, even to save American lives,” it added.[79] Notably, White House confidence in the administration’s ability to either shape or withstand changes in public attitudes held even as media speculation intensified in November over the Lebanon imbroglio’s potential effect on the president’s re-election chances. White House staffers chafed, for instance, at a November 30 Washington Post article conjecturing that mounting political pressure would force an early withdrawal, dismissing the suggestion in a Senior Staff Action Items List as not only “inaccurate” but also “harmful to our policy objectives.”[80] That neither Weinberger nor other Defense Department officials emphasized the danger of declining popular support in their arguments against the intervention provides additional evidence that this factor held little sway over the White House deliberations. The most serious outstanding question was whether and how the United States would strike back. A Botched Raid — Dec. 3, 1983 Little serious discussion of withdrawing from Beirut occurred in the days and weeks after the barracks attack. Instead, attention remained focused on whether to retaliate against the perpetrators of the bombing who had been linked to Iranian bases in the Bekaa Valley. Deliberations resumed on November 14, when Reagan returned to Washington from a lengthy trip to East Asia. Over the next two days, he and his advisers debated the wisdom of launching a joint operation with the French against two Iranian installations linked to the attack. The administration was divided along familiar lines: Shultz and McFarlane, now backed by Director of Central Intelligence William Casey, urged the president to order a strike, arguing that retaliation was the only way to protect the negotiating process and deter future attacks. However, Weinberger, worried that further escalation might trap the Marines in Lebanon, dug in his heels. Stressing the danger of collateral damage that could erode local support for the peacekeeping mission and imperil U.S. diplomats and servicemembers in the country, he persuaded Reagan to defer his decision for two more days.[81] On November 16, Reagan and his advisers gathered to make a decision. What exactly happened in this meeting remains mired in controversy. Some participants later claimed that Reagan approved a joint strike with the French, only to have his order ignored by his defiant defense secretary. For his part, Weinberger maintained that Reagan either never issued an order or retracted it in a private call later that evening.[82] Whatever the reason for U.S. inaction, the French decision to act alone on the morning of November 16 resolved the administration’s internal debate. With its intended targets destroyed, and without alternative locations to strike, the Defense Department canceled its reprisal plans in favor of defensive initiatives to mitigate future attacks and prepare the Lebanese Armed Forces for an eventual transfer of responsibility.[83] [quote id="5"] Scholars have seized on the U.S. failure to retaliate as evidence that the Reagan administration was already preparing to draw down operations. Indeed, Weinberger and Vessey redoubled their campaign to withdraw the Marines in the wake of the French strike and urged the president to reverse his decision to authorize more permissive rules of engagement.[84] But analysis of the Reagan administration’s decision-making in November reveals that this encouragement was not indicative of a wider policy shift. Buoyed by optimistic assessments from Shultz and McFarlane, who continued to advocate for an assertive U.S. presence in Lebanon, the president overruled his military advisers and signed a second directive reiterating the importance of “aggressive self-defense.”[85] Anticipating future casualties, he also ordered the Defense Department to “develop target data and arrangements” to facilitate “a future attack on short notice against suitable targets” and authorized new defensive measures to harden the Marines’ position.[86] “I happen to believe taking out a few batteries might give [the Syrians] pause to think,” he remarked in a diary entry on Dec. 1, 1983.[87] The president, sticking with his long-held theory of success, was confident that a demonstration of resolve would promote progress in Lebanon. Reagan’s words were tested only two days later, when a Syrian anti-aircraft unit fired at U.S. reconnaissance planes over eastern Lebanon.[88] It was not the first Syrian attempt to target U.S. aircraft — a similar incident on November 10 had prompted Weinberger to assure the media that such events were not “unusual or surprising”[89] — but this incident coincided with the president’s approval of new rules of engagement authorizing the Marines to practice “vigorous self-defense.”[90] A plan for rapid retaliation was therefore ready when news of the attempted downing reached the president. Without any of the hesitation that had characterized his earlier deliberations, Reagan, frustrated by the Syrians’ continued intransigence and determined to demonstrate America’s commitment to Lebanon, wasted little time ordering the Defense Department to plan and execute a retaliatory airstrike.[91] The president, Secretary of the Navy John Lehman later explained, was certain that the United States “would kick the shit out of the Syrians.”[92] Early the next morning, 28 bombers took off from the U.S.S. Kennedy and U.S.S. Independence with orders to strike three Syrian sites near Beirut, including a surface-to-air missile installation, an ammunition depot, and a radar system. The mission was straightforward, but a combination of miscommunications, technical challenges, and human errors caused the operation to go awry. Aided by Soviet surveillance, Syrian forces quickly identified, tracked, and fired on the U.S. planes, destroying two aircraft and killing one pilot. A second pilot, Lt. Robert Goodman Jr., was captured and detained by the Syrians for nearly a month, until the Rev. Jesse Jackson, an outspoken critic of the Reagan administration, flew to Damascus to negotiate his release.[93] The operation was an unequivocal failure. As Defense Intelligence Agency analysts summarized, “the damage inflicted by the airstrikes probably will not cause the Syrians to alter their present policies” on withdrawal and is “unlikely to deter Syria and its Lebanese allies from attacking US reconnaissance aircraft and marine positions.”[94] McFarlane had stuck to his theory of success during the weeks of deliberation after the barracks bombing, but the failed December raid forced him to re-evaluate his support for the Marine mission. The national security adviser’s endorsement of the U.S. intervention had been premised on his confidence that the United States could, with sufficient application of military pressure, force Syria to make concessions for the simple reason that Damascus could not afford a direct confrontation. McFarlane recognized that the Defense Department’s opposition precluded any possibility of a larger military operation, but he had held out hope that targeted reprisals, with their implicit threat of escalation, might serve as a reasonable alternative.[95] Meanwhile, reconciliation negotiations among Lebanon’s diverse factions had stalled, threatening to spark a new bout of major fighting that was likely to overwhelm the already strained Lebanese army and reverse the limited gains painstakingly made over the previous year. “There were three loci of that strategy,” he concluded, “and in each one we appeared to be failing.”[96] McFarlane’s reversal broke the deadlock and provided the Defense Department with an opportunity to initiate an interagency discussion of possible withdrawal options. Throughout December, an interagency working group prepared a detailed plan of action to transition authority to the Lebanese government and gradually draw down the U.S. military presence. The proposal envisioned an accelerated training program to expand the Lebanese Armed Forces’ area of operations and allow the Marines to move to more defensible positions along the southern border, where they would operate under expanded rules of engagement and continue to respond aggressively to any threats to their presence. With the enticement of an American withdrawal — the working group decided against setting a strict deadline — and the threat of a long-term U.S.-Israeli presence in Lebanon, U.S. negotiators hoped to extract concessions from the Syrians and secure at least some of Washington’s objectives.[97] These preparations for an incremental drawdown in U.S. military involvement coincided with a decline in public support for the peacekeeping mission. The “comfortable margin of approval” Reagan had secured with his October address winnowed over time, and by December 12 campaign pollsters began to warn of “a sharp reduction in the number of Americans who approve of the job the President is doing in Lebanon.” The downward trend mirrored a simultaneous “dramatic shift” in public approval of the president’s handling of foreign affairs, with a majority of Americans reporting for the first time that they disapproved of his response to the Beirut barracks bombing.[98] Sensing an opportunity, Reagan’s political challengers seized on the failed raid as evidence that the administration was driving the United States toward war. Reagan looked “trigger-happy and reckless,” according to Sen. Alan Cranston, one of five Democratic Party challengers.[99] Yet, neither McFarlane’s reversal nor the turn in public opinion compelled Reagan to change course. Although the president intended to launch his re-election campaign shortly after the new year, he appeared unfazed by the prospect of an electoral backlash. Just as he had in the immediate aftermath of the barracks bombing, Reagan dismissed public criticism of his administration’s policy as slander by a hostile press corps, and he insisted that the United States had an obligation to maintain its peacekeeping efforts until internal stability was established and the withdrawal of foreign forces secured.[100] He had great faith in the psychological power of the Marine presence and still believed that a few well-placed shells from the U.S.S. New Jersey’s 16-inch guns would force a political resolution.[101] In short, his theory of success remained unchanged. The president’s confidence in his chosen path in Lebanon was sustained by optimistic assessments from Shultz, who maintained that U.S. objectives were viable and that congressional and public support for the intervention could be secured through concerted outreach. Reagan and Shultz had grown closer over the fall, and the president took to meeting privately with his secretary of state to discuss each week’s events. Although they discussed a range of topics, Shultz’s advice followed a general theme: the need to stay firm and demonstrate American mettle. Even as Syrian opposition hardened and factional fighting around Beirut intensified, Shultz maintained that the United States could achieve its objectives if it persevered and presented a unified, unyielding front.[102] Reagan agreed. “We see pretty much eye to eye on our problems in Lebanon,” he noted in his diary.[103] Thus, while the Defense Department prepared plans for withdrawal, the president continued to authorize plans to harden and expand U.S. involvement in Lebanon. On Dec. 5, 1983 — just a day after the failed air raid — Reagan overruled, for a second time, his military advisers’ recommendations and signed a presidential directive explicitly reaffirming his decision to modify the rules of engagement for the deployed marines. This time, he stipulated that the Marines be provided naval surface and tactical air support to carry out “vigorous self-defense” against either the source of enemy fire or “discrete military targets in unpopulated areas which are organizationally associated with the firing units.”[104] To reassure European partners, he dispatched Shultz to Brussels a few days later with a message affirming America’s commitment to Lebanon and orders to discuss plans to strengthen the peacekeeping mission’s support for the Lebanese government.[105] U.S. forces would remain in the country, despite the danger, until a political resolution was reached or “there was such a collapse of order that it was absolutely certain no solution to the problem” in Lebanon would be reached, he told reporters later in the month. He remained confident, however, that success was possible, adding that “we’re making more progress than appears on the surface.”[106] The Deterioration of the Lebanese Armed Forces: Feb. 4–7, 1984 The fractures within the Reagan administration deepened in December and January. “There seem to be at least two opposing hypotheses about how we are doing,” one National Security Council staffer wrote, summarizing the prevailing sentiment.
One is optimistic in flavor; it assumes that things are naturally falling into place and that with a little perseverance we will be able to achieve our broad objectives. … The other is fundamentally pessimistic, assuming that the situation continues to be structured unfavorably, and that the most that we can hope for is an implicit set of understandings between Israel and Syria … and a face-saving way to get out of Lebanon.[107]
Indeed, evidence that the administration’s efforts were failing continued to accumulate. On December 23, the CIA published a Special National Intelligence Estimate summarizing the intelligence community’s assessment of the quandary. “Despite recent air attacks and naval gunfire on Syrian positions,” the report noted, “Syria appears unwilling to back down.” Although the State Department theorized that robust American action would inspire political progress, the report argued that Syrian President Hafez Assad appeared confident that he could “afford to pay a higher price than either the United States or Israel” and predicted that he would respond to any effort to expand U.S. involvement with a new round of terrorist attacks. Worse still, the intelligence estimate forecast that further U.S. reprisals would exacerbate Lebanon’s confessional polarization, opening new opportunities for Syria to exploit local grievances against the government and quickening the country’s partition.[108] The report concluded that a continued U.S. military presence could only worsen the crisis, not resolve it.[109] The same day the CIA published its intelligence estimate, an independent Defense Department investigation released its findings from a two-month inquiry into the October barracks bombing.[110] The Long Commission, named for its chairman, Adm. Robert Long, identified systemic failures across the command chain but concluded that the tragedy was a direct result of the peacekeepers’ mandate.[111] Weinberger, who had requested the investigation in part to bolster his arguments for withdrawal, seized upon its conclusions as further evidence of the mission’s futility.[112] As he explained in a letter to Reagan summarizing the findings, the investigation confirmed “the near impossibility of carrying out the assigned mission without risking such a catastrophe.”[113] The administration’s best option, he insisted, would be to withdraw. The commission was one more tool the secretary of defense used to propagate his theory of failure regarding Lebanon, though its report offered few details about how and when a withdrawal should take place even as it questioned the wisdom of the deployment. [quote id="6"] Weinberger’s message was soon amplified on Capitol Hill, where congressional critics of the intervention seized on the Long Commission’s findings as evidence that Reagan was driving the United States toward war with Syria.[114] Even once-sympathetic leaders, such as Charles H. Percy, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who had helped the White House avert a War Powers Act debate over the Marines’ deployment, returned home for the holiday recess to find constituents angry and confused about the purpose of the Marines’ mission. Although Congress would not resume session until January 24, allies on the Hill cautioned that the Democratic leadership was already preparing to reopen the War Powers debate.[115] All the while, popular support for the intervention continued to plummet. The media reported extensively on the Long Commission’s findings and the administration’s infighting, compounding the sense that the White House had stumbled into a quagmire.[116] Approval of the president’s overall performance in Lebanon sank 10 points over four weeks, dropping to 33 percent by January 30. For the first time since the Marines’ deployment 18 months earlier, a White House-commissioned poll found a majority of Americans favored “an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. forces” over the status quo.[117] Yet, none of these things — not the intelligence community’s dreary assessment, the Long Commission report, or the popular and congressional uproar — persuaded Reagan to change course.[118] Three days after the Long Commission report was released, the president convened a news conference to silence rumors that his administration was preparing to leave Lebanon. “If there is to be blame, it properly rests here in this office and with this president,” he told reporters, putting his reputation on the line. But he refused to second-guess the value of the Marine presence, chiding naysayers for not realizing the “problem … will not disappear if we run from it.” Reiterating the message he had espoused in the days after the bombing, he asked the American public to allow the marines time to complete their mission, which had already, he stressed, helped to protect the Lebanese government, strengthen its army, and “lay the foundation for a future peace.” It would be hard, he acknowledged, but America’s goals in Lebanon were worth the cost.[119] This was more than savvy political rhetoric. Reagan’s public statements were consistent with his long-held theory of the mission and his personal conviction that the crisis presented a test of American resolve. His political aides, worried that a congressional standoff might harm the president’s re-election campaign, implored Reagan to distance himself from the operation. By late January, White House Chief of Staff James Baker, who previously had supported the decision to intervene, had gone so far as to urge the president to disengage the United States from the messy conflict.[120] But Reagan was determined to see the mission through. Encouraged by optimistic reports from his new special envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, and conversations with Shultz, the president resolved to buy time for the ongoing negotiations to succeed.[121] Reagan also recognized, however, that he could no longer ignore the criticism mounting on Capitol Hill. To stave off a War Powers Act debate, he dispatched senior officials to build support for an open-ended U.S. military role in Lebanon, following a political strategy first employed in the wake of the October bombing. Throughout January, McFarlane, Shultz, Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, and even Reagan himself met with leading members of both houses of Congress to stress the importance of the Marines’ mission and push back against calls for a precipitous withdrawal.[122] Their efforts were persuasive: As House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel told reporters after one session, he was “satisfied with what I have heard today that what we’re doing is the right thing.”[123] Reagan had won other tough congressional battles, and he saw no reason why a reasonable compromise could not be secured. To further assuage congressional concerns, and to refute allegations that the administration planned to deploy U.S. troops indefinitely, Reagan directed Shultz, Weinberger, and Vessey on January 26 to prepare a timetable for the phased drawdown of the marines deployed in Lebanon. Six days later, he signed a national security directive approving, in principle, preparations to replace the Marines with a smaller, more mobile anti-terrorist force operating under more permissive rules of engagement. Paired with an accelerated military modernization program for the Lebanese Armed Forces, the residual force was intended to demonstrate U.S. staying power and maintain the administration’s ability to strike at Syrian or surrogate forces as needed. To further enhance the safety of the marines in the interim, the directive granted U.S. naval forces the authority to provide gunfire and air support against any units conducting a hostile attack on U.S. or Multinational Force personnel and facilities, stretching the definition of self-defense.[124] Still, the president was not ready to abandon his goals in Lebanon. Shultz continued to stress the dangers of a premature withdrawal, warning that the United States would send the wrong message to adversaries if it cut and ran. Reagan agreed, and he instructed Rumsfeld to fly to Beirut for consultations, insisting the drawdown plan could not be implemented unless the Lebanese government approved.[125] Determined to maintain the administration’s flexibility to defend U.S. interests in Lebanon by force if the need arose, the White House continued to fight a House resolution calling for withdrawal. Meanwhile, the State Department and National Security Council staff explored a range of options to increase pressure on Syria and improve U.S. targeting abilities.[126] Looking back on the February 1 decision to approve, in principle, a smaller replacement force, Rumsfeld compared the administration’s options to those of a pilot of a damaged plane: “We could either crash land with a precipitous withdrawal or gradually reduce our presence in a controlled landing.”[127] In this, the intervention’s advocates were aided by an inadvertent gift from the Joint Chiefs of Staff who, for reasons that remain unclear, dallied in preparing timetables for withdrawal, even as Weinberger urged them to set a deadline for the Marines’ immediate departure.[128] Against this backdrop, Reagan’s request for withdrawal options appears to have been part of a political strategy designed to preserve the administration’s maneuverability by pre-empting a congressional effort to impose a strict deadline for the Marines’ departure. In comments to the media, Reagan continued to resist calls to set a timeline, claiming that the Marines would remain in Lebanon until the withdrawal of foreign forces had been secured and the Lebanese government proved capable of maintaining security independently. “As long as there is a chance for peace, the mission remains the same,” he snapped at reporters on February 2, just days after announcing his re-election campaign. His critics “may be willing to surrender, but I’m not.”[129] Just as Reagan announced his intention to stay in Lebanon, the National Salvation Front, a coalition of anti-government militias, launched a coordinated assault on Lebanese army positions in and around Beirut.[130] By February 3, the coalition had seized control of Beirut’s southern district and made significant gains in the capital’s eastern and center sectors. That day, Nabih Berri, leader of the Amal militia, called on all Muslim leaders to resign from the government and for all nationalist soldiers in the Lebanese Armed Forces to abandon their posts. Others had issued similar calls to little avail, but the message was now underscored by the country’s heaviest fighting since 1976. An entire brigade deserted at once, allowing Shia and Druze militias to occupy West Beirut. Soon after, the militias seized the finance ministry and national radio station, wresting control from the few remaining government units. As the militias advanced, desertion rates skyrocketed. Within a week, the Lebanese army was shattered.[131] After months of debate, the collapse of the Lebanese army provided decisive evidence that the U.S. strategy in Lebanon had failed. The reconstruction of the Lebanese Armed Forces had formed the foundation of the Reagan administration’s strategy since September 1982, and its collapse provided critics of the intervention with concrete evidence that U.S. objectives in Lebanon were no longer viable. Amid reports of escalating fighting, McFarlane convened a meeting of the National Security Policy Group on February 7 to discuss the prospect of a complete and rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces. The conversation was dominated by the intervention’s critics. Shultz, now the Multinational Force’s lone advocate in the Cabinet, was in Grenada, and Reagan, his attention now focused on his re-election campaign, was stumping through the Southwest. Undersecretary of State Eagleburger fought a losing battle to keep the Marines in Beirut, but he was overruled quickly by Weinberger and Vice President George H.W. Bush, who chaired the session in the president’s absence. An early supporter of the intervention, Bush had been affected deeply by the October bombing.[132] He visited the marines shortly after the attack, an experience he described as “one of [the] most difficult and emotional assignments” of his long career. He returned to Washington convinced that future attacks were likely, that the Lebanese government was unable or unwilling to manage the problems ahead, and that a plan for the withdrawal of U.S. forces was needed urgently.[133] Sensitive to the limitations of his office, Bush usually demurred from intervening in other Cabinet members’ debates, but he now backed Weinberger’s recommendation to disengage. That afternoon, he called Reagan to report that all except the State Department believed the Marines should redeploy from Lebanon.[134] [quote id="7"] The collapse of the Lebanese Armed Forces cast the president’s options in a new light. Without a local partner, Reagan’s preferred strategy of gradual, incremental pressure paired with an accelerated training program was no longer feasible. He was left with only two options: a massive expansion of the U.S. ground commitment in Lebanon, a prospect that would shatter the illusion that the Marines were neutral in the civil conflict and provoke a grueling fight with Congress over presidential war powers, or a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces. Even in the best of circumstances, Reagan, wary of repeating the errors of Vietnam, had little stomach for the first option. Now, after months of resistance, he bowed to his advisers’ apparent consensus and agreed to bring the marines home.[135] Preparations for a complete and rapid disengagement were completed quickly. On February 9, the Marines began to evacuate support elements and equipment from the Beirut airport, and the final withdrawal commenced on February 18. At 6 a.m. on Feb. 26, 1984, control of the Marines’ final position was turned over to the Lebanese Armed Forces.[136] The next day, administration officials announced that the United States would no longer play an active role in efforts to promote political reconciliation in Lebanon. An announcement soon followed that military equipment deliveries would be suspended.[137] Eighteen months after it had started, and four months after the deadly truck bombing, the U.S. intervention in Lebanon ended, its aims unmet.

Three Counterfactuals

This new history of the final months of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon reveals that Reagan’s faith in the Marines’ mission was remarkably resilient. Even as public attitudes toward the intervention soured — and the announcement of his re-election campaign neared — the president continued to support proposals for an open-ended U.S. military presence in Lebanon. Bolstered by optimistic assessments from Shultz and others, Reagan retained trust in his established theory of success: that U.S. troops would stabilize the country, revitalize the central government, and bring a peaceful resolution to the Lebanese conflict. Even as U.S. public and congressional support waivered, Reagan remained confident in his ability to sustain the operation, and he dismissed signs of a future political backlash as media manipulation. Only in February 1984, when the collapse of the Lebanese government and the disintegration of its armed forces made clear that success was unlikely, did Reagan ultimately relent to the Defense Department’s pressure to withdraw. In short, the outcome of the Reagan administration’s deliberations in the months following the barracks bombing was in no way preordained by the scale of the Marines’ losses or expectations of political backlash. Indeed, the barracks bombing may have had the immediate counterintuitive effect of hardening the president’s resolve. Consider what might have unfolded had the Marine sentries disabled the truck before it reached the gates of the barracks, or if the detonator had failed. What if the driver, confronted with certain death, had instead driven away? The similarities between the policymakers’ deliberations before and after the bombing suggest that the Reagan administration likely would have defaulted to maintaining the status quo. For weeks before the attack, Reagan’s foreign policy team had grappled with the question of whether to sustain the Marine mission in Lebanon or withdraw forces offshore. Just as they were after the bombing, senior officials had been divided into two factions: One, led by Shultz and McFarlane, advocated expanding the Marines’ responsibilities; and a second, led by Weinberger and Vessey, pushed for rapid disengagement. They presented contradictory assessments of the situation and the prospects for success. Their arguments before the bombing differed little from their arguments in the wake of the attack: While the State Department, worried about Syria’s assertiveness, pushed for limited strikes to encourage concessions and establish clear “red lines,” the Defense Department remained fundamentally pessimistic about prospects for a negotiated settlement. The National Security Policy Group failed to reach consensus at meetings on October 14 and 18, and preparations for a third session to review the rules of engagement were underway when the barracks were attacked.[138] Had the third meeting occurred, and had the bombing not taken place, the discussion likely would have remained gridlocked. Weinberger and Vessey still would have opposed the mission as unsustainable, while the rest of the president’s senior national security aides would have continued pushing for an expansion. In the absence of a cataclysm like the Beirut barracks bombing, Reagan would probably have continued to postpone a decision on whether to expand or terminate the U.S. intervention. While he remained committed, in principle, to achieving America’s objectives in Lebanon, the president was preoccupied in October by preparations for a U.S. invasion of Grenada and heightened tensions with the Soviet Union.[139] Reagan’s distaste for mediating between his advisers, particularly over issues unrelated to U.S.-Soviet relations, is well recorded. Moreover, he had already avoided repeated efforts to redefine the U.S. mission in Lebanon despite sustained pressure from his closest advisers. Indeed, the president had approved only two significant modifications in the Marines’ posture over the mission’s first 13 months: the first, in April 1982, was implemented in the wake of the deadly embassy bombing, and the second, in September 1983, came only after McFarlane submitted dire reports (mocked by other officials as a “Sky is Falling” approach) suggesting the imminent collapse of the Lebanese government. Rather than precipitating a withdrawal, the October 23 bombing may have had the unexpected consequence of hardening the U.S. military presence in Lebanon. By heightening the Multinational Force’s perceived significance — and magnifying the perceived credibility costs of withdrawal — the attack dramatized Shultz and McFarlane’s warnings and convinced Reagan of the need to demonstrate resolve. Indeed, the bombing, in which an unknown assailant killed sleeping peacekeepers, played into Reagan’s theory of the conflict as a test of U.S. ability and willingness to promote peace, and it deepened his conviction that his administration had both a moral and a strategic imperative to act. In an alternative scenario in which the bombing failed, the president’s waning interest may have sapped his resistance to Defense Department proposals to dial down U.S. operations incrementally. A similar dynamic had allowed Weinberger to order the Marines’ premature withdrawal in September 1982. Having succeeded in this tactic before, the defense secretary likely would have attempted it again as the deployment faded against the backdrop of success in Grenada and an upcoming election campaign. This possibility challenges the notion that the bombing catalyzed a decision to terminate the American mission, and it suggests that U.S. losses may have compelled the intervention’s established advocates to accept a higher risk of future casualties. Consider a second counterfactual: Would a more successful (and less costly) raid in December have altered the timing or character of the U.S. withdrawal? At minimum, such an operation would have confirmed America’s presumed air superiority, strengthened Shultz’s hand in the event of future reprisals, and offered temporary encouragement to Reagan. Had it succeeded in coercing Syria to suspend its harassment of U.S. forces, as past punishments had, it may also have delayed McFarlane’s defection. As a demonstration of American military might, it may also have rallied the public and bolstered support for the intervention, thereby mitigating, or even reversing, the December polling results. On the other hand, a successful operation might have strengthened Weinberger and Vessey’s arguments against expanding the Marines’ ground presence by demonstrating that offshore naval assets offered a sufficient deterrent against Syrian obstructionism. The raid may, therefore, have provided the Defense Department with additional evidence that the administration could redeploy the Marines offshore at little reputational cost. Ultimately, a successful air raid is unlikely to have changed the trajectory of U.S. policy toward Lebanon significantly. It may have sustained McFarlane’s support, but it would not have altered the overall balance of opinion within the administration, where senior officials were wedded to their established theories of the mission’s success. Yet, this counterfactual does highlight how the negative repercussions of the botched raid were insufficient on their own to compel the withdrawal of the Marines. That dubious credit belongs to another event. Finally, imagine what might have occurred if the Lebanese Armed Forces had repelled the February offensive. By that point, U.S. policymakers harbored few illusions about the Lebanese Armed Forces’ strength, which was weakened by endemic corruption, virulent sectarian divisions, and poor leadership and training. Nevertheless, Reagan and Shultz had held out hope that, with sufficient U.S. support, it might still serve as a stabilizing force. Looking back years later, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Robert Dillon stressed that “the Army was one of the few places where there was still cooperation between Maronites, Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Greek Catholics and others,” even if the balance of power was misaligned. With sufficient training and better leadership, U.S. officials hoped, the Lebanese military could overcome its internal divisions and serve as a beacon for national reconciliation.[140] [quote id="8"] Two scenarios are therefore conceivable. In the first, Reagan, reluctant to abandon a partner that he had, only days earlier, publicly pledged to support, might have expanded U.S. assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces, just as he had in previous instances when he feared they were nearing exhaustion. In September 1983, for instance, he authorized the use of U.S. naval gunfire in support of embattled Lebanese units fighting in the Shouf, and noted the army’s resurgence with pride in his nightly diary entries.[141] So long as there appeared to be a viable ally on the ground, Reagan believed his objectives were feasible and progress was being made, albeit incrementally. And so long as a semblance of a central government apparatus remained, he retained hope that the United States might promote national reconciliation without incurring direct responsibility for the resolution of the Lebanese factions’ grievances. Alternatively, the intensity of the fighting in February might have persuaded the president that the Marines were, as Weinberger and Vessey had long argued, ill-equipped to implement their mission in an increasingly hostile environment. Yet, even if the National Salvation Front offensive had compelled Reagan to consider withdrawal, the Lebanese Armed Forces’ success in repelling the attackers would have bolstered McFarlane’s plan to taper operations gradually. Such an event would have dramatized advocates’ claims that the Marines were indispensable to the goal of stabilizing Lebanon and appealed to the president’s desire to kick the “Vietnam Syndrome” and demonstrate the value and reliability of partnering with the United States.[142] Confronted with a choice between rapid disengagement and a phased transfer of responsibility, Shultz and Eagleburger would have thrown their support behind the national security adviser, establishing a majority opinion that Reagan would have been unlikely to refute. In this scenario, the U.S. departure from Lebanon would have stretched into the spring and been paired with an accelerated training effort to prepare the Lebanese Armed Forces to assume the Marines’ former positions. The timing and character of the withdrawal would have been quite different. Of course, none of these possibilities came to pass and therefore we cannot know for certain what this alternative history may have yielded. Nonetheless, analysis of the historical record provides strong evidence to reconsider the causal link between the Marine barracks bombing and the ultimate U.S. departure from Lebanon. Instead, the record suggests that the loss of a viable local partner was the true motivation for the ultimate decision to leave Beirut. 


This new history of the U.S. military withdrawal from Lebanon challenges the common emphasis on casualties as the determining factor in American decisions to correct course or terminate military interventions. Contrary to established narratives, neither the October 1983 truck bombing nor the perceived fluctuations in public attitudes toward the peacekeeping mission in Lebanon were significant factors in the Reagan administration’s decisions of whether, when, or how to end the peacekeeping mission. The loss of 241 marines heightened policymakers’ perceptions of the human and political costs of a continued military presence in Lebanon, but it also deepened divisions within the administration over future U.S. involvement in the country. In particular, the attack emboldened those who opposed the effort, most notably Defense Secretary Weinberger and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Vessey, who interpreted the bloodshed as evidence of the mission’s futility. Yet, their attempts to disengage the United States from Lebanon were blocked by the intervention’s erstwhile advocates, in particular Secretary of State Shultz and National Security Adviser McFarlane, who saw the violence as further evidence of the importance of the Marine presence. Confronted with a divided Cabinet, Reagan chose to maintain, harden, and even, at times, expand U.S. military involvement, decisions that were in line with his prior views about the efficacy and significance of the peacekeeping mission. In other words, the bombing caused two parties in the administration to double down on their pre-existing theories of success or failure in Lebanon. The implications of this corrective should not be exaggerated. The Reagan administration’s experience cannot prescribe future decisions, and it cannot alone disprove the role of domestic political pressure in other cases of U.S. intervention. Moreover, the limited character of the Lebanese intervention, which involved a relatively small number of U.S. forces, likely informed public and congressional attitudes toward government decision-making. Future research is needed to determine whether public opinion may play a greater role in influencing the timing and character of a decision to terminate missions that involve larger troop deployments or more sustained operations. Nonetheless, by highlighting the tendency of scholars to over-emphasize the effects of public opinion in this popular case study, this new history may also be relevant to other lines of inquiry in the literature on peacekeeping and war termination, the efficacy of limited interventions, and elite views of public opinion. For instance, the new evidence of policymakers’ divergent reactions to the Beirut barracks bombing suggests a need to modify Bayesian learning models to better reflect the empirical record of individual and group decision-making. Our findings indicate that such modifications may be found in the literature on anchoring, motivated, and attribution biases.[143] Bringing these strands of research together may yield a more comprehensive theory about how entrenched values, beliefs, and psychological traits inform elite learning and decision-making during military interventions.[144] Additionally, the Lebanon example may inform policymakers’ efforts to manage future crises by promoting systematic questions for probing the progress of an intervention and processing new information from the field. Such questions may be essential at a time when the increasing frequency of sub-state conflicts may spur additional U.S. force commitments.[145] In particular, this history demonstrates the importance of bringing assumptions about how and why a military intervention is likely to proceed to the fore; articulating clear theories of success; and developing processes to test, update, and revise these theories over time. Policymakers must define early on, and clearly, what success or failure looks like and identify demonstrable metrics that align with the ultimate political goals of an intervention. Conversely, leaders must also consider what information from the field, if it were to appear, would indicate that the political objectives cannot be met. Integrating these considerations into contingency and operational planning would, in turn, aid policymakers’ ability to evaluate new information and help to structure analysis of an intervention’s execution, especially if revisited frequently over the course of a military deployment. The U.S. government does have tools for probing assumptions and evaluating change over time. But answering the questions above requires more than designating a red team or devil’s advocate, tactics often implemented in government but ones that are frequently ineffective due to an air of defeatism, bureaucratic isolation, or Peter and the Wolf-like disregard.[146] To promote clearer thinking will require encouraging the next generation of foreign policy professionals to develop the analytical skills and historical sensibility to wield established tools more effectively.[147] As the United States confronts the prospect of future intervention scenarios, there is an urgent need to rethink how to train the next generation of policymakers to better challenge assumptions during debates, to process information during crises, and to think systematically about policy consequences. A careful study of the U.S. experience withdrawing from Lebanon offers a modest step toward this ambitious goal.   Acknowledgements: The authors would like to thank the Johns Hopkins University–SAIS Kissinger Center, the Boston International Security Graduate Conference, and the Middle East Studies Association for their kind invitations to present earlier versions of this project. Our colleagues at each event offered invaluable feedback. In particular, we benefited from insightful comments from James Benkowski, Alex Bick, Hal Brands, Chris Crosbie, John Gans, Frank Gavin, Julie Garey, Jeffrey Karam, Akram Khater, Alice Pannier, Sarah Parkinson, Elizabeth Saunders, and James Wilson, as well as two anonymous reviewers and the editorial team at TNSR.   Alexandra T. Evans is a postdoctoral fellow with the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. She received her PhD in history at the University of Virginia in 2018. A. Bradley Potter is a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a predoctoral research fellow in the International Security Program at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs in the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government.   Image: Marine Corps. [post_title] => When Do Leaders Change Course? Theories of Success and the American Withdrawal from Beirut, 1983–1984 [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => when-do-leaders-change-course-theories-of-success-and-the-american-withdrawal-from-beirut-1983-1984 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-05-24 11:34:45 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-05-24 15:34:45 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Why did the United States withdraw from Lebanon in February 1984? How did new information shape policymakers’ proposals to expand, maintain, or terminate the intervention? Drawing upon declassified records, we challenge the conventional narrative that the October 1983 barracks bombing precipitated the American withdrawal from Beirut. Rather than encouraging a consensus around the need to terminate the mission, the significant casualties strengthened senior leaders’ determination to stay the course and deepened the divisions within the Reagan administration. Ultimately, only the collapse of the Lebanese national army in early February 1984 — an event unrelated to the October truck attack — forced the intervention’s advocates to adjust their expectations for the mission’s success and compelled Ronald Reagan to order the Marines’ redeployment. By demonstrating the durability of established theories of success and their effect on the interpretation of new information, this history of the Reagan administration’s deliberations over the winter of 1983–84 provides insight into presidential decision-making and contributes to our understanding of elite support for costly but limited U.S. military interventions. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 2 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Closer analysis of public and White House polling data reveals that national attitudes did not decline uniformly in response to the barracks attack.  ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Everyone agreed the bombing was a tragedy, but not everyone took the attack as evidence that the United States had faced a setback calling its mission into question.  ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Determined to dispel the memory of Vietnam, and confident in what he saw as America’s unique obligation to promote peace abroad, Reagan envisioned the troops playing an indispensable role in promoting a lasting peace in Lebanon.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Rather than re-evaluate their positions, policymakers instead sought to fit the new information into their pre-established theories of the intervention’s viability. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The president, sticking with his long-held theory of success, was confident that a demonstration of resolve would promote progress in Lebanon. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Yet, none of these things — not the intelligence community’s dreary assessment, the Long Commission report, or the popular and congressional uproar — persuaded Reagan to change course. ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => After months of debate, the collapse of the Lebanese army provided decisive evidence that the U.S. strategy in Lebanon had failed. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => So long as there appeared to be a viable ally on the ground, Reagan believed his objectives were feasible and progress was being made, albeit incrementally. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1468 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 262 [1] => 263 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] A near-simultaneous attack on the French military headquarters in Beirut would bring the day’s death toll to 299. For a description of the attack, see: Benis M. Frank, U.S. Marines in Lebanon, 19821984 (Washington, DC: History & Museums Division, U.S. Marine Corps, 1987), 1–3, 93–96; Timothy J. Geraghty, Peacekeepers at War: Beirut 1983The Marine Commander Tells His Story (Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2012), 91–95. [2] Michael Kennedy, “U.S. Shelves New Aid for Lebanon: Last Marines Leave Beirut for Safety of Ships,” Feb. 27, 1984, Los Angeles Times. [3] Surveying the literature on U.S. casualty sensitivity, Louis Klarevas notes that the concept of public opinion as the “‘essential domino’ of American foreign policy took on a more permanent and overt cast” after the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon. See: “The ‘Essential Domino’ of Military Operations: American Public Opinion and the Use of Force,” International Studies Perspectives 3, no. 4 (2002): 418–19, [4] Benny Morris, Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 18812001, Reprint (New York: Vintage, 2001), 552. See also: Charles F. Brower IV, “Stranger in a Dangerous Land: Reagan and Lebanon, 1981–1984,” in Reagan and the World: Leadership and National Security 1981–1989, ed. Bradley Lynn Coleman and Kyle Longley (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2017), 238, 256–87; David C. Brooks, “Cutting Losses: Ending Limited Interventions,” Parameters 43, no. 3 (Autumn 2013): 102–03,; Gail E.S. Yoshitani, Reagan on War: A Reappraisal of the Weinberger Doctrine, 19801984 (Texas A&M University Press, 2011); Robert Timberg, The Nightingale’s Song (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 342–44; H.W. Brands, Into the Labyrinth: The United States and the Middle East, 1945–1993 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994); Robert J. Lieber, “The Middle East,” in Looking Back on the Reagan Presidency, ed. Larry Berman (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), 50–70; Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History (New York: Random House, 2016), 73–75. For domestic political explanations, see: William B. Quandt, Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967, 3rd ed. (Brookings Institution Press and University of California Press, 2005), 259; Peter L. Hahn, Crisis and Crossfire: The United States and the Middle East Since 1945 (Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2005), 80; William B. Quandt, “Reagan’s Lebanon Policy: Trial and Error,” Middle East Journal 38, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 237–54, This argument was disseminated widely at the time as well. See: Francis X. Clines, “James Baker: Calling Reagan’s Re-Election Moves,” March 20, 1984, New York Times. Douglas Kriner’s work is a rare exception in that he acknowledges the administration’s intention to expand, rather than retract, U.S. involvement in the wake of the bombing. See: Douglas L. Kriner, After the Rubicon: Congress, Presidents, and the Politics of Waging War (University of Chicago Press, 2010), 193–231. [5] Lawrence Freedman, “Victims and Victors: Reflections on the Kosovo War,” Review of International Studies 26, no. 3 (2000): 338, [6] John E. Mueller, “Trends in Popular Support for the Wars in Korea and Vietnam,” American Political Science Review 65, no. 2 (June 1971): 358–75,; Mueller, War, Presidents and Public Opinion (New York: Wiley, 1973); Jeffrey Milstein, “The Vietnam War from the 1968 Tet Offensive to the 1970 Cambodian Invasion,” in Mathematical Approaches to Politics, ed. H.R. Alker Jr., K.W. Deutsch, and A.H. Stoetzel (New York: Elsevier Scientific, 1973); Klarevas, “The ‘Essential Domino’ of Military Operations,” 418–19.
[7] For recent illustrative examples in the public discourse, see: Peter Beinart, “Think Again: Ronald Reagan,” Foreign Policy, June 7, 2010, https://; Micah Zenko, “When Reagan Cut and Run,” Foreign Policy, Feb. 7, 2014, https://; Anthony Elghossain, “The Unlearned Lessons of the Beirut Barracks Bombing,” New Republic, Nov. 7, 2018,
[8] Klarevas, “The ‘Essential Domino’ of Military Operations,” 418–19. [9] See, for instance: Edward N. Luttwak, “Where Are the Great Powers?” Foreign Affairs 73, no. 4 (July/August 1994): 23–28,; “Toward Post-Heroic Warfare,” Foreign Affairs 74, no. 3, (May/June 1995): 109–22,; and “A Post-Heroic Military Policy: The New Season of Bellicosity,” Foreign Affairs 75, no. 4 (July/August 1996): 33–44,; John Mueller, “The Iraq Syndrome,” Foreign Affairs 84, no. 6 (November/December 2005), [10] Although the scope and emphasis varies across theories, the notion of a deliberative and discerning American public underlines each of the following: Eugene R. Wittkopf, Faces of Internationalism: Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990); Bruce W. Jentleson, “The Pretty Prudent Public: Post Post-Vietnam American Opinion on the Use of Military Force,” International Studies Quarterly 36, no. 1 (March 1992): 49–74,; John R. Zaller, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion (Cambridge University Press, 1994); Alvin Richman, “When Should We Be Prepared to Fight?” Public Perspective 6, no. 3 (April/May 1995): 44; Bruce W. Jentleson and Rebecca L. Britton, “Still Pretty Prudent: Post-Cold War American Public Opinion on the Use of Military Force,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 42, no. 4 (August 1998): 395–417,; Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver, and Jason Reifler, “Success Matters: Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq,” International Security 30, no. 3 (Winter 2005/06): 7–46,; Scott Sigmund Gartner, “The Multiple Effects of Casualties on Public Support for War: An Experimental Approach,” American Political Science Review 102, no. 1 (February 2008): 95–106,; Christopher Gelpi, Peter D. Feaver, and Jason Reifler, Paying the Human Costs of War: American Public Opinion and Casualties in Military Conflicts (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). For the role of political elites and the media in shaping popular attitudes, see: James Burk, “Public Support for Peacekeeping in Lebanon and Somalia: Assessing the Casualties Hypothesis,” Political Science Quarterly 114, no.1 (Spring 1999): 53–78,; William A. Boettcher and Michael D. Cobb, “Echoes of Vietnam? Casualty Framing and Public Perceptions of Success and Failure in Iraq,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 50, no. 6 (December 2006): 831–54,; Adam J. Berinsky, “Assuming the Costs of War: Events, Elites, and American Public Support for Military Conflict,” Journal of Politics 69, no. 4 (November 2007): 975–97,; Scott S. Gartner, “On Behalf of a Grateful Nation: Conventionalized Images of Loss and Individual Opinion Change in War,” International Studies Quarterly 55, no. 2 (June 2011): 545–61,; Matthew A. Baum and Philip B.K. Potter, War and Democratic Constraint: How the Public Influences Foreign Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015); Alexandra Guisinger and Elizabeth N. Saunders, “Mapping the Boundaries of Elite Cues: How Elites Shape Mass Opinion Across International Issues,” International Studies Quarterly 61, no. 2 (2017): 425–41, [11] Because of the character of the U.S. intervention in Lebanon, in which the debate concentrated on casualties rather than lost treasure, we evaluate only the impact of human losses. For a theory of public responses to financial costs, see: Benny Geys, “Wars, Presidents, and Popularity: The Political Cost(s) of War Re-Examined,” Public Opinion Quarterly 74, no. 2 (Summer 2010): 357–74, [12] Burk, “Public Support for Peacekeeping in Lebanon and Somalia,” 65–67. Here, we expand upon Burk and Douglas Kriner’s earlier work, which used public polling and survey data, by evaluating polling data and reports commissioned by the White House, Reagan’s re-election campaign team, and the Republican National Committee. These are available in boxes 685 and 687 of the Edwin Meese collection at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives in Stanford, California. See also: Kriner, After the Rubicon, 193–231. [13] Aspects of this argument are reflected in: Beinart, “Think Again: Ronald Reagan”; Zenko, “When Reagan Cut and Run.” [14] For a useful overview of the logic behind bargaining models of war and their reliance on the logic of Bayesian updating, see: Dan Reiter, “Exploring the Bargaining Model of War,” Perspectives on Politics 1, no. 1 (2003): 27–43,; James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49, no. 3 (1995): 379–414, Relevant to our argument, recent research has adopted Bayesian models focused on different political actors updating expectations as they relate to war termination. See: Sarah E. Croco, Peace at What Price? Leader Culpability and the Domestic Politics of War Termination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Elizabeth A. Stanley, Paths to Peace: Domestic Coalition Shifts, War Termination, and the Korean War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Dan Reiter, How Wars End (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009). [15] On this point, see: Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, New Edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017), xlvii–lii. Related work by Jeffrey Friedman suggests that political actors rationally may stick to their military approach despite negative battlefield information if this information is consistent with their initial expectations. If a president expects to incur significant casualties before ultimately achieving success, then the realization of those casualties should not necessarily dissuade him from pressing on. Still, this model requires an actor to hold a consistent set of expectations, present at the start of an intervention and maintained throughout, and the theory does not refute the need for consistent evaluation of new information. See: Jeffrey Friedman, “Cumulative Dynamics and Strategic Assessment: U.S. Military Decision Making in Iraq, Vietnam, and the American Indian Wars” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2013). [16] Our study’s dependent variable is the status of U.S. forces from Lebanon. Our intervening variable is the “theory of success” or “theory of failure” applied to the American military presence in Lebanon. Our independent variable is new information from the field. Information is filtered through the various theories of success and theories of failure held by different camps within the administration, making the intervening variable the one of most interest. Casualty-sensitivity arguments use public opinion as the intervening variable of interest while strategic course correction, as presented here, has new information directly leading to a choice about withdrawal. [17] Ronald Reagan, “Address to the Nation on Events in Lebanon and Grenada,” broadcast speech, Oct. 27, 1983, [18] We adjusted the more common term “theories of victory” in order to include all aspects of a state’s power brought to bear during an intervention. On theories of victory, see: Eliot A. Cohen, Supreme Command (New York: Free Press, 2002) 33; J. Boone Bartholomees, “Theory of Victory,” Parameters 38, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 25–36, [19] Eliot A. Cohen, “What’s Obama’s Counterinsurgency Strategy for Afghanistan?” Washington Post, Dec. 6, 2009, [20] Here, we join a burgeoning effort to reevaluate the methodological utility of rigorous counterfactual analysis. See: Francis J. Gavin, “What If? The Historian and the Counterfactual,” Security Studies 24, no. 3 (2015): 425–30,; Jack S. Levy, “Counterfactuals, Causal Inference, and Historical Analysis,” Security Studies 24, no. 3 (2015): 378–402,; Richard Ned Lebow, Forbidden Fruit: Counterfactuals and International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); Fredrik Logevall, Choosing War: The Lost Chance for Peace and the Escalation of War in Vietnam (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2001), 395–415; James D. Fearon, “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science,” World Politics 43, no. 2 (1991): 169–95, [21] We draw primarily on those proposed by Jack Levy, who compiled and adapted several earlier studies of counterfactuals. See Levy, “Counterfactuals.” [22] Jack S. Levy, “Case Studies: Types, Designs, and Logics of Inference,” Conflict Management and Peace Science, 25, no. 1 (2008): 1–18, For an application of this method to counterfactuals, see: Levy, “Counterfactuals,” 383. [23] Archival records were collected between June 2014 and May 2018 from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, George H.W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, Princeton University Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Hoover Institution Library and Archives, National Records and Archives in College Park, MD, and George Washington University’s National Security Archive. The U.S. State Department’s Virtual Reading Room, the CIA Records Search Tool (CREST) database, and the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training’s oral history collections were also invaluable. [24] Levy, “Counterfactuals,” 385–86. [25] In so doing, we borrowed from the political scientific method of process tracing and the historical subdisciplines of diplomatic and military history. Alexander L. George and Andrew Bennett, Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 6. [26] Lebow, Forbidden Fruit, 38. [27] Gavin, “What If?” 428. [28] For a comprehensive assessment from an American perspective, see: “Report of the DOD Commission on Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act, October 23, 1983,” Dec. 20, 1983, [29] Levy, “Counterfactuals,” 388–89; Lebow, Forbidden Fruit, 54. [30] John Boykin, Cursed Is the Peacemaker: The American Diplomat Versus the Israeli General, Beirut 1982 (Belmont, CA: Applegate Press, 2002); Fadi Esber, “The United States and the 1981 Lebanese Missile Crisis,” Middle East Journal 70, no. 3 (Summer 2016): 441–43, [31] In addition to the U.S. contingent, France and Italy contributed forces to the first Multinational Force. For discussion of Israeli and Palestinian military operations, see: Rashid Khalidi, Under Siege: PLO Decisionmaking During the 1982 War, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014); Ze’ev Schiff & Ehud Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984). For U.S. negotiations, see: Boykin, Cursed Is the Peacemaker. [32] Kriner, After the Rubicon, 198. [33] Letters to House Speaker Thomas O’Neill and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Strom Thurmond from President Reagan, Aug. 24, 1982, Box 91451, I290676, National Security Council System Files, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum (hereafter Reagan Library). The Marines’ commander, Col. James Mead, reiterated the point in comments to reporters, emphasizing that he did “not anticipat[e] any need for us to use our weapons. We came here as peace-keepers.” See: Loren Jenkins, “800 Marines Take Positions In Beirut Port,” Washington Post, Aug. 26, 1982, [34] Boykin, Cursed Is the Peacemaker, in particular 60–265. [35] Schiff and Ya’ari, Israel’s Lebanon War, 254–56. On the Israel Defense Forces’ reentry, see: Cable from Embassy Beirut to Department of State, “Draper Mission: IDF Military Actions in Beirut Sept. 15,” Sept. 15, 1982; Cable from Embassy Tel Aviv to Department of State, “The IDF in Beirut: Foreign Ministry Views,” Sept. 15, 1982; Cable from Washington to Embassy Tel Aviv, “Secretary’s Meeting with Israeli Ambassador on IDF Move into West Beirut,” Sept. 16, 1982, all accessed in State Department Virtual Reading Room. Evidence of the massacres reached Washington at 5:45 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 18, after embassy officials gained entrance to the camps and transmitted a live report of the devastation over transmitter radio. [36] France and Italy agreed to contribute forces to the second Multinational Force. In addition, the British contributed a symbolic force. While representatives of the four peacekeeping missions met regularly to coordinate their efforts, share intelligence, and mediate disputes, each operated autonomously and under national command. Cable from Department of State to Embassy Beirut, “Draper Mission: Exchange of Notes on Participation of US Forces in Second Beirut MNF,” Sept. 23, 1982, Box 90317, Arab-Israel Peace Process/Cables Sept 1982 (2/4), Geoffrey Kemp Files, Reagan Library; Robert C. McFarlane, Special Trust (New York: Cadell & Davies, 1994), 211; Caspar Weinberger, Fighting for Peace: Seven Critical Years in the Pentagon (New York: Warner Books, 1990), 138–52. [37] In a demonstration of its confidence in the administration’s policy, the State Department initially predicted that a complete withdrawal of all foreign forces could be achieved within two months. Memorandum for William Clark from L. Paul Bremer, “Diplomatic Strategy—Approximate Timetable,” Nov. 4, 1982, Box 91286, National Security Decision Directive 64 (1), National Security Council Executive Secretariat records (hereafter NSC Executive Secretariat records), Reagan Library. See also: Memorandum for Shultz from Clark, “Next Steps in Lebanon,” Nov. 8, 1982, Box 4, Chron September 1982 [09/16/1982–09/22/1982], Robert C. McFarlane Files, Reagan Library. [38] Memorandum for Reagan from Clark, “President Gemayel’s Request for the Deployment of MNF Mobile Patrols into East Beirut,” Oct. 30, 1982, Box 90496, Middle East—MNF [Multinational Force], Kemp Files, Reagan Library; “Announcement on Participation of U.S. Marines in MNF Patrols in East Beirut,” c. Oct. 30, 1982, Box 4, Chron-November 1982 (McFarlane)(1), McFarlane Files, Reagan Library. For an insightful evaluation of the military modernization effort, see: Mara E. Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States: Challenges for the United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 108–205. [39] Frank, U.S. Marines in Lebanon, 36–70; For an assessment of the Lebanese army, see: Joseph A. Kechichian, “The Lebanese Army: Capabilities and Challenges in the 1980s,” Conflict Quarterly 5, no. 1 (Winter 1985): 15–39. [40] Frank, U.S. Marines in Lebanon, 55–59. [41] Situation Report, “Embassy Explosion,” April 18, 1983, Beirut Explosition [Sic] April 18–May 12 1983(1), NSC Executive Secretariat Cable Records, 1982–1985, Reagan Library. The attack decimated the embassy’s CIA station, crippling American intelligence efforts in Lebanon. For a thoughtful assessment of its impact, see: Kai Bird, The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (New York: Crown, 2014), 304–18. [42] Cable from Draper, "Habib/Draper Mission: Test [sic] of Israel-Lebanon Agreement,” May 13, 1983, State Department Virtual Reading Room. [43] Cable from Embassy Tel Aviv, “Meeting with Defense Minister Arens—Deepening Israeli Concern about Syrian and PLO moves in Lebanon,” May 12, 1983, State Department Virtual Reading Room; Memorandum for William Casey and John McMahon from Graham Fuller (NIO/NESA), “US Vulnerability in Lebanon,” May 6, 1983, CREST. On Syria’s motivation, see: Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East (London: I.B. Taurus, 1988), 394–96. [44] David Crist, The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict With Iran (New York: Penguin, 2012), 129–35. [45] National Security Decision Directive 103, “Strategy for Lebanon,” Sept. 10, 1983, and “Addendum to NSDD 103 On Lebanon of September 10, 1983,” Sept. 11, 1983, CREST; Paper, “Near-Term Lebanon Strategy,” Sept. 6, 1983, CREST; Memorandum for Reagan from Clark, Sept. 3, 1983, Box 91306, NSPG0068 and 0068A 03 Sept 1983 (1), NSC Executive Secretariat Records. [46] Memorandum from Richard Wirthlin, “The Situation in Lebanon,” Sept. 21, 1983, Box 688, Folder 13, Meese Collection, Hoover Institution. On congressional and popular attitudes toward the intervention from September 1982 through October 1983, see: Kriner, After the Rubicon, 200–9. [47] Memorandum for the Acting Director of Central Intelligence from Graham E. Fuller (NIO/NESA), “Downward Spiral in Lebanon,” Aug. 16, 1983, CREST. For later warnings, see: “Talking Points on Lebanon for the DCI,” Oct. 3, 1983; Special National Intelligence Estimate, “Prospects for Lebanon” (SNIE 36.4-83), Oct. 11, 1983, CREST, [48] Weinberger, Fighting for Peace, 160 n7; Diary of Deputy Secretary of State Kenneth Dam, Oct. 23, 1982, State Department Virtual Reading Room; Gail E.S. Yoshitani, “National Power and Military Force: The Origins of the Weinberger Doctrine, 1980–1984” (PhD diss., Duke University, 2018), 203. Weinberger proposed that the marines be kept on Navy ships 400 to 500 yards offshore. They would be safer but still available to support President Gemayel if necessary. See: Ralph A. Hallenbeck, Military Force as an Instrument of U.S. Foreign Policy: Intervention in Lebanon, August 1982February 1984 (New York: Praeger, 1991), 91–92. [49] Weinberger, Fighting for Peace, 155–57; Caspar Weinberger, interview, Frontline, PBS, undated. [50] A desire to demonstrate resolve and build Arab partners’ confidence in the United States motivated the decision to intervene in Lebanon. The Reagan administration anticipated that progress in Lebanon would revitalize the peace process and encourage strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union and other radical forces in the region. Memorandum for Secretary of State George Shultz from National Security Adviser William Clark, “Next Steps in Lebanon,” Nov. 8, 1982, Box 4, Chron September 1982 [09/16/1982–09/22/1982], McFarlane Files, Reagan Library; Memorandum for Reagan from Clark, “National Security Planning Group Meeting,” April 22, 1983, CREST. [51] Memorandum, “Lebanon: Litmus Test for U.S. Credibility and Commitment,” Oct. 18, 1983, Box 91290, National Security Decision Directive 103 (1), NSC Executive Secretariat National Security Decision Directive Records, Reagan Library; Memorandum for Reagan from Shultz, “Our Strategy in Lebanon and the Middle East,” attached to Memorandum for Reagan from Clark, Oct. 13, 1983, Box 91306, NSPG0072 14 Oct 1983, NSC Executive Secretariat Records. [52] Hedrick Smith, “Reagan’s Crucial Year,” New York Times Magazine, Oct. 16, 1983, [53] Ronald Reagan, The Reagan Diaries, vol. 1 (New York: Harper Collins, 2009), 275–76; Ronald Reagan, news conference, Oct. 19, 1983, [54] A near-simultaneous attack on the French military headquarters in Beirut would bring the day’s death toll to 299. For a description of the attack, see: Frank, U.S. Marines in Lebanon, 1–3, 93–96; Geraghty, Peacekeepers at War, 91–95. For initial reaction, see: CIA report, “Terrorism Review,” Oct. 27, 1983, CREST; Cable, “Major Bomb Attack on U.S. and French Contingent—Situation as of 0830 Local,” Box 91353, Lebanon Bombing/Airport Oct. 23, 1983, NSC Executive Secretariat Country Files, Reagan Library; Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Spot Report, Oct. 23, 1983, Box 110, Lebanon Situation (10/23/1983), NSC Executive Secretariat Cable Files; Cable, “Lebanon Situation/DIA INTSUM NBR 8 (As of 231600Z Oct 83),” Oct. 24, 1983, CREST. [55] Quoted in: Timberg, The Nightingale’s Song, 337. See also: McFarlane, Special Trust, 263. For a similar, albeit less colorful, vow, see: Memorandum of Telephone Conversation between Reagan and French President François Mitterrand, Oct. 24, 1983, Box 52, Memorandums of Conversation — President Reagan (October 1983), NSC Executive Secretariat Subject File, Reagan Library. [56] DIA Spot Report, Oct. 23, 1983; Note for McFarlane from Howard Teicher attributing blame for Beirut International Airport attack, Oct. 27, 1983, and Telegram from Edward W. Hickey Jr. to McFarlane, Oct. 27, 1983, Box 91353, Lebanon Bombing/Airport Oct. 23, 1983, NSC Executive Secretariat Country Files; Memorandum for Reagan from Gen. P.X. Kelley, “Visit to Beirut, 25-26 October 1983,” Nov. 2, 1983, Box 2, Security for the U.S. Multinational Forces (MNF) Contingency in Beirut, John Poindexter Files, Reagan Library. For a thorough accounting of the unclassified and declassified evidence linking Iran and Syria to the attack, see: David C. Wills, The First War on Terrorism: Counter-Terrorism Policy During the Reagan Administration (Lahnham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 69–71; Crist, Twilight War, 134–42. [57] Quoted in: Crist, Twilight War, 142. [58] Memorandum for McFarlane from Teicher, “Draft NSDD on Lebanon and Middle East,” Oct. 26, 1983, Box 91354, Lebanon Chronology (1), NSC Executive Secretariat Country Files; Action Memorandum, “Deterrent Action Against Perpetrators of 23 Oct Bombing US Marines in Beirut,” Nov. 4, 1983, Box 23315, 8391354, NSC Executive Secretariat System File, Reagan Library; Wills, First War on Terrorism, 65; Crist, Twilight War, 144–47. [59] Wills, First War on Terrorism, 65–73. Reagan’s determination to strike lasted through Nov. 7, when he wrote in his diary that “we have a fix on a headquarters of the radical Iranian Shiites who blew up our Marines. We can take out the target with an air strike & no risk to civilians.” A 7 a.m. National Security Council meeting the next day, however, led him to change his mind, and he reported to his diary that he’d decided “we don’t have enough intelligence info yet.” Reagan, Diaries, 284–85. [60] Milton Coleman, “Identity of Attackers Eludes U.S. Probers,” Washington Post, Nov. 7, 1983, [61] Weinberger and Vessey also sought to undermine popular support for retaliation by sowing uncertainty about the quality of U.S. intelligence. During a Meet the Press interview on Nov. 6 — days after he reviewed the signals intelligence linking the Iranian embassy to the bombers — Gen. Vessey insisted that U.S. analysts “really don’t know who did it.” Crist, Twilight War, 140. [62] Talking Points on Lebanon, c. Oct. 24, 1983, Box 91353, Lebanon Bombing/Airport Oct. 23 1983, NSC Executive Secretariat Country Files; “Presidential Remarks: Regional Broadcasters Luncheon, Monday, October 24, 1983,” Box 1, Airstrike 12/04/1983, Philip Dur Files, Reagan Library. The president’s confidence stretched through his departure for Asia in early November. See: Message from Reagan for Margaret Thatcher, Nov. 6, 1983, 8391397, Office of the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Files, Reagan Library. [63] National Security Decision Directive 109, “Responding to the Lebanon Crisis,” Oct. 23, 1983; National Security Decision Directive 111, “Next Steps Toward Progress in Lebanon and the Middle East,” Oct. 28, 1983, both in Box 91354, Lebanon Chronology (1), NSC Executive Secretariat Country Files, Reagan Library. [64] Memorandum for Shultz, Weinberger, Casey, Vessey from McFarlane, “National Security Decision Directive on Lebanon and the Middle East,” Oct. 29, 1983, Box 91354, Lebanon Chronology (1), NSC Executive Secretariat Country Files, Reagan Library. [65] See also: National Security Decision Directive 111; Memorandum for McFarlane from Teicher, “Draft NSDD on Lebanon and Middle East,” Oct. 26, 1983; Memorandum for McFarlane, “Additional Security Measures at Beirut International Airport,” c. Oct. 23, 1983, all in Box 91353, Lebanon Bombing/Airport Oct. 23 1983, NSC Executive Secretariat Country Files. [66] McFarlane, Special Trust, 268. [67] McFarlane, Special Trust, 268–69; Memorandum for Reagan from McFarlane, “NSDD: Lebanon and the Middle East,” Oct. 28, 1983, Box 91354, Lebanon Chronology (1); Memorandum for Reagan from Shultz, “Sentiment in Congress with Respect to the Bombing in Beirut and our Policy in Lebanon,” Oct. 26, 1983, 91666, Howard Teicher Chron. October 1983, Howard Teicher Files, Reagan Library. For a summary of the State Department’s position, see: “Testimony of Rear Admiral Jonathan T. Howe” (director of the State Department Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs), Nov. 2, 1983, Box 8, National Security Decision Directives (NSDD) 109/111–Lebanon and the Middle East, Dur Files, Reagan Library. [68] Memorandum for Reagan and Adm. John Poindexter from Edwin Meese III, “The Stakes in Lebanon,” Box 91353, Lebanon Bombing/Airport Oct. 23, 1983. [69] Excerpted in “‘We Will Stay, And We Will Carry Out Our Mission,’” Washington Post, Oct. 25, 1983, [70] We use the term “credibility” as Reagan and many of his advisers did at the time: to suggest that one’s past actions might influence an adversary’s expectation for future actions. This definition differs from most scholars’ use of the term and instead equates to the notion of “reputation for resolve.” See: Keren Yarhi-Milo, Who Fights for Reputation: The Psychology of Leaders in International Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 5–11; Shiping Tang, “Reputation, Cult of Reputation, and International Conflict,” Security Studies 14, no. 1 (2005): 38, [71] Reagan, Diaries, 281. [72] Quoted in Crist, Twilight War, 141. [73] National Security Decision Directive 111, Oct. 28, 1983. [74] Reagan, Diaries, 280–81. [75] Reagan, Diaries, 280–81. [76] National Security Decision Directive 111, Oct. 28, 1983. [77] Reagan, “Address to the Nation on Events in Lebanon and Grenada,” Oct. 27, 1983. For his intentions, see: Reagan, Diaries, 280–81. [78] Reagan, Diaries, 280–81. Some have suggested that the rally in public support for the president’s policy was a side effect of the U.S. invasion of Grenada and not the president’s rhetoric. See: Kriner, After the Rubicon, 212. The timing of the two events makes it difficult to assign responsibility. Ultimately, the president believed his rhetoric had bolstered public attitudes, and he interpreted the polling bump as evidence that he could weather future criticism. [79] Memorandum from Richard B. Wirthlin to Meese, James Baker, and Michael Deaver, “Lebanon,” Nov. 9, 1983, Box 688, 1, Meese Collection, Hoover Institution. [80] “Senior Staff Meeting Action Items, 11/30/83,” Box 73, 1, James A. Baker III Papers (MC #197), Box 73, Princeton University. [81] For a summary of the National Security Council position, see: Memoranda, “Points To Be Making Before Congress,” c. Nov. 10, 1983, and “Improving Security Training Readiness and Visibility of the MNF,” c. November 1983, both in Box 7, Lebanon (6), Fortier Files, Reagan Library. The National Security Council and State Department went so far as to draft a presidential statement, letters to regional leaders and NATO allies, and an information cable for all diplomatic posts detailing a naval airstrike on the Bekaa Valley training site. See: Box 91306, National Security Planning Group 0076 23 11/07/1983 [Iran-Iraq; October 1983 Lebanon Marine Bombing] (1 of 2), NSC Executive Secretariat Records. For the Pentagon’s opposition and a summary of the debate, see: McFarlane, Special Trust, 268–69; Crist, Twilight War, 144–45; Wills, First War on Terrorism, 73. For Reagan’s resolve, see: Reagan, Diaries, 288. [82] For a balanced review of the available evidence supporting both claims, see: Crist, Twilight War, 147; Wills, First War on Terrorism, 73–75. In his diary entry that day, Reagan noted that U.S. officials “contacted [the] French about a joint operation in Beirut re the car bombings” but does not specify his decision. Reagan, Diaries, 288. Weinberger goes even further in his memoir, where he omits any discussion of retaliation and alleges that he learned of the potential for a joint operation when the French minister of defense called to report that a unilateral French airstrike was imminent. Weinberger, Fighting for Peace, 161–62. [83] Note from McFarlane, “Decision Memo on Next Steps in Lebanon.” The president reported a similar decision in a letter to Downing Street. See: Message from Reagan for Thatcher, Nov. 19, 1983, Chron File 8391397, Office of the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Files, Reagan Library. [84] See, for instance: Memorandum for Weinberger from John A. Wickham Jr. (acting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), “NSDD-111 on Lebanon and the Middle East,” Nov. 4, 1983, Box 91354, Lebanon Chronology (1); George P. Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Scribner, 1993), 228; Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (New York: Penguin Random House, 2011), 14–16; Weinberger, Fighting for Peace, 166; Crist, Twilight War, 150. The Defense Department’s concerns were debated publicly. Michael Getler, “Lebanon Role Worries U.S. Military,” Washington Post, Dec. 18, 1983. [85] McFarlane wrote to Reagan shortly after the French operation: “There has been progress, and the trends suggest more progress is in the offing.” Quoted in Crist, Twilight War, 150. The National Security Council staff concurred, warning the national security adviser that “our continuing failure to conduct military action against terrorists in Lebanon will erode our credibility in the Middle East and beyond.” Memorandum for McFarlane from Teicher, “Weekly Report,” Nov. 18, 1983, Box 6, Chron (Official) November 1983, McFarlane Files, Reagan Library; Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 228. For similar arguments, see: “Talking Points for Robert McFarlane,” Dec. 1, 1983; Memorandum for McFarlane from Kemp, “NSPG Meeting,” Dec. 1, 1983; Note for McFarlane from Poindexter, Nov. 30, 1983, Box 91306, NSPG 0077 14 Nov 1983, NSC Executive Secretariat National Security Planning Group Records, Reagan Library. [86] Note from McFarlane, “Decision Memo on Next Steps in Lebanon.” The president reported a similar decision in a letter to Downing Street. Message from Reagan for Thatcher, Nov. 19, 1983, Chron File 8391397, Office of the Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Files, Reagan Library. [87] Reagan, Diaries, 293. [88] Timothy Naftali, Blind Spot: The Secret History of American Counterterrorism (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 135. [89] Quoted in: Thomas L. Friedman, “Damascus Says Its Guns Fired At U.S. Planes,” New York Times, Nov. 11, 1983, [90] Reagan approved the changes during a National Security Council meeting on Dec. 1 but did not sign the directive until Dec. 5. National Security Decision Directive 117, “Lebanon,” Dec. 5, 1983,; Wills, First War on Terrorism, 76. [91] Weinberger, Fighting for Peace, 166. [92] John F. Lehman, Command of the Seas (New York: Scribner, 1988), 322. Notably, Lehman had opposed Vessey and Weinberger and had supported retaliation for the barracks bombing. [93] Geraghty, Peacekeepers at War; Memoranda for Reagan from McFarlane, “Ground and Air Situation in Lebanon 5 December 1983, 0930,” and “Lebanon: Details of Weekend Strikes and International Relations,” Dec. 5, 1983, RAC Box 8, Lebanon Documents (2 Dec 83 (Rumsfeld Cables) I (4), National Security Council Crisis Management Center Records, Reagan Library. For a firsthand account of the confusion aboard the carriers, see: George C. Wilson, “The Day We Fouled Up the Bombing of Lebanon,” Washington Post, Sept. 7, 1986, [94] National Intelligence Daily for Dec. 5, 1983, CREST [95] In the days before the Dec. 3 raid, McFarlane had sought to leverage his personal relationship with the president to force the Joint Chiefs in line with his position on Lebanon. By all accounts, the meeting failed. Note for McFarlane from Poindexter (Eyes Only), Nov. 30, 1983, and “Talking Points for Robert McFarlane,” Dec. 1, 1983, both in Box 91306, NSPG 0077 14 Nov 1983, NSC Executive Secretariat National Security Planning Group records. [96] McFarlane, Special Trust, 272. [97] Memorandum for McFarlane from Fortier, “Lebanon Political-Military Working Group,” Dec. 8, 1983, RAC Box 7, Lebanon (6), Fortier Files, Reagan Library; Note from McFarlane, “Informal Group on Lebanon,” Dec. 10, 1983, Box 6, Chron (Official) December 1983 (3), McFarlane Files, Reagan Library; Memorandum for McFarlane from Fortier, Dur, and Kemp, “Working Luncheon on Lebanon,” Dec. 16, 1983, Box 7, Lebanon (7), Fortier Files, Reagan Library; Draft Memorandum for the President from John M. Poindexter, “Informal Discussion Papers on Lebanon Strategy,” c. January 1983, Box 7, Lebanon (9), Fortier Files, Reagan Library; Cable to Donald Rumsfeld from the State Department, “Short-Term Strategy for Lebanon,” Dec. 28, 1983, Box 7, Lebanon (8), Fortier Files, Reagan Library. A resulting non-paper is described in additional detail in Weinberger, Fighting for Peace, 168–69. [98] Memorandum for Meese, Baker, and Deaver from Wirthlin, “The Situation in Lebanon,” Dec. 12, 1983, Box 685, Meese Collection, Hoover Institution. Republican National Committee pollsters concluded that Reagan’s address had “reversed” public opinion, with 58 percent of Americans surveyed after the speech reporting that they approved of the U.S. mission in Lebanon. [99] The media reported heavily on the airstrikes and their aftermath. See, for example: “Five Democratic Candidates Criticize Reagan For Air Strikes,” New York Times, Dec. 5, 1983,; Steven V. Roberts, “Critics in Congress Declare Reagan Is Heading for War,” New York Times, Dec. 6, 1983,; Hedrick Smith, “Lebanon Rekindles U.S. Foreign Policy Troubles,” Dec. 11, 1983, New York Times, [100] Reagan, Diaries, 294–95; “Shultz Defends U.S.-Israel Policy as Cease-Fire Holds in Lebanon,” Associated Press, Dec. 11, 1983; Steven R. Weisman, “Reagan Predicts Role Till Beirut Stands or Falls,” New York Times, Dec. 15, 1983, [101] Reagan, Diaries, 298–99. Reagan mentioned the New Jersey often in his diary, praising its perceived ability to police the ceasefire in Lebanon. [102] Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 228–31; Memorandum for Reagan from Shultz, “Deputy Secretary Dam’s Meeting with Speaker O’Neill and his Ad Hoc Group on Lebanon,” Jan. 4, 1984, Box 91666, Chron–Howard J. Teicher, January 1984 [1], Teicher Files, Reagan Library; Memorandum for Reagan from McFarlane, “Putting the Marines Back Aboard Ships,” Dec. 21,1983, The Reagan Files,; Reagan, Diaries, 298, 301. For more on the Shultz-Reagan relationship, see: Leslie H. Gelb, “Shultz, With Tough Line, Is Now Key Voice in Crisis,” New York Times, Nov. 7, 1983, [103] Reagan, Diaries, 295, 298–300. [104] National Security Decision Directive 117, “Lebanon,” Dec. 5, 1983. [105] Alex Brummer, “Shultz says US sticks to Lebanon role,” Guardian, Dec. 6, 1983; Lou Cannon and David Hoffman, “Use of Force Viewed Necessary for Solution,” Washington Post, Dec. 8, 1983; David Ignatius, “Europeans in Peacekeeping Force Seem Willing to Back U.S. Strategy in Lebanon,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 8, 1983. [106] Weisman, “Reagan Predicts Role Till Beirut Stands or Falls”; Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 228–29. In his weekly radio address a few days earlier, Reagan pledged to “redouble” U.S. efforts to resolve the situation in Lebanon, vowing that the Marines would withdraw only “once internal stability is established and the withdrawal of all foreign forces is secured.” See: Reagan, “Radio Address to the Nation on the Situation in Lebanon,” Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Dec. 10, 1983, [107] National Security Council, “Taking Stock in Lebanon,” Dec. 15, 1983, Box 7, Folder “Lebanon (9),” Fortier Files, Reagan Library. [108] “Confessional” refers to the factional communities within Lebanon, which were divided along important historical, social, and religious bonds of affiliation. [109] Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE), “Implications of the Military Balance of Power in Lebanon,” SNIE 11/35/36-38, Dec. 23, 1983, CREST, [110] On the Long Commission’s origins and composition, see: Jordan Tama, Terrorism and National Security Reform: How Commissions Can Drive Change During Crises (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 75–88. [111] “Report of The DOD Commission on Beirut International Airport Terrorist Act, October 23, 1983”; Memorandum for Reagan from McFarlane, “Long Commission report on October 23 Bombing,” Dec. 23, 1983, RAC Box 7, Lebanon (8), Fortier Files, Reagan Library. [112] Tama, Terrorism and National Security Reform, 79–80. [113] Memorandum for Reagan from Weinberger, “Long Commission report on October 23 Bombing,” Dec. 23, 1983, RAC Box 7, Lebanon (8). [114] For more on the congressional reaction, see: Tama, Terrorism and National Security Reform, 81–85; Kriner, After the Rubicon, 218–20. [115] Margaret Shapiro and John Goshko, “Reagan Moves to Bolster Hill Support on Lebanon,” Washington Post, Jan. 5, 1984; Philip Taubman, “O’Neill Considers Backing a Change in Marine Mission,” New York Times, Dec. 30, 1983,; Memorandum and Attachments from McFarlane for Reagan, “NSPG Meeting on Next Steps in Lebanon, Tuesday, January 3, 1984, White House Situation Room,” Reagan Files; David C. Martin and John Walcott, Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America’s War Against Terrorism (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988), 147; Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 229. [116] Tama, Terrorism and National Security Reform, 82–84. [117] Memorandum by Wirthlin, “The Situation in Lebanon,” Jan. 30, 1984, Box 685, 11, Meese Collection, Hoover Institution. [118] Reagan described a meeting to discuss the Long Commission report as an “easy” day, noting he was only “worried about the effect of this on families that lost loved ones.” Reagan, Diaries, 301–2. For his views on public polls, see page 311. [119] Reagan, "Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session with Reporters on the Pentagon Report on the Security of United States Marines in Lebanon," Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, Dec. 27, 1983, [120] Lou Cannon and Carl M. Cannon, Reagan’s Disciple: George W. Bush’s Troubled Quest for a Presidential Legacy (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 151–52; Kriner, After the Rubicon, 224–25. [121] Reagan, Diaries, 298, 301, 304–5; Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 228–31. [122] Memorandum for Reagan from Shultz, “Deputy Secretary Dam’s Meeting with Speaker O’Neill and his Ad Hoc Group on Lebanon,” and Memorandum for Reagan from McFarlane, “Ken Dam’s Meeting with Speaker O’Neill and Other House Leaders,” c. Jan. 6, 1984, both in Box 91666, Chron–Howard J. Teicher, January 1984 [1]; Memorandum for McFarlane from Fortier, “Your Hill Briefings on Lebanon,” Jan. 3, 1984, RAC Box 7, Folder Lebanon (9), all Fortier Files, Reagan Library. Memorandum and Attachments for Reagan from McFarlane, “NSPG Meeting on Next Steps in Lebanon, Tuesday, January 3, 1984, White House Situation Room,” Reagan Files. National Security Council staff followed up with meetings and background papers to clarify U.S. policy and explain the “consequences of a precipitous withdrawal.” Memorandum for McFarlane from Fortier, “Maintaining the Speaker’s Support on Lebanon,” Jan. 5, 1984, RAC Box 7, Lebanon (9); Memorandum for McFarlane from Teicher, “Weekly Report,” Jan. 27, 1984, Box 91666, Chron–Howard J. Teicher, January 1984 [1], Teicher Files, Reagan Library. [123] Shapiro and Goshko, “Reagan Moves to Bolster Hill Support on Lebanon.” [124] Memorandum for the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Director of Central Intelligence, Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from Robert McFarlane, “Next Steps in Lebanon,” Feb. 1, 1984, CREST,; Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 230. [125] Reagan, Diaries, 312; David Hoffman, “Administration Credibility Under Strain: Plans, Pronouncements on Mideast Contradictory,” Washington Post, Feb. 12, 1984. [126] Cable from Donald Rumsfeld to Lawrence Eagleburger, “Next Steps in Lebanon,” Jan. 31, 1984; Cable from Donald Rumsfeld to Bud McFarlane, James Poindexter, and Lawrence Eagleburger, “Middle East Mission–Draft NSDD–Rumsfeld Comments,” Jan. 31, 1984, all in the Rumsfeld Papers, Each were marked "eyes only." [127] Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown, 28. [128] In his memoir, the defense secretary goes on at length about his efforts to hurry the Joint Chiefs. Weinberger, Fighting for Peace, 168–69. [129] Quoted in: Rich Jaroslovsky and Albert Hunt, “Digging In: Reagan Toughens Line on Troops in Lebanon And Chides His Critics,” Wall Street Journal, Feb. 3, 1984. For illustrative examples demonstrating Reagan’s consistency, see: Benjamin Taylor, “Reagan Shrugs Off Lebanon Pullout Call,” Boston Globe, Feb. 2, 1984; Leslie H. Gelb, “Aides Say Reagan Foreign Policy Will Survive Democrats’ Attacks,” New York Times, Feb. 3, 1984,; “Reagan, O’Neill Trade Barbs Over Lebanon Troops,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 4, 1984, . [130] Edgar O’Ballance, Civil War in Lebanon, 1975–92 (New York: St. Martin’s Press: 1998), 136; Elie A. Salem, Violence and Diplomacy in Lebanon: The Troubled Years, 1982–1988 (London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1995), 135–46; Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown, 27; Reagan, Diaries, 306–7. [131] This assessment draws on: O’Ballance, Civil War in Lebanon, 137; Oren Barak, The Lebanese Army: A National Institution in a Divided Society (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009), 131; Yosef Olmert, “Lebanon,” Middle East Contemporary Survey 8 (1986): 551; Omri Nir, Nabih Berri and Lebanese Politics (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 50–52; and Fawwaz Traboulsi, A History of Modern Lebanon (London: Pluto Press, 2012), 231. [132] Lou Cannon, President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991), 436. [133] George H.W. Bush, All The Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings (New York: Scribner, 1999), 331. The importance of the moment was evident to those observing Bush in the field. Marine commander Timothy Geraghty later recalled that while presenting Purple Hearts to wounded men, the vice president “was obviously moved by their sacrifice.” Geraghty, Peacekeepers at War, 111–12. [134] Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 230–31; Wills, First War on Terrorism, 8; Howard Teicher and Gayle Radley Teicher, Twin Pillars to Desert Storm: America’s Flawed Vision in the Middle East from Nixon to Bush (New York: William Morrow, 1993), 291. [135] Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, 230–31; Wills, First War on Terrorism, 8; Teicher and Teicher, Twin Pillars to Desert Storm, 291. Whether Reagan understood that he had authorized the complete and rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces, rather than the phased transition outlined in the Feb. 1 National Security Decision Directive, is unclear. Although transcripts of Bush’s call to Reagan remain classified, evidence that similar proposals were studied in the days after the National Security Policy Group decision suggest the president may have held out hope of maintaining a limited military presence in Beirut. Indeed, White House press guidance distributed over the next several days described the administration’s decision as a phased drawdown that would stretch “over the next several months depending on the situation.” Memorandum to Shultz, Weinberger, and Vessey from McFarlane, “Memorandum for the Record: Decisions Taken and Actions Required at SSG Meeting Thursday, February 9, 1984–5:15-7:25 p.m.,” Box 91834, William Burns Files, Reagan Library; “Senior Staff Meeting Action Items, 2/08/83,” and “Senior Staff Meeting Action Items, 2/09/83,” Box 72, Action Items 1984 January–June, James A. Baker Papers, Princeton University Library. [136] Frank, U.S. Marines in Lebanon, 135–38. [137] Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States, 143–44. [138] For an illustration of the continuities, see: Memorandum for Reagan from Shultz, Oct. 5, 1983; Memorandum for Reagan from Clark, Oct. 13, 1983; and Memorandum for Reagan from McFarlane, Oct. 17, 1983, Box 91306, NSPG0073 18 Oct 1983, NSC Executive Secretariat records; Memorandum for McFarlane from Weinberger, “US Policy in Lebanon and the Middle East,” Oct. 21, 1983, RAC Box 7, Lebanon (5), Fortier Files, Reagan Library. [139] Some have speculated that the administration’s concurrent intervention in Grenada, which commenced two days after the bombing, was designed to distract the public from the disaster in Beirut. This theory ignores the facts that the president had authorized the Grenada operation before the attack in Lebanon and that lead military elements were already en route to the island when the bombing occurred (which complicated efforts to relieve the shaken marines in Beirut). If Operation Urgent Fury’s success may have dampened the public’s reaction to the bombing in Lebanon, it was by chance, not design. [140] Interview of Robert S. Dillon by Charles Stuart Kennedy, May 17, 1990, Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. For the importance placed on the U.S. modernization effort, see: Karlin, Building Militaries in Fragile States, chap. 4. [141] National Security Decision Directive 103 and “Addendum to NSDD 103 On Lebanon of September 10, 1983”; Reagan, Diaries. [142] Kiron K. Skinner, Annelise Anderson, and Martin Anderson, Reagan, In His Own Hand: The Writings of Ronald Reagan that Reveal His Revolutionary Vision for America (New York: The Free Press, 2001), 481. [143] For a discussion of relevant psychological biases, see Jack Levy, “Psychology and Foreign Policy Decision-Making,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, ed. Leonie Huddy, David O. Sears, and Jack S. Levy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011); Rose McDermott, “The Psychological Ideas of Amos Tversky and Their Relevance for Political Science,” Journal of Theoretical Politics 13, no.1 (2001): 5–33,; James M. Goldgeier and Philip E. Tetlock, “Psychology and International Relations Theory,” Annual Review of Political Science 4, no. 1 (2001): 67–92, [144] For an excellent example, see Yarhi-Milo, Who Fights, in particular chap. 7. [145] James D. Fearon, “Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much Longer Than Others?” Journal of Peace Research 41, no. 3 (2004): 275–301,; James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War,” American Political Science Review 97, no. 1 (2003): 75–90, [146] For a history of the perils and promise of red teaming and other related practices, see Micah Zenko, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (New York: Basic Books, 2015). [147] Francis J. Gavin, “Thinking Historically: A Guide for Strategy and Statecraft,” War on the Rocks, Nov. 17, 2016, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1253 [post_author] => 258 [post_date] => 2019-02-26 05:00:21 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-02-26 10:00:21 [post_content] => How dangerous are nuclear crises? What determines who wins and who loses? And what dynamics underpin how they unfold? Recent tensions between North Korea and the United States have exposed disagreement regarding these questions. While some analysts view escalations in rhetoric and hints of war between the United States and North Korea as “disastrous” and “so dangerous,”[1] others suggest there is little to worry about and that the “threat of war with North Korea may sound scarier than it is.”[2] This disagreement about how to understand nuclear crises is also reflected in academic debates. Different scholars offer interpretations of nuclear crises that appear to be at odds with each other. For some, the threat of nuclear use is generally so remote that nuclear-armed states can enter a crisis with little fear of it crossing the nuclear threshold. For others, nuclear escalation is highly plausible and the presence of nuclear weapons profoundly affects the way crises play out. Policymakers seeking to pursue their political goals within a nuclear crisis or reduce the risk of nuclear escalation will thus find little guidance in the existing scholarship. We argue that different interpretations of nuclear crises are not — as they initially appear — mutually exclusive. Rather, nuclear crises have different dynamics depending on two variables: the incentives to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis and the extent to which escalation is controllable by the leaders involved. Identifying these variables is not new: First-use incentives and crisis controllability are widely understood to be factors that affect how nuclear crises play out. However, they have not previously been incorporated into a single framework that can shed light on the heterogeneity of nuclear crises. Variation across these two dimensions generates four models of nuclear escalation, which correspond to established ways of thinking about nuclear crises. We label these models the “staircase” model, the “stability-instability” model, the “brinkmanship” model, and the “firestorm” model. In contrast to recent literature, we argue that no one model of nuclear crisis is “correct” — different models simply apply in different circumstances. In specifying the various types of nuclear crisis more clearly and the dimensions that underpin them, we offer a way to unite divergent interpretations of nuclear crises within a broader framework. In doing so, our framework helps make sense of inconclusive empirical findings in the international relations literature. For example, different studies have found nuclear weapons to have either no, limited, or substantial effects on the outcomes of crises.[3] Because different nuclear crises operate according to different logics, it is unsurprising that existing findings are sensitive to differences in methodological approach, case selection, modeling strategies, or coding choices. Finally, the framework provides analysts and policymakers with a tool to assess the relative dangers of potential future nuclear crises, the feasibility of signaling political interests or resolve within a crisis, and the advantages of nuclear superiority. We first review the research on nuclear crises, highlighting tensions between existing studies. We then develop our framework, describing the two variables and four models of nuclear crisis and discussing the implications of each for the dynamics of this type of crisis. We demonstrate the utility of this framework by showing how it sheds light on the Kargil War between India and Pakistan, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Doklam crisis between India and China, and current tensions between the United States and North Korea. We conclude with implications for current and future research.

Our Understanding Of Nuclear Crises

In this study, we employ the definition of crisis used by the multi-decade International Crisis Behavior project: A nuclear crisis is an interaction between two nuclear-armed states in which there is a “change in type and/or an increase in intensity” of disruptive or hostile behaviors with a “heightened probability of military hostilities” that “destabilizes their relationship” and begins with a “disruptive act or event.”[4] Studying nuclear crises is fraught with the same methodological challenges as studies of other crises short of war, including deciding which cases to examine, grappling with selection effects, and identifying appropriate counterfactuals.[5] Despite these challenges, the significance of nuclear crises to contemporary international politics is widely understood. Matthew Kroenig, for example, writes that “the nuclear crisis [is] the primary arena in which nuclear-armed states settle important international disputes.”[6] Indeed, for many, the replacement of great power wars with nuclear crises is one of the defining features of the post-1945 international system.[7] Despite a shared recognition of the importance of nuclear crises, there is little agreement on the dynamics that underpin them. Scholars tend to view “nuclear crises” as a group of events that share an underlying logic, but disagree about what that logic is.[8] For example, according to advocates of the theory of the “nuclear revolution,” nuclear weapons suppress the temptation to escalate crises at all levels. The destructive capacity of nuclear weapons casts a long shadow over all interstate crises, restricting the range of behaviors that states can reasonably engage in.[9] As John Mearsheimer notes, “Nuclear weapons, because of the horror associated with their use, really are the ultimate deterrent” and make “states more cautious about using military force of any kind against each other.”[10] For scholars of the nuclear taboo or advocates of the “stability-instability paradox,” however, the difficulty of credibly threatening to use nuclear weapons, and the bright line distinguishing nuclear use from non-nuclear use, ought to reduce the influence that nuclear weapons have within a crisis.[11] Recent empirical scholarship also suggests that crises operate according to a certain logic, while disagreeing as to what that logic is. For example, Kroenig argues that a state with nuclear superiority is more likely to achieve its goals in a nuclear crisis, while Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann conclude that nuclear weapons do not help states compel others to do what they want during crises.[12] This disagreement is concerning for several reasons. First, policymakers (or anyone, for that matter) seeking to understand how nuclear crises unfold, how dangerous they might be, and how one might pursue a state’s political interests within such a crisis, will struggle to gain insights from a literature that offers contradictory findings and implications. Second, by seeking a single logic that explains nuclear crises, existing work downplays the variety among them.[13] A simple historical reading, for example, suggests profound differences between the dynamics underpinning the 1995 Taiwan Straits crisis, the various Berlin crises, the war in Angola, and the 1970 Cienfuegos submarine base crisis, all of which are typically identified as “nuclear crises.”[14] Indeed, common understandings of the different dangers involved in different crises — that the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, was the “most dangerous” Cold War crisis — reflect a heterogeneity that existing theories do not account for.

Models of Nuclear Crises

In this section, we describe two variables that affect the ways in which nuclear crises unfold: the strength of incentives to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis, and the degree to which the actors involved are able to control escalation of the crisis. These two variables are determined by the objective features of a given crisis, although we incorporate the possibility that the crisis participants’ perceptions of these variables may diverge from reality in ways that influence how they behave. Incentives for first nuclear use and the degree of controllability are well understood to affect how a nuclear crisis plays out, however, they have not previously been incorporated into a single framework that sheds light on the diversity of nuclear crises. Examining these two dimensions leads to four possible “ideal type” models of nuclear crisis: the “staircase” model, the “brinkmanship” model, the “stability-instability” model, and the “firestorm” model. These models, in turn, correspond to prominent ways that scholars and analysts have thought about nuclear crises. The framework demonstrates that different models of nuclear crisis should be expected to operate under different circumstances. This insight holds important implications for how to understand existing scholarship on nuclear crises, as well as variation among these crises across time. Table 1 summarizes the indicators of the variables that we examine in the case studies below. Each of these variables is itself the aggregation of other variables. Grouping them in this way, however, allows us to impose some conceptual order on the ways in which nuclear crises can vary, and thus begin to shed light on the diversity of this class of events. Table 1: Indicators of the Two Variables [table id=13 /]   The first variable we examine is the extent to which either side faces incentives to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis. This variable asks whether the crisis is one in which either side would gain substantial advantages from using nuclear weapons first. Such incentives may emerge in at least two distinct ways. First, the dynamics of a possible nuclear war may mean that first nuclear use could meaningfully affect the final outcome of the conflict. In particular, if there is a large disparity in capabilities between the nuclear forces of the participants in the crisis, there will be stronger incentives for both sides to use nuclear weapons first. For the weaker state, having a vulnerable and small nuclear force may generate doubts about the ability of that state’s nuclear arsenal to survive a first strike, thereby creating pressure for states to “use them or lose them,” and incentivizing aggressive nuclear postures and first nuclear use. As Peter Feaver argues, a state with a vulnerable nuclear arsenal has an “incentive to posture its forces for an early use in a crisis, before its nuclear option is curtailed.”[15] For the state with the more powerful arsenal, meaningfully limiting damage through engaging in offensive nuclear counterforce missions might be tempting, as might be the possibility of a splendid first strike — the ability to completely take out an opponent’s nuclear capabilities.[16] Crises characterized by significant nuclear asymmetry — in particular, where one side plausibly lacks a secure second strike capability — will therefore feature greater incentives to use nuclear weapons first than crises characterized by a greater degree of symmetry, in which meaningful damage limitation and/or a splendid first strike are less plausible. Second, nuclear first use may be threatened as part of the bargaining process within a crisis or war. Crises in which one (or both) states has a nuclear posture designed to credibly threaten the first use of nuclear weapons — what Vipin Narang refers to as an “asymmetric escalation” posture — will be characterized by greater incentives to use nuclear weapons first.[17] [quote id="1"] These two factors contributing to incentives for first use are objective features of a given crisis. However, they can only affect the dynamics of a crisis if they are perceived to exist by the leaders involved. If leaders do not perceive that first use could provide significant political advantages in a crisis or conflict, those incentives will not affect crisis dynamics. We therefore code crises in which either side lacks a secure second strike capability and/or has an asymmetric escalation posture and in which one or both leaders perceive that nuclear first use may offer substantial political benefits within the crisis as being characterized by incentives to use nuclear weapons first. That is to say, crises in which either side has and perceives incentives for nuclear first use are coded as having incentives for first nuclear use. The second dimension is the extent to which a crisis is controllable by the actors participating in the crisis. Controllability refers to the ability of leaders to make conscious and strategic decisions to determine the level of escalation in a given crisis. It is important to note that crisis controllability does not refer to the level of escalation that occurs. A crisis can escalate to (and beyond) the nuclear threshold in a controlled fashion, i.e., in a process in which each leader makes a conscious and deliberate strategic calculation to escalate at every stage. Controllability instead refers to the process by which escalation occurs — to whatever level.[18] We code crisis controllability on the basis of a number of features of a crisis. These features are not intended to be an exhaustive list of factors contributing to crisis controllability, but rather a series of indicators that can be observed and that influence crisis controllability in important ways. First, different states have different command and control arrangements, which means that leaders exercise different levels of control over nuclear use.[19] For example, a crisis in which both leaders have exclusive authority to make decisions about nuclear use, and robust institutions exist that enforce that authority even in crisis situations, thereby minimizing the risk of accidental or inadvertent use, is more controllable than one without such checks. Second, clear and mutually understood red lines for nuclear use, if they exist, can increase controllability, since they reduce the likelihood that a state will accidentally cross another state’s red line for nuclear use.[20] Third, if a state’s conventional forces are likely to target forces relevant to the adversary’s ability to use nuclear weapons, or if forces relevant to conventional and nuclear operations are likely to interact with each other in a crisis or military operation, crisis controllability will likely be lower.[21] Fourth, states have varying abilities to communicate with each other during crises: A crisis in which the two states have well-established avenues through which to communicate, or in which a third party can reliably convey information between two states in a crisis, may be more controllable than crises in which states communicate through unreliable or ad hoc channels or exclusively through public signaling. Further, the ability to communicate is not simply institutional: For example, certain pairs of leaders may better understand or empathize with each other than others, improving crisis controllability.[22] It is worth noting four potential objections at this point. First, it might be objected that the two variables are not independent of each other. For example, one reason why a crisis might lack controllability is if there are incentives to use nuclear weapons first and battlefield commanders are therefore given pre-delegated authority to use nuclear weapons.[23] However, the relationship between these two variables is not determinative (as discussed above, there are many other sources of crisis controllability), and one can conceive of crises that are controllable — where there is firm control over nuclear assets, clear red lines, etc. — but in which incentives to use nuclear weapons first are nonetheless strong. These two dimensions are therefore appropriately considered separately because each exerts an independent effect on the character of nuclear crises. A second potential criticism is that neither variable accounts for how high the stakes of the crisis are: Shouldn’t the stakes involved affect the way a crisis plays out? As we discuss below, the stakes of the crisis can be incorporated within our framework. This is because we expect that states would be willing to enter different types of crises to protect different interests. For example, because stability-instability crises pose relatively little risk of nuclear escalation, we expect that policymakers will be more willing to enter them even over relatively unimportant stakes. By contrast, firestorm crises have a much higher risk of nuclear escalation, and we therefore expect that policymakers would only enter such crises if the most vital national interests were at risk. This has implications for understanding existing, contradictory empirical findings, which we discuss more fully in the following sections. Third, some might ask if these are the only two variables that matter. Probably not. As mentioned above, this framework represents a first step in exploring the variation among nuclear crises, but additional variables likely affect how individual crises play out, including perceptual, bureaucratic, normative, and technological variables. Exploring whether adding additional variables sheds greater light on the heterogeneity of nuclear crises would be a valuable avenue for future research and one that we return to in the conclusion. A fourth objection could concern the fact that these variables are determined by objective features of a given crisis, which may be imperfectly known or misperceived by participants at the time of the crisis: Is this not problematic for our analysis? The framework we offer allows for an initial disaggregation of nuclear crises that permits us to begin exploring their diversity and includes leaders’ perceptions of incentives for nuclear first use. This represents an advance on prior literature, but is only a first step. While these objective features of the crisis should be expected to exert a profound influence on the nature of the crisis, even if they are not known or fully understood by policymakers, further incorporation of policymakers’ perceptions and misperceptions could add richness to our framework and would be a productive next step. Indeed, policymakers’ misperceptions of (or uncertainty about) these variables may add explanatory power to our framework by allowing us to better account for miscalculations that states make within crises. For example, Pakistan might have been less willing to provoke the Kargil War had it known that the crisis would be primarily determined by the conventional balance of forces, which favored India. As shown in Figure 1, these two variables create a conceptual space within which existing models of nuclear crisis can be situated. We highlight four models that correspond to the quadrants of this conceptual space. Of course, each model represents an “ideal type.” More types of crisis exist in the conceptual space between these four possibilities.   Figure 1: Models of Nuclear Crises     The four models we identify offer very different interpretations of nuclear crises. Indeed, they suggest different answers to four basic questions about such crises: How likely is nuclear use within a crisis? Does the conventional or nuclear balance have a stronger effect on the outcome? Is nuclear superiority valuable within a crisis? And how feasible is signaling within a crisis? Table 2 summarizes the differences between these four models. The following sections of the paper describe these differences in more detail.   Table 2: Answers to Key Questions About Nuclear Crises [table id=16 /] Stability-Instability Crises Crises that are controllable and have limited incentives for nuclear first use are “stability-instability” crises. This model approximates Glenn Snyder’s view of nuclear weapons. Snyder famously suggested that “the greater the stability of the ‘strategic’ balance of terror, the lower the stability of the overall balance at its lower levels of violence. …Thus firm stability in the strategic nuclear balance tends to destabilize the conventional balance.”[24] Jervis describes the same idea: “To the extent that the military balance is stable at the level of all-out nuclear war, it will become less stable at lower levels of violence.”[25] We should not expect nuclear powers, according to this view, to fight all-out nuclear wars, but they may engage in more lower-level conflicts. Similarly, for scholars who argue that a powerful taboo inhibits nuclear use, crises between nuclear states will be characterized by a clear prohibition against nuclear use, and relative freedom to engage in conventional escalation.[26] The possibility of nuclear escalation within stability-instability crises is low. Even in stability-instability crises that escalate significantly, actors are likely to remain confident that the nuclear threshold will not be breached. Since the risk of nuclear use is low and relatively constant across crises of this sort, we expect the nuclear balance to be unrelated to the outcomes of stability-instability crises, and nuclear weapons will not regularly enter the calculations of leaders in these crises. The outcomes of stability-instability crises will instead be determined by other factors, such as the conventional military balance. Finally, signaling is feasible within stability-instability crises, since the two sides can calibrate their forces and level of conventional escalation to send signals about their political interests. However, since nuclear use is viewed by both sides as unlikely, making nuclear threats will not generally be credible within this type of crisis. Stability-instability crises are therefore relatively safe, at least in terms of the risk of nuclear escalation, and we therefore expect to see statesmen being more willing to enter this type of crisis than others that pose greater risk of nuclear escalation. We also expect stability-instability crises to be relatively common within datasets of crises, a point that has implications for interpreting contradictory empirical findings in existing literature. We argue below that the recent Doklam crisis between India and China is best categorized as a stability-instability crisis. Staircase Crises We term a crisis that is controllable but in which there are incentives for nuclear first use as a “staircase” crisis. This model approximates the view of escalation that Hermann Kahn offers in his book, On Escalation, and emphasizes deliberate, calibrated escalation. Despite the deliberate and conscious way in which escalation occurs according to this model, escalation to and beyond the nuclear threshold is possible given that states may have incentives to use nuclear weapons first, or to use them in a deliberately limited way. In Kahn’s formulation, the first use of nuclear weapons can serve a range of political purposes, including “redressive, warning, bargaining, punitive, fining, or deterrence purposes.”[27] Even apparently accidental nuclear use may, in fact, be deliberate, resulting from a desire to “give the impression that [nuclear] use was unintentional.”[28] In short, according to the staircase model of nuclear escalation, deliberate first nuclear use is highly plausible. [quote id="2"] What determines victory in a staircase crisis? All staircase crises have a nuclear dimension: Escalation to the nuclear level is always feasible and may be deliberately chosen, making nuclear use plausible. However, we expect the degree to which nuclear weapons weigh on the minds of participants in staircase crises to vary according to the level of escalation reached: Because of the significance of nuclear use and the many less escalatory options states typically have available to them before resorting to this extreme level of force, a staircase crisis is unlikely to suddenly escalate across the nuclear threshold without prior conventional escalation. For this reason, staircase crises that do not escalate close to the nuclear level may be determined almost entirely by the conventional balance of power, while those that escalate closer to, or beyond, the nuclear threshold are likely to be determined more by the nuclear balance. Because crises that operate according to the staircase model are, by definition, characterized by high levels of controllability, escalation and de-escalation within such a crisis is possible: Escalation levels can be controlled and calibrated, and signaling by using both nuclear and conventional forces is feasible. Lastly, because a staircase crisis may be determined by the nuclear balance, and because limited nuclear use is plausible, both nuclear superiority and limited nuclear options may well be of value to states engaging in a crisis of this sort. Indeed, calls for “escalation dominance” by policymakers — that is, the ability to deter an adversary at every rung of the escalation ladder — draw implicitly on the staircase model since they assume that escalation occurs as a conscious and strategic choice at each level of escalation. Staircase crises are dangerous and states are therefore unlikely to enter them over trivial matters, although they may be willing to enter them when important national interests are at stake. We would therefore expect staircase crises to be rarer than stability-instability crises, but more common than firestorm crises. We argue below that the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan is best categorized as a staircase crisis. Brinkmanship Crises We label crises that are characterized by limited incentives to use nuclear weapons first and low levels of controllability as “brinkmanship” crises. This model approximates the views of Thomas Schelling, who emphasized the political utility of “threats that leave something to chance” under circumstances in which deliberate first nuclear use is not credible.[29] Similarly, scholars of the “nuclear revolution,” such as Kenneth Waltz, Charles Glaser, and Robert Jervis, also view nuclear crises in this way, although such scholars tend to be more cautious than Schelling about the possibility of using the political leverage that comes from the manipulation of nuclear risk. In this model, states may take steps to escalate a conflict, but those steps are unlikely to involve deliberate first nuclear use, which is not typically credible in brinkmanship crises given low incentives to use nuclear weapons first. As Schelling argued, “There is just no foreseeable route by which the United States and the Soviet Union could become engaged in a major war.”[30] Similarly, for scholars of the “nuclear revolution” school, because achieving a reliable first-strike counterforce capability is extremely difficult compared to the relative ease of achieving a second-strike capability, the incentives for using nuclear weapons first in a crisis are small. States will not lose the ability to retaliate by delaying the use of nuclear weapons, and can still cause enormous destruction even after absorbing a first strike. The lack of incentives for nuclear first use, however, “does not mean that a major nuclear war cannot occur.”[31] Schelling describes the process of escalation as one in which “either side can take steps—engaging in a limited war would usually be such a step—that genuinely raise the probability of a blow-up. …What makes [these steps] significant and usable is that they create a genuine risk…that the thing will blow up for reasons not fully under control.”[32] For Schelling, this possibility is what gives nuclear-armed actors political leverage even in the absence of incentives for nuclear first use. For scholars in the “nuclear revolution” camp, the possibility of uncontrolled nuclear escalation is why nuclear-armed states should avoid challenging each other’s vital interests. What dynamics underpin a brinkmanship crisis? First, as with the staircase model, all brinkmanship crises involve some risk of nuclear escalation. However, nuclear escalation is only likely as part of a process of uncontrolled escalation. What determines the outcome of a brinkmanship crisis? Because the manipulation of the risk of uncontrolled escalation is the primary source of political leverage within brinkmanship crises, outcomes are determined by “competitions in risk taking” and by the “balance of resolve” rather than by the conventional or nuclear balance (the conventional or nuclear balance could affect crisis outcomes by affecting resolve).[33] Signaling and escalation are possible, but we should expect significant conventional escalation within brinkmanship crises to be accompanied by fear that uncontrolled nuclear escalation might occur. Nuclear crises of this sort are therefore dangerous for statesmen to enter into, but they may be willing to do so when the stakes are high, i.e., to secure important national interests. We should therefore expect that brinkmanship crises will occur less frequently than stability-instability crises, but more frequently than firestorm crises, as we discuss next. We argue below that the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded according to this logic. Firestorm Crises We label crises where there are both incentives for nuclear first use and low levels of controllability as “firestorm” crises. A firestorm crisis is the most dangerous and volatile type of crisis: Both deliberate and uncontrolled escalation to the nuclear level might occur even in the absence of significant prior escalation. The fear of a firestorm crisis has played an important role in public discourse and policy discussions throughout the nuclear age. For example, the fear of nuclear “sneak attacks” had strong domestic political salience during the early years of the Cold War.[34] Indeed, early U.S. assessments of the political implications of nuclear weapons viewed them as offensive weapons that would be used to land the first blows of any potential third world war. The desire to prevent a “nuclear Pearl Harbor” was one motivation for the United States abandoning its isolationist tendencies in the aftermath of World War II. Similarly, “worst-case” scenarios in which “rogue states” acquire nuclear weapons draw on the possibility that irrational or religiously motivated states might attack other states out of the blue — for example, that Iran might seek to “wipe Israel off the map” if it acquired nuclear weapons. How do firestorm crises unfold? First, the possibility of nuclear escalation is high: A firestorm crisis could escalate at any moment and without significant prior escalation, which, in turn, encourages crisis participants to be deeply fearful and increases the temptation to take pre-emptive action. Signaling is likely to be difficult given the instability of such a crisis and the speed with which it can escalate. Indeed, crisis participants should be well aware that early blows in any crisis might in fact be nuclear. Because this type of crisis is prone to escalate to the nuclear level swiftly, the nuclear balance is likely to ultimately determine the outcome to a greater degree than the conventional balance. Thus nuclear superiority may be useful to states. Crises of this sort are extremely dangerous, and we therefore expect that statesmen will only enter them to achieve absolutely vital national interests. Because of these dangers, we also expect that firestorm crises will be the most rarely observed type of nuclear crisis. We argue below that future crises between the United States and North Korea would likely unfold according to this model’s logic.

Historical Crises: The Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kargil War

We first examine the utility of our typology using the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis between the United States and Soviet Union, and the 1999 Kargil War between India and Pakistan. In each case, we analyze incentives for first nuclear use and crisis controllability to show which model of nuclear crisis best applies, and the insights that it provides into the crisis. We use these cases because both are widely considered among the most important in the history of nuclear crises, both involved national interests that participants considered important, both involved an attempted fait accompli by one side followed by efforts by the other to reverse it,[35] and both crises reached high levels of military escalation. Furthermore, recent work on nuclear crises explicitly seeks to account for the dynamics of these two cases with a single explanation.[36] As a result, we might expect that these two crises would be more likely than most pairs of nuclear crises to share similar dynamics. If we can show that even these two crises — ostensibly more similar than many others — differed in ways that our framework sheds light on, it would provide significant validation for our approach. The Kargil War The disputed region of Kashmir has been a source of friction between Pakistan and India since their partition in 1947.[37] Control over the territory is split, with a Line of Control (LoC) demarcating the territorial status quo. India has long viewed the territory as an integral part of the Indian Union, while the Pakistani government contends that Kashmir’s accession to India was unlawful and has sought the eventual “liberation” of Indian Kashmir. In May 1999, one year after Pakistan and India publicly tested nuclear weapons, the Pakistani North Light Infantry, backed by guerrillas, mounted an incursion along the LoC, with the aim of presenting India with a fait accompli.[38] Initial Indian attempts to dislodge Pakistani troops proved ineffective, and the Indian government granted Gen. Ved Prakash Malik, Chief of the Army Staff, the right to employ airpower in support of ground operations.[39] On May 26, the Indian military forces initiated a combined air and ground campaign resulting in intense combat.[40] By early July, Pakistan was on the brink of defeat. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, travelled to Washington D.C. to meet with U.S. President Bill Clinton, who demanded that Pakistan unconditionally withdraw and restore the ante bellum status quo. Sharif conceded to Clinton’s demands, calling for the withdrawal of all troops from the disputed region on July 12.[41] Coding the Kargil War The Kargil War was characterized by incentives to use nuclear weapons first. Specifically, Pakistan’s nuclear posture threatened first nuclear use in order to compensate for its relatively weak conventional military force.[42] Facing a conventionally stronger enemy, Pakistan had adopted a nuclear posture that integrated nuclear weapons into its military forces in order to credibly threaten a first strike against advancing Indian conventional forces.[43] At the time of the Kargil War, Pakistan had the capability to use nuclear weapons. The 1998 tests had confirmed its nuclear status, and by May 1999, Pakistan had credible delivery systems: several dozen tactical nuclear warheads that could be mated with missiles, a smaller number of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and delivery-capable aircraft.[44] Both Pakistani and Indian leaders recognized Pakistan’s incentives for nuclear first use. Upon the initiation of Indian air attacks, the Pakistani foreign secretary publicly warned New Delhi that his country “would not hesitate to use any weapons in [Pakistan’s] arsenal to defend [its territorial] integrity.”[45] According to Bruce Riedel, a senior adviser to Clinton, U.S. intelligence was aware that the Pakistani army was readying its nuclear-tipped missiles in preparation for an Indian attack across the border.[46] Indian leaders also understood Pakistani incentives for making the first nuclear move.[47] When Malik told Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee that opening a second front at the border might be militarily necessary, Vajpayee looked shocked and responded, “but General Sahib, they have a nuclear bomb!”[48] Indian National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra confirmed this fear, stating that while the Indian leadership was “95 percent sure” that its army would not need to cross the LoC, the use of “nuclear weapons would have been risked if we did.”[49] Reports of Pakistani nuclear mobilizations exacerbated these fears. During the crisis, India received intelligence reports indicating Pakistani missiles were “being readied for possible launching,”[50] and the chief of the Indian army staff after the Kargil War, Gen. Sundararajan Padmanabhan, stated that Pakistan had “activated one of its missile bases and…threatened India with a nuclear attack.”[51] Because of these reports, some of India’s missiles were “dispersed and relocated,” and India’s nuclear forces placed on “Readiness State 3,” which involved the assembly and deployment of nuclear warheads near delivery vehicles.[52] [quote id="3"] Despite incentives for nuclear first use, the Kargil War was relatively controllable for four reasons: India’s strong command and control institutions, relatively clear Pakistani red lines that India did not seek to cross, a limited geographic zone of conflict that reduced the risk of conventional and nuclear forces interacting, and well-established avenues of crisis communication. This controllability was enhanced by the active involvement of the United States in the crisis, providing additional avenues of communication and clarifying the red lines of both sides.[53] Only Pakistan’s delegative command and control institutions indicate a lack of controllability in the crisis. First, consider Pakistani and Indian command and control institutions, which have contrasting implications for controllability. On the Pakistani side, delegative command and control increases the credibility of nuclear first use and thus increases the deterrent power of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, but also raises the risk of accidental nuclear use and reduces crisis controllability.[54] Indian command and control, by contrast, increases the controllability of a crisis. Indian leaders, fearful of granting the military too much influence over nuclear matters, have consistently maintained high levels of control over the decision to use nuclear weapons. Indian nuclear weapons are maintained in a manner that limits inadvertent or unauthorized use: The civilian department of atomic energy controls fissile materials, while delivery vehicles are held in separate locations and controlled by the military.[55] Second, Pakistani red lines for nuclear use were relatively clear. Specifically, as long as Indian forces did not cross the LoC, the risk of Pakistani nuclear use would remain low. The Pakistani army’s director of strategic plans division, Khalid Kidwai, had publicly outlined scenarios in which first use would occur: “If India conquered a large part of Pakistan’s territory, destroyed a large part of its military forces, strangled Pakistan economically or caused large scale internal subversion in Pakistan.”[56] Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf claims that whenever he met with a foreign leader, “I asked him to convey my message…that if [Indian] troops took even a step across the international border of the LoC…it will not remain a conventional war.”[57] This message was well understood by Indian leaders. As we discuss further below, India was careful not to cross Pakistan’s key red line for nuclear use, even though it would have been to their military advantage to do so. Third, the limited geographic range of the conflict meant that the likelihood of nuclear and conventional forces interacting was low. While both sides took steps to increase the alert status of their nuclear forces, neither sides’ nuclear forces, nor the command and control centers necessary to use nuclear weapons, were close to the conflict zone. As long as India eschewed opening a second front in the war, or invading Pakistani territory, the possibility of Indian conventional forces placing Pakistani commanders under pressure to “use or lose” their nuclear assets was low. Fourth, the existence of official and back-channel negotiations between India and Pakistan, along with the involvement of numerous outside countries — the United States, China, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and Saudi Arabia — seeking to facilitate a negotiated solution also enhanced controllability. Regular calls between Indian and Pakistani leaders, a hotline link between the two directors of general military operations, and the additional channels of communication provided by outside parties created many opportunities for de-escalation during the crisis.[58] Predictions The Kargil War was characterized by incentives for first nuclear use and high levels of crisis controllability, and is therefore best understood as a staircase crisis. Based on this assessment, what dynamics should we expect to see in the case? First, because the crisis did not come close to the nuclear threshold, we should expect that the conventional balance would determine the outcome of the war, rather than the nuclear balance or balance of resolve. Second, the primary danger of nuclear use should be expected to have come from deliberate first nuclear use rather than uncontrolled escalation. Third, signaling should have been feasible within the crisis.[59] As predicted, the conventional military balance does appear to explain the outcome of the conflict: Pakistan was on the verge of conventional military defeat when Pakistani leaders acceded to U.S. demands to withdraw their forces, and once India was able to build up its forces sufficiently, it experienced increasing success in pushing Pakistani forces back toward the Line of Control.[60] This occurred despite India restraining its conventional operations in various ways in order to prevent crossing Pakistan’s red lines for nuclear use. By contrast, and as anticipated by the framework we offer, neither the nuclear balance nor the balance of resolve appears to satisfactorily explain India’s ability to prevail in the crisis. The balance of resolve likely favored Pakistan given its consistently more risk-acceptant and revisionist foreign policy preferences, as evidenced by Pakistan’s decision to initiate the crisis in the first place. The nuclear balance was highly ambiguous at the time of the war and it is unlikely that either side could have known its opponent’s nuclear capabilities with much certainty. The Kargil War took place in the immediate aftermath of both countries conducting nuclear tests. Assessments at that time acknowledged the difficulty of estimating the India-Pakistan nuclear balance, with continued debate about whether India’s thermonuclear test “fizzled,” how much fissile material both states possessed, and how many weapons both sides had developed.[61] Even Kroenig, who argues that India had nuclear superiority and that this mattered in the crisis, acknowledges that “it is difficult to know the precise nuclear balance of power” in this case.[62] Indeed, the evidence that Kroenig uses to support his claim that the balance of nuclear power mattered for the outcome is that Pakistan ultimately backed down in the crisis, and that Indian officials stated subsequent to the war that Pakistan would be hurt more by a nuclear exchange than India. However, Indian officials would have strong incentives to make such public statements about the effects of a hypothetical nuclear exchange whether or not they were true.[63] Moreover, Pakistan’s behavior in the crisis is also consistent with the conventional balance determining the outcome. Overall, it is hard to make a strong case that nuclear superiority played a key role in determining the outcome of the Kargil War. The key danger of nuclear use was seen by participants on both sides to be Pakistan’s deliberate first use rather than uncontrolled or unauthorized nuclear use. As mentioned above, a key dynamic of the conflict was India ensuring that its forces did not cross the LoC to avoid provoking Pakistan’s deliberate first use of nuclear weapons. Upon granting the Indian army authority to use Indian air force assets at the end of May, the Indian government stipulated that “the air force refrain from crossing the LoC in pursuit of its goals.” India was clear that the Indian army not enlarge “the theater of operations beyond the Kargil sector or…attack Pakistani forces, staging posts, and lines of communications across the LoC, despite the fact that this…entailed the acceptance of heavier casualties.”[64] This restriction remained in place despite substantial Indian casualties and the fact that it would have been tactically useful for India to enlarge the conflict zone to spread out Pakistani forces.[65] This restraint is especially notable given previous Indian responses to Pakistani incursions in both 1965 and 1971, when Indian forces showed little hesitation in invading Pakistan.[66] Both sides in the war were also able to signal their limited intentions, as our framework would anticipate in a staircase crisis. On the Pakistani side, the military took a number of measures to signal limited intentions: Pakistan withheld reserve forces, refrained from the use of air power across the LoC, and did not attempt to cut off the Indian highway in Kargil on the assumption that taking such action “would have far-reaching strategic effects” and risk Indian escalation.[67] Similarly, Pakistan made clear nuclear threats to signal to India that they should avoid broad retaliation. On the Indian side, policymakers deliberately chose not to open a second front of the war or cross the LoC, signaling their limited political goals and lack of interest in a broader war. Overall, therefore, viewing the Kargil War as a staircase crisis accounts for the key dynamics of the case. Cuban Missile Crisis The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis is widely considered the most dangerous crisis of the Cold War. After detecting the movement of Soviet ships toward Cuba and the development of missile sites, President John F. Kennedy called up 150,000 reservists and issued statements on Sept. 4 and Sept. 13, 1962, warning that the United States “would do whatever must be done” to protect its security.[68] On October 22, Kennedy announced that a naval quarantine would be established around Cuba.[69] Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev responded by issuing a stern note to Kennedy and instructing Soviet ships headed for Cuba to run the blockade. By October 26, however, Khrushchev’s resolve had waned. Kennedy received a letter from Khrushchev offering to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for an end to the blockade and a U.S. assurance that it would not invade Cuba, with a second letter the next day adding a further condition: the removal of U.S. Jupiter missiles from Turkey. Kennedy publicly accepted the terms of the first letter, while in private agreeing to Khrushchev’s demand to remove the Jupiter missiles.[70] On October 28, Khrushchev notified the United States that he had ordered work on the Cuban missile sites to cease and all equipment shipped back to the Soviet Union. The blockade was lifted on November 20, marking the end of the crisis. Coding the Cuban Missile Crisis We argue that the Cuban Missile Crisis was not characterized by incentives for deliberate first nuclear use, despite the United States possessing significant nuclear superiority. In the early 1960s, the United States could have launched 1,000 to 2,000 nuclear warheads at the Soviet Union, the majority of which would have been delivered by over 500 bombers and 200 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, had only 160 bombers to carry around 260 nuclear warheads, 38 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 48 nuclear-missile-armed submarines.[71] Despite America’s nuclear superiority, it was not clear that either a disarming first strike or politically meaningful damage limitation was possible. The U.S. government did not know where all of the Soviet warheads were located, and there were concerns that U.S. forces were too inaccurate to successfully target the Soviet arsenal. According to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, by 1962 the United States knew that it could not deliver a “splendid first strike,” and that a U.S. first strike “would have led to unacceptably high casualties both in Europe and in the United States” and “destroyed us as well as the Soviets.”[72] McNamara’s recollection is consistent with a briefing that Kennedy received in 1961 from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which assessed that “under any circumstances—even [in the case of] a pre-emptive attack by the U.S.—it would be expected that some portion of the Soviet long-range nuclear force would strike the United States.”[73] [quote id="4"] Whether such advantages were perceived as politically meaningful within the Cuban Missile Crisis itself is debateable. Certainly, several key U.S. leaders believed that nuclear superiority conferred political advantages to the United States within the crisis.[74] However, this superiority was not absolute, and, crucially, the key leader — Kennedy — was skeptical both that U.S. nuclear superiority granted such benefits and that nuclear first use would offer the United States meaningful damage limitation, stating, “What difference does it make? They’ve got enough to blow us up now anyway.”[75] Similarly, the Soviet Union had little incentive to use nuclear weapons first. A first strike by the Soviets aimed at damage limitation was implausible: A speech delivered by Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric on Oct. 21, 1961, confirmed that the Soviet Union was behind the United States in the nuclear arms race, and that the United States could endure a Soviet surprise attack and still inflict mass damage on the Soviet Union.[76] U.S. superiority was not, however, sufficient to cast doubt on the Soviets’ own ability to inflict significant destruction on the United States after absorbing a first strike. Moscow was therefore unlikely to face pressures to “use them or lose them” during a crisis. “Missiles are not cucumbers,” Khrushchev quipped, “one cannot eat them and one does not require more than a certain number in order to ward off an attack.”[77] The Cuban Missile Crisis was, however, characterized by low controllability. Indeed, each of our four indicators of this variable suggests low levels of crisis controllability. First, both U.S. and Soviet command and control institutions governing nuclear weapons suffered from significant shortcomings. On the U.S. side, a series of breakdowns of command and communication could have led to accidental nuclear use or other actions that could have triggered escalation. As Scott Sagan concludes, Kennedy “did not…have unchallenged final control over U.S. nuclear weapons.”[78] For example, navigational errors by U.S. pilots led one B-52 to come close to penetrating Soviet airspace and possibly coming within range of Soviet interceptors.[79] Similarly, the U-2 incident at the height of the crisis could easily have led to nuclear escalation: After the American U-2 reconnaissance plane strayed into Soviet airspace, U.S. F-102s armed with nuclear-tipped missiles and possessing the authorization to use them were sent to defend the U-2 from Soviet fighter jets. At that point, the “decision about whether to use a nuclear weapon was in the hands of a pilot.”[80] Beyond these institutional deficiencies, many of the safety features that now exist to prevent accidental explosions had not yet been developed. Benoît Pelopidas notes that in the early 1960s, merely “pull[ing] the arming wires out of a Mark 7 nuclear warhead” would trigger the arming sequence, and that “if the X-Unit charged, a Mark 7 could be detonated by its radar, by its barometric switches, by its timer, or by falling…and landing on a runway.”[81] Moreover, readiness was privileged over safety during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For example, when Strategic Air Command went to DEFCON 2, safety rules had not yet been approved for the B-53 gravity bomb. Strategic Air Command (with the support of the Air Force Chief of Staff) nonetheless requested approval for these non-approved bombs to be loaded onto bombers.[82] Command and control arrangements on the Soviet side also led to the possibility of unauthorized nuclear use. Most notably, Soviet submarines were loaded with nuclear-tipped torpedoes and at least one captain reported that the Cuban Missile Crisis represented his first experience on board a ship carrying nuclear weapons.[83] The authorization to use nuclear weapons appears to have been granted to commanders and included the instructions, “if you get…a hole in your hull… use the nuclear weapons first, and then you will figure out what to do after that.”[84] The Soviets may also have believed that their submarines were less likely to provoke escalation than they really were since the Soviet leadership was unaware that the deployed submarines were the noisier and slower diesel submarines in their fleet that were more likely to be located. Indeed, nuclear launch came close to occurring: The commander of one submarine, which was being targeted with depth charges by U.S. anti-submarine warfare ships, interpreted the explosions of the depth charges as an attack and ordered his officers to ready the submarine’s nuclear torpedoes for use, apparently screaming that “we will die but we will sink them all.”[85] America’s understanding of these risks was limited. The United States was unaware that Soviet submarines were armed with nuclear missiles, and lacked certainty about Soviet command and control more broadly. During a conversation with Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara acknowledged not knowing “what kinds of communications the Soviets have with those sites…what kinds of control they have over the warheads.”[86] Second, the U.S. and Soviet red lines for nuclear escalation were unclear to both sides at the outset of the crisis. The Soviet Union misjudged America’s red lines by placing missiles in Cuba in the first place. Khrushchev initially believed that once the missiles were installed in Cuba the United States would be unwilling to risk war to remove them.[87] This belief was overturned, however, as Khrushchev became deeply concerned by U.S. mobilizations and nuclear alerts, writing to Kennedy on October 26 of the tightening “knot of war” and the difficulty of de-escalating hostilities.[88] Khrushchev’s concern increased further on October 27 with news that a Soviet commander in Cuba had shot down an American U-2 plane without his authorization, and that Cuban leader Fidel Castro was advocating a nuclear strike against the United States.[89] Similarly, the United States was unsure what military actions might trigger Soviet escalations: U.S. officials were divided over the significance the Soviets attached to missiles in Cuba, and what the Soviets might be willing to risk to avoid removing them. Similarly, U.S. officials assumed that the Soviet Union would respond if the United States attacked Cuba but were unsure what form those reprisals would take and whether they might lead to general war or a more limited Soviet response. Indeed, officials in the Executive Committee of the National Security Council made a range of arguments regarding the relative likelihood of different Soviet responses should the United States invade Cuba[90] Third, conventional and nuclear forces interacted during the crisis on multiple occasions in ways that reduced the controllability of the crisis and raised the risk of nuclear use. As discussed above, Soviet submarines could have launched nuclear weapons while under pressure from conventional U.S. anti-submarine warfare assets unaware that they were engaging nuclear-armed Soviet submarines. On the U.S. side, the F-102s sent to retrieve and escort the U-2 inadvertently flying into Soviet airspace could have launched their own nuclear weapons while under pressure from Soviet fighters. This interaction between nuclear and conventional forces raised the risk of inadvertent escalation and reduced the controllability of the crisis. Fourth, crisis communication between the United States and Soviet Union was widely recognized to be problematic, leading to the establishment of the U.S.-Soviet “hotline” in 1963. Official messages took six hours to deliver, while unofficial channels were prone to miscommunication. The confusion that resulted from contrasting letters sent by Khrushchev on October 26 and 27 exemplifies the problematic nature of crisis communication. Kennedy received a letter offering to remove the missiles from Cuba and to cease further shipments in exchange for ending the quarantine and a non-invasion pledge. This message took twelve hours to receive and decode. By the time a reply had been drafted, a second letter had arrived in which Khrushchev added a further condition: the removal of Jupiter missiles in Turkey. Puzzled by the shifting demands, Kennedy publicly accepted the terms of the first letter, while privately agreeing to remove the Jupiter missiles.[91] Predictions The Cuban Missile Crisis exhibited few incentives to use nuclear weapons first and low levels of crisis controllability. It is therefore best understood as a “brinkmanship” crisis. What dynamics should we therefore expect to see in this case? First, we should expect the crisis to have been primarily characterized by the manipulation of risk, with the conventional or nuclear balance affecting the crisis outcome in less direct ways. Second, the primary danger of nuclear use should be expected to have come from uncontrolled nuclear escalation rather than deliberate first nuclear use. Third, signaling should have been feasible within the crisis.[92] These predictions are, indeed, confirmed. First, scholars have often been skeptical that U.S. nuclear or conventional military superiority in the region affected the outcome in a direct way, and if it did affect the outcome, that it did so by affecting U.S. resolve and willingness to manipulate risk.[93] There is indeed evidence that some of Kennedy’s advisors believed that U.S. nuclear superiority should factor into their calculations.[94] However, as discussed above, Kennedy himself seems to have been disinclined to draw comfort (or courage) from U.S. nuclear advantages. Historians have largely shared this assessment: Marc Trachtenberg concludes that “there is no evidence that President Kennedy and his advisers counted missiles, bombers, and warheads, and decided on that basis to take a tough line,” while James Cameron shows that, despite Kennedy having come to power railing against the (fictional) missile gap with the Soviet Union, once in office, he viewed U.S. nuclear superiority as largely useless.[95] As veterans of the crisis McNamara, Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Ted Sorensen, Roswell Gilpatric, and George Ball later commented, “American nuclear superiority was not in our view a critical factor…Not one of us ever reviewed the nuclear balance for comfort in those hard weeks. The Cuban missile crisis illustrates…the insignificance of nuclear superiority.”[96] Although the United States succeeded in achieving its goals once the crisis had begun, and is therefore often (and reasonably) understood to have “won” the crisis,[97] the actual result of the crisis — a quid pro quo that left the Soviets better off than the pre-crisis status quo[98] — seems inconsistent with both American strategic nuclear superiority as well as U.S. conventional superiority in the region. Instead, as Schelling argues, the crisis is best understood as a case of states manipulating risk: “The Cuban Crisis was a contest in risk taking, involving steps that would have made no sense if they led predictably and ineluctably to a major war, yet would also have made no sense if they were completely without danger.”[99] Our argument does not require nuclear superiority to have had no effect during the crisis. For example, as discussed above, nuclear superiority could affect risk tolerance or resolve within the framework of brinkmanship crises. Nonetheless, the brinkmanship model accurately captures the key dynamic — the manipulation of risk — of the Cuban Missile Crisis. [quote id="5"] Second, historians, political scientists, and participants in the crisis agree that the primary danger of the Cuban Missile Crisis was uncontrolled escalation rather than deliberate first nuclear use. As a group of former officials from the Executive Committee of the National Security Council later recalled, “The gravest risk in this crisis was not that either head of government desired to initiate a major escalation but that events would produce actions, reactions, or miscalculations carrying the conflict beyond the control of one or the other or both.”[100] Similarly, scholars have repeatedly emphasized the importance of luck in preventing nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. For example, Sagan writes that “good luck [was] involved in avoiding accidental war in October 1962”, while Dean Acheson concluded that the peaceful resolution of the crisis came down to “dumb luck.”[101] Len Scott and Steve Smith write that “the fact that the crisis did not lead to nuclear war was due…to good luck,” while Pelopidas concludes that the “peaceful outcome cannot be reduced to successful, fully informed crisis-management.”[102] The brinkmanship model, by emphasizing the dangers of uncontrolled escalation, sheds light on why luck was required to peacefully negotiate the Cuban Missile Crisis. Third, as anticipated, both sides engaged in signaling and escalation using conventional military forces and the alerting of nuclear forces, behaviors that the brinkmanship model would anticipate. American officials “were willing during the crisis to accept a certain risk of nuclear war; and…the risk of nuclear war was consciously manipulated.”[103] Military deployments and alerts were ordered less because of their narrow military utility but more as measures to signal U.S. intentions and raise the risk of war. For example, McNamara argued that the point of the blockade “was not to shoot Russians but to communicate a political message from President Kennedy to Premier Khrushchev.”[104] Throughout the crisis, the United States used escalatory measures as signaling mechanisms: When Kennedy addressed the nation on October 22, for example, U.S. nuclear forces were placed on DEFCON 3 alert, Polaris submarines moved out of their ports to pre-assigned stations, and U.S. military commands throughout the world increased levels of readiness for war.[105] On October 24, Kennedy made the unprecedented decision to raise the nuclear threat level to DEFCON 2 — one level short of general war.[106] On October 27, Minuteman solid fuel missiles were placed on alert at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.[107] As Gen. David Burchinal, the director of plans on the Air Staff, recalled in an oral history, “All these moves were signals the Soviets could see and we knew they could see them.”[108] Overall, viewing the Cuban Missile Crisis as a brinkmanship crisis accurately captures key dynamics of the case.

Contemporary and Future Crises: Doklam and U.S.-North Korea

Our framework therefore sheds light on prominent historical crises. Accounting for the heterogeneity of nuclear crises allows us to understand key differences between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kargil War better than a single model of nuclear crisis. What, then, does the framework offered here suggest about more contemporary crises? In this section, we briefly use our framework to shed light on the 2017 Doklam crisis between India and China and a potential U.S.-North Korean crisis. The Doklam Crisis The 2017 Doklam crisis between India and China — a standoff over disputed territory where the borders between China, India, and Bhutan intersect — would be classified as a stability-instability crisis according to our framework.[109] First, neither side had strong incentives for first nuclear use: Both India and China had relatively small nuclear arsenals, geographically large territories and dispersed populations, longstanding no-first-use policies, and nuclear postures that are designed to credibly threaten retaliation in the aftermath of a nuclear attack rather than first use.[110] Second, the crisis was characterized by high levels of controllability: Neither sides’ nuclear weapons were close to the conflict zone, both countries’ nuclear postures made unauthorized or accidental nuclear use unlikely, high levels of communication between the two sides existed throughout the crisis, and each country’s declaratory no-first-use policy made it highly unlikely that either side would accidentally stumble over the other’s red lines for nuclear use.[111] Indeed, viewing the crisis as a stability-instability crisis appears to correctly account for key dynamics of this case. Despite the relatively high levels of military escalation — hundreds of troops were deployed to the region — there was little fear by either side that nuclear weapons would be used. Signaling took place using conventional troop deployments but without using nuclear threats. The outcome of the crisis — a return to the status quo desired by India and Bhutan — appears consistent with the conventional balance given India’s “unique hard power advantages in the Himalayan region.”[112] Finally, viewing the Doklam standoff as a stability-instability crisis provides an explanation for why China was prepared to provoke a crisis with another nuclear-armed state over relatively low stakes: Stability-instability crises are relatively “safe” in terms of the risk of nuclear escalation, and states should therefore be willing to provoke them to secure even relatively limited interests. A Possible U.S.-North Korean Crisis Finally, what does our framework suggest about a potential U.S.-North Korea crisis? Both sides in a potential U.S.-North Korea nuclear crisis might be incentivized to use nuclear weapons first.[113] This is both because North Korea appears to be adopting an asymmetric escalation posture and because of the significant disparities between the nuclear capabilities of the two sides, which means that North Korea plausibly lacks a secure second-strike capability. For North Korea, using nuclear weapons early in a conventional conflict might be the only way to prevent a conventional defeat by a far more powerful enemy or to make the United States think twice about pursuing regime change.[114] As Vipin Narang argues, North Korea’s nuclear strategy appears to be one of asymmetric escalation: threatening nuclear first use to degrade a conventional invasion while retaining longer-range nuclear missiles to deter nuclear retaliation by the United States. Narang notes that,
faced with the prospect of a U.S.-led invasion, Pyongyang’s conventional inferiority requires it to degrade the United States’ ability to sustain the attack against it. This means it essentially has no option but to use nuclear weapons first against targets such as Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, which stations American bombers, and a variety of allied bases in Japan and South Korea. North Korea has to use nuclear weapons there because it does not have enough conventional warheads to damage the bases meaningfully; a conventional response would not slow or stop a U.S. onslaught.[115]
The United States may also face temptations for first nuclear use.[116] A nuclear counterforce strike might be crucial to removing North Korea’s ability to retaliate against South Korea or Japan (or the United States): The imperative to destroy North Korean offensive capabilities could thus lead to the temptation to use nuclear weapons first and early in a conflict. As David Barno and Nora Bensahel argue, only a “surprise nuclear strike provides a decisive option. There is simply no other way to destroy North Korea’s nuclear capabilities while minimizing the risk of massive conventional or nuclear retaliation.”[117] Barry Posen, in arguing against a U.S. war with North Korea, acknowledges that “a surprise American nuclear attack would offer the greatest chance of eliminating the North Korean nuclear arsenal and of preventing a conventional counterattack,” making it a potentially attractive option if war was deemed inevitable or necessary by U.S. planners.[118] Moreover, recent scholarship has suggested that some impediments to U.S. nuclear use may be weaker than anticipated. For example, the U.S. public may, in fact, be willing to endorse nuclear use under a wide range of scenarios.[119] Similarly, Daryl Press and Kier Lieber argue that a nuclear counterforce attack against North Korea could potentially be conducted with minimal casualties and limited environmental consequences.[120] In short, both sides in a potential U.S.-North Korean crisis could plausibly perceive incentives for first nuclear use. Furthermore, a crisis between the United States and North Korea would likely have low levels of controllability:[121] The robustness of North Korea’s command and control systems is unknown and would likely be aggressively targeted in the initial stages of any military confrontation; there are few institutionalized avenues for crisis negotiation or communication between the two sides; North Korea’s or America’s red lines for nuclear use are unclear and ambiguous; and while any nuclear use would likely be limited on the U.S. side given the small geographic territory of North Korea, North Korea’s small arsenal makes it more likely that it would have to quickly use all weapons at its disposal in order to try to respond to any U.S. first strike.[122] If our assessment of incentives for first use and controllability are correct, a potential crisis between the two countries would likely unfold according to the logic of the firestorm model — the most volatile and dangerous of the four models and one in which sudden and significant escalation across the nuclear threshold is possible. U.S. policymakers should therefore be under no illusions that a conventional war with North Korea will reliably remain conventional — rapid nuclear escalation is highly possible. Given the costs of such a war, avoiding any crisis with North Korea that could quickly escalate should be a higher priority for U.S. policymakers than if a potential U.S.-North Korean crisis were likely to unfold according to one of the other models of nuclear crisis.


Nuclear crises do not operate according to a single logic. Instead, the presence of incentives to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis and the degree of crisis controllability significantly affect both the way in which nuclear crises unfold and the dynamics that underpin them. Furthermore, historical crises exhibit variation on these dimensions, suggesting that the varieties of nuclear crises we identify above are not merely of hypothetical interest. In our concluding remarks, we highlight some implications and contributions of our argument. First, the framework offered here provides a simple way to assess the relative danger and likely dynamics of a potential nuclear crisis in a way that may be useful for analysts and policymakers. This framework would suggest, for example, that any crisis between the United States and North Korea would be more likely to lead to nuclear escalation and be more volatile than a crisis between the United States and China, in which there would be fewer incentives for either state to use nuclear weapons first and higher levels of controllability. Similarly, nuclear superiority may grant the United States benefits in a crisis with certain opponents, such as North Korea, but offer limited benefits in a crisis with another state, like Russia. Such insights are likely to be more tailored and, therefore, more useful to policymakers than inferences drawn from analyses that do not take into account the variation among nuclear crises. Second, our framework has implications for scholars conducting both theoretical and empirical research on nuclear crises. Theoretically, it demonstrates that seemingly divergent understandings of nuclear crises can be incorporated within a broader framework that specifies the circumstances under which each type of crisis should be expected to occur. This framework also allows scholars to make better sense of the historical diversity of nuclear crises and of conflicting findings by scholars. It makes sense that the Cuban Missile Crisis and Kargil War unfolded according to different logics. Similarly, we should not expect that other events commonly coded as nuclear crises, such as the 1970 Cienfuegos Crisis, the 2001 Indian parliament attack, or the various Berlin crises, should have unfolded in the same way. [quote id="6"] For empirical scholars, the framework may provide a way to make sense of apparently contradictory findings. Conclusions drawn from one or two cases should not necessarily be expected to apply to crises of a different type.[123] For quantitative researchers, because different types of crises may be represented to varying degrees in different datasets, it is not surprising that scholars drawing on different sources reach different conclusions. For example, the disagreement between Kroenig and Sechser and Fuhrmann over the role nuclear weapons play in nuclear crises might be accounted for if the Militarized Compellent Threat dataset that Sechser and Fuhrmann use contains a greater number of stability-instability crises (in which nuclear weapons should be expected to be unrelated to conflict outcomes) and fewer staircase or firestorm crises (in which nuclear superiority may be consequential) than the International Crisis Behavior dataset that Kroenig employs.[124] More broadly, crisis dynamics should differ systematically across different types of crises. Seeking to find, for example, the average effect of variables on crisis outcomes may be unrepresentative of the likely effects in any given crisis. Scholars should therefore be cautious about drawing conclusions about a specific crisis from scholarship that analyzes all nuclear crises without taking this variation into account.[125] Finally, the framework presented above opens up a number of avenues for future research. First, we only offered an initial examination of the utility of our framework using four cases. Future work could more systematically assess the extent to which our variables explain variation across all nuclear crises, and the relative frequency with which different types of crises occur. Second, the framework offered here provides an initial effort to explore the heterogeneity of nuclear crises. Further disaggregating nuclear crises could reveal additional insights. For example, it would be useful to incorporate literature on psychological biases and misperceptions into our framework to further problematize policymakers’ perceptions of the concepts we identify.[126] Third, it would be valuable to explore in greater depth how knowledgeable policymakers are about various features of our framework. One could imagine, for example, that some factors, like the conventional balance or an adversary’s nuclear force posture, may be more easily known by decision-makers than others, such as an adversary’s threshold for nuclear use. Similarly, it would be interesting to explore the implications when adversaries lack a common understanding of the features of a nuclear crisis — when “mismatches” emerge in adversaries’ assessments — and whether these beliefs can change over time. There may also be other variables that profoundly affect the dynamics of nuclear crises that could be profitably added to our framework to produce a richer understanding of these cases. Finally, while this paper focuses on the dynamics of nuclear crises rather than the substantive issues that underly them (for example, disputed territory in the Doklam Crisis or Kargil War, or Soviet missiles in Cuba in the Cuban Missile Crisis), it is possible that crises in the nuclear age may occur over different issues than in prior eras. Further research exploring the extent to which nuclear weapons affect the issues that states compete over would be theoretically and empirically useful. Thus, while our study offers an initial framework to allow scholars, analysts, and policymakers to begin incorporating the historical richness of nuclear crises into their analyses, it is far from the last word on the subject. Much more remains to be done to fully understand the complexity and variety of nuclear crises, and the different risks and dangers that they involve.   Acknowledgements: For helpful suggestions and comments, we thank the anonymous reviewers and editors at the Texas National Security Review. We also thank Stephen Biddle, Austin Carson, Cosette Creamer, Fiona Cunningham, Raymond Duvall, Rebecca Hersman, Sumit Ganguly, Francis Gavin, Charlie Glaser, Avery Goldstein, Brendan Green, Sameer Lalwani, Austin Long, Sean Lynn-Jones, Martin Malin, Ronald Krebs, Andrew Kydd, Nicholas Miller, Alex Montgomery, Reid Pauly, Benoît Pelopidas, Joshua Rovner, Elizabeth Saunders, Jennifer Spindel, Stephen Walt, Jessica Weeks, Sharon Weiner, Ketian Zhang, and audiences at George Washington University, Harvard Kennedy School, Princeton University, Sciences Po, the Stimson Center, the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, and annual meetings of the International Studies Association and the American Political Science Association. For excellent research assistance, we thank Sooyeon Kang.   Mark S. Bell is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. Julia Macdonald is an assistant professor of international relations at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.   Image: U.S. Air Force [post_title] => How to Think About Nuclear Crises [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => how-to-think-about-nuclear-crises [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-05-24 11:40:10 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-05-24 15:40:10 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => How dangerous are nuclear crises? What dynamics underpin how they unfold? Recent tensions between North Korea and the United States have exposed disagreement among scholars and analysts regarding these questions. We reconcile these apparently contradictory views by showing the circumstances in which different models of nuclear crises should be expected to hold. Nuclear crises should be expected to have different dynamics depending on two variables: the incentives to use nuclear weapons first in a crisis and the extent to which escalation is controllable by the leaders involved. Variation across these two dimensions generates four types of nuclear crises: “staircase,” “stability-instability,” “brinkmanship,” and “firestorm” crises. These models correspond to well-established ways of thinking about nuclear crises, but no one model is “correct.” Different models should be expected to apply in different cases, and nuclear crises should therefore be interpreted differently according to which model is most appropriate. We demonstrate the utility of our framework using the cases of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, 1999 Kargil War, 2017 Doklam Crisis, and ongoing U.S.-North Korean tensions. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 2 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => A crisis can escalate to (and beyond) the nuclear threshold in a controlled fashion, i.e., in a process in which each leader makes a conscious and deliberate strategic calculation to escalate at every stage. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Staircase crises are dangerous and states are therefore unlikely to enter them over trivial matters, although they may be willing to enter them when important national interests are at stake. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Both Pakistani and Indian leaders recognized Pakistan’s incentives for nuclear first use.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => U.S. superiority was not, however, sufficient to cast doubt on the Soviets’ own ability to inflict significant destruction on the United States after absorbing a first strike.  ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The brinkmanship model, by emphasizing the dangers of uncontrolled escalation, sheds light on why luck was required to peacefully negotiate the Cuban Missile Crisis. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => This framework would suggest, for example, that any crisis between the United States and North Korea would be more likely to lead to nuclear escalation and be more volatile than a crisis between the United States and China... ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1465 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 258 [1] => 259 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Ankit Panda and Vipin Narang, “Why Trump’s Threat of ‘Fire and Fury’ Against North Korea Is So Dangerous,” The Diplomat, Aug. 11, 2017, [2] Max Fisher, “Trump’s Threat of War with North Korea May Sound Scarier than It Is,” New York Times, Aug. 9, 2017, [3] See for example, Marc Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Security 10, no. 1 (Summer 1985): 137–63,; Richard K. Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1987); Rosemary J. Foot, “Nuclear Coercion and the Ending of the Korean Conflict,” International Security 13, no. 3 (1988/1989): 92–112,; John Mueller, “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons: Stability in the Postwar World,” International Security 13, no. 2 (1988): 55–79,; Kyle Beardsley and Victor Asal, ‘‘Winning with the Bomb,’’ Journal of Conflict Resolution 53, no. 2 (2009), 278–301,; Matthew Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes,” International Organization 67, no. 1 (2013): 141–71,; Matthew Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy: Why Strategic Superiority Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail,” International Organization 67, no. 1 (2013): 173–95,; Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017). [4] Michael Brecher and Jonathan Wilkenfeld, A Study of Crisis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 4–5. We focus on crises between pairs of nuclear-armed states, although whether the framework we propose also applies to crises between nuclear and non-nuclear states would be an interesting avenue for future research. [5] See, for example, James Fearon, “Selection Effects and Deterrence,” International Interactions 28, no. 1 (2002): 5–29, [6] Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve,” 142. [7] See, for example,, Stanley Hoffman, The State of War: Essays on the Theory and Practice of International Politics (New York: Praeger, 1965), 236; John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace: Inquiries Into the History of the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). [8] See, for example, Barry Nalebuff, “Brinkmanship and Nuclear Deterrence: The Neutrality of Escalation,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 9, no. 2 (1986): 19–30,; Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance; Robert Powell, “Nuclear Brinkmanship with Two-Sided Incomplete Information,” American Political Science Review 82, no. 1 (March 1988): 156–178,; Robert Powell, “Nuclear Brinkmanship, Limited War, and Military Power,” International Organization 69, no. 3 (2015): 589–626,; Richard Ned Lebow, Nuclear Crisis Management: A Dangerous Illusion (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987); Scott D. Sagan, The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993); Beardsley and Asal, ‘‘Winning with the Bomb,’’ Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve,” Sechser and Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail”; Todd S. Sechser and Mattew Fuhrmann, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Benoît Pelopidas, “The Unbearable Lightness of Luck: Three Sources of Overconfidence in the Manageability of Nuclear Crises,” European Journal of International Security 2, no. 2 (2017): 240–62, [9] See, for example, Bernard Brodie, ed., The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1946); Robert Jervis, “Why Nuclear Superiority Doesn’t Matter,” Political Science Quarterly 94, no. 4 (1979): 61733,; Robert Jervis, The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1984); Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); Charles L. Glaser, “Why Even Good Defenses May Be Bad,” International Security 9, no. 2 (1984): 92–123,; Charles L. Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: More May Be Better, Adelphi Paper no. 171 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1981); Kenneth N. Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities,” American Political Science Review 84, no. 3 (September 1990): 730–45,; John J. Mearsheimer, “Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence in Europe,” International Security 9, no. 3 (1984): 19–46, For recent critiques of the theory of the nuclear revolution, see Daryl G. Press and Kier A. Lieber, “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” International Security 41, no. 4 (2017): 9–49,; Brendan R. Green and Austin Long, “The MAD Who Wasn't There: Soviet Reactions to the Late Cold War Nuclear Balance," Security Studies 26, no. 4 (2017): 606–41,; Mark S. Bell, “Nuclear Opportunism: A Theory of How States Use Nuclear Weapons in International Politics,” Journal of Strategic Studies 42, no. 1 (2019): 3–28, [10] Mearsheimer, “Nuclear Weapons and Deterrence in Europe,” 20; John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: Norton, 2001), 129 (emphasis added). [11] Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Glenn Snyder, “The Balance of Power and the Balance of Terror,” in Balance of Power, ed. Paul Seabury (San Francisco, CA: Chandler, 1965). [12] Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve”; Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy; Sechser and Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail”; Sechser and Fuhrmann, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy. These debates echo prior disagreements. See, for example, Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis”; Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance; Mueller, “The Essential Irrelevance of Nuclear Weapons.” [13] Partial exceptions include Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance; and Robert Powell, “The Theoretical Foundations of Strategic Nuclear Deterrence,” Political Science Quarterly 100, no. 1 (1985): 75–96,, which distinguish between crises that exhibited different levels of risk and different types of nuclear threat, respectively. [14] See, for example, Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve,” 154. [15] Peter D. Feaver, “Command and Control in Emerging Nuclear Nations,” International Security 17, no. 3 (1992/93): 165, For a critique of the concept of “use them or lose them,” see Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 137–42. [16] For recent debates on the feasibility of damage limitation and counterforce, see Charles L. Glaser and Steve Fetter, “Should the United States Reject MAD? Damage Limitation and U.S. Nuclear Strategy Toward China,” International Security 41, no. 1 (2016): 49–98,; Press and Lieber, “The New Era of Counterforce.” [17] Vipin Narang, “Posturing for Peace? Pakistan’s Nuclear Postures and South Asian Stability,” International Security 34, no. 3 (2009/10): 38–78,; Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014). [18] For a critique of the claim that nuclear crises can ever be controllable, see Pelopidas, “The Unbearable Lightness of Luck.” [19] Feaver, “Command and Control in Emerging Nuclear Nations;” Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era. [20] This factor can be hard to observe empirically, since red lines need not be publicly articulated if they are implicitly understood, and publicly articulated red lines are not necessarily clear or may not be believed by other states. For recent work on red lines, see, Daniel W. Altman, Red Lines and Faits Accomplis in Interstate Coercion and Crisis (Ph.D dissertation, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2015); Daniel W. Altman and Nicholas L. Miller, “Red Lines in Nuclear Nonproliferation,” Nonproliferation Review 24, no. 3-4 (2017): 315–42,; Dan Altman, “Advancing without Attacking: The Strategic Game Around the Use of Force,” Security Studies 27, no. 1 (2018): 58–88, [21] Barry R. Posen, Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991); Caitlin Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear? Assessing the Risk of Chinese Nuclear Escalation in a Conventional War with the United States,” International Security 41, no. 4 (2017): 50–92, [22] See, for example, James G. Blight and Janet Lang, “When Empathy Failed: Using Critical Oral History to Reassess the Collapse of U.S.-Soviet Détente in the Carter-Brezhnev Years,” Journal of Cold War Studies 12, no. 2 (2010): 29–74, [23] See Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era. [24] Snyder, “The Balance of Power and the Balance of Terror,” 198–99. [25] Jervis, The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy, 31. For an empirical test of the implications of the stability-instability paradox, see Mark S. Bell and Nicholas L. Miller, “Questioning the Effect of Nuclear Weapons on Conflict,” Journal of Conflict Resolution 59, no. 1 (2015): 74–92, [26] Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo. [27] Herman Kahn, On Escalation: Metaphors and Strategies (London: Pall Mall Press, 1965), 45. [28] Kahn, On Escalation, 44. [29] Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1960); Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966). For other interpretations of nuclear crises using the brinkmanship framework, see, Nalebuff, “Brinkmanship and Nuclear Deterrence,” Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve”; Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy. [30] Schelling, Arms and Influence, 94. [31] Schelling, Arms and Influence, 94. [32] Schelling, Arms and Influence, 104. [33] An extreme version of this argument is offered by Barry Nalebuff, who argues that because nuclear crises involve competitions in risk-taking, and crisis participants will generate as much risk as is required to communicate their political interests and resolve, crisis outcomes are independent of a state’s military or nuclear position or posture. See Nalebuff, “Brinkmanship and Nuclear Deterrence.” For the argument that nuclear superiority is important within the brinkmanship framework because it affects resolve, see Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve.” [34] Technically, one could see sneak nuclear attacks under the staircase model if the incentives for first use were strong enough to outweigh even high levels of controllability in incentivizing a state to cross the nuclear threshold as a first move in a crisis. We thank an anonymous reviewer for this point. [35] On faits accomplis in international politics, see Schelling, Arms and Influence, 44–45; Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 536–40; Daniel W. Altman, “By Fait Accompli, Not Coercion: How States Wrest Territory from their Adversaries,” International Studies Quarterly 61, no. 4 (2017): 881–91, [36] See, for example, Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve,” 150–51; Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 84–94, 106–113; Powell, “Nuclear Brinkmanship, Limited War, and Military Power,” 590–91; Sechser and Fuhrmann, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy, 147–55, 200–210. [37] On the Kashmir dispute see Alastair Lamb, Kashmir: A Disputed Legacy, 1946-1990 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991); Lars Blinkenberg, India-Pakistan: The History of Unsolved Conflicts (Odense: Odense University Press, 1997); Robert Wirsing, India and Pakistan, and the Kashmir Dispute: On Regional Conflict and Its Resolution (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998); Sumit Ganguly, Conflict Unending: India-Pakistan Tensions Since 1947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). [38] S. Paul Kapur, “India and Pakistan’s Unstable Peace: Why Nuclear South Asia is Not Like Cold War Europe,” International Security 30, no. 2 (2005): 137,; Christopher J. Watterson, “Competing Interpretations of the Stability-Instability Paradox: The Case of the Kargil War,” Nonproliferation Review 24, no. 1–2 (2017): 90–91,; Sumit Ganguly, “Nuclear Stability in South Asia,” International Security 33, no. 2 (2008): 45–70, For more details on the war, see P.R. Chari, Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema, and Stephen P. Cohen, Four Crises and a Peace Process (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2007), chap. 5; S. Paul Kapur, Dangerous Deterrent: Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Conflict in South Asia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007), chap. 6; Bruce Riedel, American Diplomacy and 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Center for Advanced Study of India, 2002); Ved Prakesh Malik, Kargil: From Surprise to Victory (Delhi: Harper Collins, 2006); Peter R. Lavoy, ed., Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia: The Causes and Consequences of the Kargil Conflict (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009). [39] Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 268–69. [40] S. Paul Kapur, “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia,” International Security 33, no. 2 (2008): 73–74; Chari, Cheema, and Cohen, Four Crises and a Peace Process, 121–22. [41] Sumit Ganguly and Harrison Wagner, “India and Pakistan: Bargaining in the Shadow of Nuclear War,” Journal of Strategic Studies 27, no. 3 (2004): 490,; Ganguly, “Nuclear Stability in South Asia,” 58. [42] As discussed above, only one side in the crisis has to have incentives for nuclear first use for the crisis as a whole to be characterized by incentives for first use. [43] Narang “Posturing for Peace?” 56, 66; Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 259. In 1999, India had an active-duty force double that of Pakistan, enjoyed a 2:1 advantage in combat aircraft, and a 1.7:1 advantage in main battle tanks. Taken at face value, these figures somewhat overstate the degree of India’s conventional military advantage over Pakistan given that India must focus significant military attention on the Sino-Indian border in addition to the India-Pakistan border. Nonetheless, there is little question that India had the capability to assemble a larger conventional military force on the Pakistani border than Pakistan would be able to. Because of this imbalance, even though Pakistan had a local tactical advantage in Kashmir due to the Pakistani military’s early defensive positioning and the region’s difficult terrain, India retained the ability to deploy a superior conventional force to the region. Kapur, “India and Pakistan’s Unstable Peace,” 139; “Central and South Asia,” The Military Balance (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1999), 151–70,; Anthony H. Cordesman and Arleigh Burke, The India-Pakistan Military Balance (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2002). [44] Narang “Posturing for Peace?” 57. Indeed, Pakistan may have had the ability to deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft as early as 1995. See Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 267; Watterson, “Competing Interpretations of the Stability-Instability Paradox,” 91–92. [45] Quoted in P.R. Chari, “Reflections on the Kargil War,” Strategic Analysis 33, no. 3 (2009): 363, See also Chari, Cheema, and Cohen, Four Crises and a Peace Process, 139–41. [46] Riedel, "American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House," 11. [47] Ganguly and Wagner, “India and Pakistan,” 492; Ganguly, “Nuclear Stability in South Asia,” 59; Sumit Ganguly and Devin Hagerty, Fearful Symmetry: India-Pakistan Crises in the Shadow of Nuclear Weapons (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), 161. [48] Quoted in Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 272. Malik confirms that Pakistani nuclear weapons ruled out full-scale conventional war with Pakistan. See Kapur, “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia,” 79. [49] Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 272. [50] Quoted in Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 270–71. [51] Quoted in Chari, “Reflections on the Kargil War,” 363. [52] Quoted in Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 270–71; Chari, “Reflections on the Kargil War,” 363; Raj Chengappa, Weapons of Peace (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2000), 437. [53] On the role of the United States in the crisis, see Peter R. Lavoy, “Why Kargil Did Not Produce General War: The Crisis-Management Strategies of Pakistan, India, and the United States,” and Bruce Riedel, “American Diplomacy and the 1999 Kargil Summit at Blair House,” both in Asymmetric Warfare in South Asia, ed. Lavoy. [54] Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, chaps. 3, 10. [55] Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 101. [56] Quoted in Ganguly and Wagner, “India and Pakistan,” 483. [57] Quoted in Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 268. [58] John H. Gill, “Provocation, War and Restraint Under the Nuclear Shadow: The Kargil Conflict 1999,” Journal of Strategic Studies (2019): 701–26,; Lavoy, “Why Kargil Did Not Produce General War.” [59] We leave aside assessing the prediction of the model regarding the probability of nuclear use, since this is hard to evaluate within a single case. [60] As discussed previously, Pakistan may have been less willing to enter into the war had it known that the outcome would be determined by the conventional balance. Pakistan may have miscalculated the effects of nuclear signaling on Indian decision-makers and underestimated the number of conventional forces that India would marshal in response. Incorporating these miscalculations into the framework we offer would be a productive avenue for future research. [61] For differing assessments, see David Albright, “India's and Pakistan's Fissile Material and Nuclear Weapons Inventories, End of 1999,” Institute for Science and International Security, Oct. 11, 2000,; Robert S. Norris, William M. Arkin, Hans M. Kristensen, and Joshua Handler, “India’s Nuclear Forces, 2002,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 58, no. 2 (2002): 70–72,; Robert S. Norris, William M. Arkin, Hans M. Kristensen, and Joshua Handler, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Forces, 2001,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 58, no. 1 (2002): 70–71,; Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945–2013,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 5 (2013): 75–81, [62] Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 107. [63] Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 108–110. [64] Quoted in Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, 271. [65] Chari, “Reflections on the Kargil War,” 362; Ganguly and Wagner, “India and Pakistan,” 491. [66] Chari, Cheema, and Cohen, Four Crises and a Peace Process, 139; Kapur, “India and Pakistan’s Unstable Peace,” 147. [67] Quoted in Watterson, “Competing Interpretations of the Stability-Instability Paradox,” 97. This restraint presents a puzzle for the stability-instabilty model of nuclear crises, of which the Kargil War is often believed one manifestation. Instead of escalating further, as would be expected by the stability-instability logic, Pakistan chose to acquiesce rather than open additional fronts and divert the superior Indian forces. Under the staircase model, however, this behavior makes more sense. See Chari, “Reflections on the Kargil War,” 364. [68] Ernest R. May and Philip Zelikow, eds., The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2002), 189. [69] Michael Beschloss, The Crisis Years: Kennedy and Khrushchev 1960-63 (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), 414, 423–35; Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali, ‘One Hell of a Gamble:’ Castro, Kennedy, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1958-1964 (London: John Murray, 1997), 206, 227. [70] David Holloway, “Nuclear Weapons and the Escalation of the Cold War, 1945-1962,” in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, volume 1, ed. Odd Arne Westad and Melvin Leffler (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 393–94. [71] Daryl G. Press, Calculating Credibility: How Leads Assess Military Threats (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 121. [72] McNamara quoted in Press, Calculating Credibility, 124. [73] Quoted in Press, Calculating Credibility, 123–24. At this meeting, Kennedy did raise the possibility of a surprise nuclear strike against the Soviets, commenting that since “the use of nuclear weapons was bound to escalate...we might as well get the advantage by going first.” Quoted in Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 37. In the end, these deliberations amounted to little in terms of U.S. defense planning and by mid-1962 there is little evidence that Kennedy considered a first strike against the Soviet Union feasible. [74] See, for example, Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve,” 150–51; Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 84–106. [75] Quoted in Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 148. See also James Cameron, The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), chap. 1; Dean Rusk, Robert McNamara, George W. Ball, Roswell L. Gilpatric, Theodore Sorensen, and McGeorge Bundy, “The Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Time Magazine, Sept. 27, 1982, 85; Schelling, Arms and Influence, 94. [76] Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance, 105. [77] Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft, 68. [78] Sagan, The Limits of Safety, 72–73. [79] Sagan, The Limits of Safety, 74. [80] Pelopidas, “The Unbearable Lightness of Luck,” 246; Sagan, The Limits of Safety, 135–38. [81] Pelopidas, “The Unbearable Lightness of Luck,” 246–47; Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety (London: Penguin, 2013), 261. [82] Sagan, The Limits of Safety, 72–73. [83] Svetlana Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Journal of Strategic Studies 28, no. 2 (2005): 238,; Scott D. Sagan, “Nuclear Alerts and Crisis Management,” International Security 9, no. 4 (1985): 112–18, [84] Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines,” 240. [85] Savranskaya, “New Sources on the Role of Soviet Submarines,” 247. [86] Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 154. [87] Anatoly Dobrynin, In Confidence (New York: Random House, 1995), 52; Sergei Khrushchev, Creation of a Superpower (Philadelphia, PA: Penn State University Press, 2000), 565; Oleg Troyanovsky, “The Making of Soviet Foreign Policy,” in Nikita Khrushchev, ed. William Taubman, Sergei Khrushchev, and Abbott Gleason (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 236. [88] Within our framework, it is plausible that U.S. alerts and mobilizations may have led Khrushchev to better understand U.S. red lines over the course of the crisis, contributing to its resolution. [89] Fursenko and Naftali, ‘One Hell of a Gamble’, chap. 19; Sheldon M. Stern, The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 157. [90] Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 153–54. [91] Holloway, “Nuclear Weapons and the Escalation of the Cold War,” 393–94. [92] Again, we leave aside assessing the prediction of the model regarding the probability of nuclear use, since this is hard to evaluate within a single case. [93] See, for example, Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis”; Cameron, The Double Game, chap. 1; Rusk et al., “The Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 85; Schelling, Arms and Influence, 94. For the argument that U.S. nuclear superiority affected U.S. resolve, see Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve,” 150–51. [94] Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve,” 150–51; Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, 84–106. [95] Cameron, The Double Game, chap. 1. [96] Rusk et al., “The Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 85. These statements should be taken with a grain of salt given the political context in which they were made: by officials from a former Democratic administration opposed to the Reagan administration arms buildup. [97] See, for example, Kroenig, “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve.” [98] In exchange for the removal of missiles from Cuba, the Soviet Union received two new concessions from the United States: the withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey and a commitment not to invade Cuba. [99] Schelling, Arms and Influence, 94. [100] Rusk et al., “The Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 85. [101] Sagan, The Limits of Safety, 154. For a thorough examination of the role of luck in the Cuban Missile Crisis, see Pelopidas, “The Unbearable Lightness of Luck.” [102] Len Scott and Steve Smith, “Lessons of October: Historians, Political Scientists, Policy-Makers, and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” International Affairs 70, no. 4 (1994): 683,; Pelopidas, “The Unbearable Lightness of Luck,” 244. [103] Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 140. [104] Sagan, “Nuclear Alerts and Crisis Management,” 110. [105] Michael Dobbs, One Minute to Midnight (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 51–52. [106] Sagan, “Nuclear Alerts and Crisis Management,” 109. See also “Strategic Air Command Operations in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962,” Strategic Air Command Headquarters, History and Research Division, Historical Study no. 90, volume 1 (1963), [107] “Strategic Air Command Operations in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 97. [108] Quoted in Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” 157. [109] For analyses of various aspects of the Doklam crisis, see Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen, “Who Blinked in the India-China Military Standoff,” Washington Post, Aug. 30, 2017,; Ankit Panda, “The Political Geography of the India-China Crisis at Doklam,” Diplomat, July 13, 2017,; Ankit Panda, “Disengagement at Doklam: Why and How Did the India-China Standoff End,” Diplomat, Aug. 29, 2017, [110] Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era, chaps. 4 and 5. [111] Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era. [112] Panda, “Disengagement at Doklam.” [113] Van Jackson, On the Brink: Trump, Kim, and the Threat of Nuclear War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 197. [114] Vipin Narang, “Why Kim Jong Un Wouldn’t be Irrational to Use a Nuclear Bomb First,” Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2017,; Jackson, On the Brink, 158, 197. See also Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The Nukes We Need: Preserving the American Deterrent,” Foreign Affairs 88, no. 6 (November/December 2009): 39–51, [115] Narang, “Why Kim Jong Un Wouldn’t be Irrational to Use a Nuclear Bomb First,” [116] On U.S. senior policymakers’ public support for preventive war options, see Jackson, On the Brink, 137, 158–61, 163. [117] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “The Growing Danger of a U.S. Nuclear First Strike on North Korea,” War on the Rocks, Oct. 10, 2017, [118] Barry R. Posen, “The Price of War With North Korea,” New York Times, Dec. 6, 2017, [119] Daryl G. Press, Scott D. Sagan, and Benjamin A. Valentino, “Atomic Aversion: Experimental Evidence on Taboos, Traditions, and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons,” American Political Science Review 107, no. 1 (2013): 188–206,; Scott D. Sagan and Benjamin A. Valentino, “Revisiting Hiroshima in Iran: What Americans Really Think About Using Nuclear Weapons and Killing Noncombatants,” International Security 42, no. 1 (2017): 41–79, [120] Lieber and Press, “The New Era of Counterforce,” 31. [121] For example, Jackson notes that a U.S.-North Korea crisis would be “much less controlled” than the Cuban Missile Crisis — a crisis already coded as having low controllability in our framework. Jackson, On the Brink, 159. [122] On these points, see Jackson, On the Brink, 164–65, 197, 207. [123] See, for example, Trachtenberg, “The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis”; and Foot, “Nuclear Coercion and the Ending of the Korean Conflict.” [124] Kroenig “Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve”; Sechser and Fuhrmann, “Crisis Bargaining and Nuclear Blackmail.” Kroenig proposes a different explanation for the differences in their findings based on selection effects. See Kroenig, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy. [125] For a similar point on the literature on the causes of nuclear proliferation, see Mark S. Bell, “Examining Explanations for Nuclear Proliferation,” International Studies Quarterly 60, no. 3 (2016): 527, [126] See, for example, Robert Jervis, Perception and Misperception in International Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976); Robert Jervis, Ned Lebow, and Janice Stein, Psychology and Deterrence (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985); Keren Yarhi-Milo, Knowing the Adversary: Leaders, Intelligence, and Assessment of Intentions in International Relations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014). ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 823 [post_author] => 49 [post_date] => 2019-01-08 05:00:20 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-01-08 10:00:20 [post_content] => Nuclear weapons, and the role they play in American grand strategy, are an issue of fundamental importance.[1] Any use of these fearsome tools of destruction, whether intentionally or by mistake, would be catastrophic. Nuclear weapons also buttress much of American grand strategy — explicitly and more often implicitly — to a far greater extent than is acknowledged. The mere existence of these weapons shapes strategy, statecraft, and the international system in profound, powerful, and often puzzling ways. Despite the obvious importance of the bomb, its role is largely taken for granted by the American public, even among foreign policy experts. The purpose of nuclear weapons in American grand strategy draws little focused attention, much less probing questions. There are discussions about aspects of U.S. nuclear policy: debates over whether the U.S. nuclear deterrent should be modernized, what the consequences would be if a particular arms-control agreement is signed or abandoned, or worries about the possible nuclearization of a “rogue” state. These discussions, however, are episodic. They tend to fade quickly from headlines and only rarely do they bring to the surface underlying assumptions about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. grand strategy. Academic discussion of the bomb has its own challenges. Within the most influential school of thought in security studies, nuclear weapons’ effect on foreign policy and international relations is largely understood as a settled question. This is not to suggest that there is consensus among academics: More so than many fields of inquiry, nuclear studies is plagued by intellectual stove-piping, methodological disputes, and disciplinary divides. Within these academic worlds, moreover, much of the debate over nuclear issues focuses on peripheral questions and is often divorced from the realities of policymaking. Most tellingly, discussions of nuclear weapons are rarely connected to larger questions surrounding American politics, policy, and purpose in the world. Most of these disputes center on competing versions of the past. And the academic discipline of history — the field that could arbitrate these disagreements — marginalizes the study of nuclear weapons and rarely contributes to these debates. This article seeks to disturb this complacency about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. grand strategy to explore important questions: What is the rationale for these weapons, and how do they advance America’s interests in the world? Unfortunately, much of the conventional wisdom surrounding these issues is incomplete, unfalsifiable, and, at times, simply wrong. This is not the result of a lack of effort or intellect in the academy. To be clear, the body of scholarly work on nuclear weapons is enormous and impressive. Rather, the nature of nuclear weapons and the unusual and unexpected role of the bomb in American grand strategy have often been perplexing, hard to measure and assess, and even contradictory. This has led to confusion and unproductive — sometimes sharp — disagreements among scholars of nuclear weapons and international relations. Decision-makers often share this confusion. To better understand the purpose and consequences of nuclear weapons in American grand strategy, this essay interrogates many widely held assumptions and beliefs, with a goal of updating the intellectual architecture undergirding analysis of the role of the bomb. In the process, this article makes five arguments. Argument One: The leading and theoretical approach to nuclear politics — known as the nuclear-revolution school — has failed to predict and explain critical aspects of U.S. nuclear policies, including nuclear strategy and nonproliferation. The most important insight from this approach is correct: that few if any political objectives were worth the extraordinary costs of a thermonuclear war. The theory, however, does not offer much insight into almost eight decades of U.S. “exceptional” behavior with the bomb — or policies at odds with the predictions of the nuclear-revolution framework. Argument Two: Our understanding of the history of U.S. nuclear weapons policies, and the bomb’s role in American grand strategy, is often incomplete, misleading, and even wrong. Much of this stems from a shameful lack of attention to the subject by academic historians, leaving largely unchallenged a decades-old, stylized narrative crafted by participants and scholars of security and strategic studies who lack access to key archival sources. America’s nuclear past is more complex than the conventional wisdom allows. There are at least four complementary and competing strands of U.S. nuclear history — intellectual, rhetorical, operational, and presidential — that should be recognized and reconciled. Furthermore, U.S. nuclear history should be understood as distinct from, if inextricably interwoven with, other powerful streams of world history since 1945, including the Cold War, decolonization, and globalization. Argument Three: The inadequacies of theory and history in explaining the policies of the United States are not surprising, since the nature of nuclear statecraft presents severe methodological and rhetorical challenges to getting the “right” answer. Furthermore, nuclear weapons raise profound moral considerations, making it difficult to distinguish between scholarly arguments and advocacy. These challenges demand intellectual humility and are ignored at great peril. Argument Four: Emerging challenges — technological, geopolitical, and normative — will make questions of nuclear weapons and American grand strategy both more difficult and more consequential in the years and decades to come. Some of these forces make the use of nuclear weapons increasingly unthinkable, while others appear to make the bomb’s use more likely, both with consequences for American grand strategy. The tensions and contradictions in U.S. policy — between nuclear activism and nuclear abstinence — will make an already difficult situation increasingly unsustainable in the future. Argument Five: America’s often puzzling nuclear policies are best understood through a grand-strategic lens. What does such a framework reveal about the United States? While American nuclear policies have often appeared uncertain, ambiguous, and inconsistent, when assessed over time it is clear that the United States has persistently used nuclear weapons to achieve one overriding grand-strategic goal: to “resist” the elements of the “nuclear revolution” that limit America’s freedom of action in the world and expose it to vulnerability. This was true during the Cold War and after the Cold War ended, and it remains true to this day. Washington has sought to eliminate its vulnerability and promote freedom of action through policies and behaviors that often appear to be in tension or even contradictory. Academics have often missed this important point, which is often intuitively understood by American policymakers. How did the United States pursue this grand-strategic goal? At times, the U.S. government pursues nuclear activism by treating nuclear weapons as the most important element of its grand strategy. It did this, for example, by prizing nuclear superiority and by adopting strategies to use these weapons early and first in a crisis. At other times, Washington has pursued policies of nuclear abstinence, highlighting how unusable and even repugnant nuclear weapons are and encouraging other states to eschew their benefits. Many times, American grand strategy has been to pursue both, seemingly incompatible, positions. This split was driven less by strategic ambiguity than real uncertainty about the best path forward and a desire to fully cover its bet. When it comes to activism or abstinence, the United States, like a switch-hitter in baseball choosing between batting left or right, chooses the option with the greatest odds of achieving its grand-strategic goals.

I. The Wrong Revolution?

How should nuclear weapons affect U.S. strategy and statecraft? What does the leading theory — the nuclear-revolution school — say about how American grand strategy should be influenced by the bomb? Under the nuclear-revolution framework, assessing the purpose and consequences of the bomb through a grand-strategic lens can make for an awkward fit. After all, grand strategy is about making choices: what means and instruments, including war, states and their leaders select to achieve desired ends in geopolitical competition in international relations. It reflects “a purposeful and coherent set of ideas about what a nation seeks to accomplish in the world, and how it should go about doing so.”[2] Grand strategies vary enormously over time, location, individuals, and regimes. The United States has pursued a variety of grand strategies since its founding, and debate is fierce over what grand strategy it should pursue today and what means it should employ. The nuclear-revolution school argues that the bomb severely constrains and limits — and at times eliminates — the grand-strategic choices that were available to states and statesmen in the past. Robert Jervis, the leading thinker in the nuclear-revolution school, has argued that “[f]orce and the threat of it cannot support foreign policy in the same way that it did in the past.”[3] Historian Lawrence Freedman agrees, suggesting that the notion of a nuclear strategy “is a contradiction in terms.”[4] What is the “nuclear revolution” framework, and what predictions and explanations does it offer? While scholars differ on some aspects,[5] Stephen Walt has nicely defined its broad outlines:
As refined by scholars like [Bernard] Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Glenn Snyder, Robert Jervis, Kenneth Waltz, and Stephen Van Evera, nuclear weapons are said to provide states with the ability to protect their sovereignty and independence not via direct defense but rather through deterrence.
According to the “logic of the ‘nuclear revolution,’ therefore, states with second-strike capabilities were secure against attack and didn’t need to worry very much about their sovereignty or independence.” The nuclear revolution “means that ‘nuclear superiority’ was a meaningless concept. … A handful of survivable weapons makes it very unlikely that another state will attack you directly or try to invade and take over your country.”[6] According to Jervis, the leading scholar in this tradition, nuclear weapons “can kill but not influence.”[7] Nuclear weapons even “eliminate the security dilemma,” the phenomena that many scholars believe drove international conflict for centuries, making cooperation among states more likely.[8] Nor can they be used for much else besides deterrence. As Todd Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann argue in a recent study, “For all the money spent on atomic bombs, they have bought precious little coercive leverage for states.”[9] [quote id="1"] The nuclear revolution should have had important consequences for proliferation dynamics, nonproliferation policies, and alliances. Joshua Rovner explains that according to the nuclear-revolution view, “if nuclear weapons were great for deterrence but lousy for battle, then Washington should have been sanguine as new countries went nuclear. It might even have been optimistic, since proliferation would, under this theory, lead countries to become cautious.”[10] Even if the United States wanted to stem the spread of nuclear weapons, however, the effort would be futile. According to Kenneth Waltz, “[I]f countries feel insecure and believe that nuclear weapons would make them more secure, America’s policy of opposing the spread of nuclear weapons will not prevail.”[11] Waltz, the most influential international relations theorist of modern times and one of the more extreme advocates of the nuclear-revolution framework, went further still, arguing that nuclear weapons “make alliances obsolete.”[12] The mere presence of the bomb would override the grand-strategic choices made by a particular state or leader. “Nuclear weapons can carry out their deterrent task no matter what other countries do.”[13] The key insight of this framework is that the bomb is a defensive weapon of such powerful force that it transforms strategy and statecraft, constraining the grand-strategic options available to states and leaders before the nuclear age, regardless of a state’s history, geography, culture, or regime type. According to Waltz, “American estimates of what is required for deterrence were absurdly high.” In other words, “not much is required to deter.”[14] Summing up the conventional wisdom among scholars in this tradition, Charles Glaser and Chaim Kauffman argue that the nuclear revolution reveals that “this technology so heavily favors defense that when all the major powers have nuclear weapons variation in other factors becomes relatively unimportant.”[15] According to Stephen Van Evera, “the nuclear revolution gave defenders a large military advantage,” so large that conquest “became virtually impossible.”[16] John Mearsheimer similarly concludes that “there is no question ... the presence of nuclear weapons makes states more cautious about using military force of any kind against each other.”[17] How well did the theory of the nuclear revolution do in predicting American nuclear weapons policy and explaining the role of the bomb in U.S. grand strategy? The framework’s key point — that nuclear weapons made total, thermonuclear war a horrifying absurdity to be avoided at all costs — is of course a profound insight. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis argued during the Cold War, “It seems inescapable that what has really made a difference in inducing this unaccustomed caution has been the workings of the nuclear deterrent.”[18] Yet, the implications of this incontrovertible truth for American grand strategy are both contested and uncertain. Did the United States accept mutual vulnerability with nuclear-armed adversaries, as the theory would have predicted? Was the bomb understood only as a defensive weapon to defend American sovereignty and territorial integrity? Were American leaders nonplussed as other states expressed interest in the bomb, and, even if concerned, did they recognize and accept that there was little they could do to stop proliferation? Did alliances become less important, and was the United States less likely to use force of any kind? Perhaps most critical, did the United States behave like any other state in the system, bowing before the constraints the nuclear revolution imposed on its strategy and statecraft? Taken to its logical end, this school of thought suggests that many states should seek nuclear weapons and that the United States should or could do little to stop other states from pursuing and attaining their own bomb. When building arsenals, the ease of securing a second-strike capability meant that seeking quantitative or qualitative advantages beyond a certain point would be a foolish goal for a state: At best it would be wastefully expensive; at worst, destabilizing and dangerous. According to the theory, strategic stability, both in dyadic competitions and on a broader, horizontal scale, should emerge naturally from the nuclear revolution.[19] Nor should the particular circumstance, history, leadership or regime type, or interests of the nuclearizing state affect the powerful, system-wide effects of these weapons. Or so went the story largely crafted by American academics specializing in security and strategic studies.[20] As Rovner has noted,
If the nuclear revolution affected grand strategy, the United States should have settled for a small arsenal for the sole purpose of deterrence. It would never have sought to integrate nuclear and conventional forces, because nuclear weapons were fundamentally different in that they could never be used. U.S. leaders should have recognized that defenses against nuclear attack were futile, and avoided pouring time and money into such efforts. And they should have managed the process of proliferation so that states, great and regional powers alike, enjoyed the security benefit of a reliable second-strike capability. None of these things happened.[21]
Why not? Exceptional, but Not for the Reasons Many Think The nuclear-revolution framework provides a powerful lens to understand two of the most important aspects of world politics since 1945: the disappearance of great-power war and the non-use of nuclear weapons against adversaries after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. It is less helpful in explaining other aspects of U.S. grand strategy in the nuclear age. U.S. behavior and policies diverged from expectations of the nuclear-revolution school in at least three ways. The first involves American leaders’ interest in making nuclear weapons such a core element in U.S. grand strategy. According to the nuclear-revolution school, the most powerful role of nuclear weapons is as “invasion insurance,” or to prevent the conquest of sovereign territory. Whatever the fears raised by the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, the United States has faced almost no threat of conquest since the Civil War ended in 1865. A United States without nuclear weapons — in 2019 or in 1955 or 1975 or any other year — faced almost zero threat of conquest. Rarely has a state had less need for the bomb to guarantee its immediate territorial integrity, sovereignty, and security.[22] Yet, no state has invested greater resources in developing and deploying nuclear weapons, nor has any other state relied more heavily on nuclear weapons to implement its grand strategy. The United States has spent astronomical sums on nuclear weapons since 1940, dwarfing the expenditures of other rivals.[23] It plans to spend an additional $1.3 trillion over the next few decades.[24] This is not to suggest that it is surprising the United States pursued and developed the bomb, or even that it pursued a survivable nuclear capability. What is surprising, however, is the central and expensive role that nuclear weapons have played in American grand strategy. Advocates of strategic stability and the nuclear-revolution framework, to say nothing of the historians of American grand strategy before 1950, would likely struggle to explain the United States’ experiments with “nuclear sharing” with its allies, its willingness to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, and pre-delegating authority to launch the bomb to military commanders in the field.[25] Second, extraordinary new scholarship is making it increasingly clear that the United States never permanently abandoned its efforts to achieve nuclear superiority.[26] For a decade and a half after the United States lost its nuclear monopoly, it strove diligently to build far more deliverable nuclear weapons than any other country.[27] It is true that the United States began to accept quantitative equality with its primary adversary, the Soviet Union, by the late 1960s and 1970s. Two points are in order. First, the United States accepted parity only reluctantly. As James Cameron astutely observed, “Nixon hated MAD, believed its logic was defeatist and naïve, yet he signed agreements that enshrined it at the heart of the United States’ relations with the Soviet Union.”[28] Mired in a disastrous war in Southeast Asia and facing both economic and domestic political constraints on military spending, the United States pulled in its horns. Second, while American policymakers accepted quantitative parity, they still sought qualitative primacy over U.S. adversaries. How did the United States seek this superiority? Concurrent to American policymakers negotiating and accepting the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I and SALT II) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaties, the U.S. government undertook a massive, extraordinary effort to develop and deploy more sophisticated nuclear weapons and systems to support them. This allowed the United States to exploit its natural advantages over the Soviet Union. As John Mauer has argued,
American leaders raced the Soviets in military technologies where the United States was perceived to enjoy significant advantages, while simultaneously entangling the Soviet Union in an arms control regime that would limit areas of Soviet strength. By combining arms racing and arms control, the United States pursued a holistic offset strategy.[29]
As historians Niccolo Petrelli and Giordana Pulcini reveal, between 1969 and 1976 the Nixon and Ford administrations “actively sought to transcend nuclear parity.”[30] In the years after quantitative parity was accepted, the United States developed and deployed a number of technologically sophisticated and expensive capabilities, including the Pershing II, MX, Trident D-5, as well as cruise missiles. It also invested enormous resources into missile defense; anti-submarine warfare (i.e., targeting and eluding Soviet nuclear submarines); and command, control, communications, and intelligence capabilities.[31] As Austin Long and Brendan Green demonstrate in their path-breaking work, the United States “invested massive resources into intelligence capabilities for a first strike, including successful innovation in tracking submarines and mobile missiles.”[32] These expenditures were oriented toward systems whose characteristics and capabilities, such as speed, stealth, intelligence, and accuracy, were best suited to a nuclear posture that focused on counterforce, damage limitation, and even preemptive uses. In other words, the nuclear forces built in the decades after the SALT and ABM treaties made little sense if the United States had fully embraced the consequences of mutual vulnerability spelled out by the nuclear-revolution school. This is certainly how the Soviet Union perceived these efforts. Because of the “development of American counterforce capabilities,” Soviet leaders “were uncertain they could indefinitely maintain a secure second strike in spite of their strenuous efforts.”[33] [quote id="2"] This interest in maintaining superior nuclear capabilities continued after the Cold War ended.[34] As a 2003 RAND report observed,
The force is larger than it needs to be if deterrence by threat of nuclear retaliation is the sole objective of U.S. nuclear strategy. Even a mildly expanded target base that included selected targets in emerging nuclear powers as well as chemical and biological weapons facilities in a larger set of countries would not necessarily require the sort of force that the United States plans to maintain. What the planned force appears best suited to provide beyond the needs of traditional deterrence is a preemptive counterforce capability against Russia and China. Otherwise, the numbers and the operating procedures simply do not add up.[35]
It has been argued that bureaucratic and organizational politics were the primary drivers of these expensive, risky, and politically polarizing nuclear postures.[36] Organizational and bureaucratic factors no doubt played some role, but the fact that the search for qualitative superiority has spanned decades, encompassing multiple administrations and great shifts in global politics, undermines such interpretations. As Green and Long argue, “In sum, it was international politics, not domestic politics, which killed hopes for nuclear stability.”[37] Why did the United States seek nuclear primacy? This relates to the third point: The United States asked more of its nuclear weapons in its grand strategy than any other nuclear state.[38] Most states seek nuclear weapons to protect themselves from invasion and conquest. This is a scenario the United States has not had to worry about, and even if it did, such protection would not require the massive, sophisticated nuclear forces and related systems the U.S. government built. Instead, the United States employed its nuclear forces to achieve far more ambitious, historically unprecedented goals. From the early 1950s onward, the United States pursued an audacious strategy of relying on its massive nuclear capabilities to both protect far-flung allies from nuclear attack or conventional invasion while also inhibiting the nuclear desires of those same allies. As Green and Long demonstrate, “Successive administrations discovered that the threat of retaliation and the existential risk of nuclear escalation posed by stability doctrines were not a sufficient military solution for their perceived geopolitical challenges.”[39] There has long been a tension between the goal of strategic stability and extending deterrence to America’s allies. As analysts from RAND pointed out in 1989, there was a clash between the “objectives of enhancing first[-]strike stability, on the one hand, and extending deterrence and limiting damage, on the other,” such that the more robust the Soviets believed stability was “the less they might hesitate to precipitate a deep crisis by engaging in serious aggression.”[40] As Earl Ravenal explained in 1982, extending deterrence demanded expensive and potentially destabilizing counterforce capabilities, employed in first-strike strategies. “Such a damage[-]limiting attack, to have its intended effect, must be preemptive.”[41] Permanently extending deterrence while inhibiting proliferation have been cornerstones of American grand strategy for so long it is easy to forget how historically unusual, difficult, and demanding this ambition is. There was, of course, great tension between the goal of a preemptive strategy and strategic stability. Counterforce strategies were not about mutual vulnerability, Ravenal makes clear:
[C]ounterforce and first nuclear strike are mutually dependent. A first strike implies counterforce targeting, since the only initial attack that makes sense is a damage-limiting strike, the destruction of as much of the enemy’s nuclear force as possible. And counterforce targeting, in return, implies a first strike, a preemptive attack, because a second strike against the enemy’s missiles is useless to the extent that one’s missiles would hit empty holes.
As an assistant to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told a reporter in the mid-1960s, “There could be no such thing as primary retaliation against military targets after an enemy attack. If you’re going to shoot at missiles, you’re talking about first strike.”[42] To be clear, this is not to argue that American leaders seriously contemplated a first strike or even made full-out efforts to acquire meaningful first-strike forces.[43] While American presidents refused to accept qualitative parity with the Soviet Union and pursued expensive and arguably dangerous counterforce options, they also shied away from seeking a full-scale, first-strike capability. One of the great unanswered questions of the nuclear age involves what U.S. leaders thought they were getting with this qualified superiority.[44] Strategies of inhibition required strategic forces that went far beyond mutual vulnerability, but such postures might dangerously undermine strategic stability.[45] One promising explanation is Glenn Kent and David Thaler’s idea of “optimum instability” — developing enough counterforce to make the other side think you might go first in a crisis but without making your adversary think you are eager to do so. “Indeed, one might argue that an optimal amount of first-strike instability is possible: that is, enough to deter the Soviets from generating a major crisis (say, by invading Western Europe), but not enough to allow a major crisis to spiral out of control.”[46] This aggressive posture was pursued, in large measure, to inhibit the development of independent nuclear weapons programs among ostensible allies. The United States went to great lengths to prevent what otherwise might have been a natural development in world politics: the emergence of independent, capable states acquiring their own nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons would, after all, effectively guarantee their possessors against invasion and conquest for the first time — ever. Rare was the state in history that turned away from an effective military technology or turned over its security to another state. Washington, however, aggressively pursued a wide range of policies to achieve inhibition, including threats of force or abandonment, forward deployed forces, enacting sanctions, selling arms, and encouraging treaties and norms.[47] To achieve its goals of inhibition, the United States often cooperated with its most bitter ideological and geopolitical adversary, the Soviet Union, at the expense of U.S. partners and allies.[48] It is easy to lose sight of how strange, even radical, these grand-strategic choices were when they were developed in the 1950s and the extent to which they remain so today. There is little in the nuclear-revolution theory that can explain the cost, number, and technological sophistication of America’s nuclear weapons systems, nor the aggressive postures in which they were employed. Imagine explaining in the early 20th century that the United States was going to risk a global war that would kill tens of millions of people to defend a conventionally indefensible portion of a city — West Berlin — 100 miles within enemy territory that had no geostrategic value whatsoever. Imagine that everyone would think this was normal (and call it “extended deterrence”). Imagine the weapons and military strategy necessary to convince an adversary that was far closer, that had superior conventional arms, and that, arguably, had more at stake that this was a credible commitment. Try to imagine a parallel in world history for this situation before 1950. Then think about how the strategists who constructed these theories did so based largely on their view of how this story unfolded between 1958 and 1963. The United States, which had little need for nuclear weapons to prevent an invasion or nuclear attack upon its homeland, built, at great expense, the largest and most sophisticated nuclear forces in the world and placed them within forward-leading and often preemptive strategies, backed by military technologies that potentially undermined strategic stability. American leaders worked feverishly, often with adversaries, to prevent the rise of independent nuclear-weapons states — ally, enemy, or neutral — and this remains a cornerstone of U.S. grand strategy. These strategies were exceptional. In one sense, however, nuclear weapons did revolutionize American grand strategy. Before 1949, the United States had no permanent peacetime alliances. America demobilized during peacetime, and it typically pursued slow strategies of attrition when conflict did arise. Congress was widely perceived as the more powerful foreign policy actor during peacetime, while military leaders were afforded little leeway. All of that changed dramatically after the early 1950s, across administrations and shifts in the structure of the international system.[49] Since then, the United States has developed strategies, on semi-permanent alert status, that escalate quickly — even preemptively — with nuclear weapons, and it has concentrated enormous power to initiate war into the hands of the American presidency, all on behalf of defending a sprawling set of countries around the world. Simply put: There was a (thermo-) nuclear revolution that shaped American grand strategy — but it was a much different revolution than the conventional wisdom puts forward.

II. Missing Histories

What is the history of U.S. nuclear weapons and their role in American grand strategy?  Careful assessment of what is known — and whether these accounts accurately capture the past — is critical. Most theories and policy analysis are based on assumptions and beliefs about what happened in the past. Unfortunately, less is known about U.S. nuclear history and its role in American grand strategy than is presumed, and what many people do know is often overly simplistic, misleading, or otherwise problematic. Why is this the case? The major works that cover the history of U.S. nuclear weapons policy were, for the most part, written some time ago — before many primary documents were released. These works were often penned not by historians but by policy participants, scholars of strategic and security studies, or analysts outside of the academy. Many of these works are excellent first cuts at history.[50] Most, however, are older, do not engage recent archival finds, and often accept the logic of the nuclear-revolution school to explain U.S. policy. [quote id="3"] What of the discipline of academic history? To be sure, impressive international research has been conducted into various elements of global nuclear history, especially the issues surrounding various state decisions about whether to build a bomb.[51] There are also excellent monographs exploring particular aspects of U.S. nuclear history.[52] Writ large, however, treatment of American nuclear weapons history has been episodic rather than systematic. This is part of a larger, and unfortunate, decades-old trend within history departments. As Hal Brands has argued, “The historical profession in the United States has simply deprioritized the study of statecraft and international relations, at least as those subjects were conventionally understood.”[53] This is especially true in nuclear history, where there is almost no participation by scholarly historians on these contested issues. The academic discipline of history
has largely abandoned studying important issues such as international security and nuclear weapons and is in the midst of a four-decade, slow[-]motion act of collective suicide. There simply is not, nor will there be anytime soon, a critical mass of diplomatic and military historians available to research these important questions or make use of these amazing materials.[54]
Even when scholarly historians do focus on issues of foreign policy or international relations, nuclear questions often get short shrift. Large, synthetic accounts of the Cold War either accept the nuclear-revolution framework or do not break new ground on nuclear issues.[55] Arguably far more is known about the development of U.S. human rights policies, for example, or the role of race and gender in American foreign policy, than about how U.S. decision-makers have discussed and debated the purpose and consequences of the bomb in its relations with the world. Given the extraordinary importance and potential consequences of American nuclear weapons policies, and the massive increases in primary documents available to researchers, the failure of the American historical profession to support and undertake this work is shameful. The Challenge of Nuclear History What would a comprehensive history of U.S. nuclear weapons policy and its role in grand strategy look like? To be fair, undertaking historical work on nuclear issues is particularly difficult. There are the methodological challenges that will be laid out in the next section: assessing historical evidence and making causal claims is difficult when the issues at stake — deterrence, assurance, credibility, and resolve — are unobservable. Speeches and written evidence are often hard to interpret. Top-secret deliberations often reveal American presidents taking contradictory approaches or blowing off steam. U.S. officials’ public pronouncements are frequently intended to convey signals to various audiences and may not represent operational policy. Furthermore, the decisions behind nuclear policies and strategies are some of the government’s most carefully guarded activities, and access to top-secret documents is heavily restricted. While the situation has improved considerably in recent years, archival materials on nuclear policy are notoriously difficult to declassify, and even when they are released, they are often heavily redacted. With important pieces of evidence unavailable, constructing an all-inclusive, seamless narrative remains enormously challenging. A larger question looms: What does it mean to talk about nuclear history? The history of nuclear weapons was once told as the history of the Cold War, and vice-versa. It is now understood that they were not the same. Sometimes nuclear history and Cold War history overlapped, while at other times they moved on independent paths, so much so that it is often hard to determine whether nuclear weapons prevented the bipolar competition from breaking out into war or dangerously exacerbated underlying tensions. A history that conflates Cold War and nuclear dynamics could not, for example, fully explain why the United States cooperated with the Soviet Union to deny their respective allies nuclear weapons.[56] Alliances once ascribed solely to Cold War dynamics, in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, have not only persisted since that struggle ended but have broadened and deepened in ways that show that nuclear considerations (among other non-Cold War factors) were always at their root. It is essential to disentangle the interconnected but distinct histories of the nuclear age and the geopolitical and ideological rivalry between the superpowers.[57] The Cold War was not, however, the only powerful historical force interacting with, shaping, and being shaped by nuclear history. Decolonization, whose deep roots in imperialism and resistance date back centuries, had an enormous influence — in many cases, more than the Cold War — shaping nuclear decision-making in Great Britain, France, Israel, South Africa, India, and Pakistan, as well as others that decided not to acquire the bomb. Other factors, such as regional dynamics and the effects of globalization, influenced America's grand strategy and approach to nuclear weapons. Disentangling competing global histories since the end of World War II is a difficult but necessary task when trying to understand how nuclear weapons influence international relations. There is also the question of periodization and chronology. Is the nuclear age one continuous stream, beginning in August 1945 — if not earlier — and continuing to the present? Or are there sharp breaks dictated by key technological advances such as the development of thermonuclear weapons or intercontinental ballistic missiles? Important political events had profound consequences for nuclear history: the emergence of Soviet nuclear parity and the negotiation of major arms-control treaties, the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Is there such a thing as a second nuclear age, and, if so, how is it different from the first? Defining nuclear history and its scope is difficult; calculating how American grand strategy incorporates and reacts to these shifts even more so. Competing Histories The most important historical challenge is reconciling contending and often contradictory narratives that chronicle the past. This is especially true when trying to understand the American experience with the bomb. There are at least four competing histories of how nuclear weapons influenced U.S. grand strategy and vice-versa: intellectual, rhetorical, operational, and presidential. Assessing which of these strands is most important, and how they interact with each other, is challenging. The first strand is the intellectual history of the United States. For many within the security studies community, the most familiar strand is what might be called the “Wizards of Armageddon” story. In this tale, smart strategists, typically civilians from universities and think tanks like the RAND Corp., wrestled with and explained to the wider world the new realities created by nuclear weapons. In the process, great thinkers such as Bernard Brodie, Thomas Schelling, Albert Wohlstetter, and others made sense of “the unthinkable,” created modern deterrence theory, transformed U.S. policy and grand strategy, and probably prevented World War III. This history is both familiar and comforting — to the extent that nuclear history can be comforting — because it explains the rise of the field of security studies and provides the intellectual architecture for the ideas behind nuclear peace. Because a key part of the stylized telling is how the wizards transformed American policy (and saved the world!), it also suggests that scholarly ideas matter to policymakers. As Marc Trachtenberg points out, however, analysis of the civilian nuclear strategists often suffered from being both “apolitical in substance” and “ahistorical in method.”[58] Bruce Kuklick is even more harsh: The strategists “professed deep understanding” but actually “groped in the dark” and their ideas “had little causal impact.”[59] The problem is that as history, the story of the “Wizards of Armageddon” is, at best, overstated and misleading; at worst, it bears little relation to what actually happened.[60] The second history is rhetorical. Through speeches and published documents, the United States government has used public declarations to indicate its views on nuclear weapons. Prominent examples include Eisenhower administration Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s “massive retaliation” speech given at the Council on Foreign Relations in 1954, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s University of Michigan commencement address in 1962 laying out the flexible-response doctrine and his 1967 doctrine on missile defense, Nixon administration Defense Secretary James Schlesinger’s announcement of a new doctrine in January 1974, or the discussion surrounding President Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Directive 59.[61] Understandably, these public declarations are analyzed to better understand the role of nuclear weapons in American grand strategy. Interpreting policy rhetoric is always challenging, however, especially when nuclear strategy is involved. These speeches and documents were often vehicles to send signals to a variety of audiences — domestic, allied, and adversarial — that involved assurance, reassurance, inhibition, and deterrence missions.[62] Cameron notes that American policymakers frequently played a “double game,” struggling to “balance the demands of presenting a front of strategic coherence” when, behind the scenes, things were far more complicated and uncertain.[63] Many public missions and messages of nuclear strategy were at cross purposes. For example, “the rhetoric of flexible response … was convenient to top U.S. policymakers for reasons that had little to do with enhancing deterrence or winning a nuclear war.”[64] And, as will be discussed further, nuclear rhetoric is often imprecise, unrealistic, and easily drained of meaning. [quote id="4"] The third strand is the operational history of the United States and nuclear weapons. The United States devoted enormous resources to develop certain kinds of nuclear weapons systems, deployed in surprising ways and places, as part of often-extraordinary strategies. It is critical to understand what weapons were developed and why, where and how they were deployed and targeted, and in what strategies. This history is closely guarded, but these operational decisions appear to have been driven by a complex brew of technological factors, alliance relations, and geopolitical competition, as well as bureaucratic and organization interests and domestic political considerations. The intellectual history, as told by the “Wizards of Armageddon,” and the rhetorical history laid out by political leaders often bears little resemblance to the acquisition, deployment, and use plans developed as core parts of U.S. grand strategy. As the historian David Alan Rosenberg argues, “nuclear strategy does not, in reality, consist of concepts or even policy statements. It consists of concrete decisions regarding war plans, budgets, forces, and deployments.”[65] The fourth strand of history is both the most important and the most obscure: presidential history. The structure, laws, and customs of war-making in the United States combined with the unique characteristics of nuclear weapons provides the president extraordinary power and singular responsibilities over nuclear weapons.[66] What a president thought about nuclear weapons — whether and under what circumstances he might threaten or even use nuclear weapons — is of fundamental importance. How can scholars get at these beliefs and how they informed decisions?[67] How did such beliefs change over time — both across and within administrations? How did thinking about nuclear use — or avoiding nuclear use — shape particular decisions about larger issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy and grand strategy? Even when the question of using nuclear weapons was not explicit, it no doubt cast a shadow over multiple policies. Understanding and reconstructing this past is extraordinarily difficult.[68] What is one to make, for example, of Nixon’s loose rhetoric about nuclear use in private, when his actions and policies often revealed quite careful and responsible considerations? Or Dean Acheson’s advice to President John F. Kennedy that he never reveal whether or not he would use nuclear weapons? As former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Rosenberg,
nuclear strategy…is determined by the President’s views and intentions, not by policy or planning documents, or even force structures. The President alone determines how nuclear war will be fought, by virtue of his position in a highly centralized command and control structure.[69]
Reconstructing America’s nuclear past and explaining how it both shaped and was shaped by U.S. grand strategy is a daunting task. It demands integrating all four strands of this history, while deconflicting contradictory elements and assessing what forces and factors are most important. It also requires figuring out how nuclear history interacts with, and is distinct from, other powerful historical forces as varied as regional rivalries, decolonization, and the Cold War. This task is made all the more difficult by the challenges laid out in the next section: Ultimately, the past scholars and analysts are exploring is a history that never happened and thus cannot be observed, analyzed, or measured — the history of thermonuclear war.

III. A Loss for Words?

It should not be surprising that neither international relations theory nor history has satisfactorily explained the role of nuclear weapons in American grand strategy. Two reasons for this are baked into the nature of the nuclear enterprise. First, nuclear weapons present profound and often unsettling moral challenges that can make discussing their role in grand strategy difficult and divisive. It can also cause scholarship to bleed into advocacy. Second, there are profound methodological challenges in trying to understand the role of nuclear weapons. When scholars analyze the role of nuclear weapons in American grand strategy, we are most interested in phenomena that have not occurred, such as thermonuclear war, and policy outcomes that are difficult to observe and measure — such as deterrence, assurance, and resolve — or even to prove operative. These challenges pull in different directions. Analysts understandably hold strong views about nuclear weapons, which drives them to speak with authority and passion about the role and purpose of the bomb in American grand strategy. Yet, many of these deep-seated beliefs are difficult, even impossible, to prove with history or with theory. A debate that should be marked by humility and respect is often polarizing and unproductive. Talking About the Unthinkable The moral problem surrounding nuclear weapons is basic and unsettling. How should one speak about and analyze something that is unthinkable: detonating nuclear weapons against another nation? Use of these weapons would be catastrophic. It would reflect a historic failure of policy and, in many cases, would amount to mass murder. Yet, the threat to use these weapons in a variety of scenarios — including many that do not involve an attack upon the United States or an adversary’s use of nuclear weapons — has been the backbone of American grand strategy for decades. The language used to discuss these dilemmas rarely captures the magnitude of nuclear decision-making, and both academic and policy discourse often drift into a world of insider jargon and toothless acronyms that mask the extraordinary potential consequences of this debate. More than 30 years ago, Carol Cohn highlighted “the elaborate use of abstraction and euphemism, of words so bland that they never forced the speaker or enabled the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust that lay behind the words.”[70] As Michael Quinlan wisely recommended, “thinking about nuclear weapons must be constantly on the alert — the more so in the absence of historical experience to anchor and calibrate discussion — to probe behind words and customary expressions so as to recall the underlying realities.”[71] The colorless language used to describe elements of this strategy and the underlying threat of nuclear confrontation that undergirds it — deterrence, credibility, signaling, escalation — is often eerily disconnected from the realities behind the words. Nina Tannenwald observed a “disconnect between how ordinary people” thought about nuclear weapons and how academic deterrence theory discussed these issues. “These game theoretic analyses, I found, had little to say about issues of revulsion and morality.”[72] Reid Pauly has termed this “rhetorical evaporation” — whereby the words policymakers and scholars use to describe U.S. nuclear policies are drained of meaning.[73] This rhetorical evaporation goes to the heart of a grand-strategic problem the United States has faced since the start of the thermonuclear age: The most important goal of American nuclear weapons policy is to guarantee that they are never used. This policy tautology was bound, over time, to undermine the threat needed to project deterrence and arguably has driven the United States to greater and more strenuous actions to demonstrate the credibility of an action no one really believes it would take. The lack of clarity about language and meaning surrounding the purposes of nuclear weapons has consequences for policy. An October 2016 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies connected poor morale and dysfunction among American officials responsible for nuclear weapons to the difficulties of clearly communicating what role the bomb served in American grand strategy. Looking over years of nuclear policies, the report pointed out that “a coherent narrative about the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons has not been sufficiently stated and promulgated” to those in the military responsible for nuclear weapons. The report criticized how U.S. nuclear weapons policy “is described in highly sophisticated strategic logic that is not very accessible to the general public or the junior nuclear personnel.” It is filled with “concepts and jargon that are not routinely defined and explained” and focuses on “what nuclear weapons will not do,” supplemented by “descriptions of decline, reduction, and diminishment.”[74] The inability to connect these fearsome weapons to explicit U. S. interests in a convincing manner arguably plays into a culture burdened by accidents and scandal.[75] The lack of clear language to describe a willingness to do the unthinkable, in order to avoid the unthinkable, is only one challenge. It would be impossible to wrestle with these issues without engaging deep moral considerations, a stance which presents difficulties for a purely “social scientific” approach. The lines between analysis and advocacy are often easily — if understandably — blurred.  Robert Jervis, the father of the nuclear-revolution framework, admirably has acknowledged that mutual second-strike capabilities may not “have been as secure as I and most others believed” in the 1980s. In May 2018, he explained:
Although I stand behind the arguments I made in The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy and The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution, and believe that they represent a significant scholarly contribution, they were also interventions in a fierce political debate. … I was trying to persuade as well as analyze.[76]
This moral and rhetorical challenge is especially pointed for the United States. One can imagine, for example, a state using nuclear weapons as a last resort to repel a more powerful enemy that seeks to conquer its territory. The United States, however, fields nuclear weapons to achieve a variety of goals that fall well below the level of existential, including extending deterrence over allies while inhibiting their nuclear ambitions and seeking coercive advantages during crises with adversaries. These goals require more nuclear weapons in far more aggressive strategies than simply deterring invasion or nuclear attack upon the American homeland. Relying on such profoundly powerful instruments to achieve less-than-existential goals inevitably generates credibility issues. How believable are American nuclear policies? The United States has worked hard to ameliorate these credibility concerns over the years using a variety of tactics, including diplomacy and consultation with allies, nuclear sharing, developing and deploying counterforce delivery capabilities, and a willingness to use nuclear weapons first, in addition to foreign policy and military commitments that would, in a non-nuclear world, be puzzling at best.[77] Given nuclear weapons’ fundamental role in American grand strategy, will these words, commitments, weapons, and strategies remain convincing and credible in years to come? Within decades after the close of World War II — a horrendously violent war of savage conquest and genocide — analysts began to doubt that the United States would use nuclear weapons against a bitter ideological and geopolitical rival committed to its downfall. In today’s far different world, marked by relative peace, stability, and the apparent disappearance of war between the great powers, does anyone — ally or foe — know the circumstances that would prompt the United States to use nuclear weapons? Does Russia or China believe that the United States would use nuclear weapons in response to an attack on Estonia or Taiwan, for example? How and in what ways will that matter for the future of American grand strategy? Measuring the Unobservable, Observing the Immeasurable The second, and bigger, challenge to understanding nuclear weapons and U.S. grand strategy is the methodological conundrum. The most important question surrounding nuclear weapons involves a non-event: understanding why there has never been a thermonuclear war and what lessons can be derived from this non-event to keep this streak going, preferably forever. As John Lewis Gaddis pointed out while the Cold War was still ongoing, “Anyone attempting to understand why there has been no third world war confronts a problem not unlike that of Sherlock Holmes and the dog that did not bark in the night: how does one account for something that did not happen?”[78] What factors start or prevent thermonuclear war are arguable since one has never taken place. Nuclear deterrence and assurance, in all their forms, are ultimately connected to estimates about the causes and likelihood of thermonuclear war that are difficult, if not impossible, to calculate. Social science relies on observations and measurements to identify patterns and causal paths in order to generate theories that drive predictions and inform policies. History requires accumulating, sorting, and making sense of evidence about things that happen in the world. How do you generate reliable theories, histories, and policy recommendations about phenomena for which there are few or no observations or measurements? Analysts have used a variety of plausible proxies, such as how nuclear weapons affect state behavior, both in normal circumstances and crises, but the insights of such approaches have limits. It is hard enough for scholars to find consensus on things that actually happened, such as the origins of World War I.[79] Developing a consensus about a non-event one cannot observe, measure, or assess is obviously harder. [quote id="5"] This challenge plagues any assessment of U.S. nuclear postures and their role in grand strategy. Desired outcomes such as deterrence, extended deterrence, assurance, re-assurance, and credibility are elusive and can be proven only ex post, if at all. As Quinlan notes, “We have no further empirical data about how events may run if nuclear weapons are used, or if nuclear powers come seriously to blows with one another without such use.”[80] Even if deterrence and credibility could, somehow, be observed and measured, they are characteristics and phenomena driven by intangible qualities such as fear, uncertainty, and resolve. These psychological factors depend far more on context and circumstance than the material factors that make up much of international politics. Furthermore, these are human characteristics and it is unclear how to aggregate such feelings from the level of individuals to the policies and behaviors of institutions and states. These challenges affect understanding of other important nuclear behavior, such as why states that our theories would have expected to develop nuclear weapons — a wide-ranging group that might have included Australia, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland, and Yugoslavia — never developed the bomb. Decisions against doing things — not to detonate a nuclear device during a war, not to acquire nuclear weapons — are difficult to fully assess.[81] Even though many of these phenomena are elusive, analysts intuit that nuclear weapons cast a powerful shadow over foreign policy and grand strategy. Nuclear weapons obviously matter enormously, even if precisely how cannot always be proven. Consider the heated controversy over whether and how nuclear superiority — if it could be properly measured — is important to outcomes in the world. Perhaps the best that can be done is to acknowledge, as Philip Zelikow writes, that “U.S. nuclear superiority mattered. And, at some level, it also didn’t. At times both of these propositions were, at one and the same time, true.”[82] These challenges — linguistic, moral, and methodological — should not prevent the development of rigorous theories and histories of nuclear weapons and American grand strategy. If anything, they invite working harder to surface underlying assumptions and rigorous examination of both the deductive and inductive foundations of these arguments. What is most important here is to better recognize the challenges and barriers to certainty and proceed with humility in the face of daunting questions that have profound policy consequences. As Quinlan notes, the “limitation in our knowledge ought to instill in all who make predictive statements about these issues a degree of humility not always evident.”[83] American grand strategy with nuclear weapons is based on a variety of deeply held assumptions that have rarely been tested and are difficult to prove.

IV. Worse Before It Gets Better

The incomplete understanding of nuclear history and dynamics has consequences for present and future American grand strategy. If these theories and histories are problematic or questionable, it may affect how to evaluate nuclear policies and grand strategies that are chosen in the future. Even if little changed in the contemporary nuclear landscape, it is critical to have a far better, more comprehensive understanding of the past. The circumstances and environment in which nuclear decisions are made will change enormously in the years to come. Four trends stand to be especially consequential. The Return of Geopolitics The first trend is geopolitical. World politics is changing in at least three ways that might influence how nuclear weapons and U.S. grand strategy interact. First, the structure of world politics has shifted from bipolarity during the Cold War to unipolarity in the years since the demise of the Soviet Union to the possible emergence of multi-polarity or even, as Richard Haass has dubbed it, non-polarity. Contemporary analysts and decision-makers have no experience with nuclear dynamics in such a transformed international system. Will states increase their desire for and efforts to acquire the bomb? Would states be more willing to threaten and even use nuclear weapons in a post-bipolar and post-unipolar world? This relates to the second change: the increased geopolitical assertiveness of America’s primary nuclear-armed competitors, China and Russia.[84] Both countries are modernizing their nuclear forces (albeit at different paces and in different ways), and both have made efforts to reexamine their nuclear doctrines. There are dangerous scenarios — such as a crisis over Taiwan, a clash over disputed territories in the South China Sea, or an attack on a NATO member in the Baltics — in which nuclear weapons might plausibly be engaged, either on purpose or inadvertently. Third, U.S. allies and adversaries, as well as neutral countries, will continue to make their own choices about nuclear capabilities based in part on their beliefs about the role of nuclear weapons in American grand strategy. This can take many forms. Changes in the international environment or American grand strategy, perceptions of declining U.S. credibility or power, intensifying regional rivalries, or technological developments might contribute to shifts in the global nuclear landscape. The use of nuclear weapons by regional adversaries — India and Pakistan, for example — might entangle the United States and its nuclear forces in unforeseen and unwelcome ways. Smaller, arguably less responsible countries such as North Korea or Iran could expand their nuclear programs. Geopolitical shifts are taking place today under a U.S. administration whose policies on nuclear weapons and grand strategies can most generously be described as erratic; meanwhile, America’s role in the world, regardless of who is in the White House, is uncertain. Brave New World The second trend affecting nuclear weapons and American grand strategy is technological. As Keir Lieber and Daryl Press argue in their path-breaking research, “Changes in technology … are eroding the foundations of nuclear deterrence.”[85] Three forces in particular are expected to have important consequences for nuclear weapons’ role in American grand strategy: first, changes in nuclear technology and the systems that support nuclear weapons; second, emerging technologies such as cyber and artificial intelligence; and third, the blurring of the once-stark line between nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities. Changes in nuclear technology have had and will continue to have profound consequences for American grand strategy. The nuclear-revolution school often portrays the bomb in a binary fashion: as a technology that, once achieved, needs little change or improvement. In this thinking, what matters is whether or not one possesses a bomb, not what kind one has, where it is held, or how it is delivered or supported. Analysts often forget, however, three crucial characteristics about nuclear weapons. One, as Michael Horowitz has written, “nuclear weapons and missiles are relatively old technologies,” within the reach of many if not most modern states.[86] Next, nuclear weapons are not a static technology but one that has changed and will continue to shift over time. Finally, nuclear bombs are only one aspect of the technology that affects American grand strategy. Enormous changes to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; command, control, and communications; and the capabilities to deliver nuclear bombs have had and will continue to have profound consequences for nuclear strategy and statecraft. As Lieber and Press point out, synergistic revolutions in computing power and remote sensing make nuclear forces “far more vulnerable than before.”[87] These changes will intensify in the decades to come. The United States has committed to spending more than $1 trillion on modernizing its capabilities — a remarkable commitment in a time of competing demands. Much of this modernization, moreover, focuses on advancing characteristics — accuracy, speed, stealth, and miniaturization — that could make nuclear weapons appear more usable in a crisis. This massive, multi-decade investment began during the previous U.S. administration, despite being seemingly at odds with President Barack Obama’s 2009 pledge “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”[88] [quote id="6"] In addition, technologies are emerging that may influence and potentially shape the future nuclear environment. Cyber, artificial intelligence, robotics, unmanned aerial vehicles, hypersonic and directed energy, nanotechnology, and as-yet-undeveloped technologies will have unknown effects. A recent RAND study, for example, warned that “artificial intelligence (AI) might portend new capabilities that could spur arms races or increase the likelihood of states escalating to nuclear use — either intentionally or accidentally — during a crisis.”[89] Cyber presents similar challenges. As a recent Chatham House report explained,
During peacetime, offensive cyber activities would create a dilemma for a state as it may not know whether its systems have been the subject of a cyberattack. This unknown could have implications for military decision-making, particularly for decisions affecting nuclear weapons deterrence policies. At times of heightened tension, cyberattacks on nuclear weapons systems could cause an escalation, which results in their use.[90]
These capabilities would have direct bearing on the role and use of nuclear weapons in American grand strategy. Meanwhile, the United States has already developed impressive non-nuclear and non-kinetic weapons capable of carrying out missions that were once the sole provenance of the bomb, including holding an adversary’s nuclear capabilities at risk. This shift has the potential to blur the line between conventional and nuclear war. As Rovner points out, there is an increasing worry that “inadvertent escalation may occur when conventional attacks put the adversary’ s nuclear force at risk.”[91] Caitlin Talmadge argues that American military action could easily be misunderstood by China as a direct threat to its retaliatory capabilities, and so “Chinese nuclear escalation in the event of a conventional war with the United States is a significant risk.”[92] New technologies, combined with how the United States has prosecuted its recent wars, may leave a nuclear adversary uncertain as to whether its nuclear forces are being targeted for elimination, possibly inciting “use it or lose it” pressures. Michael Kofman controversially suggests that, “The Pentagon remains wholly committed to the fantasy of having conventional wars with nuclear states, where they will let us win, accepting defeat without a nuclear exchange.”[93] How should one think about conventional capabilities — or non-kinetic tools — that potentially blunt or eliminate a country’s ability to use its nuclear weapons? How to define and respond to a cyberattack that undermines a country’s secure deterrent yet did not kill or injure a single person? Much existing analysis of the role of nuclear weapons assumes a stark divide between nuclear and non-nuclear conflict, a distinction that may become dangerously cloudy over time. According to Andrew Krepinevich, “The firebreak between conventional and nuclear war is slowly disappearing.”[94] As a recent study explained,
The future of nuclear deterrence is complicated further by the proliferation of conventional military technologies that may undermine traditional modes of escalation management, and as a consequence, nuclear stability. Much attention has already been given to the possible effects of several such technologies, to include stealthy unattended ground sensors, uninhabited aerial vehicles, micro-satellites, and ballistic missile defenses. Comparatively little attention, however, has been given to the possible implications of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence for nuclear stability.[95]
As James Acton perceptively notes, the “emerging interactions between nuclear and nonnuclear weapons … may prove to be a defining risk of the current nuclear age.”[96] Un-usability and Its Consequences The third trend is global public opinion. While the major nuclear powers are modernizing their forces, much of the rest of the world has been clamoring for a reduction — indeed elimination — of nuclear weapons. As Nina Tannenwald explained in her magisterial study, The Nuclear Taboo, outside of the nuclear powers, “nuclear deterrence has not been viewed as a legitimate practice for most of the other states of the world.”[97] This is not new. Since the start of the nuclear age, many non-state actors and governments have lobbied fiercely for nuclear reductions and disarmament. Nearly three decades after the Cold War ended, however, much of the non-nuclear world questions why more progress has not been made toward ridding the world of the bomb. As Heather Williams, Patricia Lewis, and Sasan Aghlani make clear, “civil society groups and the majority of states have not yet given up on nuclear disarmament.”[98] Pope Francis has declared that “Nuclear deterrence and the threat of mutually assured destruction cannot be the basis for an ethics of fraternity and peaceful coexistence among peoples and states.”[99] In 2017, the U.N. General Assembly passed a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. This emerged in large part from the popular global campaign to highlight the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. Conversations about nuclear weapons take a much different form in Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, or Vienna than they do in Washington, D.C. It is hard to assess how and to what extent emerging global norms will shape U.S. policies in the years to come. Tannenwald has identified the power of the nuclear taboo on state behavior, and John Mueller has highlighted the rise of powerful norms on issues such as slavery and dueling that could eventually affect not simply nuclear use but also nuclear possession. Norms and public opinion may not be determinative, but they also cannot be ignored. Tannenwald’s work suggests that even in states with nuclear weapons “national leaders do take the notion of world opinion seriously.”[100] There may come a time when the majority of the world sees merely possessing nuclear weapons, let alone using them, as wrongheaded and immoral. This relates to a fourth trend: the consequences for American grand strategy of the decreasing credibility of threats of nuclear use that undergird nuclear deterrence. Short of a “bolt from the blue” nuclear attack by an adversary — and possibly even then — how does one evaluate and assess the credibility of U.S. threats to use nuclear weapons? The probability of an invasion of the United States has not increased. The credibility issues surrounding U.S. nuclear guarantees to allies — a deep challenge even during the Cold War — may increase over time. Tannenwald captures this dynamic well:
Even though US leaders came to believe that nuclear weapons should not really be used, they were not willing to give up nuclear deterrence. But they were caught in the paradox recognized early on by nuclear strategists: making deterrence credible (especially in the face of the threat of mutual assured destruction) required convincing the adversary that the United States would actually use such weapons. As such threats became less credible over time for both deterrence and normative reasons, more numerous and more elaborate strategies were sought in an effort to bolster credibility.[101]
There is conflicting evidence about Americans’ willingness to support the use of nuclear weapons. A report chaired by the former commander of America’s strategic nuclear forces posited that “There is no conceivable situation in the contemporary world” where it would be in either Russia’s or the United States’ “national security interest to initiate a nuclear attack against the other side.”[102] Important studies suggest that Americans would support nuclear use under certain circumstances,[103] while other evidence suggests that in simulated crises it has always been difficult to get approval to use nuclear weapons.[104] If elite wargames designed and played by Thomas Schelling, Henry Kissinger, and others in the 1960s found it extremely difficult to get players to initiate a nuclear war, even when the games were rigged to make nuclear use easier, how likely are scholars today to get anyone to think about using nuclear weapons? That nuclear use is becoming increasingly unthinkable is obviously a good thing. If the bomb is unusable, however, an American grand strategy that relies heavily upon nuclear weapons to achieve many of its key missions may be increasingly untenable. Collectively, these trends should make understanding the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. grand strategy even more difficult in the years to come — and more critical.

V. Resisting the Revolution, or Revolution à la carte

Why is a grand-strategic lens the best way to understand nuclear weapons and their consequences, especially in the case of the United States? And how best to understand the role and purpose of nuclear weapons in American grand strategy? There are two criticisms of using a grand-strategic approach to America’s nuclear weapons policies. First, some are skeptical of the concept of grand strategy, arguing that it falsely conveys a picture of policy coherence.[105] This lack of coherence marks U.S. policy in particular.[106] Second, as discussed above, many believe the transformative power of nuclear weapons reduces and even eliminates the choices that leaders and states can make. The power of nuclear deterrence and the reality of mutual vulnerability remove many of the grand-strategic options and maneuvers available to states in nuclear competition, tying the hands of leaders. While there is some merit to these critiques, they are not ultimately convincing. Although it is unable to overcome all of the methodological, linguistic, and normative challenges surrounding nuclear behavior, grand strategy does recognize an obvious, but often overlooked, point: that nuclear weapons are, first and foremost, tools for states to accomplish their goals in the world. These goals, and the capabilities to achieve them, vary significantly across time, countries, leaders, and circumstance. A grand-strategic frame best captures such variance, as well as the radical uncertainty, risk profiles, trade-offs, moral challenges, and unintended consequences that policymakers face when deciding about an unknowable future.[107] Grand strategy recognizes the “crucible of uncertainty and risk” where decisions are made.[108] [quote id="7"] What insights might a grand-strategic lens provide about the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policies? Considered broadly, the most important observation is that the United States never fully accepted the consequences of the nuclear revolution. In fact, the United States has, from the start of the nuclear age, worked eagerly to resist and overcome many of the revolutionary consequences of the bomb. It has done so with one overriding goal: to escape vulnerability — to the extent possible — and to obtain and maintain the greatest freedom of action it could to pursue its grand-strategic interests in the world.[109] This should not surprise anyone. Since 1945, the United States has been the leading power in the international system, at times possessing conventional military, economic, and cultural-ideological capabilities far in excess of any other state. Creating strategic stability, maintaining the international status quo, and avoiding war were not the only goals of American grand strategy since 1945, nor were they always the most important objectives. Many times, the United States wanted to avoid being deterred and constrained by the bomb.[110] Nuclear deterrence, remember, looks one way to a status quo, medium-size state that lacks global ambitions and whose primary concern is to avoid being invaded, conquered, or intimidated. It looks different to the most powerful state in the system, one facing no risk of invasion or conquest and whose conventional military and economic strength, absent nuclear deterrence, would allow it great freedom of action (and far less vulnerability) in the world. It is natural that the United States would seek to resist deterrence and get around the constrictions the bomb effectively places on its freedom of action. It was not always obvious, however, how this extremely ambitious goal could be achieved. American policymakers faced fateful choices, and few actions were pre-ordained. In the years after World War II, for example, American leaders could have invested their enormous political capital in pursuing nuclear disarmament or international control of the bomb.[111] At the other extreme, the United States might have launched preventive attacks against the Soviet Union and its nascent nuclear capabilities, while threatening to do the same to any other country that attempted to develop nuclear weapons.[112] Both options were at least discussed and ultimately dismissed. In later years, American leaders could have developed policies that relied less on extended nuclear deterrence by building up conventional forces that matched those of the Soviet Union in Central Europe. Or U.S. policymakers might have encouraged Western European and Asian allies to acquire and develop their own nuclear capabilities, which would have guaranteed their security without an expensive American military commitment that exposed the United States to attack. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States could have abandoned arms-control efforts and engaged in a quantitative arms race with the Soviet Union; or American presidents might have avoided massive investments in qualitative improvements in nuclear capabilities and simply embraced parity and mutual vulnerability. These were plausible options available to U.S. presidents for how nuclear weapons would be incorporated into grand strategy. How were these choices made, and how should the alternatives be evaluated? This question should be the focus of renewed research by historians and international relations scholars attempting to understand and evaluate America’s choices with the bomb. While one purpose of America’s grand strategy is to overcome the constraints of nuclear deterrence, this goal was pursued in ways that often appear to be in tension, even contradiction, with each other. At times, U.S. leaders pursued what might be labeled “nuclear activism” — the idea that nuclear weapons are crucial instruments of statecraft and that advantages in capabilities versus adversaries were both achievable and would translate into important policy outcomes in the world. This can be seen in America’s persistent and expensive efforts over the past eight decades to develop and deploy sophisticated nuclear systems in forward-leaning strategies on behalf of expansive grand missions like extended deterrence. It can also be seen in the extraordinary U.S. efforts to prevent other states from acquiring nuclear weapons. At other times, the U.S. government advocated forms of “nuclear abstinence.” Strategic stability, mutual vulnerability, and both vertical and horizontal arms control were actively encouraged. The United States went further at points, denigrating the political utility of nuclear weapons and suggesting that the burdens, costs, and dangers of the bomb were not worth it and that the world might be better off free of all nuclear weapons. For much of its nuclear history, however, the United States has put forward both nuclear activism and abstinence, as it does when it seeks strategic nuclear advantages in order to limit the spread of nuclear weapons to its friends and allies. What explains this apparent contradiction? Perhaps the best way to understand these tensions and contradictions — seeking both nuclear primacy and non-proliferation, embracing the first use of nuclear weapons while advocating a world free of them — is to imagine American policymaking as akin to the choice of a switch-hitter in baseball, deciding whether to bat right-handed or left-handed. In the end, it simply chooses the side that offers the best chance for success, defined as reducing U.S. vulnerability and increasing its freedom of action in the world. Sometimes, the choice of whether to bat left or right is obvious, whereas, at other times it has not always been clear which side — nuclear activism or abstinence — would provide the best outcomes for the United States. On the one hand, nuclear weapons provided American leaders with certain advantages. The United States developed nuclear weapons first, and for most of the nuclear age it has possessed superiority, often enormous superiority, in qualitative capabilities — if not always quantity — over any of its competitors, an advantage that is likely to persist. Nuclear weapons have, arguably, allowed the United States to pursue strategies that may have otherwise been too difficult or expensive, such as the defense of Western Europe against the Soviet Union’s large and close armies after World War II. On the other hand, the risks of a nuclearized environment are terrifying. In an international system based on deterrence, the bomb could be used by others to constrain the United States and dilute the effect of other forms of American power. As Jervis pointed out, “One could argue that it is only nuclear weapons that stand between the US and world domination, at least as far as the use and threat of force are concerned.”[113] The United States, obviously, does not reject every aspect of the nuclear revolution. After almost a half-century of murderous conflict and world war during the first half of the 20th century, the stabilizing and peace-inducing qualities of nuclear deterrence were no doubt welcome, including by American leaders. Rather, American policymakers often reject and try to overcome those aspects of nuclear weapons power that they don’t like, while maintaining those that advance their interests. Through nuclear activism and abstinence and everything in between, the United States takes an à la carte view of the nuclear revolution. Did these choices make for wise grand strategy? As explained above, it is difficult to identify and assess the causal effects of nuclear weapons on important outcomes in American foreign policy and world politics. Answering these and similar questions requires engaging counterfactual reasoning while at the same time making assumptions about the purpose and effects of nuclear weapons.[114] These conjectures are almost impossible to test and verify. Perhaps great-power war would have decreased, if not disappeared, in a non-nuclear world, driven out by the increased lethality of war, demographics and interdependence, or shifting norms.[115] Maybe in a non-nuclear world, Berlin’s political status would have been easily resolved or would have been the cause of a third world war.[116] Perhaps it was the expense of the arms race that accelerated Soviet decline, or perhaps the communist state would have collapsed from its internal rot regardless of what nuclear weapons system or strategies the United States did or did not deploy. In a postwar world with a less engaged, more restrained United States, more independent nuclear-weapons states may have emerged, with uncertain consequences. [quote id="8"] The nuclear revolution — and America’s responses to it — also may have transformed other elements of U.S. grand strategy in ways that are underappreciated. The power of nuclear deterrence and the dangers of escalation in the nuclear age may have shifted by who, how, and for how long the United States prepares to fight with conventional weapons. American leaders have been obsessed with demonstrating resolve and credibility since 1945, including pursuing military action in areas of the world where it was difficult to identify vital U.S. interests. Would the United States invest blood and treasure in Southeast Asia, for example, in a world without nuclear weapons? Would it still have fought two costly wars in Iraq? Even where nuclear weapons are not explicitly engaged, they cast a long shadow over grand-strategic decisions. Even with all these caveats, and recognizing numerous self-inflicted wounds and disastrous military interventions, one can imagine grand-strategic choices surrounding nuclear weapons with far worse outcomes. After all, the United States prevailed in its Cold War struggle against the Soviet Union without a nuclear exchange or great-power war. It maintains extraordinary power and influence in a world where the streak on nuclear non-use has continued and where, despite dire predictions to the contrary, the number of nuclear-weapons states remains in the single digits. It is not hard to construct plausible alternative histories with far graver outcomes. That said, it is right to ask whether the United States’ heavy reliance on the bomb in its grand strategy has outlived its utility.


The cover of a recent Foreign Affairs asked, “Do nuclear weapons matter?” As the introduction to the issue explained, “[T]hey are purchased, deployed, and discussed on separate tracks from the rest of the foreign policy agenda, and they are largely ignored, with little apparent consequence.”[117] This essay makes clear that this lack of scrutiny courts trouble. There is much we do not know about the purpose and effects of America’s nuclear posture, and much of what we think we know deserves rigorous interrogation. Without a doubt, many other pressing and significant issues confront American policymakers, world leaders, and scholars. Nevertheless, no discussion or debate about United States grand strategy — to say nothing of the future prospects for and the shape of world order — can proceed without coming to terms with the nuclear question. As Beatrice Fihn pointed out, “if there’s nuclear war, there’s no other agenda to talk about.”[118] What is the future role of nuclear weapons in American grand strategy? Significant changes in technology, geopolitics, and global public opinion present American decision-makers with crucial questions. Should the United States continue to rely so heavily on nuclear weapons to underwrite grand-strategic missions beyond defending the homeland? Will the United States be forced to overcome its “credibility gap” by continuing to massively invest in capabilities and postures, nuclear and non-nuclear, that decrease American vulnerability to nuclear attack, while increasing U.S. abilities to preempt threats? Or should the United States encourage nuclear abstinence in an effort to remove the constraining effects on its own freedom of action while inhibiting new, independent nuclear programs? Will other capabilities — conventional, space, or cyber — augment or replace the role of nuclear weapons? In all likelihood, the answer will continue to be “all of the above,” as American grand strategy retains its confusing, frustrating balance between relying heavily on nuclear deterrence while trying mightily to overcome its constraints. In shaking our complacency about American grand strategy and the bomb, we need a vigorous debate and discussion that interrogates many of our deeply held assumptions and convictions. For example, perhaps it is worth considering whether a grand strategy that seeks a world with fewer nuclear weapons, or even none at all, might advance U.S. interests the most. Can the United States find a way to retain the advantages that nuclear weapons have provided in the past, while limiting and even eliminating the challenges of a grand strategy centered upon the bomb in the future? As farfetched as that may seem, the United States has long reveled in opposing constraints imposed from the outside, while pushing its own revolutionary ideas on the world. Few could have predicted that the United States would have resisted the nuclear revolution as successfully as it has. Might a far-sighted United States grand strategy accomplish what is often seen as both impossible and irresponsible: eliminating the role of nuclear weapons in international relations, while advancing American interests in the world? Francis J. Gavin is the Chairman of the Editorial Board of the Texas National Security Review. He is the Giovanni Agnelli Distinguished Professor and the inaugural director of the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University. His writings include Gold, Dollars, and Power: The Politics of International Monetary Relations, 1958–1971 (University of North Carolina Press, 2004) and Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012). Image: U.S. Department of Energy [post_title] => Rethinking the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => rethinking-the-bomb-nuclear-weapons-and-american-grand-strategy [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-04-10 13:36:06 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-04-10 17:36:06 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Nuclear weapons have long played a central but often unappreciated role in American grand strategy. In spite of the unimaginable consequences of their use in war, we know far less about how the bomb shapes U.S. national security and world politics than we should. Both our leading theories and histories have failed to fully explain important choices American leaders have made about the bomb over the past eight decades. This is less a failing of scholarship and more a reflection of the steep methodological, linguistic, and normative barriers to understanding nuclear strategy and statecraft. This challenge will only deepen, as new geopolitical and technological forces return the critical question of the purpose and consequences of nuclear weapons to the heart of the debate about the future of America’s grand strategy. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The nuclear-revolution school argues that the bomb severely constrains and limits — and at times eliminates — the grand-strategic choices that were available to states and statesmen in the past. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Rarely has a state had less need for the bomb to guarantee its immediate territorial integrity, sovereignty, and security. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Unfortunately, less is known about U.S. nuclear history and its role in American grand strategy than is presumed, and what many people do know is often overly simplistic, misleading, or otherwise problematic. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The intellectual history, as told by the “Wizards of Armageddon,” and the rhetorical history laid out by political leaders often bears little resemblance to the acquisition, deployment, and use plans developed as core parts of U.S. grand strategy.  ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => How do you generate reliable theories, histories, and policy recommendations about phenomena for which there are few or no observations or measurements?  ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The nuclear-revolution school often portrays the bomb in a binary fashion: as a technology that, once achieved, needs little change or improvement.  ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Considered broadly, the most important observation is that the United States never fully accepted the consequences of the nuclear revolution.  ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Even where nuclear weapons are not explicitly engaged, they cast a long shadow over grand-strategic decisions. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1288 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 49 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] The ideas for this paper were first discussed at the September 2017 Nuclear Studies Research Initiative workshop in Greenbriar, West Virginia. I am grateful to all the participants for their feedback and especially grateful to Janne Nolan for hosting the event. I would also like to thank Hal Brands, Natalie Britton, Ryan Evans, Austin Long, Joshua Rovner, Philip Zelikow, and four anonymous reviewers for their excellent suggestions. [2] Hal Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 3. [3] Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 8. [4] Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 458. [5] While there are a range of perspectives within the nuclear-revolution framework, most derive and share the assumptions of defensive realism, which may be the most predominant theoretical approach to international relations within the field of American political science. For an interesting take on efforts by different realist camps to understand the effects of nuclear weapons on world politics, see Zanvyl Krieger and Ariel Ilan Roth, “Nuclear Weapons in Neo-Realist Theory,” International Studies Review 9, no. 3 (Autumn 2007): 369–84, [6] Stephen M. Walt, “Rethinking the ‘Nuclear Revolution,’” Foreign Policy, Aug. 3, 2010, [7] Robert Jervis, The Illogic of American Nuclear Statecraft, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press),12. [8] Charles L. Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 95. [9] Todd S. Sechser and Matthew Fuhrmann, Nuclear Weapons and Coercive Diplomacy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 6. The classic work arguing that nuclear weapons are ineffective for coercion is by Richard K. Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1987). [10] Joshua Rovner, “Was There a Nuclear Revolution? Strategy, Grand Strategy, and the Ultimate Weapon,” War on the Rocks, March 6, 2018, [11] Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 37. [12] Kenneth N. Waltz, “The Emerging Structure of International Politics,” International Security 18, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 73, [13] Kenneth N. Waltz, “Nuclear Myths and Political Realities,” American Political Science Review 84, no. 3 (September 1990): 732, [14] Sagan and Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons, 21–22. [15] Charles L. Glaser and Chaim Kauffman, “What Is the Offense-Defense Balance and Can We Measure It?” International Security 22, no. 4 (Spring 1998): 5–6, Italics added. [16] Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 178. [17] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 129. [18] John Lewis Gaddis, “The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System,” International Security 10, no. 4 (Spring 1986): 121, [19] Highlighting an irony: If the nuclear revolution was so obvious, powerful, and irresistible, why do analysts have to spend so much time telling policymakers to pursue the policy (or not fight against it) if it was the natural consequence of the revolution? [20] There were, of course, exceptions to this view. Among the original strategists, Albert Wohlstetter was often critical of the focus on mutual assured destruction, as was Herman Kahn. For an overview of the early debates, see Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983). Later critics of this view included Colin Gray and Keith Payne. See especially Colin S. Gray and Keith Payne, “Victory Is Possible,” Foreign Policy, no. 39 (Summer 1980): 14–27, [21] Rovner, “Was There a Nuclear Revolution?” [22] Protecting the territorial sovereignty of the homeland is obviously not the only U.S. national interest. The United States fought two world wars, in large part to prevent any state from consolidating Europe and using it as a base to threaten the Americas. The United States has been obsessed with expelling great-power influences from its hemisphere and guaranteeing that conflict takes place far away from its homeland. Historically, however, that is a rare luxury for a great power — even Britain and Japan, as well as the continental great powers, have had to worry far more about invasion of the homeland. And the United States developed nuclear weapons during World War II because of fears that Nazi Germany was developing the bomb. [23] Between 1940 and 1996, the United States spent $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons. Stephen I. Schwartz, “The Hidden Costs of Our Nuclear Arsenal: Overview of Project Findings,” Brookings Institution, June 30, 1998, [24] The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of operating and modernizing U.S. nuclear security forces at more than $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years. See: Congressional Budget Office, Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017–2046, October 2017, [25] On nuclear sharing, see Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1949–1963 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), passim. The best work on pre-delegation remains Peter Feaver, Guarding the Guardians: Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons in the United States (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992). [26] See the path-breaking scholarship of Keir Lieber, Daryl Press, Brendan Green, Austin Long, Niccolo Petrelli, and Giordana Pulcini, among others, cited throughout this essay. Two excellent forthcoming works will also provide comprehensive insight on this history: Brendan Green, “The Meaning of the Nuclear Counterrevolution: Arms Racing and Arms Control After MAD” (book manuscript in progress); and Timothy McDonnell, “The Sources of US Nuclear Posture, 1945 to Present” (PhD diss., MIT, 2018). [27] David Alan Rosenberg, “The Origins of Overkill: Nuclear Weapons and American Strategy, 1945–1960,” International Security 7, no. 4 (Spring 1983): 3–71, [28] James Cameron, The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 5. [29] John D. Maurer, “The Forgotten Side of Arms Control: Enhancing U.S. Competitive Advantage, Offsetting Enemy Strengths,” War on the Rocks, June 27, 2018, [30] Niccolo Petrelli and Giordana Pulcini, “Nuclear Superiority in the Age of Parity: US Planning, Intelligence Analysis, Weapons Innovation and the Search for a Qualitative Edge, 1969–1976,” International History Review 40, no. 5 (2018), [31] For excellent details on the characteristics of these systems and their influence on the strategic balance, see especially Austin Long and Brendan Rittenhouse Green, “Stalking the Secure Second Strike: Intelligence, Counterforce and Nuclear Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Studies 38, no. 1–2 (2015),; Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, “How Much is Enough? Testing Theories of Nuclear Deterrence,” unpublished manuscript, found at, cited with permission of author; and Petrelli and Pulcini, “Nuclear Superiority in the Age of Parity.” The best work on U.S. efforts on antisubmarine capabilities remains Owen R. Cote Jr.’s The Third Battle: Innovation in the US Navy’s Silent Cold War Struggle with Soviet Submarines (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 2003). [32] Long and Green, “Stalking the Secure Second Strike,” 41. [33] Brendan R. Green and Austin Long, “The MAD Who Wasn’t There: Soviet Reactions to the Late Cold War Nuclear Balance,” Security Studies 26, no. 4 (2017): 608, [34] Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “The New Era of Counterforce: Technological Change and the Future of Nuclear Deterrence,” International Security 41, no. 4 (Spring 2017), [35] Glenn Buchan, David M. Matonick, Calvin Shipbaugh, and Richard Mesic, Future Roles of U.S. Nuclear Forces: Implications for U.S. Strategy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2003), 92, Italics in original. [36] For a thorough exploration and ultimate rejection of the argument that an overly aggressive nuclear strategy was driven by “Pentagon bureaucrats and military officers pursuing organizational or service agendas, rather than national interest” — or what he calls “‘pathological posture’ theory” — see Timothy McDonnell, “The Sources of US Nuclear Posture, 1945 to Present” (PhD diss., MIT, 2019). [37] Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Austin Long, “The Geopolitical Origins of US Hard-Target-Kill Counterforce Capabilities and MIRVS,” in The Lure and Pitfalls of MIRVs: From the First to the Second Nuclear Age, ed. Michael Krepon, Travis Wheeler, and Shane Mason (Washington, DC: Stimson Center, 2016),; and Petrelli and Pulcini, “Nuclear Superiority in the Age of Parity.” [38] This is not to say there is not variation in the nuclear strategies, as Vipin Narang lays out brilliantly in his book about regional nuclear strategies. In addition to assured-retaliation postures, regional nuclear powers can choose catalytic or asymmetric escalation postures, both of which imply first use. See Vipin Narang, Nuclear Strategy in the Modern Era: Regional Powers and International Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014). [39] Green and Long, “The Geopolitical Origins of US Hard-Target-Kill Counterforce Capabilities and MIRVs,” 21. [40] Glenn A. Kent and David E. Thaler, First Strike Stability: A Methodology for Evaluating Strategic Forces (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 1989) 5, [41] Earl C. Ravenal, “Counterforce and Alliance: The Ultimate Connection,” International Security 6, no. 4 (Spring 1982): 26–43, [42] Henry L. Trewhitt, McNamara: His Ordeal in the Pentagon (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 115. [43] For insight on how American policymakers explored and assessed pre-emptive nuclear options, see Francis J. Gavin and Mira Rapp-Hooper, “The Copenhagen Temptation: Rethinking Prevention and Proliferation in the Age of Deterrence Dominance,” unpublished paper, available at [44] Logically, it would seem debatable that possessing increased potential for damage limitation well short of perfect first-strike capabilities would increase U.S. willingness to risk nuclear war to protect allies and enhance extended deterrence and even coercive leverage. Yet, the historical record demonstrates that American leaders were willing to pay quite a bit — financially, politically, and in terms of risk — to acquire these capabilities and, perhaps more important, that the Soviet Union and U.S. allies took these efforts seriously. [45] Francis J. Gavin, “Beyond Deterrence: U.S. Nuclear Statecraft Since 1945,” in Linton Brooks, Francis J. Gavin, and Alexei Arbatov, Meeting the Challenges of the New Nuclear Age: U.S. and Russian Nuclear Concepts, Past and Present (Cambridge, MS: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2018), [46] Kent and Thaler, First Strike Stability, 5. See also Brendan Rittenhouse Green and Austin Long, “Correspondence: The Limits of Damage Limitation,” International Security 42, no. 1 (Summer 2017), [47] Francis J. Gavin, “Strategies of Inhibition: U.S. Grand Strategy, the Nuclear Revolution, and Nonproliferation,” International Security 40, no. 1 (Summer 2015): 9–46, [48] Andrew J. Coe and Jane Vaynman, “Collusion and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime,” Journal of Politics 77, no. 4 (2015): 983–97, [49] For excellent insight on the challenges this new environment presented to traditional constitutional practices in United States national security decision-making, see Matthew Waxman, “NATO and War Powers: Remembering the ‘Great Debate’ of the 1950s," Lawfare, July 11, 2018,; Matthew C. Waxman, “The Power to Threaten War,” Yale Law Journal, no. 123 (2014), [50] Exemplary works in this category include McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988); George Bunn, Arms Control by Committee: Managing Negotiations with the Russians (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992); Gregg Herken Counsels of War (New York: Knopf, 1985); Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon; Richard Rhodes, Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007). Specialists in security studies and strategic studies demonstrate great appreciation for history, though they rarely pursue exhaustive, multi-archival work on their own and do not claim to do scholarly history. The best works in this tradition include the following: Richard Betts, Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1987);  Lawrence Freedman, Evolution of Nuclear Strategy (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 4th edition, 2019); Charles Glaser, Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990); Robert Jervis, The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); Scott Sagan, Moving Targets: Nuclear Strategy and National Security (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990). It is no overstatement to say that those in security and strategic studies would be thrilled if the scholarly history profession in the United States would devote more intellectual resources to mine the extraordinary increases in archival materials made available in recent years. That said, some of the best work with primary materials has been done by scholars in this field, including Brendan Green, Keir Lieber, Austin Long, and Daryl Press. [51] What follows is just a sample of this excellent new work on national nuclear programs, much of it supported by the path-breaking Nuclear Proliferation International History Project: On Australia, see Christine M. Leah, Australia and the Bomb (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014); on Brazil, see Carlo Patti, “Origins and Evolution of the Brazilian Nuclear Program (1947–2011),” Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, Nov. 15, 2012,; Avner Cohen, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010); on Italy, see Leopoldo Nuti, “Italy’s Nuclear Choices,” UNISCI Discussion Papers, no. 25 (January 2011),; on Japan, see Fintan Hoey Sato, America and the Cold War: U.S.–Japanese Relations, 1964–72 (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015); on Pakistan, see Feroz Khan, Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012); on Romania, see Eliza Gheorghe, “Atomic Maverick: Romania’s Negotiations for Nuclear Technology, 1964–1970,” Cold War History 13, no. 3 (2013),; on South Korea, see Se Young Jang, “Dealing with Allies’ Nuclear Ambitions: U.S. Nuclear Non-proliferation Policy toward South Korea and Taiwan, 1969–1981” (PhD diss., Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, 2015); on Sweden, see Thomas Jonter, “The Swedish Plans to Acquire Nuclear Weapons, 1945–1968: An Analysis of the Technical Preparations,” Science & Global Security, no. 18 (2010): 61–86,; on West Germany, see Andreas Lutsch, “The Persistent Legacy: Germany’s Place in the Nuclear Order,” Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP), Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, NPIHP Working Paper no. 5, May 19, 2015, [52] To give three examples: For an excellent history of U.S. arms-control policy during the Nixon presidency, see Cameron, The Double Game; for an excellent study of America’s early nuclear strategies, see Edward Kaplan, American Strategy in the Air-Atomic Age and the Rise of Mutually Assured Destruction (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015); for an excellent history of U.S. nuclear nonproliferation policies, see Shane Maddock, Nuclear Apartheid: The Quest for American Atomic Supremacy from World War II to the Present (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). [53] Hal Brands, “The Triumph and Tragedy of Diplomatic History,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 1 (December 2017), Even when there are diplomatic historians, there is almost no incentive for them to work on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. “Yet the turn toward diplomatic history as cultural, social, or gender history often pulled the field in a very different direction, one that dramatically deemphasized matters of foreign policy as it was traditionally understood?” See also Hal Brands and Francis J. Gavin, “The Historical Profession is Committing Slow-Motion Suicide,” War on the Rocks, Dec. 10, 2018, [54] Francis J. Gavin, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Nuclear Weapons: A Review Essay,” H-Diplo Roundtable, June 15, 2014,“what-we-talk-about-when-we-talk-about-nuclear. [55] The exception is Marc Trachtenberg’s path-breaking account of the first decades of the Cold War, which brilliantly integrates nuclear strategy into an understanding of U.S. grand strategy. Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1949–1963 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999). [56] Gavin, “Strategies of Inhibition.” [57] For one excellent example that reveals the deep interconnections between Cold War geopolitics, imperialism and decolonization, international economics and globalization, and nationalism and regional rivalries, see Philip Zelikow and Ernest May, Suez Deconstructed: An Interactive Study in Crisis, War, and Peacemaking (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2018). [58] Trachtenberg, History and Strategy, 46. [59] Bruce Kuklick, Blind Oracles: Intellectuals and War from Kennan to Kissinger (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 15–16. “Yet my philosophers in government knew and understood little, and had little influence qua intellectuals, except to perform feats of ventriloquy.” [60] For an excellent analysis, see Janne Nolan, Guardians of the Arsenal: The Politics of Nuclear Strategy (New York: Basic Books, 1989). [61] John Foster Dulles, “The Strategy of Massive Retaliation,” speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, Jan. 12, 1954,; Robert McNamara, “No Cities” commencement address in Ann Arbor, Michigan, July 9, 1962,; Robert McNamara, speech on anti-China missile defense and U.S. nuclear strategy, Sept. 19, 1967,; “Nixon’s Nuclear Doctrine,” New York Times, Jan. 15, 1974,; “The Carter Transformation of Our Strategic Doctrine,” memo from National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to President Jimmy Carter, Aug. 26, 1980, [62] For an excellent synthesis of how policymakers wrestle with domestic politics in nuclear decision-making, see Elizabeth N. Saunders, “The Domestic Politics of Nuclear Choices: What Have We Learned?” (unpublished paper). [63] Cameron, The Double Game, 7. [64] Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 31. [65] David Alan Rosenberg, “Reality and Responsibility: Power and Process in the Making of United States Nuclear Strategy, 1945–68,” Journal of Strategic Studies 9, no. 1 (1986): 35, [66] For a recent overview — with recommendations for how these procedures should be changed — see Richard K. Betts and Matthew C. Waxman, “The President and the Bomb: Reforming the Nuclear Launch Process, Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April 2018), [67] As Timothy McDonnell argues, “presidents, defense secretaries and other members of the president’s civilian executive team drive US nuclear posture, making posture decisions that they believe will advance American interests. At the same time, nuclear policy is a tough business, fraught with uncertainty and existential risk.” Timothy McDonnell, “The Sources of US Nuclear Posture, 1945 to Present,” (PhD diss., MIT, in progress). [68] For an excellent effort to make sense of the often contradictory policies and rhetoric of President Dwight D. Eisenhower on nuclear weapons, see Andrew P.N. Erdmann, “‘War no longer has any logic whatever’: Eisenhower and the Thermonuclear Revolution,” in Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb, ed. John Lewis Gaddis, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 87­–119. [69] Rosenberg, “Reality and Responsibility,” 48. McNamara’s view is obviously in slight tension with Rosenberg’s argument. [70] Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs 12, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 490, [71] Michael Quinlan, “Thinking About Nuclear Weapons,” Royal United Services Institute, Whitehall Paper 41, online edition 2005, [72] Nina Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), ix. [73] Reid Pauly, “Stop or I’ll Shoot, Comply and I Won’t: The Dilemma of Coercive Assurance in International Politics” (PhD diss., MIT, in progress). [74] Rebecca K.C. Hersman, Clark Murdock, and Shanelle Van, The Evolving U.S. Nuclear Narrative: Communicating the Rationale for the Role and Value of U.S. Nuclear Weapons, Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2016, [75] See, for example, Patrick Malone, “Repeated Safety Lapses Hobble Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Work on the Cores of U.S. Nuclear Warheads,” The Center for Public Integrity, June 18, 2017,; Editorial, “What the Air Force Can Learn from the Nuclear Cheating Scandal,” Washington Post, April 6, 2014, [77] Of course, the United States has also tried to demonstrate credibility by fighting wars that otherwise make little geostrategic sense from a narrow, traditional, non-nuclear “self-interest” perspective, such as in Korea in the early 1950s and in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. One might ask how U.S. decision-making toward limited wars would have proceeded in a world without nuclear weapons, where the demands of credibility are, presumably, smaller. [78] Gaddis, “The Long Peace,” 100. [79] Francis J. Gavin, “History, Security Studies, and the July Crisis,” Journal of Strategic Studies 37, no. 2 (2014): 319–33, [80] “Even propositions about the achievement of nuclear weapons in deterrence lack hard evidence, since such propositions are essentially about alternative history — about what would have happened had matters been other than they were.” Quinlan, “Thinking About Nuclear Weapons,” 5. [81] The nuclear-revolution framework would have predicted that these states would acquire nuclear weapons. Some excellent work exists on states that decided not to go nuclear. On Sweden, for example, see Thomas Jonter, The Key to Nuclear Restraint: The Swedish Plans to Acquire Nuclear Weapons During the Cold War (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). On Australia, for example, see Leah, Australia and the Bomb. [82] Philip Zelikow, “Review,” HF-Diplo Roundtable Reviews XV, no. 1 (2013), [83] Quinlan, “Thinking About Nuclear Weapons,” 5. [84] The Trump administration focused on the return of great-power geopolitical competition in both its National Security Strategy and its National Defense Strategy: National Security Strategy of the United States (Washington, DC: White House, 2017),; Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018), [85] Lieber and Press, “The New Era of Counterforce,” 9. [86] Michael Horowitz, “How Surprising Is North Korea’s Nuclear Success? Picking Up Where Proliferation Theories Leave Off,” War on the Rocks, Sept. 6, 2017, [87] Lieber and Press, “The New Era of Counterforce,” 10. [88] Ian Traynor, “Barack Obama Launches Doctrine for Nuclear-Free World,” Guardian, April 5, 2009, [89] Edward Geist and Andrew J. Lohn, How Might Artificial Intelligence Affect the Risk of Nuclear War? (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2018), 1, [90] Beyza Unal and Patricia Lewis, Cybersecurity of Nuclear Weapons Systems Threats, Vulnerabilities and Consequences, Chatham House, January 2018, [91] Joshua Rovner, “Two Kinds of Catastrophe: Nuclear Escalation and Protracted War in Asia,” Journal of Strategic Studies 40, no. 5 (2017), [92] Caitlin Talmadge, “Would China Go Nuclear? Assessing the Risk of Chinese Nuclear Escalation in a Conventional War with the United States,” International Security 40, no. 4 (Spring 2017): 90, [93] Michael Kofman, “Searching for Strategy in Washington’s Competition with Russia,” War on the Rocks, Jan. 30, 2018, [94] Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., “The Eroding Balance of Terror: The Decline of Deterrence,” Foreign Affairs 98, no. 1 (January/February 2019): 66. [95] Michael C. Horowitz, Paul Scharre, and Alex Velez-Green, A Stable Nuclear Future? The Impact of Automation, Autonomy, and Artificial Intelligence, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2017). [96] James M. Acton, “Technology, Doctrine, and the Risk of Nuclear War,” American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2018, [97] Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, 19. [98] Heather Williams, Patricia Lewis, and Sasan Aghlani, “The Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons Initiative: The ‘Big Tent’ in Disarmament,” Chatham House, March 2015, 17, [99] Quote from Williams, Lewis, and Aghlani, "The Humanitarian Impacts of Nuclear Weapons Initiative," 13. [100] Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, 49. [101] Tannenwald, The Nuclear Taboo, 370. [102] Gen. (Ret.) James Cartwright, chair, “Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Report: Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Force Structure and Posture,” Global Zero, May 2012, 2, [103] Daryl G. Press, Scott D. Sagan, and Benjamin A. Valentino, “Atomic Aversion: Experimental Evidence on Taboos, Traditions, and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons,” American Political Science Review 107, no. 1 (February 2013): 188-206, [104] Reid Pauly, “Elite Aversion to the Use of Nuclear Weapons: Evidence from Wargames,” International Security (forthcoming). [105] For a summary of this critique of grand strategy, see Francis J. Gavin’s review of Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush for H-Diplo, Oct. 17, 2014, [106] Walter A. McDougall, “Can the United States Do Grand Strategy,” Telegram: Foreign Policy Research Institute, April 13, 2010, [107] Francis J. Gavin and James B. Steinberg, “Mind the Gap: Why Policymakers and Scholars Ignore Each Other, and What Should Be Done About It?” Carnegie Reporter 6, no. 4 (Spring 2012). [108] Steve Coll, “Comment: Table Talk,” New Yorker, Feb. 6, 2012, [109] Matthew Kroenig argues that nuclear states seek freedom of action in Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfers and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010). For an excellent overview of how U.S. grand strategy has, since the earliest days of the republic, unilaterally gone on the offensive in an effort to eliminate vulnerability, see John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). [110] As Richard K. Betts has pointed out, what may be good for the “system” — stability — may not be what the United States prefers. “If nuclear spread enhances stability, this is not entirely good news for the United States, since it has been accustomed to attacking small countries with impunity when it felt justified and provoked.” See Betts, “Universal Deterrence or Conceptual Collapse? Liberal Pessimism and Utopian Realism,” in The Coming Crisis: Nuclear Proliferation, U.S. Interests, and World Order, ed. Victor A. Utgoff (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), 65. [111] “The Acheson-Lilienthal & Baruch Plans, 1946,” State Department Office of the Historian, [112] “If we were ruthlessly realistic, we would not permit any foreign power with which we are not firmly allied, and in which we do not have absolute confidence, to make or possess atomic weapons. If such a country started to make atomic weapons we would destroy its capacity to make them before it had progressed far enough to threaten us.” Memo from Gen. Leslie Groves, wartime commander of the Manhattan Project, in January 1946, cited in Marc Trachtenberg, “A Wasting Asset: American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949–1954," International Security 3, no. 3 (Winter 1988/1989): 5, [113] Robert Jervis, “Foreword,” in Global Nuclear Disarmament: Strategic, Political, and Regional Perspectives, ed. Nik Hynek and Michal Smetana (London: Routledge, 2016), [114] For the importance of counterfactuals for hypothesis testing, see James D. Fearon, “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science,” World Politics 43, no. 2 (January 1991): 169–95,; Francis J. Gavin, “What If? The Historian and the Counterfactual,” Security Studies 24, no. 3 (2015): 425–30, [115] The most convincing version of this argument was made by John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (New York: Basic Books, 1989). [116] I explore these possibilities in Nuclear Statecraft, 57–74. [117] Gideon Rose, “Introduction,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 6, (November/December 2018), [118] Joshua Keating, “The ‘Toxic Masculinity’ of Nuclear Weapons: An interview with Beatrice Fihn, executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize–winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons,” Slate, Nov. 12, 2018, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [3] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 795 [post_author] => 235 [post_date] => 2018-11-30 05:00:40 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-30 10:00:40 [post_content] => The United States “stands at a crossroads in history,” the George H.W. Bush administration asserted in its National Security Strategy in January 1993. The world, it argued, had been “radically transformed” to an era that “holds great opportunities … but also great dangers.” Twenty-two years later, the Barack Obama administration stated that “at this pivotal moment, we continue to face serious challenges to our national security, even as we are working to shape the opportunities of tomorrow.” The National Security Strategy produced by Donald Trump’s administration last year similarly, if somewhat more ominously, highlights both dangers and opportunities.[1] In each strategy document, American power is seen as vital to addressing the shifting international environment. Yet there are still plenty of areas of disagreement, and outside the Beltway the debate extends even further. What is America’s role in the world? And what policies would best realize those goals? These questions are at the heart of differing conceptions of American grand strategy. Though frequently conflated, they remain distinct. As a result, while there is no shortage of statements on U.S. grand strategy, there is little consensus on the basic contours of the debate, let alone which course would best serve American interests. Disagreements frequently arise due to fuzzy thinking about whether policy prescriptions follow from different conceptions of what the national interest should be or debates about the evidence supporting competing claims. At this critical juncture — to borrow a cliché from past national security strategies — it is worth stepping back to evaluate the competing grand-strategic positions that seek to enhance America’s national interests. A more fruitful debate would focus on claims about how policy means can or cannot realize U.S. interests rather than the nature of those interests. The former task is amenable to rigorous research; the latter rests on normative judgments that must be settled through a political process. Scholars can and should contribute to that process.[2] In doing so, however, they should be clear about whether they are making a claim about a policy achieving a particular interest or whether they are agreeing with that interest. A debate built on evidence of the links between means and ends can assess the efficacy of prescriptions and help diagnose situations. By contrast, reasonable individuals can disagree on how to weigh specific values and risks.[3] This article, therefore, focuses on the former while acknowledging the importance of the latter. A debate focused on the relation between means and ends has to meet four conditions. First, there must be some agreement on America’s national interests. Second, the underlying theories for each position on grand strategy must be clearly identified. Third, scholars must then evaluate the logic of each side’s theories and derive testable propositions. Fourth, those propositions must be subjected to rigorous assessment. Currently, debate over grand strategy satisfies few, if any, of these conditions. Satisfying all four is beyond the scope of one article. Therefore, we aim to develop a framework that addresses the first two and in so doing provide a necessary foundation for future research to evaluate trade-offs across grand strategies and rigorously assess competing claims. We focus on the scholarly debate, but this is not merely an exercise in academic navel-gazing. Duke political scientist and former National Security Council staff member Peter Feaver reminds us that “every policy choice is a prediction that can be expressed in the type of theory language familiar to academic political science: if we do X then Y will (or will not) happen.” Policymakers rely on an “implicit causal theory that links inputs to outputs.”[4] Similarly, a 2011 survey of former national security officials found that they sought “frameworks for making sense of the world they have to operate in,” which social scientists would call theories.[5] True, grand strategy must be adaptive and, at times, policymakers are reduced to reaction. Even in those cases, though, leaders draw on some set of notions about how the world works as they respond to new situations.[6] Policymakers may disregard scholarly research or use it instrumentally to support their own positions, of course. The incentives and focus of scholars and policymakers are different.[7] Moreover, policymakers pressed for time are unlikely to keep up with the most recent issues of peer-reviewed journals, though increasingly there are alternative outlets through which scholars can convey their findings.[8] Attention to the role that theory plays in grand strategy is, nevertheless, useful for at least two reasons. First, it can shape the studies available to policymakers. Second, it strengthens external critiques of policies for which there is little empirical support. Building our framework requires setting aside the normative components of the debate and focusing on how different grand-strategy positions advance a common set of interests. We do so by holding national interests constant to establish a common baseline.[9] We identify four major ideal-type grand-strategy positions deductively according to their underlying theoretical principles. First, differences in conceptions of power divide the positions into two overarching camps: those that adopt some variant of balance-of-power realism and those built on hegemonic stability theory (Table 1). This dichotomy alone obscures differences between grand strategies. Thus, the second part of our argument incorporates the role of international and domestic institutions (Table 2). We label these four schools restraint, deep engagement, liberal internationalism, and conservative primacy.[10] Others have highlighted how theory shapes thinking on foreign policy and grand strategy.[11] We extend these insights to offer a novel categorization of the contemporary scholarly debate that clarifies the sources of disagreement over interests, objectives, and tools. Table 1. Power and Grand Strategy Positions [table id=7 /] Table 2. Institutions and Grand Strategy Positions [table id=8 /] Parsing the contemporary grand-strategy debate this way is useful for several reasons. First, it provides a general and clear understanding of the landscape. Moreover, critics of our categorization can use this as a foil to make explicit what additional theories should be considered to generate alternative grand-strategy positions. Second, our deductive approach allows the identification of four positions in the debate that inductive approaches can obscure. For example, scholars who agree on one prescription, such as a robust U.S. military presence abroad, may disagree on others, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Third, our framework clarifies the links between the oft-conflated concepts of theory, interests, objectives, and policy tools. Separating the debate along these conceptual levels adds the precision needed to transform broad visions into specific propositions. It also helps to clarify when scholars’ policy prescriptions hinge on normative preferences as opposed to theory and evidence. In mapping how diverse worldviews inform grand strategy, we cannot address every aspect of the debate. We do not seek to demonstrate the superiority of one position or its potential domestic public appeal, and we necessarily gloss over minor disagreements in the interest of outlining ideal-types.[12] We are also unable to engage critical treatments of grand strategy.[13] Finally, we do not attempt an account of grand strategy in the Trump administration. A lively discussion of this subject is ongoing, with widely divergent conclusions.[14] We nevertheless provide a baseline with which to judge when the Trump administration is proposing novel positions of grand strategy, borrowing from discrete (and perhaps contradictory) approaches, and when policy is actually very much in line with existing formulations. For example, our framework could account for a more assertive nationalist position that blended elements of hegemonic stability (deep engagement, liberal internationalism, and conservative primacy) with skepticism toward the importance of both domestic and international institutions (restraint). We leave the ultimate categorization to others. The rest of this article proceeds in three parts. First, we develop our argument by unpacking the terms we use to characterize the dimensions of the debate. Next, we use this framework to outline four grand-strategy positions. We conclude by summarizing major areas of disagreement and ways to advance the debate.

The Framework

In this section, we separate and define the concepts of interests, objectives, and policy tools. Interests are the highest purposes of the state that grand strategy seeks to attain. To achieve their interests, states set objectives (such as preventing a Eurasian hegemon) and utilize specific policy tools (such as alliance commitments) to attain objectives. There is considerable disagreement over how to define grand strategy.[15] Hal Brands reviews multiple definitions and concludes that grand strategy is “the conceptual logic that ensures that [foreign policy] instruments are employed in ways that maximize the benefits for a nation’s core interests.”[16] In an important recent article, Nina Silove argues that scholars and practitioners have employed three discrete concepts of grand strategy over time, which she labels grand principles, grand plans, and grand behavior. All three share a focus on long-term and multiple elements of state power, as well as the relationship between ends and means.[17] Our emphasis on underlying theoretical principles highlights the role of grand principles. We suggest that in order to advance the grand strategy debate it is necessary to demonstrate how underlying principles guide both behavior and plans to advance the national interest. Specifically, by pursuing objectives with a particular set of policy tools. We adapt these definitions to the United States, defining grand strategy as the U.S. theory of how it can maximize American security, prosperity, and liberty. The assumption that U.S. interests are constant is controversial, so we want to unpack our logic.[18] First, this assumption establishes a baseline for competing grand-strategy prescriptions. Without this assumption, it is impossible to isolate the impact of each side’s theoretical assumptions on its prescribed policy prescriptions.[19] For instance, one might consider U.S. alliance commitments as a tool that may help obtain certain objectives. By contrast, labeling a U.S. alliance commitment as an interest indicates that whether the alliance helps or harms U.S. objectives does not matter; the alliance commitment is itself an intrinsic interest to pursue.[20] Social science tools are ill-suited to assess whether a national interest is normatively appropriate or not. We therefore focus on the theoretical links between specific tools and objectives that advance a particular policy interest. In other words, we examine how variation in worldviews informs disagreements over what objectives and policy levers will best maximize U.S. interests, rather than what those interests should be. [quote id="5"] The second virtue in limiting U.S. core interests to security, domestic prosperity, and domestic liberty is that most participants in the debate explicitly or implicitly adopt these interests. Generally, advocates for expansive grand strategies argue that these have been and should be U.S. national interests.[21] And even those favoring a reduced U.S. role in the world frequently assert interests beyond security. For example, Stephen Walt writes that the “central purpose of U.S. foreign policy is to make Americans safer and richer, and to preserve our political values here at home.”[22] Similarly, Christopher Preble argues that a less activist grand strategy would enhance American security, prosperity, and liberty.[23] Barry Posen defines security to include a state’s power position, which is in turn the “sum total of a state’s capabilities … [including] population size, health, and skill [and] economic capacity of all kinds.”[24] Domestic prosperity thus finds its way into security. To be sure, there is disagreement on the content of these concepts. For instance, domestic liberty has various meanings and the number of Americans who could claim liberty has expanded over time. Yet, as Henry Nau notes, “the core classical liberal belief in individual liberty and equality … binds all Americans, conservatives and liberals alike.”[25] We assume that the core U.S. interests are the security, prosperity, and liberty of the American people, not the world. As Posen notes, advancing “the economic welfare or liberty of people abroad” may enhance U.S. interests, but that need not be the case.[26] Much of the debate over grand strategy centers on the presence or absence of links between advancing stability, welfare, and freedom abroad with the well-being of the United States at home. Importantly, this is a narrower use of the term “interests” than is common in the policy discourse. Here we refer strictly to core U.S. values, as opposed to more instrumental objectives (e.g., preventing the rise of a Eurasian hegemon) that — although commonly referred to as “interests” — are pursued as means of maximizing the core interests we identify. This distinction helps to clarify how the schools of grand strategy differ more on how to achieve core U.S. interests than on what those core interests ought to be. We define grand strategy objectives as the real-world outcomes a state seeks to achieve in order to advance its interests. Objectives are instrumental to interests: Choosing which objectives to pursue depends on one’s theory of what objectives will best maximize interests given internal and external constraints. For example, some argue that maintaining stability in Eurasia is both affordable and necessary for attaining U.S. interests, while others argue that it is too costly or unnecessary. Finally, policy levers or tools are the instruments states employ to realize their objectives. A state’s choice to invest in its diplomatic corps or military forces is a lever that can affect the probability of realizing a given objective that would further an interest. Moreover, just as objectives are instrumental to interests, the specific policies a state adopts are means to realizing its objectives. We restrict our analysis to four specific policy levers: military force structure, security commitments, military deployments, and the use of force. States can rely on additional grand strategy tools, but we focus on military tools for several reasons. Much of the grand-strategy debate centers on the role of military power, and the most intense schisms involve the deployment of military forces and the extension of alliance commitments. This is not surprising: Extending alliance commitments, deploying troops, fighting, and acquiring the necessary military capabilities for each involve significant political, economic, moral, and human costs. There is also a practical concern: No article can focus on every U.S. policy tool. Limiting the focus allows us to more specifically describe and define the differences between grand strategies.

Four Grand Strategies

In this section, we outline each of the ideal-types of grand strategies. We focus on each strategy’s underlying theory and its relation to objectives and policy levers. Table 3 summarizes the arguments along each dimension. Table 3. Grand Strategy Types [table id=9 /] Restraint Theoretical Anchor Balance-of-power realism provides the intellectual foundation for restraint, or what some label an “offshore balancing” grand strategy. This theoretical anchor makes several core assumptions: The international system is anarchic, states cannot fully know the intentions of other states, and states want to survive. “Because there is no government to protect them and they cannot know the intentions of others,” write Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler, “great powers must ultimately provide for their security.”[27] One state’s efforts to make itself more secure can create insecurity for others. This is the basis of the security dilemma that plays an important role for the restraint position.[28] Systemic constraints and the distribution of power are the key causal factors in shaping international outcomes, while international and domestic institutions play a marginal role. Alongside, but distinct from, the focus on the international system, the restraint position argues that nationalism remains a powerful motivating force.[29] The desire to survive imbues societies with strong incentives to resist outside influence. That is why states tend to balance rather than bandwagon. States with sufficient means work to block or undermine opponents by building up their own military capabilities, allying with states, or militarily challenging an opponent’s interests. Efforts to project power and counterbalancing occasionally lead to escalating spirals of hostility that can result in an arms race or conflict. There is disagreement about which behaviors provoke balancing, but there is consensus that the more geographically proximate and active a state is, the more likely it is that its actions will provoke reactions by capable states.[30] The emphasis on ability to balance is critical. Weak states not directly targeted by a great power may be able to do little and, therefore, simply bandwagon or stay out of the way until they find themselves directly in a great power’s crosshairs.[31] The basic balancing logic can extend to non-state actors, which will use asymmetric strategies (e.g., terrorism) to challenge the great-power policies they oppose.[32] Many link this restraint position to defensive realism.[33] Yet the U.S. geographic and power positions allow offensive realists to coherently advocate a policy of restraint. Offensive realism predicts that states will seek to expand when the benefits outweigh the costs. The United States’ position as the only major power in the Western Hemisphere provides a high level of security and prosperity. The costs associated with U.S. activism therefore outweigh the minimal benefits in the absence of a potential hegemon abroad. Objectives The focus on balancing and nationalism directly informs the restraint position’s contention that a short list of objectives best advances American interests. First, restraint focuses on thwarting any major threats to the American homeland. Second, the United States must prevent the emergence of a hegemon in Europe, Northeast Asia, or the Middle East. A rival could utilize the region’s power potential to endanger U.S. territory or block U.S. commerce. A hegemon in the Middle East, for example, could endanger energy flows, raising the global price of key commodities, which would in turn harm the U.S. economy.[34] Finally, the United States must deny another state the ability to command the global commons of the “sea, space, and air.”[35] If others command the commons, then the United States might find its homeland vulnerable to attack. In the long run, this could also undermine the U.S. economy. Restraint looks at the world today and sees few states capable of threatening these objectives. Distance and the American nuclear arsenal deter major assaults on U.S. territory. No state can unite European or Asian power potential in the near term, though China may be able to do so in the medium to long term, necessitating a cautious balancing approach.[36] Preventing the emergence of a hegemon in the Middle East requires minimal U.S. investment because the regional powers are very weak. Moreover, global markets are robust and not easily disrupted.[37] [quote id="6"] The restraint position does not identify regional stability as a grand-strategy objective.[38] To begin with, instability abroad does not directly affect American security. Moreover, the tendency to balance causes others to contest U.S. efforts to impose stability, generating security dilemmas that actually can generate instability. Restraint prefers letting regional actors balance other regional actors. This may lead to conventional arming, the formation of new alliances, and even nuclear proliferation as others supply their own security. As more states provide for their own security, the United States can reduce its defense burden, enhancing U.S. prosperity and liberty without sacrificing security.[39] U.S. allies do not behave this way today, the restraint position argues, because they are “cheap-riding” while the United States foots the bill for security.[40] Worse, these actions may be creating a moral hazard, emboldening allies to act recklessly, which can in turn entrap the United States. Restraint considers terrorism an enduring challenge but not one that rises to the level of a grand-strategy objective. This grand-strategy position takes “seriously the threat from international terrorism,” notes Michael Desch, but it “also put[s] it into perspective.”[41] Expansive counterterror policies can provoke backlash. As Robert Pape argues, “U.S. ground forces often inadvertently produce more anti-American terrorists than they kill.”[42] Although terrorist acquisition of a nuclear weapon would be a “game changer,” the probability of that occurring is low.[43] States are unlikely to allow their nuclear weapons or fissile material to fall into the hands of a terrorist organization and risk losing control over how the material is used or risk potential retaliation from the terrorist’s target.[44] Rather than relying on military tools, the United States can help secure stockpiles and prevent accidents by sharing safeguard technology and best practices with other nuclear capable states.[45] Although few restraint proponents advocate nuclear proliferation, most do not consider nonproliferation a grand-strategy objective. Aggressive nonproliferation efforts are likely to encourage proliferation among hostile states as they seek to balance the United States.[46] Additionally, restraint adopts the nuclear-optimist position that nuclear weapons reduce conflict.[47] As long as the United States maintains its nuclear arsenal, deterrence will prevent nuclear attacks. Regional nuclear-armed states can deter regional aggression. Thus, Posen accepts that with the restraint position, “some nuclear proliferation would be tolerated.”[48] This may cause the United States to lose some power-projection ability, but restraint prefers that the United States do less in the current international environment. Restraint also does not count democracy promotion or humanitarian intervention among its objectives. Restraint does not oppose democracy or foreign aid, but its proponents believe that promoting either is inappropriate as part of a grand strategy. Whereas democracy promotion is difficult and unnecessary for advancing U.S. interests, humanitarian interventions can create failed states, generate havens for terrorists, and invite diplomatic backlash. A number of alternative diplomatic and foreign aid initiatives may, in the end, be more effective and save more lives. Policy Levers The restraint approach seeks to reduce U.S. defense commitments, forward deployments of troops, the frequency of using force, and the size of the U.S. military. Despite sharing a common theoretical base and set of objectives, individual scholars within this domain differ on the scope of reduction. The broadest divide is between those advocating modest versus major reductions. This reflects diversity in assessments of the balance of power, technology, preferences for hedging against geopolitical uncertainties, and estimates of domestic political feasibility. While these differences are important, they are outside the shared theoretical framework.[49] We do not, therefore, treat these differences as discrete grand strategies. Proponents of restraint argue in favor of reducing U.S. security commitments and forward deployments of troops. At the extreme end of the spectrum, scholars in this group advocate ending nearly all military commitments and bringing U.S. troops home.[50] More moderate positions agree on reducing the U.S. role in NATO and Europe, where Russian weakness and Western European wealth negate the need for U.S. involvement. U.S. air and naval power may remain in the Middle East, but the United States would remove ground forces and no longer support regimes against domestic opposition. Only in Asia, as a hedge against the rise of China, would sizable U.S. forces — primarily air and sea — and defense commitments potentially remain.[51] The objectives of restraint suggest the United States ought to use force rarely. It would do so only if a state stands poised to attain hegemony in Europe, Asia, or the Middle East, or if a state makes a bid to command the commons. Additionally, the United States would use minimal force to degrade and contain terrorist organizations that have the desire and ability to strike the United States.[52] The limited global role would allow significant reductions in the current U.S. force structure. In particular, force structure would shift to one that privileges the Navy and Air Force with light, highly mobile ground forces that proponents of restraint contend would result in large savings. Deep Engagement Theoretical Anchor Hegemonic stability theory provides the underlying principles for the deep engagement approach to grand strategy.[53] This position shares much with what some have labeled “selective engagement.”[54] Deep engagement draws on a separate branch of realism than the restraint position and argues that balancing is not feasible when one state’s material capabilities far exceed those of all others. States are more likely to bandwagon with, rather than balance against, the hegemon. Not only is balancing unlikely, according to this framework, but the world is more peaceful and prosperous when there is a preponderance of power.[55] The hegemon can utilize its superior military and economic tools to provide public goods, such as regional security, that underwrite a stable international order. The provision of security alleviates regional security dilemmas and deters aspiring powers from challenging the hegemon’s authority.[56] Absent the hegemon’s presence, regional balances of power will not form and costly arms races will occur. Moreover, a distant hegemon will be dragged into the conflict, thereby harming its interests. Globally, the clear preponderance of power makes conflicts over prestige unlikely, removing another source of war. Thus, escalating spirals of hostility are unlikely at both the global and regional levels. Advocates of deep engagement argue that the benefits of maintaining the hegemonic order outweigh the costs. Costs are low because other states are unlikely to balance and military spending is not a major drain on resources.[57] Moreover, peripheral wars are choices rather than necessities, and so do not generate major costs for this strategy so long as the hegemon exercises prudence.[58] The hegemon also benefits from increased security, extracts enormous privileges from the system, and enriches itself through the rise in global prosperity.[59] The hegemon’s ability to shape international institutions facilitates order and lowers transaction costs for managing the international system. For instance, the hegemon can use economic institutions to mold the global economic system to its comparative advantage.[60] International security institutions allow the hegemon to coordinate with allies to maintain regional stability.[61] However, in contrast to liberal internationalism, proponents of deep engagement argue that such institutions are unlikely to be effective in the absence of a hegemonic state powerful enough to underwrite them. Objectives Deep engagement aims to deter threats to the homeland and the global commons. It also focuses on maintaining stability in three key regions — Asia, Europe, and the Middle East — rather than just preventing a hegemon from emerging. Thus, Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth advocate economic globalization, promoting institutions, defending allies, and preventing conflict that would threaten the U.S.-led international order.[62] Proponents of deep engagement argue that the United States can, and should, continue to lead the international order: It can because it remains the only superpower and its position is durable;[63] it should because its presence stabilizes economic and security relations between states. Without a hegemon, regional actors will fail to balance potential peer competitors, harming U.S. security and prosperity. Finally, changes to the status quo adversely affect the United States because the system reflects American interests. Maintaining a stable, open, and U.S.-led order in the world’s core regions requires that the United States pursue several objectives. First, the United States must oppose the emergence of a regional hegemon and work to dampen strictly regional security competition in key areas. Without U.S. leadership, local balancing will be inefficient. Moreover, security competition generates negative externalities — such as conventional arms racing, nuclear proliferation, and trade disruption — that increase the risk of regional and global instability. In contrast to the restraint approach, deep engagement adopts nuclear pessimism, which highlights the dangers of nuclear accidents, inadvertent escalation, and loose nuclear weapons. These risks outweigh any potential stabilizing effects of nuclear weapons.[64] Thus, deep engagement contends that paying the costs associated with protecting American allies helps to deter and contain potential peer competitors and regional instability. This also gives the United States leverage over its allies, minimizing the risk of entrapment.[65] [quote id="1"] Second, deep engagement aims to protect the United States and its allies from terrorism and violent domestic instability. But it does not view these threats outside of the core regions as major dangers. For example, the risk of a terrorist attack or civil conflict in sub-Saharan Africa is a smaller concern than it would be in Saudi Arabia. Deep engagement might support efforts to prevent failed states, civil war, ethnic conflict, and humanitarian disasters, but only if such outcomes have the potential to threaten stability in the core regions. Deep engagement supports the spread of democracy but does not view it as a grand-strategy objective because overt democracy promotion can undermine support for other U.S. objectives.[66] Efforts to protect human rights through humanitarian intervention or democracy promotion distract leaders from core objectives and may lead policymakers to pursue unnecessary or impossible objectives, squander resources, and produce negative externalities. Policy Levers Supporters of deep engagement seek to construct a military capable of maintaining existing alliance commitments and troop deployments abroad. These tools serve as the backbone of U.S. influence by deterring adversaries and reassuring allies. Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth make the point clearly:
The United States’ overseas presence gives it the leverage to restrain partners from taking provocative action. Perhaps more importantly, its core alliance commitments also deter states with aspirations to regional hegemony from contemplating expansion and makes its partners more secure, reducing their incentive to adopt solutions to their security problems that threaten others and thus stoke security dilemmas.[67]
To this end, the United States has constructed a set of commitments that include formal defense pacts with 68 countries that, together with the United States, represent 75 percent of world economic output.[68] America’s commitment to NATO and the security structures in the Middle East and Asia should continue. Moreover, contrary to the restraint approach, the deep-engagement position argues that forward-deployed forces are necessary to maintain command of the commons and allow the U.S. presence to surge in an emergency. International commitments and U.S. troop presence also encourage intelligence sharing and cooperation in counterterrorism efforts, as well as reducing domestic instability in these regions. Proponents of deep engagement argue that critics overstate the costs of this grand strategy. For one thing, offsetting arrangements with allies defrays the financial costs of deploying troops abroad. In terms of terrorism, U.S. troops may contribute to anti-Americanism, as some claim, but they are hardly the decisive factor.[69] Were most U.S. troops to come home tomorrow, the terrorist threat would not disappear, nor would much money be saved. Regarding entrapment, alliances allow the United States significant freedom to maneuver and tend to give Washington more influence over its weaker partners.[70] In this framework, military force is a tool to maintain, not alter, the status quo. Hence, deep engagement supports the use of force to protect existing commitments but does not support using military force to spread democracy or, except in extreme cases, remove human rights violators from power. As Brooks and Wohlforth write,
[T]hose who advocate ambitious projects to assertively spread democracy and liberal principles and foster dramatic improvement in human rights, by the sword if necessary, make the same mistakes as proponents of pulling back: they fail to appreciate the major benefits America derives by sustaining its long-standing grand strategy.[71]
Proponents of deep engagement seek to maintain U.S. force-structure projections made toward the end of the Obama administration but are not opposed to modest increases. This level of military power is necessary to maintain existing commitments and deployments, and it requires an amount of military spending that is both affordable and likely to decrease as a percentage of GDP over time.[72] A larger military is unnecessary because deep engagement does not seek to undertake new military missions or commitments outside core regions. Liberal Internationalism Theoretical Anchor Liberal internationalism rests on a combination of hegemonic stability theory and neoliberal institutionalism. This view of grand strategy depends on the “decentralized model” of hegemonic stability, in which it is the hegemon’s “benevolent leadership” more than its coercion of states that ultimately maintains the international order.[73] Liberal internationalism’s central tenet is that the hegemon creates and maintains an order built on “rules and institutions that advance collective security and cooperation among democracies.”[74] It holds that a stable international order can arise when a hegemon is able and willing to use its power to overcome collective action problems — in which states each have an incentive to free ride on the efforts of others — and provide international stability as a public good. Liberal internationalism does not accept that the hegemon’s power alone is sufficient, instead arguing that hegemonic leadership must command legitimacy. That legitimacy depends on upholding the interests of the other states in the system rather than coercing states to adhere to the hegemon’s rules. To accomplish this, the hegemon must tie its own hands by adhering to the same rules as other states and allowing a role for non-state actors.[75] By constructing effective, relatively flat (as opposed to hierarchical) international institutions, the hegemon restrains its ability to act coercively, which in turn enhances the legitimacy and stability of the order. Institutions also facilitate cooperation by reducing transaction costs, monitoring and enforcing agreements, and overcoming collective-action problems. Ultimately, a thick web of institutions can lock in the order and allow it to outlive the hegemon’s inevitable decline. Rising great powers can then be co-opted into supporting and perpetuating this order.[76] Institutions help overcome the nefarious consequences of anarchy touted by balance-of-power realists. Liberal international-relations theories of the economic and domestic-political underpinnings of international cooperation strongly inform liberal internationalism.[77] In particular, proponents of liberal internationalism contend that the promotion of open and free trade (economic liberalism) and the global spread of democracy (republican liberalism) are critical pillars of a stable and peaceful international order. As Anne-Marie Slaughter argues, the “origins of international conflict and cooperation lie in the political and economic micro-foundations of individual societies.”[78] Democratic states are unlikely to go to war with one another and can cooperate to form security communities.[79] Market democracies will pursue globalization with the free flow of goods, services, and ideas across borders. This type of economic interdependence not only promotes peace, by raising the costs of conflict, but also enhances prosperity. Objectives The core objective of liberal internationalism is the maintenance and expansion of a U.S.-led liberal international order embedded within a dense network of international institutions.[80] As Slaughter has written, the “next U.S. president should adopt a grand strategy of building and maintaining an open international order based on three pillars: open societies, open governments, and an open international system.”[81] Thus liberal internationalism parts company with deep engagement by considering the incorporation of liberal elements into the international order the very bedrock of U.S. grand strategy. Liberal internationalism considers the end of unipolarity and the rise of one or more rival great powers to be inevitable, but in contrast to the other grand strategies it opposes efforts to contain them.[82] Instead, proponents of liberal internationalism argue that by building a thick web of international institutions, the United States can co-opt potential rivals into the existing order and provide them a stake in maintaining it. The end of the Cold War created a unique historical moment and an unparalleled opportunity for the United States to lock in an international order amenable to its interests.[83] During this window of opportunity, the United States should use its power for building institutions, advancing democratic institutions and norms, promoting free markets, and reducing barriers to international trade — albeit while acting within the rules of the order it has constructed. Institutions, proponents of liberal internationalism argue, are “sticky.” Once states become enmeshed in a sufficiently thick, rules-based liberal international order, the benefits this order provides and the costs of dismantling it create powerful incentives for future great powers to continue to support it.[84] Friends and potential rivals gain from the hegemon’s provision of global public goods like security and stability. Institutions also reassure other states that U.S. leadership is benign by constraining U.S. behavior. Although the United States may possess the military and economic power to violate institutional rules, doing so would undermine its international legitimacy.[85] [quote id="2"] Liberal internationalism considers the spread of democracy and globalization a keystone to global stability and a central grand-strategy objective. Liberal internationalism therefore advocates protecting established and nascent democracies, even to the point of providing military support to domestic democratic opponents of autocratic regimes. This democratizing impulse was the basic rationale behind the Clinton administration’s “democratic enlargement” policy, which expanded NATO eastward in the 1990s.[86] As Slaughter puts it, the United States must continue its policy of “supporting liberal democratic parties and institutions in countries determining their own political future. … The twenty-first century, like the twentieth century, must be made safe for democracy.”[87] Promoting globalization can also foster the development of a middle class, a core constituency for democratization in developing countries. Liberal internationalism highlights the importance of maintaining regional stability. Regional arms races and conventional conflict undermine the rules-based international order and end up sucking the United States into conflict. History has shown that “aggressors in faraway lands, if left unchecked, would someday threaten the United States.”[88] For liberal internationalism, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks demonstrated how internal and external stability can create conditions that can lead to direct harm to the United States. Proponents of liberal internationalism consider international terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and gross human rights violations to be significant threats to global order. These concerns are compounded by general suspicions of authoritarian and illiberal groups and a skepticism that they can reliably be deterred. Nuclear proliferation and terrorism can combine in particularly pernicious ways. Ikenberry and Slaughter assert that the “threat of nuclear terrorism looms greater than any other nuclear threat because of the limits of traditional concepts of deterrence against adversaries who would willingly martyr themselves.”[89] To states, on the other hand, nuclear proliferation generates instability and imposes limits on America’s ability to act against challengers to the liberal international order. Human rights violations can undermine nascent liberal movements and breed regional instability. Policy Levers Liberal internationalism holds that U.S. military dominance currently underwrites the liberal international order. The United States must, therefore, maintain the military capabilities and alliances necessary to deter and defend against revisionist, anti-liberal challengers.[90] As Ikenberry and Slaughter write, liberal internationalism’s objectives “require a continued high level of U.S. defense spending.”[91] The United States should maintain and expand its commitments and, where necessary, its troop presence. This is particularly true for nascent democracies outside Western Europe. “The United States,” Ikenberry argues, “should recommit to and rebuild its security alliances. … The updating of these alliance bargains would involve widening the regional or global missions in which the alliance operates and making new compromises over the distribution of formal rights and responsibilities.”[92] Although the regional emphasis may differ by scholar, liberal internationalism supports an expansion of troops in specific cases as a hedge against potential illiberal challenges. For instance, as noted by Michèle Flournoy, former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, and Janine Davidson, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for plans, “The cornerstone of forward engagement [is] positioning U.S. troops in vital regions to help deter major conflicts and promote stability, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.”[93] At times it will be necessary to use force to attain American objectives. This can include the defense of emerging democracies, but liberal internationalism does not advocate the constant use of force to spread democracy. It emphasizes multilateralism, though not necessarily universal support, as a way to build legitimacy for any use of force. Thus Slaughter contends that “if the need for international action is great, the international community must turn to broadly representative regional institutions to authorize and implement intervention.”[94] Democratic communities can legitimize U.S. action when broader forums are not supportive.[95] Concerns over human rights violations led many proponents of liberal internationalism to support the Iraq War in 2003 and the intervention in Libya in 2011.[96] As Slaughter notes, “R2P, [the Responsibility to Protect] has gone deeply out of fashion, but that is surely temporary.”[97]  The initial stages of humanitarian intervention may require the kind of forces that only the United States is in a position to supply. Conservative Primacy Theoretical Anchor Conservative primacy is a broad family that includes, but is not limited to, neoconservatives, conservative internationalists, and conservative realists.[98] It is consistent with much of what Brands labels “a better nationalism” and Colin Dueck calls “conservative nationalism.”[99] To be sure, there are a number of disagreements between self-described members of each group. Those disagreements are narrow enough — and the differences with alternative grand-strategy positions wide enough — to justify treating them together as an ideal-type grand strategy. We adopt the term conservative primacy because it captures the core shared theoretical underpinnings driving several, though by no means all, self-labeled conservative positions.[100] [quote id="3"] Specifically, conservative primacy formulations of all types combine classical liberal assumptions and hegemonic stability theory to arrive at more assertive grand-strategic prescriptions. These prescriptions rest on a variant of hegemonic stability theory that combines “benevolent” and “coercive” elements.[101] The hegemon’s rule must be benevolent in that the international order it establishes must command legitimacy among other states. This legitimacy arises when core liberal values are shared. Because liberal, democratic states have a shared set of interests, a liberal democratic hegemon’s efforts to establish an international order will command legitimacy even when this requires the unilateral exercise of military force. Indeed, the hegemon’s legitimacy rises among its fellow liberal democracies when it exercises power to defend the international order against nondemocratic challengers. Absent this leadership, dangerous threats will multiply. As Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, and Brian Hook state, a “strong United States is essential to the maintenance of the open global order under which this country and the rest of the world have prospered since 1945 … the alternative is not a self-regulating machine of balancing states, but a landscape marked by eruptions of chaos and destruction.”[102] Conservative primacy shares with liberal internationalism a focus on domestic institutions but parts company when it comes to international institutions. For conservative primacy, behavior is largely driven by regime type rather than the distribution of power. “Democracies,” Charles Krauthammer wrote, “are inherently more friendly to the United States, less belligerent to their neighbors, and generally more inclined to peace” than illiberal regimes.[103] International institutions are suspect, particularly those that grant equal status to both democracies and autocracies, as they empower and legitimize tyrannical regimes. Because democratic regimes are more likely than autocratic ones to be bound by international rules, international institutions restrain the states that need a free hand to uphold the international order, while permitting challengers of the liberal order greater freedom of action. Thus, international institutions can have an important effect on state preferences (contra restraint) but only among democratic states (contra liberal internationalism).[104] In sum, conservative primacy’s various permutations share several core features. First, a belief that illiberal (both politically and economically) state and non-state actors are sources of danger. In the wake of the Iraq War, however, there has been disagreement on how aggressively to promote democracy abroad and widespread skepticism of regime-change adventures. Second, proponents of conservative primacy see the use of American military power as a necessary component of hegemony. Finally, under this grand-strategy position, there is a pronounced skepticism of international institutions. Objectives Conservative primacy, like its liberal counterpart, favors the promotion of an international order based on liberal characteristics; in particular, the spread of democracy, capitalism, and free trade. As Condoleezza Rice put it, “An international order that reflects our values is the best guarantee of our enduring national interest.”[105] Conservative primacy does not consider such an “international order” to be a rules-based order built on international institutions. In fact, it warns that faith in institutions could lead the United States to abrogate its leadership role while failing to constrain illiberal regimes. The United States ought to remain the sole superpower, albeit sharing the stage with several great powers. Even with a variety of challenges, that hegemonic status is, in this view, durable.[106] Conservative primacy prioritizes the spread of democracy and opposition to authoritarian regimes. Unlike liberal internationalism, which argues that democracies can resolve conflicts of interest through peaceful negotiation, conservative primacy holds that maintaining a U.S.-led international order is a globally shared interest and that democratic governments best channel popular support for U.S. hegemony. Authoritarian and “rogue” regimes, on the other hand, are unrepresentative of the populations they govern and therefore do not share the citizenship’s interest in maintaining the international political-economic order established by the United States. Proponents of conservative primacy do not rule out spreading democracy by the sword — many supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq — but they caution against ill-conceived or constant efforts to do so. Because non-democratic regimes are both illegitimate and naturally inimical to the established and popularly supported international order, their very existence is a security threat to the United States and its democratic allies. Conservative primacy posits that the stability of the international order rests on U.S. power. U.S. primacy and preventing the rise of a great-power rival, particularly an illiberal great power, are therefore core objectives. The focus on regime type and the importance placed on U.S. preeminence in the international system suggests a strategy toward China, for example, that would combine elements of engagement and regime transformation (similar to liberal internationalism) and a balancing approach (similar to deep engagement and, increasingly, restraint). The result is a strategy comparable to Aaron Friedberg’s “better balancing” approach, which “combines continued attempts at engagement with expanded and intensified balancing.”[107] It differs from other grand-strategic positions by assuming that engagement is the best tool for moving China toward democracy, when coupled with assertive balancing, and that U.S. balancing efforts do not risk escalation or require reassurance. Aggressive counter-terrorism is a necessary objective of conservative primacy. According to Dueck, “jihadist terrorists” must be preempted: “The nature of this particular enemy leaves no superior alternative other than an assertive and determined strategy of rollback.”[108] Advocates of conservative primacy see an essential link between terrorism and “rogue” states that sponsor terrorist organizations and, therefore, favor strategies that focus on that link. For example, the Bush administration rapidly shifted focus to Iraq after the 9/11 attacks despite Iraq’s lack of connection to those attacks. James Mann describes the thinking of then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz as: “[F]orces behind terrorism in the Middle East were all interconnected … If the United States could defeat [Hussein], it would weaken terrorist groups throughout the Middle East. The issue was broader than Al Qaeda.”[109] Nonproliferation is also a critical objective because conservative primacy doubts the efficacy of deterrence when it comes to authoritarian and rogue states. Proponents of this grand strategy are supportive of preventive military action as well as ballistic missile defenses and nuclear counterforce capabilities. Concerns about proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons were at the center of the Bush administration’s case to invade Iraq. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, advocates of the neoconservative strain of conservative primacy within the administration expressed particular concern about “rogue” states such as Iran, Iraq, and North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons. This interacted with the terrorist threat to raise additional worry and played a central role in the development of the Bush Doctrine. More than a decade later, it has informed critiques of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action addressing Iran’s nuclear program.[110] Policy Levers Conservative primacy highlights the value of using U.S. military power to achieve American objectives. The tendency to bandwagon will dominate incentives to balance, so there are increasing returns to U.S. global activism with little risk of blowback. By this thinking, a robust troop presence would reassure skittish allies, deter and compel potential adversaries, and establish the means to defeat them should coercion fail.[111] As Robert Kagan notes, the
American presence enforced a general peace and stability in two regions [Europe and Asia] that for at least a century had known almost constant great-power conflict. … When the United States appears to retrench, allies necessarily become anxious, while others look for opportunities.[112]
As for the Middle East, Peter Feaver argues that the U.S. shift to an offshore balancing strategy “proved disastrous for American interests and paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State, forcing Obama to shift back once again to an onshore balancing in the region.”[113] Conservative primacy emphasizes alliances with democracies rather than autocracies but makes room for compromise on this issue. Mann explains how conservatives shifted during the Cold War from a position largely consistent with the one set forth in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s landmark 1979 Commentary article and toward more assertively supporting democracy even when it meant challenging the domestic security of anti-communist regimes supportive of the United States.[114] Similarly, Nau argues that although “critics often attack such cooperation” with authoritarian regimes “as hypocrisy,” it is necessary to set priorities and be sensitive to “the limitations of both resources and public will to support the end of tyranny everywhere at once.”[115] Thus, support for U.S. commitments to non-democratic allies in the Middle East and elsewhere is not inconsistent with the overall tenets of conservative primacy. Conservative primacy’s emphasis on military power leads to a large force structure and a willingness to use military force to advance U.S. objectives. This view of grand strategy emphasizes what Nau calls “armed diplomacy.”[116] The ability and resolve to use force “during negotiations and before an attack when it is a choice, not just after negotiations and in retaliation to an attack when it is a necessity,” is essential to “succeed in negotiations that move freedom forward.” This does not mean conservative primacy favors greater use of force overall. Rather, Nau argues that what is preferable is “the earlier and perhaps more frequent use of smaller force to deter, preempt, and prevent the later use of much greater force.”[117] Put differently, conservative primacy focuses on the risk of acting too late, while other grand strategies put greater weight on the risk of acting too soon. A large military is, therefore, essential, allowing the United States to act and bargain from a position of strength.[118] The conservative-primacy position contends that current U.S. spending on defense is low by historical standards and can be increased without undermining the domestic economy.


We argue that key disagreements over grand strategy hinge on theoretical disagreements about the role of power and institutions in international politics. Regarding power, the core disagreement is between the restraint position, which relies on balance-of-power realism, and the other three grand-strategy positions, which adopt variations of hegemonic stability theory. A focus on power alone, however, would lead to an incorrect portrayal of important elements of the debate. Equally significant are the roles that international and domestic institutions play in international politics. Different understandings of those roles have enormous implications for what specific objectives the United States ought to pursue to maximize its interests. Liberal internationalism focuses on spreading liberal economic, domestic, and international institutions, relying on all three pillars of what scholars label the Kantian tripod.[119] Conservative primacy draws on classical liberalism and agrees on the importance of spreading liberal economic and domestic institutions. In contrast to liberal internationalism, proponents of conservative primacy argue that international institutions dangerously constrain U.S. action while allowing illiberal states to pursue agendas inimical to U.S. interests. Deep engagement, on the other hand, is the mirror position of conservative primacy: For its proponents, spreading liberal domestic institutions is often a costly distraction from achieving core objectives. At the same time, deep engagement borrows some insights from institutionalism. Advocates of restraint argue that it is unnecessary, and perhaps even counterproductive, to use military tools to underwrite liberal international or domestic institutions to secure U.S. interests. Our framework makes several contributions to advancing the grand strategy debate. First, by holding interests constant, we identify four grand strategies that lead to a number of policy prescriptions that claim to maximize a given set of U.S. interests. Having done so, future research will be better able to assess which grand strategy offers the best mix of policies to maximize these interests. One could identify a different set of interests, but whatever interests one identifies must be consistent and carefully separated from objectives. Two recent works help illustrate how failing to adopt this framework can lead to conceptual confusion. In his important book outlining the tenets of a restraint grand strategy, Posen argues that foreign policy “may have many goals beyond security, including the prosperity of Americans at home,” but that grand strategy seeks to maximize security alone. Yet, as noted earlier, his definition of security includes “power position,” which in turn includes “economic capacity.”[120] Posen ultimately suggests that economic capacity, then, is both a means and an end.[121] This is problematic because, if it is an end, Posen would need to demonstrate that the objectives of restraint lead it to better advance U.S. economic capacity compared with alternative grand strategies. If it is a means, it would be necessary to make clear that there may be a trade-off between security and prosperity in favor of the former. It would also be necessary to specify the severity of this trade-off to assess whether it is sharp enough to undermine security in the long run. Yet Posen largely sidesteps these issues. In short, on his own terms, Posen’s treatment of the restraint position is incomplete. By clearly identifying and examining the issues that our framework highlights, scholars and policymakers will be better able to directly compare the costs and benefits of each grand strategy to maximize a given set of interests. [quote id="4"] The conflation of interests and objectives is apparent in other works as well. In their careful treatment of deep engagement, Brooks and Wohlforth have done just this, writing that “managing the external environment to reduce near- and long-term threats to U.S. national security” is one of three core U.S. grand-strategy interests that are essential for furthering U.S. security.[122] This argument borders on a tautology: The best way to preserve U.S. security is to reduce the threat to U.S. security. More important, it, like Posen, conflates means and ends. Managing the external security environment is a means for maximizing the U.S. interest of security; it is not an end itself. As our framework makes clear, interests or ends must be treated as constant, whereas means should vary depending on evidence regarding their effectiveness in realizing those interests. It is critical for future research on grand strategies to separate means from ends so that officials can clearly understand whether scholars are making claims about what interests the United States should adopt as opposed to what means would maximize a given end. Next, our framework reveals why analysts across grand-strategy positions may agree on some policy prescriptions but not others. For example, paying attention to underlying theories helps reveal why the policy prescriptions of some restraint proponents, such as John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Barry Posen, overlap with the policy prescriptions of proponents of more robust grand-strategy positions regarding China but not elsewhere.[123] This is intellectually consistent: The restraint position focuses on the importance of preventing hegemons from emerging in areas where regional actors are incapable of mustering sufficient power. In such cases, the balance-of-power logic at the heart of restraint points to the necessity of a powerful outside actor to intervene. Thus, in an early post-Cold War statement of restraint, Eugene Gholz, Daryl Press, and Harvey Sapolsky recognized that an expansive American role was necessary when there was a Soviet peer competitor but was no longer needed once America’s relative power surged after the fall of the Soviet Union.[124] It follows that if China occupies a similar geopolitical position, then many restraint proponents would accept a larger U.S. role in balancing against China. Absent that type of peer-competitor, however, restraint’s underlying logic remains centered on allowing regional power balancing to deal with local challenges. To the extent that individual analysts within each grand-strategy position disagree on specific propositions, those divides stem from additional factors — such as disagreements over relative power, changing technology, or normative preferences — that lie outside those underlying theories. Finally, this article provides a framework for how best to apply existing research to the grand-strategy debate and what additional research should be undertaken. We illustrate this with two examples drawn from each axis of the debate. First, if a U.S. presence abroad provoked rival nuclear proliferation more than it limited allied proliferation this would support the restraint position while undermining alternative approaches to grand strategy. The converse, however, is not necessarily the case. If reduced American involvement caused more proliferation among allies, advocates of restraint may find that acceptable, arguing that it increases regional stability through mutual deterrence. It would then be necessary to consider research from the enduring debate on the consequences of nuclear proliferation for regional (in)stability as well as whether nuclear-driven (in)stability positively or negatively affected American interests. That is, it would be necessary to show how these changes would affect America’s ability to achieve other objectives and interests. Several studies examine U.S. nonproliferation tools, but more fine-grained analyses addressing the effectiveness of individual and combined policy levers are needed.[125] It would be informative, for instance, for research to disentangle whether a U.S. security commitment is sufficient to provide leverage (supporting deep engagement), or if it must be coupled with a global/regional institutional order and specific regime types (supporting liberal internationalism), or a strong commitment to use force against potential proliferators (supporting conservative primacy). A second example draws from the legitimacy axis of the debate. The different grand-strategic positions disagree on whether international legitimacy matters in determining whether U.S. strategies, such as troop deployments and the use of military force, are likely to be stabilizing or destabilizing (or have no effect on stability either way). Liberal internationalism holds that the use of American military force abroad promotes stability when the United States exercises self-restraint and adheres to international norms and the rules and processes of inclusive international institutions such as the U.N. Security Council. Conservative primacy, on the other hand, argues that U.S. military force can be carried out unilaterally and will command legitimacy among democracies so long as its exercise is consistent with liberal ends. For example, conservative primacy would predict that the U.S. failure to intervene in Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 would undermine U.S. legitimacy and generate greater instability by inviting challenges to U.S. leadership. Alternatively, liberal internationalism would predict that unilateral U.S. efforts to roll back North Korean nuclear and missile achievements ought to promote instability by undermining alliances and provoking adversaries. Conservative primacy would expect the opposite result: that allies would be heartened by these measures and adversaries cowed. In each example, researchers can test the competing claims against international outcomes in terms of stability and public and elite opinion abroad as a measure of international legitimacy. In sum, this article’s focus on why proponents prefer a given set of grand-strategic objectives and corresponding levers will allow future research to better assess the relative effectiveness of these objectives and levers for attaining U.S. interests. It is necessary not only to test individual relationships between tools and objectives, but also to assess how those relationships interact with one another to highlight the various trade-offs inherent in any grand strategy that attempts to establish priorities, balance competing demands, and bring a diverse set of policies into an overarching agenda. This is more demanding than narrow hypothesis-testing but has the potential to fill a critical gap between scholarship and policy and move us closer to the ideal of evidence-based policy.   Acknowledgements: For helpful discussions and suggestions, the authors would like to thank Michael Beckley, Stephen Brooks, Michael Desch, Eugene Gholz, Kelly Greenhill, Henry Nau, Jacqueline Hazelton, Alexander Lanoszka, Barry Posen, Miranda Priebe, Andrew Ross, Joshua Rovner, John Schuessler, Joshua Shifrinson, Nina Silove, William Wohlforth, the three anonymous reviewers, and the Texas National Security Review editors.   Paul C. Avey is assistant professor of political science at Virginia Tech. Jonathan N. Markowitz is an assistant professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Southern California. Robert J. Reardon is assistant professor of political science at North Carolina State University. [post_title] => Disentangling Grand Strategy: International Relations Theory and U.S. Grand Strategy [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => disentangling-grand-strategy-international-relations-theory-and-u-s-grand-strategy [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-04-10 13:04:34 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-04-10 17:04:34 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => This article assesses the underlying sources of disagreement among competing scholarly treatments of U.S. grand strategy. It argues that much of the debate centers on differing conceptions of the roles of power and domestic and international institutions in international politics. In addition, it cuts through conceptual confusion that clouds much of the debate by clearly delineating interests, objectives, and policy levers. This framework will allow existing and future research to more usefully address and advance the debate. Finally, it provides a baseline with which to assess initiatives by U.S. administrations. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Proponents of deep engagement argue that the United States can, and should, continue to lead the international order... ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Liberal internationalism considers the end of unipolarity and the rise of one or more rival great powers to be inevitable, but in contrast to the other grand strategies it opposes efforts to contain them. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Conservative primacy shares with liberal internationalism a focus on domestic institutions but parts company when it comes to international institutions. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => It is critical for future research on grand strategies to separate means from ends... ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Much of the debate over grand strategy centers on the presence or absence of links between advancing stability, welfare, and freedom abroad with the well-being of the United States at home. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The focus on balancing and nationalism directly informs the restraint position’s contention that a short list of objectives best advances American interests. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1283 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 235 [1] => 236 [2] => 237 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] The rhetoric can diverge from policy. See: National Security Strategy of the United States (Washington, DC: White House, 1993),; National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: White House, 2015),; and National Security Strategy of the United States (Washington, DC: White House, 2017), [2] They may face an uphill battle trying to do so, however. See, for example, Daniel Drezner, The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats Are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017); Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). [3] For similar points, see Alexander L. George, Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, 1993). [4] Peter Feaver, “What Do Policymakers Want from Academic Experts on Nuclear Proliferation,” Washington Post Monkey Cage blog, July 8, 2014, Stephen Walt similarly notes that “policymakers who are contemptuous of ‘theory’ must rely on their own (often unstated) ideas about how the world works in order to decide what to do.” Stephen M. Walt, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories,” Foreign Policy no. 110 (Spring 1998): 29, [5] Paul C. Avey and Michael C. Desch, “What Do Policymakers Want from Us? Results of a Survey of Current and Former National Security Decision Makers,” International Studies Quarterly 58, no. 2 (June 2014): 244, [6] These frameworks can arise from multiple sources, but the key is that there is some framework for understanding the world. For discussions of how general visions informed grand strategy or specific policies see, for example, John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); Hal Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy: Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014); Elizabeth N. Saunders, Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014); Jennifer Mitzen, “Illusion or Intention? Talking Grand Strategy into Existence,” Security Studies 24, no. 1 (2015): 61–94,; and Brendan Rittenhouse Green, “Two Concepts of Liberty: U.S. Cold War Grand Strategies and the Liberal Tradition,” International Security 37, no. 2 (Fall 2012): 9–43, [7] For a recent discussion on these issues see Hal Brands, “The Real Gap,” American Interest 13, no. 1 (September/October 2017): 44–54,; and John Glaser, “Truth, Power, and the Academy: A Response to Hal Brands,” War on the Rocks, March 26, 2018, [8] For example, Marc Lynch, “Political Science in Real Time: Engaging the Middle East Policy Public,” Perspectives on Politics 14, no. 1 (March 2016): 121–31,; Daniel Byman and Matthew Kroenig, “Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower: A How To Manual,” Security Studies 25, no. 2 (May 2016): 289–319,; and Michael Horowitz, “What Is Policy Relevance?” War on the Rocks, June 17, 2015, [9] As noted, we acknowledge that there are normative differences over national interests. This analytical move allows us to establish a baseline to assess the degree to which grand-strategy prescriptions differ according to theoretical disagreements rather than different conceptions of the national interest. [10] Representative examples of each are Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014); Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); and Henry R. Nau, Conservative Internationalism: Armed Diplomacy Under Jefferson, Polk, Truman, and Reagan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013). [11] Barry R. Posen and Andrew L. Ross, “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,” International Security 21, no. 3 (Winter 1996/1997): 5–53,; Nina Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” Security Studies 27, no. 1 (2018): 27–57,; Lukas Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Jack Snyder, “One World, Rival Theories,” Foreign Policy, no. 145 (November/December 2004): 53–62,; Walt, “International Relations: One World, Many Theories.” [12] Posen and Ross, “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,” 5; Stacie E. Goddard and Ronald R. Krebs, “Rhetoric, Legitimation, and Grand Strategy,” Security Studies 24, no. 1 (2015): 5–36, [13] For discussions on these points see Pascal Vennesson, “Is Strategic Studies Narrow? Critical Security and the Misunderstood Scope of Strategy,” Journal of Strategic Studies 40, no. 3 (2017): 358–91,; Eric Van Rythoven, “The Perils of Realist Advocacy and the Promise of Securitization Theory: Revisiting the Tragedy of the Iraq War Debate,” European Journal of International Relations 22, no. 3 (2016): 487–511,; Rodger A. Payne, “Cooperative Security: Grand Strategy Meets Critical Theory?” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 40, no. 3 (2012): 605–24, [14] See, for example, “Policy Roundtable: What to Make of Trump’s National Security Strategy,” Texas National Security Review, Dec. 21, 2017,; Barry R. Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony: Trump’s Surprising Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April 2018),; Hal Brands, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2018); Elizabeth N. Saunders, “Is Trump a Normal Foreign-Policy President? What We Know After One Year,” Foreign Affairs Snapshot, Jan. 18, 2018,; Matthew Kroenig, “The Case for Trump’s Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 3 (May/June 2017),; Randall L. Schweller, “A Third-Image Explanation for Why Trump Now: A Response to Robert Jervis’s ‘President Trump and IR Theory,’” H-Diplo|ISSF Policy Series, Feb. 8, 2017, [15] Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword”; Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought. [16] Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy, 4. [17] Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword,” 46, see also 34–47. [18] For a general discussion on U.S. interests, see the contributions in this Aug. 19, 2015, National Interest symposium: “What Should Be the Purpose of American Power?” [19] Charles L. Glaser, Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 15. [20] Anne-Marie Slaughter, “How to Succeed in the Networked World: A Grand Strategy for the Digital Age,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 6 (November/December 2016), For a similar point, see Jennifer Lind, “Article Review 52 on ‘The Myth of Entangling Alliances,’” H-Diplo|ISSF, April 13, 2016, [21] For example, Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad, 1; Michael Beckley, “The Myth of Entangling Alliances: Reassessing the Security Risks of U.S. Defense Pacts,” International Security 39, no. 4 (Spring 2015): 7–48, Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, “Don’t Come Home, America: The Case Against Retrenchment,” International Security 37, no. 3 (Winter 2012/2013): 7–51,; Anne-Marie Slaughter, “A Grand Strategy of Network Centrality,” in America’s Path: Grand Strategy for the Next Administration, ed. Richard Fontaine and Kristin M. Lord (Washington, DC: Center for a New American Security, 2012), [22] Stephen M. Walt, “Lax Americana,” Foreign Policy, Oct. 23, 2015, [23] Christopher A. Preble, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009). See also Eugene Gholz, “Restraint and Oil Security,” in US Grand Strategy in the 21st Century: The Case for Restraint, ed. A. Trevor Thrall and Benjamin H. Friedman (London: Routledge, 2018), 59. [24] Posen, Restraint, 3. [25] Nau, Conservative Internationalism, 13–14. [26] Posen, Restraint, 2. [27] Sebastian Rosato and John Schuessler, “A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States,” Perspectives on Politics 9, no. 4 (December 2011): 805, [28] Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky, “Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation,” International Security 21, no. 4 (Spring 1997): 5–48, [29] Posen, Restraint, 22, 50–54; Stephen M. Walt, “Nationalism Rules,” Foreign Policy, July 15, 2011, [30] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior U.S. Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 4 (July/August 2016): 70–83,; Posen, Restraint, 18–22; Stephen M. Walt, Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), chap. 2; John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2014). [31] Mearsheimer, Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 162–65. [32] Robert A. Pape, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (New York: Random House, 2006). [33] For example, Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth, “Don’t Come Home, America.” [34] Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing”; Posen, Restraint; Rosato and Schuessler, “A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States.” [35] Barry R. Posen, “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony,” International Security 28, no. 1 (Summer 2003): 7–8, [36] Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing,” 81; Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony,” 27; Richard K. Betts, “American Strategy: Grand vs. Grandiose,” in America’s Path: Grand Strategy for the Next Administration, ed. Richard Fontaine and Kristin M. Lord, 39–40. [37] For example, Eugene Gholz and Daryl G. Press, “The Effects of Wars on Neutral Countries: Why It Doesn’t Pay to Preserve the Peace,” Security Studies 10, no. 4 (2001): 1–57,; Eugene Gholz and Daryl G. Press, “Protecting ‘The Prize’: Oil and the U.S. National Interest,” Security Studies 19, no. 3 (2010): 453–85,; Gholz, “Restraint and Oil Security,” in US Grand Strategy in the 21st Century, ed. Thrall and Friedman. [38] Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing,” 73; Rosato and Schuessler, “A Realist Foreign Policy for the United States,” 812–13; Walt, Taming American Power, 222. [39] Joseph M. Parent and Paul K. MacDonald, “The Wisdom of Retrenchment: America Must Cut Back to Move Forward,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 6 (November/December 2011), [40] Posen, Restraint, 35–50. [41] Michael C. Desch, “America’s Liberal Illiberalism: The Ideological Origins of Overreaction in U.S. Foreign Policy,” International Security 32, no. 3 (Winter 2007/2008): 40, See also Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing,” 77. [42] Robert A. Pape, “It’s the Occupation, Stupid,”, Oct. 18, 2010, [43] John J. Mearsheimer, “America Unhinged,” National Interest, no. 129 (January/February 2014): 12, [44] Walt, Taming American Power, 224–40. For empirical discussions, see Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, “Why States Won’t Give Nuclear Weapons to Terrorists,” International Security 38, no. 1 (Summer 2013): 80–104,; John Mueller, Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), chaps. 12–15. [45] Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony,” 27. [46] Harvey Sapolsky, Benjamin H. Friedman, Eugene Gholz, and Daryl G. Press, “Restraining Order: For Strategic Modesty,” World Affairs (Fall 2009): 91,; Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing,” 79; Posen, Restraint, 31, 61; Walt, Taming American Power, 239–40. [47] On nuclear optimism, see Kenneth Waltz’s contributions in Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: An Enduring Debate (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013). [48] Posen, Restraint, 167. [49] As noted, our framework cannot account for every permutation in the grand-strategy debate and, instead, seeks to highlight how two factors can account for a large amount of the variation. [50] Gholz et al., “Come Home, America,” 17–29; Christopher Layne, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006),188–89. [51] Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing”; Posen, Restraint, 90–91, 100–13, 159; Parent and MacDonald, “The Wisdom of Retrenchment”; Betts, “American Strategy: Grand vs. Grandiose,” 37–40. [52] Posen, Restraint, 86. [53] Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981); William C. Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” International Security 24, no. 1 (Summer 1999): 5–41, [54] Robert J. Art, A Grand Strategy for America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003). [55] Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World.” [56] Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad, 89–102. [57] Carla Norrlof and William C. Wohlforth, “Is US Grand Strategy Self-Defeating? Deep Engagement, Military Spending, and Sovereign Debt,” Conflict Management and Peace Science (November 2016), [58] Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad, 122–33. [59] Carla Norrlof, America’s Global Advantage: US Hegemony and International Cooperation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010); Michael Mastanduno, “Preserving the Unipolar Moment: Realist Theories and U.S. Grand Strategy After the Cold War,” International Security 21, no. 4 (Spring 1997): 49–88, [60] Michael Mastanduno, “System Maker and Privilege Taker: U.S. Power and the International Political Economy,” World Politics 61, no. 1 (January 2009): 121–54, [61] Art, A Grand Strategy for America, 163–65, 247. [62] Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad, 1–2. [63] Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World,” 23–25; Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad; Michael Beckley, The Unipolar Era: Why American Power Persists (unpublished manuscript). [64] On nuclear pessimism, see Scott Sagan’s contributions to Sagan and Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons. [65] Beckley, “The Myth of Entangling Alliances.” [66] Art, A Grand Strategy for America, 46, 69–73, 145; Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad, 74. [67] Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth, “Don’t Come Home, America,” 34. See also Wohlforth, “The Stability of a Unipolar World”; Art, A Grand Strategy for America, 8–9, 138–45, 231–32; Robert J. Art, “Selective Engagement in the Era of Austerity,” in America’s Path: Grand Strategy for the Next Administration, ed. Richard Fontaine and Kristin M. Lord, 15–18. [68] Beckley, “The Myth of Entangling Alliances,” 7. [69] Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad, 141–43. [70] Beckley, “The Myth of Entangling Alliances,” 18–22. [71] Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad, 74. [72] Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad; Norrlof and Wohlforth, “Is U.S. Grand Strategy Self-Defeating?[73] Duncan Snidal, “The Limits of Hegemonic Stability Theory,” International Organization 39, no. 4 (Autumn 1985): 588–89, [74] G. John Ikenberry, “Woodrow Wilson, the Bush Administration, and the Future of Liberal Internationalism,” in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century, ed. G. John Ikenberry et al. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 2. [75] Slaughter, “How to Succeed in the Networked World,” 84–86; G. John Ikenberry, “The Future of the Liberal World Order: Internationalism After America,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3 (May/June 2011): 56–68,; G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001). [76] Ikenberry, After Victory; Ikenberry, “The Future of the Liberal World Order.” See also Robert O. Keohane, After Hegemony: Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984). [77] Andrew Moravcsik, “Taking Preferences Seriously: A Liberal Theory of International Politics,” International Organization 51, no. 4 (Autumn 1997): 513–53, [78] Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century,” in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century, ed. G. John Ikenberry et al., 105. [79] Charles Lipson, Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), esp. chap. 2. [80] G. John Ikenberry and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Forging a World of Liberty Under Law: U.S. National Security in the 21st Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Project on National Security, 2006), 14–16; Slaughter, “A Grand Strategy of Network Centrality,” in America’s Path, ed. Fontaine and Lord, 46–47. [81] Slaughter, “How to Succeed in the Networked World,” 77. [82] G. John Ikenberry, “The Rise of China and the Future of the West: Can the Liberal System Survive?” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 1 (January/February 2008),; Ikenberry, “The Future of the Liberal World Order.” [83] Ikenberry, After Victory, 55–56. [84] Ikenberry, After Victory, 65. [85] Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan. [86] Douglas Brinkley, “Democratic Enlargement: The Clinton Doctrine,” Foreign Policy no. 106 (Spring 1997),; Ikenberry, “Woodrow Wilson, the Bush Administration, and the Future of Liberal Internationalism,” in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy, ed. Ikenberry et al., 20–22. [87] Slaughter, “Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century,” in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy, ed. Ikenberry et al., 97, 109. [88] Ikenberry and Slaughter, Forging a World of Liberty Under Law, 16. [89] Ikenberry and Slaughter, Forging a World of Liberty Under Law. [90] Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan, 301–06; Ikenberry, After Victory, chap. 3. [91] Ikenberry and Slaughter, Forging a World of Liberty Under Law, 29–30. [92] Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan, 354–55. [93] Michèle Flournoy and Janine Davidson, “Obama’s New Global Posture: The Logic of U.S. Foreign Deployments,” Foreign Affairs 91, no. 4 (July/August 2012): 56, [94] Slaughter, “Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century,” in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy, ed. Ikenberry et al., 114. [95] Slaughter, “Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century,” in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy, ed. Ikenberry et al., 98–100; Ikenberry and Slaughter, Forging a World of Liberty Under Law, 7. [96] Slaughter, “Wilsonianism in the Twenty-First Century,” in The Crisis of American Foreign Policy, ed. Ikenberry et al., 109. [97] Slaughter, “How to Succeed in the Networked World,” 89. [98] For recent examples, see Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force (New York: Basic Books, 2017); Nau, Conservative Internationalism; and Colin Dueck, The Obama Doctrine: American Grand Strategy Today (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). The “neoconservative” label has always been contested. It fell deeply out of fashion in the aftermath of the Iraq War, inspiring efforts to highlight distinctions with neoconservatism. See, for example, Justin Vaisse, Neoconservatism: The Biography of a Movement (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010); and Michael C. Desch, “Neoconservatism Rebaptized,” American Conservative, Nov. 20, 2013,; as well as Nau’s reply, “Conservative Internationalism Is Not Bushism,” Nov. 20, 2013,, which was published in the same issue. [99] Brands, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump, 114–22; Dueck, The Obama Doctrine, 176–96. Dueck notes that in the postwar era conservative nationalists and internationalists have made common cause, and this combination forms the basis for what he labels “conservative realism.” See 186, 196, and chap. 5. [100] We do not label this position “Primacy” alone because we agree with Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth (“Don’t Come Home, America,” 13–14) that primacy is a material condition that permits various grand strategies. While this position is frequently championed by those on the political right, not all conservatives support conservative primacy. Nor do we suggest that all conservative thinkers fall into this ideal-type. For instance, many self-described conservatives and liberals can be found in other grand-strategy positions such as restraint and deep engagement. [101] Snidal, “The Limits of Hegemonic Stability Theory.” [102] Eliot Cohen, Eric Edelman, and Brian Hook, Choosing to Lead: American Foreign Policy for a Disordered World (Washington, DC: John Hay Initiative, 2015), 6. See also Cohen, The Big Stick; Hal Brands and Peter D. Feaver, “Should America Retrench? The Risks of Retreat,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 6 (November/December 2016): 168,; Dueck, The Obama Doctrine, 207–08. [103] Quoted in Vaisse, Neoconservatism, 244–45. See also 233. [104] Nau argues in Conservative Internationalism, 52, that “legitimacy in foreign affairs derives from the free countries making decisions independently or working together through decentralized institutions,” whereas liberal internationalism sees legitimacy as stemming from “participating and voting in universal organizations” that include authoritarian regimes on an equal footing. [105] Condoleezza Rice, “Rethinking the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs 87, no. 4 (July/August 2008): 26, [106] Cohen, The Big Stick, 63; Dueck, The Obama Doctrine, 203–12; Robert J. Lieber, Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), esp. chap. 6. [107] Aaron L. Friedberg, “The Debate Over U.S. China Strategy,” Survival 57, no. 3 (2015): 107, [108] Dueck, The Obama Doctrine, 236–37. [109] James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 302. [110] On the Bush Doctrine and Iraq, see Robert Jervis, “Understanding the Bush Doctrine,” Political Science Quarterly 118, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 365–88,; F. Gregory Gause III, The International Relations of the Persian Gulf (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 186–238; Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy? chap. 4. On the Iran nuclear agreement see, for example, Eliot A. Cohen, Eric S. Edelman, and Ray Takeyh, “Time to Get Tough on Tehran: Iran Policy After the Deal,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 1 (January/February 2016): 64–75, [111] Dueck, The Obama Doctrine, chap. 5. [112] Robert Kagan, “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire: What Our Tired Country Still Owes the World,” New Republic, May 26, 2014, [113] Peter Feaver, “A Grand Strategy Challenge Awaits Trump,” Foreign Policy, Nov. 29, 2016, [114] Mann, Rise of the Vulcans, 352; Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Commentary, November 1979, [115] Nau, Conservative Internationalism, 55. [116] Nau, Conservative Internationalism, 6. [117] Nau, Conservative Internationalism, 7. Emphasis in original. [118] Cohen, The Big Stick; Nau, Conservative Internationalism, 179–81; Vaisse, Neoconservatism, 235. [119] John R. O’Neal and Bruce Russett, “The Kantian Peace: The Pacific Benefits of Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, 1885–1992,” World Politics 52, no. 1 (October 1999): 1–37, [120] Posen, Restraint, 2–3. [121] Posen, Restraint, 69. [122] Brooks and Wohlforth, America Abroad, 1. [123] For example, Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing,” 81; Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony,” 27. Also see Christopher Layne, “This Time It’s Real: The End of Unipolarity and the Pax Americana,” International Studies Quarterly 56, no. 1 (March 2012): 203–13,; Michael Beckley, “China’s Century? Why America’s Edge Will Endure,” International Security 36, no. 3 (Winter 2011/2012): 41–78,; William C. Wohlforth, “How Not to Evaluate Theories,” International Studies Quarterly 56, no. 1 (March 2012): 219–22, [124] Gholz et al., “Come Home, America,” 5. [125] For a discussion see Francis J. Gavin, “Strategies of Inhibition: U.S. Grand Strategy, the Nuclear Revolution, and Nonproliferation,” International Security 40, no. 1 (Summer 2015): 9–46, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [4] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 769 [post_author] => 224 [post_date] => 2018-11-14 05:00:03 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-14 10:00:03 [post_content] => After a post-Cold War interlude, arms control among the great powers is once again in vogue. Foreign policy debates increasingly turn on considerations of arms control: whether to scrap the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), whether to continue the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) process, whether to include China in negotiations to limit armaments, and how to minimize the expansion of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these debates are riven by differing assumptions concerning the ultimate purpose of arms-control efforts. For example: Should the United States take preventive military action to limit North Korea’s nuclear capability? Should it instead seek mutual strategic stability with a newly nuclear North Korea? Or should the United States redouble its efforts to eliminate all nuclear weapons, everywhere?[1] Proponents of each course of action can credibly lay claim to the mantle of “arms control.” But which is correct? How would we know good arms control if we saw it? Robert Jervis observed, “If the main objective of arms control is to make war less likely, then any theory of arms control must rest on a theory of the causes of war.”[2] Why wars occur is a vast topic, however, and scholars remain divided over the causes of armed conflict.[3] This division among scholars is reflected in the competing concepts of how arms limitation among great powers can reduce the chances of war. In this essay, I examine three key explanations for the cause of war — influence groups, weapons, and actors — and demonstrate how each leads toward a different approach to arms control: disarmament, stability, and advantage, respectively. I will show that absent a solid consensus on the purpose of arms control, historically successful arms-limitation agreements have managed to serve multiple purposes. My essay concludes with a brief account of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty: specifically, how its creators and supporters managed to advance the purposes of disarmament, stability, and advantage simultaneously over the lifetime of the treaty. Recognizing the multiple motives that arms-control negotiations aim to serve is vital to understanding arms control’s impact on international security, for at least three reasons. First, scholars and commentators often cite the existence of arms-control negotiations as evidence that states are proceeding on a more cooperative path.[4] Yet the pursuit of arms control is not always a cooperative exercise. States often employ arms-control negotiations as vehicles for advancing their own competitive agendas, all in the name of peace. Treating arms control as purely cooperative risks misunderstanding its impact on international politics. Second, given the paucity of documentary resources from key actors such as the Soviet Union, historians struggle to evaluate the success or failure of particular arms-control negotiations. Understanding the theoretical debates surrounding the purpose of arms control can provide new criteria for understanding whether an arms-control regime succeeded. Third, a historical reconstruction of the multiple meanings of arms control can help to clarify the importance of time as a variable in such arrangements — in particular, how different arms-control rationales may rely on different time horizons and how the purpose of a single agreement may change over time. The manipulation of differing timelines provides opportunities for building consensus on arms control between radically different policy agendas, with some arms controllers receiving benefits in the short term and others over the longer term. U.S. policymakers considering the future of arms control would do well to consider how previous administrations built their complex arms-control policies. The study of arms control has produced a vast literature, but surprisingly little has examined the specific mechanisms whereby great powers can reduce the chances of war. As a result, scholars and experts often talk past each other — rather than to each other — in arms-control debates. Much of the existing literature describes the goals of arms control in generic terms such as “peace,” “stability,” or “security,” with little emphasis on how limiting specific weapons systems contributes to these hazily defined concepts.[5] Other works insist that there is a single war-preventing logic of arms control, usually downplaying or ignoring other possible motives.[6] Future research on arms control could benefit by placing these differing perspectives in dialogue with each other to foster an understanding of how, exactly, arms control can reduce the chances of war.

Explanations for War and Arms Control

Analysts and advocates of arms control fall into three broad categories, depending on which explanation of the cause of war they embrace. The first category includes those who believe that war is caused by influence groups, especially the military-industrial complex, and the various structures of thought and culture promoted by those groups. The second category involves those who believe that war is caused by certain kinds of weapons, especially weapons that promote first-strike advantages or create conditions of offense-dominance. The third category consists of individuals who believe that war is caused by certain kinds of actors — countries that are especially aggressive, ideological, or revisionist. Each of these explanations for what causes war leads to a different understanding of the purpose of arms control. For those who believe that influence groups create war, the proper purpose of arms control is disarmament: reducing the overall level of weapons and dismantling the organizations and cultures that produce them. For those who believe that dangerous weapons cause war, the purpose of arms control is stability, or limiting especially dangerous offense-dominant weapons while bolstering deterrence by allowing the procurement of defense-dominant weapons. For those who believe that pernicious actors cause war, the purpose of arms control is advantage: preventing dangerous countries from acquiring weapons technologies while preserving a favorable balance of power for trustworthy, status quo countries. Determining which of these three approaches to arms control best prevents conflict is difficult given the lack of consensus on the causes of war. Influence Groups and Disarmament One prevalent explanation for the cause of war is the impact that war-promoting influence groups, often described as the “military-industrial complex,”[7] have on governments. Critics of the military-industrial complex have identified several mechanisms whereby pro-war interest groups create the conditions for war to occur. First, critics claim that the drive for profits causes the military-industrial complex to lobby politicians directly for confrontational policies, which justify purchasing more weapons and also make war more likely.[8] Second, critics claim that the activities of the military-industrial complex shape the thinking of elite decision-makers, normalizing violence and creating the psychological and emotional space for extreme anti-social behavior — like war — to occur.[9] Third, critics argue that the military-industrial complex promotes structures of class, race, and gender that influence broader attitudes toward violence, providing rationales for conflict that leaders and citizens alike deploy to justify war.[10] Both directly and indirectly, military-industrial interest groups explain why governments and societies wage war rather than seek peaceful solutions. For those who argue that war is the result of pro-war interest groups, the primary purpose of arms control is disarmament. While arms-control agreements often reduce the number of weapons available to states, proponents of disarmament argue that the more important function of such agreements is to tame adverse military-industrial complexes and to dismantle old attitudes and cultures of war.[11] In addition to achieving anti-militarist objectives, the promotion of disarmament agreements provides opportunities to create new coalitions in favor of international and social justice while also freeing resources from wasteful military competition to pursue these peaceful agendas.[12] By contributing to the dismantlement of militarist interest groups, arms-control agreements can advance the cause of peace. Historically, disarmament has been an influential determinant of arms-limitation policies in great-power countries, especially through its widespread public appeal. The international disarmament movement can trace its roots to various reform efforts of the late 19th century.[13] Pro-disarmament organizations were especially active during the interwar period, and their aspirations were first given significant form through the League of Nations’ efforts at international disarmament.[14] After World War II, international disarmament efforts refocused on eliminating nuclear weapons, with major waves of anti-nuclear protests in the 1950s and 1980s.[15] The second wave of nuclear disarmament advocacy found willing partners in Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, who saw the elimination of nuclear weapons as a long-term objective.[16] More recently, nuclear disarmament has regained strength via the “Global Zero” movement.[17] Disarmament has thus been an important goal of great powers’ arms limitation throughout the modern period. Proponents of disarmament arms control often take a long-term view of the purpose of arms control, recognizing that dismantling militarist influence groups and redirecting resources toward pursuing social justice will take time.[18] As a result, despite their expansive explanation of the cause of war, proponents of disarmament often support more limited arms-control measures, as long as those measures can be understood as part of a progressive program for dismantling weapons and militarist interest groups more generally.[19] For example, the 1987 INF Treaty is often praised by advocates of disarmament for its “elimination of an entire category of weapons systems,” even though the treaty limits only land-based missiles of ranges between 500 and 5,500 kilometers, and for only two countries at that.[20] Whatever the treaty’s perceived shortcomings, many disarmament advocates see the INF as a good first step toward the more comprehensive elimination of nuclear weapons. [quote id="1"] Although it rests on a coherent explanation of the cause of war, arms control with the goal of disarmament has its critics. Many proponents of arms control for the purpose of strategic stability and advantage argue that seeking disarmament may make war more likely if the effort dismantles the military capabilities necessary for deterrence.[21] Others question whether martial interest groups really drive international conflict or whether military-industrial complexes instead emerge as a response to preexisting political differences among states,[22] in which case finding a solution to existing political differences would have to precede disarmament.[23] The empirical record on the successes of disarmament is mixed. On the one hand, significant disarmament negotiations in the interwar period failed to prevent the outbreak of World War II, while the “long peace” of the Cold War was marked by high armaments on all sides.[24] On the other hand, proponents of disarmament can credibly argue that disarmament negotiations in the interwar period never went far enough to impede militarism and an arms race and that the nuclear disarmament movement played an important role in regulating and ultimately ending the U.S.-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War.[25] Proponents of disarmament argue that facing such a mixed empirical record, and mindful of the horrible consequences should deterrence fail, the safest path forward is for states to dismantle their weapons and tame hawkish interest groups.[26] Weapons and Stability A second prevalent theory of what causes war relates to the nature of weapons technologies and, especially, their impact on the offense-defense balance. This explanation for war begins with the structural condition of anarchy, in which states procure weapons for security and bargaining purposes.[27] Among the available weapons, some are useful primarily for defensive purposes and others are more useful for offensive purposes. The distribution and balance of these competing types of weapons can have a profound impact on the likelihood of war. In cases where the balance favors the defense, attacking a neighbor is expensive and difficult, thus strengthening deterrence and making states less likely to fight each other. In cases where the balance favors the offense, however, attacking a neighbor appears less costly, which in turn weakens deterrence and makes states more likely to fight each other.[28] An offense-dominant military balance can generate crisis instability, where the significant advantage of striking first can push states to escalate conflicts quickly in order to avoid the disadvantages of being attacked.[29] Relations between states in offense-dominant environments are also more likely to be poisoned by “security dilemmas,” in which states procuring offensive weapons for self-defense undermine the security of their neighbors, triggering arms races that ultimately undermine the security of both parties.[30] For these reasons, offense-defense theorists maintain that the balance of offense-defense capabilities determines the likelihood of war. For those who worry that the technological balance between offensive and defensive weapons is a primary driver of war, the proper purpose for arms control is stability, or promoting a defense-dominant international environment. By prohibiting or limiting the deployment of offensive weapons while allowing the deployment of defensive ones, arms control can shape the offense-defense balance, strengthen crisis stability, ameliorate security dilemmas, strengthen deterrence, and ultimately prevent war.[31] In the nuclear era, defense dominance has become closely associated with the strategy of mutually assured destruction, in which (paradoxically) “defensive” forces are aimed primarily at the destruction of the adversary’s country, maintaining deterrence by rendering any meaningful victory in war impossible. By making offensive war impossible, nuclear deterrence effectively privileges the defender, even if no material defense is possible.[32] Capabilities that might undermine mutual vulnerability by threatening an adversary’s nuclear forces directly — whether accurate, fast-striking offensive missiles or effective missile defense systems — are deemed to be “offensive” or “destabilizing,” because the “use them or lose them” dilemma they create generates strong incentives to shoot first in a crisis.[33] Stability arms control thus contributes to the cause of peace by limiting those weapons that might undermine the defense-dominance of great-power politics. Historically, stability has been an important objective of many great powers’ arms-limitation agreements. Some negotiations in the interwar period sought to tailor offensive and defensive forces to establish a more secure balance of power. For example, the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty placed limits on both battleship numbers and fortified bases in order to create a defense-dominant environment in the Pacific.[34] Before its disbandment, the World Disarmament Conference of the League of Nations also placed a high priority on limiting offensive arms.[35] The formal logic of stability took off in the 1950s with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile technology. Classical arms-control theorists including Thomas Schelling, Morton Halperin, and Hedley Bull argued that arms-control negotiations could construct a stable balance of terror between the superpowers.[36] In this view, deterrence could be reinforced by restricting access to damage-limiting capabilities, like large and accurate intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and ABM defenses.[37] By reducing incentives to limit damage through preemptive attack, this approach to arms control would disincentivize countries from engaging in intentional war while also reducing the danger of accidental escalation in a crisis.[38] By the late 1960s, stability had become entrenched as one of the most important objectives of superpower arms control, with widespread condemnation — among experts and the public — of ABM systems as well as large and accurate ICBM deployments.[39] Crisis and arms-race stability remain a touchstone for contemporary debates on arms-control policy.[40] Unlike disarmament, the policy prescriptions of stability arms control prefer immediate and permanent solutions to pressing military-technical problems. This is because most proponents of stability arms control locate the problem to be solved in the specific technical characteristics of the weapons and their interaction with other weapons systems. For example, large surface-based ballistic missiles are inherently destabilizing because they can be effectively targeted and destroyed by other large surface-based ballistic missiles. By comparison, the technical capabilities of ballistic-missile submarines, and their relative invulnerability to other weapons, render them stabilizing, rather than destabilizing.[41] As a result, proponents of stability arms control tend to see arms-control agreements as fixed commitments to limit inherently dangerous weapons, whose revision or abrogation would, in their view, be a mistake.[42] To the extent that change occurs, it is primarily driven by the introduction of new, perhaps even more destabilizing, technologies.[43] Advocates of stability arms control also tend to be skeptical of partial measures, which they view as missed opportunities to control the entire military-technical problem.[44] This approach’s focus on producing self-contained, mutually beneficial, and timeless arms-control agreements is distinct from both disarmament and advantage arms control, which often consider individual agreements as components of larger programs to promote peace. As with disarmament, stability arms control is not without its critics. First, a number of scholars have criticized the central claims of offense-defense theory, arguing that weapons cannot be readily divided into “stabilizing” and “destabilizing” camps, that it is too difficult for states to determine whether an adversary’s deployments are stabilizing or destabilizing, or that states do not evaluate weapons types in crafting their foreign policy.[45] Absent the ability to classify weapons as stabilizing or destabilizing, it is difficult to imagine how states could reduce the chances of war by limiting destabilizing weapons. Second, proponents of the nuclear revolution thesis question whether the advent of nuclear weapons has rendered the military balance largely superfluous, creating instead a relatively stable realm of nuclear peace between the great powers. If nuclear weapons automatically eliminate the possibility of war, then negotiations to tailor the specific makeup of armaments may not matter much in reducing the chances of war.[46] Finally, deterrence skeptics call into question whether armed forces, especially nuclear forces, are really an effective tool for preventing war. If even “stabilizing” weapons cannot prevent war, then perhaps broader disarmament is preferable to cooperative tinkering of armed forces.[47] As with disarmament, the empirical record remains ambiguous, with scholars deeply divided over whether the offense-defense balance has driven great powers to war and whether effective engineering of the offense-defense balance through arms control has made the world a safer place.[48] Actors and Advantage A third common explanation for how wars start suggests that some actors are simply more prone to war than others. Scholars have advanced several reasons for why some states may be more likely to cause war. First, some states may be ideologically or culturally predisposed toward war. Nazi Germany is the most obvious and grotesque example,[49] but during the Cold War scholars criticized the United States and the Soviet Union as ideologically driven and especially war-prone.[50] Second, some states may be institutionally predisposed toward war, particularly if their leaders find international military disputes useful for distracting from domestic difficulties.[51] Since the Cold War ended, much attention has been given to “rogue states,” whose rejection of liberal internationalism and unstable domestic politics are said to pose a significant threat to world peace.[52] Third, the anarchic structure of international politics may drive some states to grow more aggressive over time. Scholars of power-transition theory maintain that war becomes more likely as newly rising great powers seek to revise the distribution of goods in their favor, while hegemons attempt to preempt the emergence of new rivals.[53] Under any of these conditions, peace may depend primarily on the ability of relatively peaceful status quo states to maintain a preponderance of military power, to deter aggressive adversaries from attacking.[54] If some states are particularly prone to war, and international peace depends primarily on arraying sufficient forces to deter them, then arms control can contribute to peace primarily through promoting the military advantage of status quo powers. To accomplish this goal, states can structure arms-control agreements to place stricter limits on their adversaries than on themselves, or they can seek to construct symmetrical arms-control regimes that limit weapons technologies more advantageous to their adversaries.[55] Although it is tempting to write off advantage arms control as a cynical ploy, it rests on a clear logic of preventing war: Limiting particularly dangerous actors’ access to advanced weapons technology can strengthen deterrence by reinforcing the military advantages of the status quo powers. [quote id="2"] Historically, advantage has been a chief objective of many arms-limitation arrangements. Early efforts to leverage arms control for advantage occurred at the conclusion of major wars, including Sparta’s destruction of Athens’s walls and navy, Rome’s disarmament of Carthage after the Punic Wars, and the limitations on German military power in the Treaty of Versailles.[56] Interwar naval arms control was also heavily influenced by calculations of relative military and industrial advantage, especially the United States and Great Britain’s imposition of a 10-to-six ratio in naval strength regarding Japan.[57] Although all of the signatories of interwar naval arms limitation agreements pursued advantage within the formal negotiated limits, the Germans and Japanese also sought advantage by cheating on their arms-control commitments.[58] During the Cold War, a number of U.S. political scientists, including Donald Brennan, William Kintner, and Robert Pfaltzgraff, developed more formal arguments concerning how the United States might employ arms control to limit Soviet military advantage, though these ideas never received the same level of attention as those of stability arms-control advocates like Schelling, Halperin, and Bull.[59] Although proponents of advantage arms control had limited impact on the emerging field of political science, their ideas had a stronger influence over U.S. arms-control policy: U.S. leaders privately evaluated arms-control proposals on the basis of the relative advantages they afforded to the United States and the Soviet Union.[60] Furthermore, although the evidence on Soviet motives is limited and mixed, there is also reason to believe that the Soviet leadership continued to seek some margin of nuclear superiority over the United States in arms-control negotiations.[61] To date, much of the discussion concerning arms-limitation negotiations with North Korea centers on the importance of denying its unstable regime the military advantages of possessing nuclear weapons or long-range missiles.[62] Like disarmament, and unlike stability, advantage arms control views the value of individual arms-control agreements through the prism of their contribution to a larger peace-promoting agenda: in this case, promoting the military advantage of status quo powers over war-prone revisionist powers. While stability arms control characterizes specific weapons technologies as inherently stabilizing or destabilizing, advantage arms control proceeds by emphasizing the role of various weapons technologies within the structure of long-term competition. For advocates of advantage arms control, agreements may dictate the pace of arms competition, allowing status quo states to put off competition until more favorable circumstances arise. They may push competition into environments more conducive to status quo states, for example by forcing revisionist land powers to compete primarily at sea, or vice versa. They may also shape competition to promote the relative military-technical advantages of status quo states, for example, by shifting competition from quantitative arms racing to qualitative arms racing.[63] Because the mix of political, military, economic, and cultural factors driving long-term competition changes over time, proponents of advantage arms control tend to see arms-limitation agreements as temporary tools whose utility may expire as the larger structure of competition changes. Unlike disarmament arms controllers, advantage arms controllers do not necessarily see arms-control agreements as progressive building blocks toward a larger, peaceful goal. Rather, many advocates of advantage arms control view long-term competition as a normal part of great-power relations in which states compete for marginal military advantages over time. Arms-control agreements are seen as instrumental in shaping this competition, to be concluded and discarded as convenient.[64] Peace is a product of this competitive interaction rather than an end result of a transformative process. While it is difficult to imagine a state concluding an agreement that places it at a disadvantage, scholars studying competitive arms control have suggested a number of scenarios under which advantage arms limitation might occur. First, a state seeking stability might be tricked into an arms-control agreement that undermines its relative security. Cold War theorists of competitive arms control were constantly concerned that the Soviet Union might trick the United States into such an agreement.[65] Second, a leader in a weak political position might agree to a disadvantageous arms-control agreement in order to secure the domestic political benefits of the agreement. Some observers have viewed Gorbachev’s dramatic arms-control concessions in this light.[66] Third, adversaries might conclude an arms-control agreement that promotes different relative advantages for each side. For example, while the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty codified a 10-to-six U.S. advantage in battleship tonnage over Japan, the U.S. agreement not to fortify its bases in the Western Pacific provided Japan with a substantial advantage in Northeast Asia.[67] Finally, adversaries might have different calculations about the long-term implications of an arms-control agreement, with each side seeking to advance its own competitive advantage.[68] The practice of negotiating limitations on complex weapons systems opens up possibilities for creative misunderstandings, generating opportunities for states to seek advantage through arms control.[69] Like both disarmament and stability, the basic assumptions underlying arms control for advantage have been subject to ample criticism. First, many scholars question whether factors such as regime type, ideological orientation, or power transition theory adequately explain the outbreak of war.[70] Even among those who accept that these factors might explain why wars begin, debates rage over which regimes, ideologies, or positions are most prone to war.[71] Second, analysts remain uncertain over how much relative advantage in military capabilities actually improves deterrence when compared with other factors such as the relative interests or resolve of the adversaries involved, or their ability to communicate those interests and resolve to each other.[72] This is especially the case where nuclear weapons are involved: Some scholars argue that even a small nuclear arsenal makes deterrence easy, rendering the balance of capabilities largely superfluous, while others maintain that even marginal advantages in the relative nuclear balance can have outsize effects on the success or failure of deterrence.[73] Third, critics maintain that arms-control negotiations are ineffective in modifying the balance of military capabilities, and instead simply ratify the preexisting balance.[74] In the face of this criticism, it is difficult to determine whether arms control for advantage really makes war less likely. Jervis’ admonition that one’s theory of arms control ought to emerge from one’s theory of war thus presents a serious problem. The multiple, competing explanations for war call for multiple, competing approaches to arms control. The theoretical bases of these competing explanations for war are diverse, focusing on different causal mechanisms and generating very different policy prescriptions. Indeed, these competing approaches to arms control rest on such different theoretical foundations that proponents of each often downplay or even ignore the existence of the others. Yet given the diversity of explanations for war, each approach can credibly claim the mantle of “arms control,” and none can be easily rejected as obviously false. This cacophony of arms-control purposes creates serious challenges for policymakers.

Purpose and Policy: The ABM Treaty, 1972–2001

While scholars may agree to disagree about arms control, political leaders can enjoy no such luxury. In order to conduct effective negotiations, a government must develop an arms-control policy to guide its negotiators. Absent a clear and uncontested understanding of the purpose of arms control, how can such a policy be constructed? In theory, one might expect a government to select from the approaches outlined above and to pursue it as the primary objective of negotiations. In practice, however, leaders often produce arms-control policy that seeks to compromise among the competing goals. This sort of compromise allows leaders to build the domestic coalitions necessary to prevail in the “two-level game” of arms control, where leaders must conclude international and domestic bargains at the same time.[75] It also allows leaders to hedge their bets between competing theories. Analyses assuming a single, obvious rationale for arms control have generally viewed these sorts of compromises as a dilution of true purpose.[76] Once one accepts that arms control can have multiple purposes, however, it becomes easier to appreciate that these compromises serve as the building blocks of success. A key example is the 1972 ABM Treaty, a single agreement that ultimately came to embody the hopes and fears of all three approaches to arms control — disarmament, stability, and advantage. The idea of a treaty to limit anti-ballistic missiles originated in the Johnson administration in the mid-1960s. Already facing the double challenge of waging the Vietnam War while advancing the Great Society program, President Lyndon Johnson was eager to avoid an ABM arms race with the Soviets, which threatened to be both costly and politically unpopular. Johnson also feared that conservatives would punish him politically if he unilaterally limited America’s ABM deployments. So, Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara sought to negotiate a bilateral agreement with the Soviet Union limiting these missiles, an approach that would avert the costs of their deployment while also bolstering the U.S. strategy of assured destruction, which sought to convince the Soviets of the futility of further arms racing.[77] The Soviets initially rebuffed Johnson’s proposal for arms limitation but ultimately agreed to talks. Soviet willingness to begin Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) came too late for Johnson, who, by 1968, was already on his way out of office.[78] Unlike Johnson, incoming President Richard Nixon remained committed to deploying some kind of ABM system. Nixon had wooed conservative voters in 1968 with promises of restoring America’s strategic superiority over the Soviet Union, including some form of ABM deployment.[79] Moreover, Nixon appointed a cadre of competitive arms controllers to the Defense Department and National Security Council staff who saw ABM technology as a crucial area of U.S. advantage that should be fully exploited. Defense Secretary Melvin Laird and Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard believed that U.S. advantages in precision manufacturing, advanced electronics, and digital computing would ultimately allow the United States to deploy an ABM system far superior to anything that the Soviets could produce.[80] In March 1969, Laird proposed that the United States deploy an ABM system known as “Safeguard” — which included a dozen major ABM sites across the United States — that was capable of providing a limited defense of U.S. cities and strategic forces from a Chinese or Soviet attack.[81] In addition to its own merits, many within the defense establishment saw Safeguard as a first step toward an even more capable ABM system.[82] From the beginning, conservatives in the Nixon administration were determined to use ABM technology to promote U.S. military advantage over the Soviet Union. For Nixon, the test would be finding ways to exploit those advantages while also bolstering strategic stability. The Nixon administration blended arms-control purposes for multiple reasons. The first and most obvious was that policymakers were unsure as to which logic was best or whether some combination of them might be preferable. For example, in approaching SALT, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was of two minds. In a May 1969 memo to Nixon on SALT options, Kissinger outlined the major U.S. objective in arms-limitation negotiations with the Soviet Union as such: “An agreement could freeze or codify strategic relationships in a manner which preserves ‘equality’ at worst and a U.S. edge at best.” Kissinger sought an agreement that would broadly stabilize the arms race while allowing for U.S. advantages on the margins, the better to strengthen “an American President’s resolve in a crisis.”[83] In doing so, Kissinger personally combined both the stability and advantage approaches to arms control. [quote id="3"] Arms-control purposes are further blended through the domestic policy process as officials with differing preferences build coalitions to support their own views and compromise with other coalitions to produce policy. On the issue of anti-ballistic missiles, Nixon could not do as he pleased because his government was deeply divided over the merits of ABMs. While proponents in the Defense Department and White House insisted on moving forward with ABM deployments, opponents in the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, including Secretary of State William Rogers and agency Director Gerard Smith, insisted that any ABM deployment would undermine the strategic equilibrium with the Soviet Union. Rogers and Smith instead promoted a stability approach to arms control, arguing that the United States should seek an agreement with the Soviets to ban ABMs as soon as possible.[84] The conflict between advocates of advantage arms control in the Defense Department and proponents of stability arms control at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency would define the Nixon administration’s approach to SALT.[85] The division between proponents and opponents of ABMs initially led the Nixon administration to an impasse regarding SALT. Proponents of advantage arms control, like Laird, Packard, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Earle Wheeler, argued that any SALT agreement would need to allow the full 12-site Safeguard deployment. Meanwhile, stability arms controllers, including Smith and Rogers, called for an immediate freeze on all ABM construction.[86] Internal debates about the wisdom of ABM deployment quickly spilled into public view as congressional opponents of the missiles organized to block the first phase of Safeguard’s deployment. Constant leaking from the administration, as well as awkward public controversies between government officials, repeatedly undermined Safeguard’s chances.[87] After a bruising congressional battle, funding for the first phase of Safeguard squeaked through the U.S. Senate in August 1969 on a 50-50 split, with Vice President Spiro Agnew casting the tie-breaking vote.[88] Challenged by Congress and unable to control his subordinates, Nixon’s strategic arms policy was off to an inauspicious start. Congressional opposition to Safeguard shaped the U.S. position on SALT. By the fall of 1969, the intensity of congressional opposition convinced advantage arms controllers like Laird and Packard that the United States would not be able to deploy the full 12-site Safeguard system in the near future. Not coincidentally, they began to promote a much more stringent ABM agreement that would, in effect, confine the Soviets to the level of ABM deployment that the U.S. Congress would allow — the two ABM sites authorized in the first phase of Safeguard.[89] The Defense Department’s shifting priorities lined up with the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency’s continued advocacy of a zero- or low-level ABM agreement.[90] As a result, the initial U.S. proposals on SALT in April 1970 sought to limit ABMs to very low levels, with only one or two bases allowed per side.[91] The Soviets immediately accepted, in principle, the idea of maintaining low-level ABM deployments, setting the basic terms for the ABM Treaty that would be concluded in Moscow two years later.[92] The ABM “compromise” in the Nixon administration was itself the result of some creative misunderstanding between advocates of advantage and stability arms control. While Smith and Rogers saw the ABM limitations as preventing widespread proliferation of a destabilizing weapons technology, Laird and Packard saw these limitations as necessary to prevent unlimited Soviet deployments, which, for political reasons, the United States would not be able to match. We know that advocates of advantage arms control in the Defense Department continued to see ABM technology as an area of relative U.S. advantage because they continually attempted to push the envelope on ABM deployments. Although by late 1969 Laird and Packard had despaired of further ABM deployments by the United States, at least in the short term, Senate debate in the summer of 1970 suggested that Congress might fund a more extensive ABM deployment if it were limited to defending ICBM fields in the Midwest. This, in turn, rekindled Laird and Packard’s interest.[93] The realization that Congress might fund more than two ABM sites caused Laird and Packard to have serious buyer’s remorse over the April 1970 SALT proposals limiting ABM deployments, which the Soviets had already accepted. In 1971, in the face of deadlock with the Soviets over how to limit offensive forces, the Defense Department began insisting that any SALT agreement provide the United States with a four-to-one advantage in ABM bases, driven by Laird and Packard’s conviction that Congress would eventually fund four ABM sites.[94] The U.S. and Soviet SALT delegations spent the better part of a year wrangling over this new ABM proposal, with the U.S. delegates eventually falling back to two-for-one, while the Soviets continued to insist on the April 1970 proposal for equal bases.[95] By that point, the Defense Department had already moved on from its interest in Safeguard ABM “bases” and was, instead, proposing a new ABM modality in which several short-range interceptors would be co-located with each ICBM silo, resulting in the distributed deployment of thousands of interceptors and hundreds of networked radars. True to form, Laird and Packard pushed for a new ABM arms-control proposal under which the United States would be able to deploy such an expansive ABM system while the Soviets would remain limited to their single ABM facility in Moscow.[96] This was too far even for Nixon, who, along with Kissinger, had concluded that anything other than ABM equality would be non-negotiable with the Soviets.[97] As a result, the ABM Treaty concluded by Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev in May 1972 allowed each side two ABM bases, later reduced to a single base for each.[98] The Defense Department’s efforts to reformulate the ABM negotiations have received little attention from historians because the final agreement dictated an equal number of bases. However, these behind-the-scenes efforts indicate that many within the U.S. government continued to view ABM technology as an area of U.S. relative advantage and sought to use the ABM Treaty as an opportunity for gaining strategic advantage over the Soviets. Even in establishing numerical parity, the 1972 ABM Treaty contained several concessions to proponents of advantage arms control.[99] First and foremost, the United States was allowed to deploy an ABM base, which Laird and Packard hoped would provide the opportunity to gain real experience in operating ABM technology, if only on a small scale.[100] But even this small-scale deployment was not guaranteed: Stability arms controllers had argued on numerous occasions that the United States ought to push the Soviets for a zero-ABM agreement.[101] The crux of the issue was not so much the immediate ABM deployment but, rather, the long-term implications of ABM research and testing. In addition to the perceived wastefulness of ABM deployments, stability arms controllers argued that a zero-ABM agreement would be easier to verify, since it would prohibit not only ABM deployments but also testing of ABM system components, making covert cheating by the Soviets all but impossible.[102] Advantage arms controllers generally agreed that a treaty that allowed limited ABM deployment and testing would be harder to verify but argued that the United States needed to retain its basis for ABM testing to enable possible future deployments.[103] Rather than a simple ban on deployment and testing, the 1972 ABM Treaty allowed testing at specified ranges, with verification enabled by a series of definitions concerning “ABM system components,” including the allowed power-aperture ratio for search radars and the permitted testing configuration of surface-to-air missiles.[104] The complexity and risk involved in this scheme demonstrate the value that advocates of advantage arms control placed on retaining ABM testing facilities — Laird, Packard, and others were willing to run higher risks of Soviet cheating if it meant the United States retained the ability to test and deploy new ABM technologies. In addition to allowing deployment and testing of ABM system components, the ABM Treaty contained two other important concessions to advocates of advantage arms control. First, although the treaty banned testing and deployment of “exotic” ABM technologies, it did not ban research short of testing. As a result, even under the treaty the United States would be able to push the envelope of ABM technology, pursuing new sensors and interceptors considerably more advanced than the Safeguard components of the early 1970s.[105] Second, the ABM Treaty contained explicit withdrawal provisions, providing each party with the right to terminate the treaty should its “supreme interests” be on the line.[106] Stability arms controllers, as well as the Soviet SALT delegates, argued that such language was unnecessary, but advantage arms controllers in the National Security Council staff and Defense Department insisted on its inclusion, creating a backdoor for possible future abrogation.[107] As a result, while stability arms controllers could praise the ABM Treaty for placing limits on a dangerous technology in perpetuity, advantage arms controllers saw the treaty as a temporary measure designed to hold off Soviet deployments while the United States made progress on ABM technology, awaiting a more propitious domestic political environment when full ABM deployment would be possible.[108] The compromise at the heart of the ABM Treaty rested on the different time horizons of the proponents of stability and competitive arms control. Advocates of stability arms control insisted that ballistic missile defenses were, by nature, destabilizing. Their insistence on technology’s unchanging nature meant that their time horizon was short: Because the technology’s meaning was fixed, what was good for the moment was assumed to be good in perpetuity. By comparison, proponents of advantage arms control believed that the meaning of ABM technology might evolve organically as the technology itself matured and as the political context changed. The resulting ABM Treaty succeeded by juggling these differing time horizons: Stability arms controllers received concrete restrictions in the present, while advantage arms controllers satisfied themselves with possibilities for the future. By exploiting the two time horizons of the opposing schools of arms control, Nixon and Kissinger were able to build a historic compromise. Imbued from its creation with multiple purposes, the ABM Treaty did not remain static in meaning but evolved over time. Originally a compromise between the stability and advantage schools of arms control, by the 1980s the ABM Treaty also gained a substantial disarmament logic, as proponents of disarmament embraced the treaty as a tool for reducing nuclear arsenals. Nuclear disarmers argued that the mutual vulnerability enshrined in the ABM Treaty provided the context in which steep cuts to offensive nuclear forces could take place.[109] Much like advantage arms controllers, disarmers came to see the ABM Treaty as an important first step — however flawed — in a much longer contest, allowing them to join advantage and stability arms controllers in supporting the same arms-control regime, albeit for radically different reasons. [quote id="4"] Around the same time, advantage arms controllers began questioning whether the moment had come for the United States to cast off the ABM Treaty and rush ahead in ABM technology. Advantage arms controllers in the Reagan administration tested the treaty’s limits in order to pursue more advanced ABM technology through the Strategic Defense Initiative, arguing that the text of the ABM Treaty technically allowed the testing of certain “exotic” ABM system components, even if the negotiating record was ambiguous.[110] Debate over the Strategic Defense Initiative between the disarmament, stability, and advantage factions was fierce. Nevertheless, the new “exotic” ABM technologies offered by the Strategic Defense Initiative were insufficiently mature to warrant testing or deployment. When Reagan left office, the ABM Treaty remained in place even as the United States continued to develop new ABM concepts and components.[111] Over time, however, the ABM Treaty’s appeal to advantage arms controllers diminished, much as its initial pro-advantage authors had intended. By the late 1990s, many proponents of advantage arms control believed that new ABM technology had matured to the point where it was ready for serious testing and deployment.[112] At the same time, evolving threats from the smaller missile arsenals of “rogue states” increased the incentive to develop even a small ABM system.[113] These changes in context convinced many conservatives that the period in which the ABM Treaty contributed to U.S. national security had passed. In another example of the U.S. search for advantage in arms control, the Clinton administration initially attempted to modify the ABM Treaty to allow for further U.S. deployments.[114] When Russia proved unwilling to modify the treaty to allow such deployments, the George W. Bush administration announced its intention to withdraw in December 2001, setting off a wave of ABM testing and deployment that continues today.[115] The ABM Treaty’s greatest long-term strength was its ability to encompass multiple arms-control agendas, which gave it significant staying power and even allowed additional rationales to be added to the treaty over time. However, it could not survive the wholesale defection of advantage arms controllers in the 1990s and, as such, was abrogated. Proponents of stability arms control saw leaving the ABM Treaty as a betrayal of its original principles, allowing an inherently dangerous technology back into the world.[116] In some ways, however, abrogation of the ABM Treaty was not a betrayal of its founding principles but, rather, their natural culmination. From the advantage point of view, the treaty had stalled any Soviet or Russian ABM program, allowing continued U.S. progress on ABM technology while waiting for a domestic political circumstance more favorable to deployment. Whether the ABM Treaty was a failure or success depends largely on one’s perspective.


To understand the history or the contemporary practice of arms control, one must recognize that arms-limitation agreements often serve multiple and contradictory purposes. In the quest to prevent war, arms limitation may assist in disarmament, stability, or advantage, each of which is rooted in a plausible explanation for what causes war and each of which can credibly claim the mantle of “arms control.” Absent consensus on which approach is most effective at preventing war, the formation of arms-control policy has been difficult. In practice, policymakers have juggled the differing time horizons of competing arms-control constituencies to produce compromises capable of advancing all three arms-control aims simultaneously, at least for a time. Recognizing the multiple purposes of arms control has critical implications for scholars and policymakers. For scholars, recognizing arms control’s multiple goals is important for expanding an understanding of arms control and international politics more broadly. Arms control is not always a cooperative enterprise: Such agreements have served as vehicles for promoting the relative military advantages of great and minor powers. Studies that treat arms control as a purely cooperative endeavor will inevitably capture only half of the picture. For political scientists, this may involve recoding cases in which the existence of arms-control negotiations is treated ipso facto as evidence of improving cooperation between states rather than a different form of competition.[117] For historians, this will require reconsidering the success or failure of arms-control negotiations in light of their ability to advance multiple agendas rather than a single logic.[118] For both political scientists and historians, the flexibility of what arms control means may pose deeper questions concerning the nature of cooperation and competition in international politics and whether those concepts are mutually exclusive or interrelated. Given the difficulties entailed in producing a unified theory of arms control, scholars would do well to consider lessons from the practical world of statecraft, where theoretical rigor is often less important than political necessity. This is especially the case when arms-control arrangements must be cobbled together out of multiple competing purposes, assembling the parallel coalitions required to prevail in complex two-level negotiations. Under these circumstances, one of the most important resources available to a would-be arms controller is time. Competing interests with different time horizons can be assembled into arms-control compromises in which each side gets what it wants but at different points. Furthermore, initial compromises on the meaning of arms control are open to reinterpretation and revision over time, as arms-control regimes gain new meanings and contexts. Recognizing that arms-control agreements can serve multiple purposes, and that these objectives might change over time, can lead to a better understanding of why some agreements last, why some end, and why those that end break down when they do. The longest-lasting arms-limitation agreements are likely to be those that can continue to embody multiple agendas while also adapting to new contexts. An agreement is unlikely to last when it no longer appears to serve a sufficiently large range of purposes and when leaders become disillusioned with the utility of arms control for achieving their objectives. For policymakers, recognizing the existence of multiple arms-control agendas is both good and bad. The bad news is that understanding the policy implications of existing and notional arms-control agreements is extremely difficult, because agreements often serve several purposes and may have different meanings for different actors. As a result, the State and Defense Departments may have radically different understandings of a given agreement’s purpose, while foreign interlocutors are likely to have views of their own.[119] Balancing these competing views is tremendously difficult, especially in periods of significant international and domestic political confusion and rancor. As in the Cold War, the goal of enacting arms control is likely to remain very challenging. The good news is that significant opportunities exist in the contemporary U.S. political scene for effective coalition building in favor of arms-control proposals, with figures as far apart politically as John Bolton, Bill Clinton, and Derek Johnson all calling for an arms-control solution to the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear arsenal.[120] There is strong reason to suspect that Bolton, Clinton, and Johnson each prefer an arms-control solution to the North Korean nuclear threat for different reasons.[121] Nonetheless, the fact that three prominent figures with such different views about national security affairs have arrived at a similar policy aim, even in a period of tremendous partisan division, is surely cause for hope. As the example of the ABM Treaty demonstrates, appeals to cooperation and normative leadership are unlikely to be sufficient to advance a successful policy of arms control. Proponents of arms-control solutions would do better to cast a “big tent” on any such policy and seek to justify their prescriptions to multiple constituencies based on multiple logics. In doing so, considerable advantage can be derived by emphasizing that each constituency can receive what it wants, just at different times. Some good work has been done concerning how “progress” on arms-control issues might be organized into timelines,[122] which could provide different benefits to different arms-control constituencies at different times. Such an approach stands a chance of succeeding, even in the face of tremendous division over America’s proper role in the world. The future of arms control, much like its past, will depend on effective compromise between competing purposes.   John D. Maurer is the Henry A. Kissinger Postdoctoral Fellow at International Security Studies (ISS) and the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University. His current book project focuses on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in the Nixon administration, drawing on the Kissinger Papers at Yale to examine how academic ideas on the nature of arms control shaped U.S. arms control policy. His work has appeared in Diplomatic History, the National Interest, and War on the Rocks. He would like to thank Fritz Bartel, Paul Braken, Ian Johnson, Paul Kennedy, Keir Lieber, Nicholas Meyers, Nuno Monteiro, Kathryn Olesko, David Painter, Eric Sand, Evan Wilson, Remco Zwetsloot, the participants in the Yale ISS Colloquium, and the three anonymous readers at Texas National Security Review for their useful feedback on earlier drafts of this article.   Image: Ford Library Museum [post_title] => The Purposes of Arms Control [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => the-purposes-of-arms-control [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-04-10 13:00:05 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-04-10 17:00:05 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => In this paper, I review three major purposes for arms control negotiations — disarmament, stability, and advantage. In the first part of the paper, I compare the three purposes against the causes of war literature to show that each provides a defensible rationale for reducing the chances of war. While scholars debate which approach to arms control is correct, historically, policymakers have embraced arms control pluralism, pursuing agreements that can advance multiple arms control objectives simultaneously. In the second part of the paper, I demonstrate how the Nixon administration’s negotiation of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty combined these multiple purposes. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Proponents of disarmament arms control often take a long-term view of the purpose of arms control... ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => [A]dvantage arms control views the value of individual arms-control agreements through the prism of their contribution to a larger peace-promoting agenda... ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The division between proponents and opponents of ABMs initially led the Nixon administration to an impasse regarding SALT. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Imbued from its creation with multiple purposes, the ABM Treaty did not remain static in meaning but evolved over time. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1292 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 224 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Uri Friedman, “John Bolton’s Radical Views on North Korea,” Atlantic, March 23, 2018,; Vipin Narang and Ankit Panda, “War of the Words: North Korea, Trump, and Strategic Stability,” War on the Rocks, Aug. 10, 2017,; “Global Zero Statement on North Korea Nuclear Crisis,” Common Dreams, Aug. 9, 2017, [2] Robert Jervis, “Arms Control, Stability, and Causes of War,” Political Science Quarterly 108, no. 2 (Summer 1993): 239, [3] Kenneth N. Waltz, Man, the State, and War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959); James D. Fearon, “Rationalist Explanations for War,” International Organization 49, no. 3 (1995): 379–414, [4] Emanuel Adler, “The Emergence of Cooperation: National Epistemic Communities and the International Evolution of the Idea of Nuclear Arms Control,” International Organization 46, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 101–45,; Jeffrey W. Knopf, Domestic Society and International Cooperation: The Impact of Protest on US Arms Control Policy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Steven Pifer, “Arms Control, Security Cooperation, and U.S.-Russian Relations,” Brookings Institution, Nov. 17, 2017, [5] Steve Weber, Cooperation and Discord in U.S.-Soviet Arms Control (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991); Knopf, Domestic Society and International Cooperation; Jozef Goldblat, Arms Control: The New Guide to Negotiations and Agreements (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2002), 10–11; Marie Isabelle Chevrier, Arms Control Policy: A Guide to the Issues (New York: Praeger, 2012), 5–6. [6] Jervis, “Arms Control, Stability, and Causes of War”; Marc Trachtenberg, “The Past and Future of Arms Control,” Daedalus 120, no. 1 (Winter 1991): 203–16,; Michael Krepon, Better Safe Than Sorry: The Ironies of Living with the Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009), 40–43; James H. Lebovic, Flawed Logics: Strategic Nuclear Arms Control from Truman to Obama (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). [7] Dwight Eisenhower, “Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People,” The American Presidency Project, Jan. 17, 1961, [8] Seymour Melman, Pentagon Capitalism: The Political Economy of War (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970); Stuart D. Brandes, Warhogs: A History of War Profits in America (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1997). [9] Norman Cousins, Who Speaks for Man? (New York: Macmillan, 1953); “The Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” July 9, 1955,; Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth and the Abolition (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 3–96; Harald Müller, “Out of the Box: Nuclear Disarmament and Cultural Change,” in Stable Nuclear Zero: The Vision and Its Implications for Disarmament Policy, ed. Sverre Lodgaard (New York: Routledge, 2017), 55–72. [10] William Appleman Williams, Empire as a Way of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 142–45; Immanuel Wallerstein, “The Curve of American Power,” New Left Review 40 (July-August 2006): 77–94; Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs 12, no. 4 (Summer 1987): 687–718,; Elizabeth Frazer and Kimberly Hutchings, “Revisiting Ruddick: Feminism, Pacifism and Non-Violence,” Journal of International Political Theory 10, no. 1 (2014): 109–24;; Slavoj Žižek, Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle (New York: Verso Books, 2005). [11] Lela B. Costin, “Feminism, Pacifism, Internationalism and the 1915 International Congress of Women,” Women’s Studies International Forum 5, no. 3–4 (1982): 301–15,; Elmar Schmähling, “Conclusion: A New Way of Thinking for a Future Security Regime,” in Life Beyond the Bomb: Global Stability Without Nuclear Deterrence, ed. Elmar Schmähling (New York: Berg, 1990), 189; Sverre Lodgaard, Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Towards a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World? (New York: Routledge, 2011), 219–22. [12] Frazer and Hutchings, “Revisiting Ruddick: Feminism, Pacifism and Non-Violence”; Kyle Harvey, American Anti-Nuclear Activism, 19751990: The Challenge of Peace (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 12–41; Ian Harris and Charles F. Howlett, “Educating for Peace and Justice in America’s Nuclear Age,” Catalyst: A Social Justice Forum 1, no. 1 (2011): 20–51, [13] I.S. Bloch, Is War Now Impossible? Being an Abridgement of ‘The War of the Future in Its Technical, Economic, and Political Relations’ (London: Grant Richards, 1899); Norman Angell, The Great Illusion: A Study of the Relation of Military Power to National Advantage (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1911); Charles Chatfield and Peter van den Dungen, eds., Peace Movements and Political Cultures (Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1988); John Chambers, The Eagle and the Dove: the American Peace Movement and United States Foreign Policy, 19001922 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1991). [14] Walter Lippmann, U.S. Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic (New York: Little, Brown, 1943), 54–57; Andrew Webster, “From Versailles to Geneva: The Many Forms of Interwar Disarmament,” Journal of Strategic Studies 29, no. 2 (2006): 225–46,; Waqar H. Zaidi, “Aviation Will Either Destroy or Save Our Civilization: Proposals for the International Control of Aviation, 1920–45,” Journal of Contemporary History 46, no. 1 (January 2011): 150–78,; Michael Pugh, Liberal Internationalism: The Interwar Movement for Peace in Britain (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). [15] Lawrence S. 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[56] Stuart Croft, Strategies of Arms Control: A History and Typology (New York: Manchester University Press, 1996), 67–90. [57] Thomas Buckley, “The Icarus Factor: The American Pursuit of Myth in Naval Arms Control, 1921–36,” in The Washington Conference, 192122: Naval Rivalry, East Asian Stability and the Road to Pearl Harbor, ed. Erik Goldstein and John H. Maurer, (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1994), 131–34; John Kuehn, “A Turning Point in Anglo-American Relations? The General Board of the Navy and the London Treaty,” in At the Crossroads Between Peace and War: The London Naval Conference of 1930, ed. John H. Maurer and Christopher Bell, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014), 16–17. 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John Hines, Ellis Mishulovich, and John Shull (BDM Federal, 1995), 29–33,; John Battilega, “Soviet Views on Nuclear Warfare: The Post-Cold War Interviews,” in Getting MAD: Nuclear Mutual Assured Destruction, Its Origins and Practice, ed. Henry Sokolski (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2004), 160. [62] Robert Litwak, Preventing North Korea’s Nuclear Breakout (Washington, DC: Wilson Center, 2017). [63] John D. Maurer, “The Forgotten Side of Arms Control: Enhancing U.S. Competitive Advantage, Offsetting Enemy Strengths,” War on the Rocks, June 27, 2018, [64] Andrew Marshall, Long-Term Competition with the Soviets: A Framework for Strategic Analysis (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1972); Richard Nixon, 1999: Victory Without War (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 79–81. [65] Robert Strausz-Hupé, “Arms Control and the Atlantic Alliance,” in The Prospects for Arms Control, ed. 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[80] Notes of National Security Council Meeting, Feb. 14,1969, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXIV, National Security Policy, 1969-1972, ed. M. Todd Bennett (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 2011), Document 7,; Memo, Wheeler to Laird, Feb. 26, 1969, folder Anti-Ballistic Missile System [Feb-Mar 1969], Box 843, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting, Jan. 27, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 129,; Memcon, Nixon, Laird, et al., Aug. 10, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 190, [81] Paper prepared in the Department of Defense, undated, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXIV, Document 14, [82] Memo, Wheeler to Laird, Feb. 26, 1969, folder Anti-Ballistic Missile System [Feb-Mar 1969], Box 843, NSC Files, Nixon Library. [83] Memo, Kissinger to Nixon, May 23, 1969, Document 1, in The Secret History of the ABM Treaty, 19691972, ed. William Burr, National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 60, Nov. 8, 2001, [84] See, for example, Smith’s comments on Feb. 19, 1969, in minutes of National Security Council meeting, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXIV, Document 8, [85] Disarmament was not seriously considered as an arms-control rationale by the U.S. government in the early 1970s. The ABM Treaty’s disarmament rationale was developed after the agreement had been concluded. [86] Memo, Kissinger to Nixon, “NSSM 28, Substantive SALT Issues and NATO Aspects,” June 10, 1969, folder NSSM-28 2 of 2 [2 of 3], Box H-140, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; Paper Prepared by the Interagency SALT Steering Committee, undated, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 14,; Minutes of a National Security Council meeting, June 25, 1969, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 22,; Memo, Laird to Kissinger, July 3, 1969, folder SALT June-July [1969] Volume II [1 of 2], NSC Files, Nixon Library; “Alternative I,” folder Review Group SALT [part 1] 7/7/69, Box H-039, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library. [87] Minutes of National Security Council Meeting, March 5, 1969, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXIV, Document 16, fn. 3,; Beecher, “Pentagon Drafts Revised Proposal on Missile Shield,” New York Times, March 2, 1969; “The Negotiator and the Confronter,” Time, April 4, 1969; Beecher, “Administration Gets Study of Global Nuclear Strategy,” New York Times, May 1, 1969; FRUS 1969–76, Vol, XXXIV, Editorial Note 25,; Memo, BeLieu to Nixon, June 11, 1969, folder Sentinel ABM System Vol. III 6/1/69, Box 844, NSC Files, Nixon Library. [88] Finney, “ABM Debate Aims at Ten Senators Still Undecided,” New York Times, July 9, 1969; Averill, “ABM Debated Behind Locked Senate Doors,” Los Angeles Times, July 19, 1969; FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Editorial Note 18,; Letter, Nixon to Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Kissinger, Aug. 7, 1969, folder Sentinel ABM System Vol. III 6/1/69, Box 844, NSC Files, Nixon Library. [89] William Hyland, Mortal Rivals: Superpower Relations from Nixon to Reagan (New York: Random House, 1987), 44–45; Memo, Knight to Baroody, Oct. 7, 1969, folder Issue Areas — General, 1969 (2), Box A74, Laird Papers, Ford Library; Minutes of Defense Program Review Committee, Oct. 22,1969, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXIV, Document 96,; Memo, Lynn to Kissinger, Oct. 23, 1969, folder Sentinel ABM System Vol. III 6/1/69, Box 844, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Minutes of Defense Program Review Committee Meeting, Nov. 13, 1969, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXIV, Document 100, fn. 7,; Memorandum for the Record by Packard, Dec. 8, 1969, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXIV, Document 106, Despite this change, the Joint Chiefs of Staff remained committed to U.S. ABM superiority: Memo, Wheeler to Laird, Dec. 31, 1969, folder ABM-System 1–70 – 3–70 Vol. III Memos and Misc. [2 of 2], Box 840, NSC Files, Nixon Library. [90] Memo, Lynn to Kissinger, Jan. 31, 1970, folder ABM-System 1/70 – 3/70 Vol. III Memos and Misc. [1 of 2], Box 840, NSC Files, Nixon Library; “Task Y-1 ABM/MIRV Options,” March 13, 1970, folder ABM-System Vol. IV 2-70 –  30 Apr 70 Memos and Misc. [1 of 3], Box 841, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Memo, Lynn to Kissinger, March 20, 1970, folder Verification Panel Meeting SALT 6/20/70, Box H-005, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; Memo, Spiers to Rogers, “Preparation for SALT II,” March 6, 1970, DEF 18-3 AUS (VI), 1970–1973 SNF, RG59, USNA; “ABMs: Should SAMs Be Counted As ABMs,” folder Verification Panel Meeting SALT Options 4/6/70, Box H-005, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library. [91] Memcon, Nixon et al., April 11, 1970, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 69,; Memo, Kissinger to Smith, April 13, 1970, folder SALT Talks (Vienna) Vol. VIII 4/9/70 – 5/10/70 [1 of 2], Box 877, NSC Files, Nixon Library. [92] Memo, Laird to Kissinger, April 27, 1970, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 73, fn. 3, [93] Letter, Drell to DuBridge, Dec. 23, 1969, folder ABM-System 1-70 – 3-70 Vol. III Memos and Misc. [2 of 2], Box 840, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Memo, Lynn to Kissinger, Jan. 5, 1970, folder ABM-System 1-70 – 3-70 Vol. III Memos and Misc. [2 of 2], Box 840, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Letter, DuBridge to Kissinger, July 1, 1970, folder ABM-System Vol. VI, May 1970 – July 30, 1971 [2 of 2], Box 842, NSC Files, Nixon Library. [94] Letter, Laird to Kissinger, Oct. 21, 1970, folder SALT Talks (Helsinki) Vol. XIII Oct. 70 – Dec. 70 [2 of 3], Box 880, NSC Files, Nixon Library. [95] Memo, Wayne Smith to Kissinger, Feb. 28, 1971, folder Verification Panel Meeting SALT 3/2/71, Box H-007, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; Memo, Davis to Kissinger, March 4, 1971, folder SALT Backup 1970–71 [2 of 2], Box 886, NSC Files, Nixon Library; National Security Decision Memorandum 102, March 11, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 138,; Memo, Kissinger to Nixon, June 30, 1971, folder NSC Meeting SALT 6/ 30/71, Box H-031, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; National Security Decision Memorandum 140, Nov. 15, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 212, [96] Paul Nitze, Hiroshima to Glasnost: At the Center of Decision (New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1989), 317–18; Memo, Wayne Smith and Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, Oct. 30, 1971, folder Verification Panel Meeting SALT 11/3/71, Box H-009, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; Memo, Packard to Kissinger, Nov. 6, 1971, folder Verification Panel Meeting SALT 11/3/71, Box H-009, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; Memo, Odeen and Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, Jan. 12, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 225,; Memo, Odeen and Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, Feb. 4, 1972, folder SALT Talks (Helinski) (sic) Vol. 17 Jan - Apr 1972 [2 of 3], Box 882, NSC Files, Nixon Library. [97] Memcon, Brown to Kissinger, Aug. 30, 1971, folder SALT Talks (Helsinki) Vo. 17 Sep-Dec 71 [2 of 2], Box 882, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Memo, Smith to Nixon, Sept. 28, 1971, folder SALT Talks (Helsinki) Vo. 17 Sep-Dec 71 [1 of 2], Box 882, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Memo, Wayne Smith and Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, Oct. 30, 1971, folder Verification Panel Meeting SALT 11/3/71, Box H-009, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; Memo, Odeen and Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, folder Verification Panel Meeting – SALT 2/ 9/72 [1 of 2], Box H-010, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library. [98] Memo, Odeen and Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, March 6, 1972, folder Verification Panel Meeting – SALT 3/8/71 [1 of 2], Box H-010, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; Memcon, Kissinger and Dobrynin, March 17, 1972, in Soviet-American Relations: The Détente Years, 1969-1972, ed. David C. Geyer and Douglas E. Selvage (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 2007), 615–27; Telegram from the Department of State to the SALT Delegation, April 10, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 256,; Memo, Kissinger to Nixon, April 18, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 258,; Memo, Odeen to Kissinger, April 23, 1972, folder SALT Talks (Helinski) (sic) Vol. 17 Jan-Apr 1972 [1 of 3], Box 882, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Memcon, Brezhnev, Kissinger, et al., April 22, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 262, [99] Even recent archival work on the ABM Treaty has underplayed the importance of these concessions to competitive arms controllers. See, for example: David Tal, US Strategic Arms Policy in the Cold War: Negotiations and Confrontations over SALT, 19691979 (New York: Routledge, 2017), 158–59; Cameron, The Double Game, 6–11; and Matthew J. Ambrose, The Control Agenda: A History of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018) 45­–46. [100] Letter, Laird to Jackson, Aug. 7, 1970, folder ABM–General (5) – July 1970 – July 1972, Box A50, Laird Papers, Ford Library; Memo, Wayne Smith and Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, June 28, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 184, fn. 4,; Memo, Laird to Nixon, Aug. 2, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 187,; Memo, Kissinger to Nixon, folder Verification Panel Meeting SALT 8/9/71, Box H-009, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; National Security Decision Memorandum 127, Aug. 12, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 192, [101] FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Editorial Note 6,; Memo, Smith to Rogers, May 9, 1969, folder Review Group SALT (NSSM 28) [part 1] 6/12/69, Box H-037, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library; Paper Prepared in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, June 11, 1969, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 16,; “Task Y-1 ABM/MIRV Options,” March 13, 1970, folder ABM-System Vol. IV 2-70 –30 Apr 70 Memos and Misc. [1 of 3], Box 841, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Letter, Smith to Nixon, March 8, 1971, folder SALT Talks (Helsinki) Vol. XIV 1 Jan 71 – April 71 [1 of 3], Box 880, NSC Files, Nixon Library; Minutes of National Security Council Meeting, June 30, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 170,; Memo, Irwin to Tucker, Feb. 1, 1972, DEF 18, 1970–1973 SNF, RG59, USNA. [102] “Report to the Verification Working Group on Net Assessment of NCA Defense Radar Limitations,” Feb. 25, 1971, folder SALT Talks (Helsinki) Vol. XIV 1 Jan. 71 – April 1971 [1 of 3], Box 880, NSC Files, Nixon Library. [103] Conversation Among Nixon, Laird, and Joint Chiefs, Aug. 10, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 190,; Memorandum for the Record, March 17, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 240, [104] Paper Prepared in the Department of Defense for the Verification Panel Working Group, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 207,; Memo, Tucker to Laird, March 27, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 244,; National Security Decision Memorandum 164, May 1, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 271,; Treaty Between the United States and the Soviet Union, May 26, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 316, [105] Memo, Laird to Kissinger, July 12, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 174, fn. 1,; Memo, Laird to Kissinger, July 20, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 181,; Memo, Wayne Smith and Hyland to Kissinger, Aug. 11, 1971, folder Verification Panel Meeting SALT 8/ 9/71, Box H-009, NSC Institutional Files, Nixon Library. [106] Treaty Between the United States and the Soviet Union, May 26, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 316, [107] Memo, Odeen and Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, Dec. 16, 1971, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 216,; Memo, Tucker to Laird, March 27, 1972, FRUS 1969–76, Vol. XXXII, Document 244, [108] Nixon himself later admitted that the treaty was intended as a temporary measure. See: Nixon, 1999, 94–96. [109] Michael Krepon, “Dormant Threat to the ABM Treaty,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 41, no. 1 (1986): 31–34,; John Kogut and Michael Weissman, “Taking the Pledge Against Star Wars,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 42, no. 1 (1986): 27–30, [110] Paul Nitze, SDI and the ABM Treaty (Washington, DC: State Department Bureau of Public Affairs, 1985),; Kim Holmes and W. Bruce Weinrod, Weighing the Evidence: How the ABM Treaty Permits a Strategic Defense System (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, 1987),; Donald Gross, “Negotiated Treaty Amendment: The Solution to the SDI-ABM Treaty Conflict,” Harvard International Law Journal 28, no. 1 (1987): 31–68. [111] Thomas Friedman, “U.S. Formally Rejects ‘Star Wars’ in ABM Treaty,” New York Times, July 15, 1993,; Steven Pifer, “The Limits of U.S. Missile Defense,” National Interest, March 30, 2015, [112] James Lindsay and Michael O’Hanlon, Defending America: A Plan for a Limited National Missile Defense (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2001); James Dao, “Rumsfeld Outlines to NATO Fast Track for Missile Shield,” New York Times, June 8, 2001, [113] Ivan Eland and Daniel Lee, “The Rogue State Doctrine and National Missile Defense,” CATO Institute Foreign Policy Briefing No. 65, March 29, 2001,; “U.S. Withdraws From the ABM Treaty: President Bush’s Remarks and U.S. Diplomatic Notes,” Arms Control Association, Dec. 13, 2001, [114] Alexander Pikayev, “ABM Treaty Revision: A Challenge to Russian Security,” Disarmament Diplomacy 44 (March 2000), [115] Terence Neilan, “Bush Pulls Out of ABM Treaty; Putin Calls Move a Mistake,” New York Times, Dec. 13, 2001,; Wade Boese, “U.S. Withdraws From ABM Treaty; Global Response Muted,” Arms Control Today, July 1, 2002, [116] Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay, “Unilateral Withdrawal From the ABM Treaty Is a Bad Idea,” Brookings Institution, April 30, 2001, [117] Charles Lipson, “International Cooperation in Economic and Security Affairs,” World Politics 37, no. 1 (1984): 1–23,; Robert Axelrod and Robert Keohane, “Achieving Cooperation Under Anarchy: Strategies and Institutions,” World Politics 38, no. 1 (1985): 226–54,; James D. Fearon, “Bargaining, Enforcement, and International Cooperation,” International Organization 52, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 269–305, [118] Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 1155–58; April Carter, Success and Failure in Arms Control Negotiations (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Ritter, Dangerous Ground: America’s Failed Arms Control Policy, from FDR to Obama. [119] Rick Gladstone, “Trump and Kim May Define ‘Korea Denuclearization’ Quite Differently,” New York Times, June 10, 2018, [120] Eli Watkins, “Bolton: US Still ‘Waiting’ for North Korea to Start Denuclearizing,”, Aug. 7, 2018,; “Bill Clinton Says America Should Be Rooting for Trump’s Success on North Korea,” PBS News Hour, June 8, 2018,; “Global Zero Statement on North Korea Nuclear Crisis,” Common Dreams, Aug. 8, 2017, [121] John Bolton, “John Bolton: Get Real, America. ‘Agreements’ with Rogue States Like North Korea Aren’t Worth a Thing,” National Post, April 26, 2017,; Bill Clinton, “Joint Statement on Strategic Stability and Nuclear Security,” Sept. 29, 1994,; Derek Johnson, “‘Security’ Is Not 17,000 Nuclear Weapons,” Huffington Post, March 26, 2014, [122] Michael E. O’Hanlon, “Is a World Without Nuclear Weapons Really Possible?” Brookings Institution, May 4, 2010,; Mitsuru Kitano, “How to Transcend Differences in Nuclear Disarmament Approaches,” Arms Control Today, September 2018, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [5] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 805 [post_author] => 241 [post_date] => 2018-11-12 05:00:46 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-11-12 10:00:46 [post_content] => Does the United States have a grand strategy? Scholars, analysts, and policymakers vigorously debate this question, and for good reason: The answer has profound implications for American foreign policy, both in theory and in practice. After nearly three decades in which overwhelming grand-strategic continuity rendered the “Kennan Sweepstakes” little more than an inside-the-Beltway parlor game, Washington faces raised geopolitical stakes. The unipolar moment is undoubtedly over, and the United States must now advance its interests as the most powerful state in an increasingly multipolar international system characterized by sharpening competition among great powers. Meanwhile, social, political, and economic fractures at home create a faulty foundation for a renewed grand-strategic consensus.[1] While the election of Donald Trump did not create these challenges, his presidency has exacerbated them through two years of policy uncertainty, rhetorical whiplash, and strategic drift. Despite some of the chief executive’s long-standing proclivities — antagonism toward free trade, antipathy for American alliances, admiration for strongmen — these preferences have not always served as a reliable guide to his administration’s policy.[2] Instead, the Trump doctrine is best characterized by its ethos: a “tactical transactionalism” in pursuit of apparent foreign policy “wins”;[3] a chauvinistic militarism;[4] and an assertion that “We’re America, Bitch.”[5] In short, the need for an American grand strategy is great at the very moment when its feasibility is diminished. There is thus no better time to revisit the vast literature on grand strategy — a field that spans multiple academic disciplines as well as the realm of policy analysis — and consider how it might help extract the United States from its grand-strategic deficit.[6] An assessment of this literature’s accumulated wisdom yields decidedly mixed results. Grand-strategy scholarship is rightly critiqued for employing its animating concept inconsistently, which has hindered the advancement of social-scientific attempts to “describe, explain, and predict” the causes and effects of grand strategy.[7] Yet, focusing unduly on the incoherence of the grand-strategy literature obscures the coalescence of its three component research agendas: those that treat grand strategy as a variable, process, and blueprint. Each of these agendas offers a distinct lens for scholars and practitioners of international relations. The “grand strategy as variable” agenda provides a prism through which academics may study the origins of state behavior, with particular attention to the perennial question of how agency and structure interact to produce grand-strategic outcomes. Far from a theoretical abstraction, this question has immediate relevance for policy practitioners who seek to understand other states’ grand strategies as well as influence the trajectory of their own. The “grand strategy as process” agenda foregrounds the importance of grand strategizing, whether as a governmental strategic-planning process or as a more generic mode of decision-making. In training attention on formulation, this line of inquiry assumes both that grand strategy matters and that individuals can influence its design; consequently, it seeks to extract procedural principles that maximize the likelihood of “good” grand strategy. Finally, the “grand strategy as blueprint” agenda proffers broad visions in hopes of influencing future governmental behavior. These prescriptions may entail defenses of the status quo or — more often — recommendations for redirecting the ship of state. Identifying these component research agendas and placing them in dialogue highlights ripe opportunities for future research. Despite inquiry into the origins of grand strategy, historical case studies, and examination of grand-strategic planning, the literature bears too little insight into the determinants of effectiveness. What distinguishes successful grand strategies from those that have foundered, whether in their encounters with international or domestic hurdles? And while international obstacles are well theorized, domestic political constraints are much less so. Although Trump’s election initially appeared to be a death knell for American global leadership, public support for internationalism has actually increased since he took office. How will Trump’s presidency and the highly polarized political environment over which he presides shape the future of U.S. grand strategy — including the likelihood that a novel blueprint will be adopted? Lastly, as this article amply demonstrates, the field focuses overwhelmingly on American grand strategy. Although the United States is certainly a crucial case, all three research agendas would benefit from a wider international aperture. The literature’s faults, gaps, and ambiguities notwithstanding, this article concludes with a defense of the continued study of grand strategy. Studying grand strategy trains academics’ and analysts’ sights on the highest-order questions of international relations: why, how, and for what purposes states employ their national power, including the crucible of military force. For academics, this focus counterbalances growing tendencies toward narrowly construed, methodologically myopic, or policy-irrelevant research in political science and history. For policymakers, grand strategy persists as an essential enterprise. Even if grand strategy is seldom discussed as such in the White House Situation Room, an overarching strategic vision defines a nation’s international role, guides the alignment of means and ends, and serves as a lodestar for discrete foreign policy decisions. Consequently, strategists within and outside the ivory tower share the task of advancing the study of grand strategy, so as to better inform both scholarship and policy. This task begins by clarifying the meaning of grand strategy and distinguishing among the vast literature’s component research agendas.

What Is ‘Grand Strategy’?

The study of grand strategy constitutes a rich and growing literature. Yet a confounding breadth of subjects fall under what is nominally a single conceptual umbrella.[8] In many cases, works on grand strategy talk past each other, use definitional quibbles to invalidate competing ideas, and define alternative explanations selectively. Notably, these divergences occur despite a remarkable degree of agreement over the basic definition of grand strategy. Indeed, two complementary definitions are cited by nearly every major recent study of grand strategy. The first is from Paul Kennedy and draws on earlier work by Edward Mead Earle and Basil Liddell Hart[9] to contend, “The crux of grand strategy lies therefore in policy, that is, in the capacity of the nation’s leaders to bring together all of the elements, both military and nonmilitary, for the preservation and enhancement of the nation’s long-term (that is, in wartime and peacetime) best interests.”[10] The second is by Barry Posen, who draws on a similar strategic tradition and offers an even more succinct definition: Grand strategy is “a state’s theory about how it can best ‘cause’ security for itself.”[11] These definitions co-exist comfortably without intrinsic contradictions. Their complementarity is well demonstrated by Hal Brands’ elaboration of the conception of grand strategy in his study of the subject:
At its best, then, a grand strategy represents an integrated scheme of interests, threats, resources, and policies. It is the conceptual framework that helps nations determine where they want to go and how they ought to get there; it is the theory, or logic, that guides leaders seeking security in a complex and insecure world.[12]
Accordingly, grand strategy is, as Nina Silove argues, long term in its vision, holistic in its treatment of all instruments of national power, and important in its focus on the most consequential interests.[13] These attributes distinguish grand strategy from its narrower cognates — strategy and military strategy — as well as from foreign policy and statecraft. The concept of strategy has a long genealogy: Its ancient precursors date to Thucydides and Polybius. First appearing in European military analyses in the late 18th century, it evolved from an exclusively military character to incorporate political objectives after World War I. Strategy then assumed a general meaning over the course of the 20th century.[14] “Military strategy” has come to occupy the historical domain of “strategy” in referring exclusively to the employment of military force: In Liddell Hart’s words, “[T]he art of distributing and applying military means to fulfill the ends of policy.”[15] Strategy, by contrast, is a generic term without clear temporal, instrumental, or substantive dimensions; rather, it refers to the process of careful marshalling of means to achieve desired ends in pursuits as diverse as football, poker, and marketing.[16] Nor is “grand strategy” synonymous with foreign policy and statecraft. Foreign policy lacks the time horizon and emphasis on vital interests intrinsic to grand strategy: The United States may, for example, have a foreign policy toward Bolivia that is short-term and of minor consequence.[17] Finally, statecraft — though rarely defined — typically refers to the practical conduct of international relations, with a focus on tools and implementation.[18] [quote id="1"] Even as most scholars who research and write about grand strategy agree on its basic definition, they employ the concept in markedly different ways, each associated with a component research agenda within the grand-strategy literature. The “grand strategy as variable” camp seeks to develop analytical arguments that explain the origins of states’ grand strategies and account for their change over time. The “grand strategy as process” camp sees the strategic planning process as the essence of grand strategy and focuses on the improvement and/or generalization of such processes. Finally, a “grand strategy as blueprint” camp outlines prescriptive broad visions for grand strategy, particularly in the United States. Of course, this article is not the first attempt to bring clarity to the study of grand strategy.[19] While most review the literature without clearly delineating the various meanings of grand strategy, Silove’s recent contribution presents an alternative tripartite typology focused on “theories of the concept of grand strategy.” Based on a careful intellectual history, Silove describes how scholars often subtly diverge on whether grand strategy refers to detailed plans (“grand plans”), general organizing principles (“grand principles”), or emergent patterns of state behavior (“grand behavior”).[20] This contribution, though important, is primarily methodological: Plans, principles, and behavior are distinguished by the standard of evidence required to establish the existence of grand strategy. What’s more, these three categories are not easily distinguished from each other in practice, as Silove readily admits:
Grand plans specify ends and the means by which to achieve them in detail. Grand principles do the same in more general terms. Grand behavior is a pattern in the relative allocation of means to certain ends, regardless of whether that pattern is the result of a grand plan, a grand principle, or some other factor.[21]
In more concrete terms, this means that America’s early Cold War grand strategy was simultaneously animated by grand principles (containment), detailed in grand plans (NSC-68), and manifested in grand behavior (the Korean War, defense budgets, and so on). These three methods of measuring grand strategy as a phenomenon may assist in answering different research questions, but they do not in themselves qualify as distinct research agendas.[22] Despite its methodological contribution, therefore, the three meanings of grand strategy Silove identifies provide little help for those seeking to organize the major debates in the current grand-strategy literature. Instead, analysts will find greater value in recognizing the thematic coherence in a field that frequently coalesces around similar research puzzles — a task better served by the variable-process-blueprint typology developed here.

Agenda 1: Grand Strategy as Variable

Social scientists have produced a vast literature that treats grand strategy as a subject to be explained — that is, as a dependent variable. Scholars in this vein focus predominantly on the origins of grand strategy: theorizing where grand strategy comes from and the conditions under which it might change. This emphasis trains scholars’ attention on cases in which states (usually great powers) engage in major strategic pivots. Consider the most salient 20th-century examples: Why did Japan turn toward autarky in the late 1930s?[23] Why did Germany seek to overturn the European order through expansionism in the years leading up to World War II?[24] Why did Britain abandon its initial strategy of appeasement in favor of a more confrontational posture toward Nazi Germany?[25] Why did Russia turn toward “new thinking” in the 1980s?[26] Within the international relations literature, theories of grand strategy track closely with broader debates about whether the sources of state behavior lie at the international, domestic, or individual level. Scholars debate the role of the international environment in determining states’ grand strategies, as compared with domestic considerations such as public opinion, bureaucratic politics, strategic culture, or political leadership that may explain why states respond differently when they face similar international circumstances. Distinguishing between arguments about how grand strategy is generated is more than an exercise in rehashing the contest between the “isms” of international relations theory; rather, it reveals practically relevant assumptions about whether grand strategy is an output or a tool. If grand strategy is merely an output, there is little room for strategic choice. If future Chinese grand strategy were determined by Beijing’s relative power position, it matters little whether the nation is guided by Xi Jinping or another leader. Similarly, American grand strategy would dramatically reorient only if international conditions change, notwithstanding Trump’s heterodox designs. If grand strategy is a tool, however, individual agency may change the course of history by developing and implementing grand strategies that transcend structural constraints — or prove ill-equipped to surmount them. According to the structural-realist perspective, grand strategy is essentially the conveyor belt between systemic incentives and state behavior — or, an output. When John Mearsheimer contends that states “are aware of their external environment and they think strategically about how to survive in it,”[27] he is referring to a process of automatic adaption according to a predictable pattern of state behavior. Grand strategy changes when the international system changes. The act of strategizing has no place in this view of grand strategy. Because grand strategy derives directly from the structure of the international system, any apparently intentional acts of grand-strategic articulation are merely epiphenomenal — in other words, they may reflect underlying factors but have no independent influence on observed outcomes. Indeed, structural-realist, or neorealist, theories of international relations emphasize the role of the international system in determining states’ grand strategies. Material attributes of the system — most importantly, the distribution of power — create pressures that “shape and shove” strategic choice.[28] For offensive realists like Mearsheimer, the anarchic, self-help nature of the international system yields constant great power competition, as each major state seeks to maximize its share of world power. While all major powers desire hegemony, they may temporarily adopt strategies oriented to maintain the status quo when “the costs and risks of trying to shift the balance of power are too great, forcing great powers to wait for more favorable circumstances.”[29] Defensive realists also treat the international system as determinative, but they describe the attributes of the system with more nuance and make more sanguine assumptions about states’ default grand-strategic modes, emphasizing the quest for security rather than hegemony.[30] [quote id="2"] The fundamental problem with structural theories of grand strategy, of course, is that they explain very little. As Aaron Friedberg has noted, “structural considerations provide a useful point from which to begin analysis of international politics rather than a place at which to end it.”[31] A great power may seek security or hegemony in countless ways. Faced with a rising challenger, for instance, a state may initiate a preventive war, but it may also cooperate or even retrench.[32] Much depends on how states perceive their international environment and the domestic pressures that condition their response. Considering these domestic dimensions can clarify how states perceive the structure of their external environments, as well as the conditions under which grand strategy may change even as structural circumstances remain the same. Understanding this variation is important, and interesting, for scholars and strategists alike. Consequently, most recent work on grand strategy incorporates state-level attributes when explaining its origins. Neoclassical-realist scholarship accepts the importance of broad strategic parameters set by the international system but incorporates domestic-level factors into explanations of states’ particular grand-strategic choices.[33] Typically characterized as “intervening variables” that mediate the translation of systemic incentives into state behavior, domestic variables take one of two forms. The first is domestic politics. Whether a function of state capacity,[34] party preferences,[35] or sectoral interests,[36] this view of grand strategy is only moderately more dynamic than the structural one. By allowing the possibility of choice from a menu of grand-strategic options,[37] these theories seem to create greater space for agency — but once domestic-political variables are introduced as intervening or interacting forces, grand strategy regains its status as an output. In explaining why American grand strategy transitioned from selective engagement during the Bill Clinton administration to offensive war in the George W. Bush administration, for example, Peter Trubowitz does not credit distinct presidential designs. Instead, he argues, the difference lay in domestic politics: Although both Clinton and Bush were president at times of few geopolitical constraints, Clinton’s Democratic Party profited politically from investing in social services (butter over guns) while Bush’s Republican Party benefited from defense spending (guns over butter).[38] Grand strategy emerged from the crucible of domestic and international pressures rather than leadership by the president or other senior policymakers. A second type of neoclassical-realist theory emphasizes the intervening variable of strategic culture, a subject of increasing attention among scholars of grand strategy. Some studies treat strategic culture as an essentially fixed mediator between international constraints and grand-strategic outcomes. Evaluating the American case, for example, Christopher Layne points to “Open Door economic and ideological expansion” in explaining why the United States has continuously pursued a grand strategy of “extraregional hegemony” since World War II, and Patrick Porter attributes the continuity of American post-Cold War grand strategy to a primacist monoculture among Washington’s foreign policy establishment.[39] These are essentially theories of continuity; they provide little traction in explaining the conditions for change.[40] A more dynamic approach to the American case introduces multiple strategic cultures and examines how they compete with each other for influence over grand strategy — whether the rival poles of Woodrow Wilson’s idealism and Theodore Roosevelt’s realpolitik, Enlightenment rationalism and Christian theology, or classical liberalism and the “limited liability” foreign policy tradition, as characterized by Henry Kissinger, Walter McDougall, and Colin Dueck, respectively.[41] This genre of argument intriguingly highlights the rhyme and repetition that so frequently characterize grand-strategy debates in the United States.[42] Moreover, it acknowledges the fundamental importance of international conditions without succumbing to determinism: The United States’ historical repertoire provides multiple narratives for leaders or strategists to draw upon while also holding out the possibility of influential new formulations. Nevertheless, as Sara Plana argues, strategic cultural theories of grand strategy remain underdeveloped and often unfalsifiable. More work is needed to identify the conditions required for change between strategic subcultures,[43] as well as the mechanisms by which culture translates into grand-strategic outcomes.[44] Finally, historians — and only rarely political scientists — attribute the origins of grand strategy to the designs of individuals.[45] Such works vary in the relative weight they attribute to structure or agency. Some scholars take international structure as the starting point, which then filters through leaders’ perspectives and preferences. This view is characteristic of Hal Brands’ work, which explores the interaction between international dynamics and the worldviews of American presidents and their advisers in the post-World War II period.[46] Others focus more intently on the grand-strategic interventions of individuals. These scholars acknowledge international constraints but contend that strategists can see through structural forces in crafting their grand designs. John Gaddis’ discussion of George Kennan’s development of containment exemplifies this view, as does his recent work celebrating the grand-strategic triumphs of leaders such as Elizabeth I and Abraham Lincoln. Similarly, Charles Edel portrays John Quincy Adams as an architect of American grand strategy in the early decades of the republic.[47] What insights does the “grand strategy as variable” research agenda offer to scholars and policymakers? For scholars, this research amounts to less than the sum of its parts. These studies tend to develop their own approach to operationalizing and measuring grand strategy.[48] While some studies conceive of grand strategy as a state’s approach to international order or the balance of power, others operationalize grand strategy at the level of specific foreign policy choices.[49] This ad hoc treatment makes it difficult to competitively test rival theories against each other and, in turn, accumulate knowledge about where grand strategy comes from and why it changes. For policymakers, this sub-literature provides alternate lenses through which to assess the origins of other states’ grand strategies, as well as the conditions under which allies and adversaries may pursue different tacks in the future. It also foregrounds the structural constraints that grand strategists face at the international and domestic levels, emphasizing the importance of designing grand strategies that account realistically for such limitations, rather than wishing them away. The balance of evidence indicates that it is these constraints — more so than the blue-sky creativity of virtuosic policy intellectuals — that determine a nation’s grand-strategic course, though individuals do occasionally distinguish themselves by designing grand strategies that intelligently navigate this bounded pathway.

Agenda 2: Grand Strategy as Process

A second research agenda treats grand strategy as a process rather than a subject. This perspective conceives of grand strategy primarily in terms of its mode of formulation and only secondarily — in some cases, not at all — in the substance of the strategy itself. By focusing on decision-making processes, these works reject structural determinism and embrace the possibility that choices made by individuals and organizations can alter a state’s grand-strategic course. One group sees grand strategy as a “common sense” method of decision-making and looks to history for universal principles applicable to a wide range of pursuits. Another sub-literature equates strategic planning with grand strategy, focusing primarily on the United States. The broadest conception of grand strategy as process entails the generalization of grand strategy as a generic method of leadership and decision-making.[50] This school of thought echoes the tradition of 19th-century theorists who sought to develop universal principles of military strategy.[51] By studying great commanders, these writers distilled genius into teachable guidelines, transforming strategy from an art to a science. Today, this tradition is most closely associated with Yale’s Grand Strategy program. Gaddis, a don of the Yale program, encapsulates this approach:
Grand strategy is the calculated relationship of means to large ends. It’s about how one uses whatever one has to get to wherever it is one wants to go. Our knowledge of it derives chiefly from the realm of war and statecraft. … But grand strategy need not apply only to war and statecraft: it’s potentially applicable to any endeavor in which means must be deployed in the pursuit of important ends.[52]
Careful study of grand strategy can thus yield principles relevant to a wide range of pursuits; this approach amounts to “teaching common sense.”[53] By generalizing insights from military and diplomatic history, the common-sense school mirrors the transformation of strategy from a specifically military term into a generic one. But while scholars and strategists can surely extract universal lessons from military and diplomatic history, it does not necessarily follow that it is possible to have a grand strategy of just anything. Rather, to stretch the concept in this manner is to render it indistinguishable from the contemporary concept of strategy. Consider the similarities — in both content and level of abstraction — between advice offered to decision-makers by business strategist Richard Rumelt and by Gaddis, a scholar of grand strategy. Where Gaddis advises against directly opposing an adversary’s strengths and “respecting constraints,” Rumelt cautions strategists to “define the challenge competitively” and avoid “failure to recognize or take seriously the fact that resources are scarce.”[54] Each of these insights is worthy and wise, but following them entails acting strategically, not grand strategically. To retain its meaning and avoid the conceptual muddle that plagues its sister concept, grand strategy must remain substantively anchored in the realm of statecraft. [quote id="3"] By contrast, another cluster of scholarship and policy analysis conceives of grand strategy in terms of strategic planning. Echoing Dwight Eisenhower’s maxim about planning, for this sub-literature, grand strategizing is everything. Among military theorists, grand strategy has long-standing associations with planning: Basil Liddell Hart, in his original definition, explains the role of grand strategy as “to co-ordinate and direct all the resources of a nation, or band of nations, toward the attainment of the political object of the war.”[55] Despite some critics’ contention that decision-making assumes a qualitatively different cast under conditions of peace rather than war, the extrapolation of grand strategy to include peacetime strategic planning has become common.[56] Scholars and policy analysts in this camp typically conceive of grand strategy as the method by which a government articulates its national security strategy. Debates about strategic planning in the U.S. government offer a prime example, given the enormity of American global interests and national capabilities, but these dynamics are by no means exclusive to the United States or to great powers generally.[57] Often, debates about grand-strategic planning in Washington center on the congressionally mandated national security strategy. Much of the literature on the national security strategy focuses on the utility of mobilizing the American national security apparatus for such strategic-planning exercises.[58] Proponents such as James Goldgeier and Jeremy Suri contend that the national security strategy is vital to the practice of grand strategy:
Without a clear strategy statement, the next president will find it difficult to align U.S. capabilities behind core national interests. Without a clear strategy statement, the next president will fail to set a foreign policy course for his/her new administration that leverages U.S. resources and allies, escaping the damaging tendency to do a little everywhere and seek to stamp out fires wherever they burn.[59]
Publication of each administration’s national security strategy cues a chorus of critics who decry the degradation of the grand-strategy process into an exercise in banality and bureaucratic consensus-building, divorced from the crucial work of implementation.[60] For the most part, however, national security strategy critics believe that strategic planning is a virtuous exercise; their gripe centers on the consistent failure of the national security strategy and related processes to produce anything resembling grand strategy.[61] A process optimized to effectively link ends, ways, and means might, for example: lean into, rather than shy away from, difficult trade-offs; always contain a classified component where priorities are explicitly enumerated; and translate into clear implementation guidance, including budgetary requirements. Despite wide recognition of these deficiencies, however, there has been little progress toward reform, implicitly revealing a set of political — rather than geostrategic — priorities that drive the planning process.[62] First, the national security strategy, like many strategy documents, is mandated by Congress; every presidential administration is required to produce it. Second, planning advocates ascribe value to the process for its own sake, saying it forces policymakers to think beyond their inboxes and engage strategic questions with their counterparts across the national security bureaucracy, which improves day-to-day decision-making even if it doesn’t produce a coherent strategic vision. Third, the national security strategy is a vessel for communicating with audiences at home and abroad. Domestically, the national security strategy can guide interagency decision-making and inform public debate. Internationally, the document signals the broad direction of U.S. foreign policy to allies and adversaries. Constrained by these political imperatives, there is little incentive for policymakers to make hard grand-strategic choices. Indeed, little changes between presidential administrations, even as reams of studies explore means of improving U.S. strategic competence.[63] Some skeptics contend that U.S. incompetence may actually be salutary: Grand-strategic planning, they argue, yields dangerously constraining and inflexible foreign policy doctrines. Building on Richard Betts’s critiques of strategy and doctrine,[64] David Edelstein and Ronald Krebs argue that strategic planning imposes dangerous rigidity on policymaking: “The ritual of crafting strategy encourages participants to spin a narrative that magnifies the scope of the national interest and exaggerates global threats.”[65] Ionut Popescu characterizes grand strategy as a model of national security decision-making whereby governments “formulate and implement a long-term coherent plan to accomplish the nation’s highest goals.”[66] He contrasts this approach with a superior alternative model of “emergent strategy” that rejects long-term planning in favor of incrementalism, short-term adaptation, and crisis response.[67] James Graham Wilson uses history to make a similar case, characterizing the end of the Cold War as a “triumph of improvisation” rather than grand strategy.[68] Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski herald the “end of grand strategy” because the coherence it requires is at odds with the operational processes of the U.S. military, particularly the Navy.[69] These critics are undoubtedly correct that grand strategy should not impose undue rigidity on policymaking. Yet, advocates of emergent strategy or case-by-case pragmatism are arguing against a straw man: Proponents of grand-strategic planning do not propose that policymakers engage in an exquisite design process that anticipates every contingency, nor is there historical evidence to support this caricature of grand strategy. Instead, planning documents like the national security strategy tend to be statements of grand-strategic principles while glossing over questions of implementation. Indeed, focusing unduly on plans themselves risks missing the fundamental point of grand strategy: As Brands and Porter have argued, “grand strategy is best understood not as a formal planning process, but as a guiding intellectual framework. … It is an ecological worldview, formed from a mix of different influences — experience, study, values, ideology — that helps officials make sense of complexity and bring resources and commitments into alignment.”[70] In this sense, planning may contribute to that framework — for example by elaborating a set of principles or inculcating a strategic subculture — but grand strategy is not reducible to even a well-executed strategic planning process. What insights does the “grand strategy as process” research agenda offer to scholars and policymakers? For academics, this sub-literature usefully highlights the temporal dimension of grand strategy: Whereas scholars tend to focus on only the early stages of grand-strategy formulation, they ought to take a broader view that includes implementation — the phase at which strategic designs tend to founder in encounters with resource constraints, bureaucratic resistance, or other barriers.[71] This research agenda is also notable for what it lacks: rigorous studies of the qualities that render grand-strategic planning processes more or less successful.[72] Indeed, from a policymaking perspective, the grand-strategy-as-process research agenda should pick up where the grand-strategy-as-variable agenda left off. It should elucidate the methods by which individuals and organizations can effectively diagnose the international and domestic environments, then develop grand strategies that seize on opportunities and circumvent constraints. Yet the literature lacks this kind of how-to guide for grand-strategic planning beyond the strategic aphorisms put forth by the common-sense school. Finally, the debate over the utility of grand strategizing emphasizes the dangers associated with following rigid doctrines or strategic plans for their own sake. Nevertheless, the recommendation to replace grand strategy with “pragmatism” or “emergent strategy” does not withstand scrutiny. There is no intrinsic reason why grand strategy — in the United States or elsewhere — cannot entail a design process that is long-term in its vision, disciplined in its prioritization, and pragmatically flexible in its implementation. An ad hoc alternative is hardly preferable.

Agenda 3: Grand Strategy as Blueprint

The final strand of the grand-strategy literature is grand strategy as blueprint.[73] The works in this category provide recommendations that seek to guide the future course of a given state’s foreign policy. Whereas the grand-strategy-as-variable research agenda is descriptive and the grand-strategy-as-process agenda is both descriptive and prescriptive, this agenda is entirely prescriptive. Like the process literature, discussions of grand strategy as blueprint assume that grand strategy is a tool, rather than an automatic output, and therefore can be manipulated by agents who enact intentional designs. As with strategic planning, debates about grand-strategic blueprints are ongoing around the world.[74] This article uses the United States as an example because U.S. grand strategy is the primary concern of American scholars of international relations and, given the predominant U.S. role in the world, it is also the most consequential. The heart of current scholarly debate is between advocates of a restrained grand strategy, often described as “retrenchment” or “offshore balancing,”[75] and proponents of variants of liberal internationalism, referred to as “deep engagement,” “liberal hegemony,” and “primacy.”[76] Liberal internationalism is, in the words of Stephen Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William Wohlforth, the devil we know. Its three core tenets have guided U.S. grand strategy since World War II:
Managing the external environment to reduce near- and long-term threats to U.S. national security; promoting a liberal economic order to expand the global economy and maximize domestic prosperity; and creating, sustaining, and revising the global institutional order to secure necessary interstate cooperation on terms favorable to U.S. interests.[77]
Proponents of this grand strategy point to the past seven decades as evidence of its remarkable success; the peace and prosperity it has offered represent a departure from the “economic mercantilism, political conflict, and repeated war” that characterized much of world history.[78] Even in the post-Cold War context, advocates defend its record: As Brands writes, “for all its travails, American strategy has played a central role in making the post-Cold War international system more stable, more liberal, and more favorable to U.S. interests and ideals than it would otherwise have been — and certainly in bringing about a more benign international environment than many expert observers expected when the post-Cold War period began.”[79] [quote id="4"] Advocates of retrenchment disagree with this characterization of liberal internationalism’s record of success, as well as the costs and risks ascribed to it. In his book-length treatise making the case for offshore balancing, Layne takes aim at the core liberal internationalist assumption that national security requires the United States to police a world order amenable to American values, institutions, and economic penetration.[80] As Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt argue, “By pursuing a strategy of ‘offshore balancing,’ Washington would forgo ambitious efforts to remake other societies and concentrate on what really matters: pre­serving U.S. dominance in the Western Hemisphere and countering potential hegemons in Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf.”[81] But even in forestalling the rise of a Eurasian hegemon, the first line of defense would be regional powers, and the United States would intervene only if absolutely necessary. Offshore balancers differ in their approaches toward nuclear proliferation and counter-terrorism, but overall they agree that the rewards of pulling back from global engagement would outweigh the risks. The resulting savings, based on the military strategy and force structure outlined in Barry Posen’s Restraint, would enable the United States to cut its defense budget to 2.5 percent of gross domestic product from the current level, 3.62 percent of GDP.[82] Beyond the grand debate between restraint and deep engagement, there are important divergences within each camp. Even among those who laud the U.S. strategic successes of the past 70 years, there is disagreement about the best way forward for U.S. leadership of a liberal international order under increasing stress from both global power shifts and the growing salience of transnational challenges. Brands and Eric Edelman advocate a major defense recapitalization to sustain U.S. military primacy, credibly maintain American commitments overseas even when challenged by increasingly capable great-power adversaries, and, in so doing, uphold the existing international order.[83] In contrast, Bruce Jentleson argues that while the United States is not in terminal decline, changes in the global landscape ineluctably diminish American influence abroad. He proposes a strategy of “recalibration,” which rejects both retrenchment and calls for the United States to reclaim global primacy in favor of a subtler and more selective application of American power in service of clearly defined interests.[84] Paul Stares advocates a strategy of “preventive engagement” to manage global threats without resorting to costly uses of military force.[85] Others examine U.S. interests in the context of transnational security challenges, advocating constraints on American power in service of a truly global, rather than U.S.-dominated, order. Richard Haass calls for progress toward a “world order 2.0” in which states move beyond the Westphalian system and accept “sovereign obligations” for managing the globalized consequences of domestic policies.[86] Thomas Weiss goes further, contending that transnational problems require more muscular global governance, centered on empowered (and reformed) international organizations.[87] Anne-Marie Slaughter advocates a networked grand strategy that complements state-to-state interaction with a “web of commercial, educational, cultural, and human relations.”[88] What insights does the grand-strategy-as-blueprint agenda hold for scholars and policymakers? Unlike the other two, this research agenda presupposes that grand strategies can be intentionally designed and provides preconceived prescriptions for such interventions. Yet, the blueprint debates remain oddly divorced from parallel discussions about the origins of grand strategy. This disconnect is particularly stark among realist scholars who engage in the study of grand strategy as variable in addition to blueprint. Mearsheimer, for example, predicts in his academic work that states will act as power maximizers, strive for hegemony, and preclude the rise of other hegemons; these are not choices but, rather, the inevitable consequence of an anarchic international system.[89] When he turns to prescription, however, Mearsheimer recommends that the United States restrain its own quest for power by retrenching from its forward positions around the globe and seeking hegemony only in the Western Hemisphere.[90] Yet the proposition that the United States is pursuing an inefficient or even dangerous grand strategy of liberal hegemony would seem to contradict the core neorealist assumption that states respond rationally and consistently to their international environments. Meanwhile, the suggestion that the United States should pursue more limited grand-strategic aims is at odds with the prediction that states seek to maximize their power. The juxtaposition of these arguments suggests a logical double bind: Either Mearsheimer’s recommendations are superior to the current course of American grand strategy, which calls into question his explanatory theory, or his theory of grand strategy is accurate, which calls into question the wisdom of his recommendations. For policymakers, such distinctions may seem arcane and pedantic, but they matter a great deal: Those advocating prescriptions derived from structural realism have the loudest academic voices in debates about American grand strategy, as well as the prospects for U.S.-China competition, and partial alignment with Trump’s heterodox international outlook may amplify their influence over policy.[91] More broadly, any grand-strategic prescriptions ought to be transparent about their assumptions, and when those assumptions prove faulty the attendant recommendations should be updated or discounted accordingly. When grand-strategic blueprints are well crafted, however, they can challenge conventional wisdom, refine extant doctrines, and provide a lodestar for policy.

Opportunities for Future Research

Three separate research agendas thus characterize the grand-strategy literature, with the variable, process, and blueprint camps each centering on different questions: Where does grand strategy come from? What are the procedural characteristics of grand strategy’s formulation and execution? And what should a particular state’s grand strategy be? By reorganizing what is nominally a single literature into three component research agendas, the preceding sections should help scholars adjudicate disagreements endemic in existing work and identify their main interlocutors in future work. Recognition of these dividing lines ought to facilitate the clash of ideas, particularly in debates over processes and blueprints. For the grand-strategy-as-variable school to advance through competitive theory testing, however, differentiation from the process and blueprint camps is only a first step. Further conceptual clarification remains necessary through a more disciplined approach to definition, operationalization, and measurement. [quote id="5"] Despite the value of acknowledging these divisions, it would be a mistake to reify them or ignore their intersections. A single academic work may speak to more than one research agenda, and many thinkers have contributed to more than one of the three camps. Scholars should therefore remain attuned to opportunities for synthesis and integration, especially where assumptions linking explanatory and normative approaches to grand strategy are implicitly or explicitly interdependent. In particular, there are three promising avenues for future research into the determinants of effectiveness, the domestic politics of grand strategy, and grand strategy beyond the United States. The Determinants of Grand-Strategic Effectiveness Despite the vast literature on grand strategy, scholars know remarkably little about the determinants of effectiveness. Does grand strategy truly influence the practice of statecraft and, if so, under what conditions is it successful? As Williamson Murray notes, “Those who have developed successful grand strategies in the past have been much the exception.”[92] Moreover, for grand strategy to matter, it must be distinct from predetermined forms of advantage and perhaps even overcome material deficits.[93] There is no more policy-consequential question for scholars than the ingredients of these rare strategic triumphs. Historians and, to a lesser extent, political scientists, have identified and analyzed cases of grand-strategic success: both wartime success, such as the Allies’ grand strategy during World War II,[94] and long-term imperial-hegemonic endurance, like that of the British and Roman Empires.[95] But at the theoretical level, existing work provides little insight into the general determinants of grand-strategic effectiveness. To account for success, scholars generally point to the careful balance of means and ends.[96] This approach is problematic, however, because it conflates definitional and causal claims.[97] If grand strategy is defined as statecraft that astutely balances means and ends, and if well-balanced grand strategy is necessarily successful, then there is no space to study variation in grand-strategic effectiveness. The debate becomes about the presence or absence of grand strategy rather than the efficacy of a given grand strategy. To be useful as a variable, grand strategy cannot be a normatively laden term. Future work can fill this gap by examining grand strategy as an independent, rather than dependent, variable. Of what effects is grand strategy the cause? Those interested in theorizing grand strategy can begin by searching for hypotheses in the process literature, which implicitly or explicitly describes the criteria for successful strategic planning but rarely evaluates these criteria rigorously or comparatively across cases.[98] Risa Brooks’ scholarship on the influence of civil-military cooperation on the effectiveness of strategic planning and Popescu’s evaluation of the comparative effectiveness of grand strategy and emergent strategy provide models for much-needed future work in this area.[99] The Domestic Politics of Grand Strategy The shock of Trump’s election in November 2016 spotlighted the perennial uncertainty surrounding the domestic politics of grand strategy. Regarding Trump specifically, a significant proportion of American voters proved willing to elect a presidential candidate who brazenly rejected core elements of the post-World War II elite foreign policy consensus on trade, alliances, and other issues. But while Trump’s election creates the temptation to pronounce the death of American global leadership, there is evidence that popular support for internationalism persists — raising the possibility that some voters supported Trump despite, not because of, his heterodox foreign policy positions.[100] Scholars can help clarify whether Trump’s election is a harbinger of structural shifts in the domestic politics of foreign policy — or an aberration. Toward that end, future studies could revisit two long-standing debates in the literature on public opinion and American grand strategy. First is the power of what Theodore Roosevelt famously called the “bully pulpit.” All presidents advocate their preferred foreign policies, whether Harry Truman’s aid to Greece and Turkey, Ronald Reagan’s support for Nicaraguan contras, Clinton’s pursuit of NATO enlargement, George W. Bush’s march to war in Iraq, or Barack Obama’s lobbying for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Yet, the varying successes of these efforts demonstrate the limits of presidential powers of persuasion. What, then, determines why some efforts succeed while others fail? In contemporary terms, why has public opinion grown more favorable toward long-standing American alliances and the Iran nuclear deal since Trump’s election, even as he has denigrated them from the White House?[101] A potential answer lies in the politics of persuasion. Stacie Goddard and Krebs contend that the process of public legitimation constrains the range of available grand-strategy choices.[102] Krebs investigates these boundaries of legitimacy in his book-length study of narrative and the making of U.S. national security. National security narratives catch on, he argues, during times of crisis, when presidents tell stories that help their citizens impose order on seemingly chaotic circumstances. Krebs’ analysis of ripe narrative moments and the importance of presidential authority is helpful, but the core contribution lies in his focus on the mechanics of storytelling as contrasted with argumentation — a dimension of politics that rarely captures the attention of scholars of international relations but that warrants consideration, particularly among those confounded by the political failures of their grand-strategic prescriptions.[103] Second, scholars can continue to investigate polarization’s influence on the domestic politics of grand strategy. Whereas public opinion studies in the early Cold War showed limited correlation between domestic and foreign policy views, greater partisan consistency began to emerge around the time of the Vietnam War.[104] Since then, partisan polarization has grown and sharpened with the rise of across-the-aisle antipathy, also known as “affective polarization.”[105] Future research could investigate how widening polarization might alter the domestic dynamics of grand strategy.[106] One avenue for investigation entails the interaction between policy expertise and partisan polarization — in particular, whether elites retain the ability to persuade the public to accept their preferred grand strategy. Rather than a wholesale death of expertise, recent research indicates that — especially on controversial issues — citizens remain attentive to experts, but only those who share their partisan affiliation.[107] This finding would suggest that as long as a bipartisan elite consensus on grand strategy endures, the public is likely to follow. In light of many Republicans’ resistance to central elements of the Trump administration’s national security agenda, however, additional scholarship should explore citizens’ response to elite dissent within political parties on matters of foreign policy or grand strategy. Researchers can also turn their attention to polarization’s consequences for grand strategy. Kenneth Schultz contends that polarization will introduce greater volatility in American foreign policy and diminish the effectiveness of Washington’s diplomatic signaling, opening the door to myriad opportunities for additional theoretical elaboration and empirical testing.[108] Grand Strategy Beyond the United States Finally, the grand-strategy literature suffers needlessly from American parochialism. As a case study, U.S. grand strategy is undoubtedly crucial: The United States’ rise to global power, its response to victory in two world wars, and its emergence as a unipolar hegemon with unprecedented power are unique moments of world-historic significance. Nonetheless, as a matter of theory, policy, and history, all three veins of the grand-strategy research agenda would benefit from a wider aperture. The grand-strategy-as-variable camp should expand to include more non-Western cases and to more ambitiously aspire to generalizability across time periods and national contexts. Even explanatory theories specific to non-U.S. cases could help illuminate the grand-strategic courses, choices, and cultures of allies and adversaries alike.[109] By looking beyond the United States, the grand-strategy-as-process camp could shed light on strategic planning in comparative perspective and especially on the vital question of whether autocratic regimes are more capable of effective grand strategy than democracies. Finally, grand-strategy debates are likely to proliferate and amplify as power continues to diffuse over the coming decades. Scholars of international relations have much to contribute to blueprint debates beyond the United States, especially among allies and partners, and prescriptions for the future of American grand strategy would benefit from richer understanding of other states’ visions for their own power.

Conclusion: The Necessity of Grand Strategy

The literature of grand-strategic studies is vast and frequently disjointed — yet, for all its flaws, grand strategy remains an attractive object of scholarly attention. Academic programs focused on grand strategy are flourishing: Yale’s program celebrated its 15th year in October 2016,[110] and similar institutions continue to proliferate.[111] Meanwhile, a sense of acute geopolitical flux and uncertainty about the future character of international politics has renewed the “Kennan Sweepstakes” for the post-post-Cold War era. Experts are keen to offer their grand-strategic analysis in popular and academic publications, present blueprints for grand strategy, and advise governments on the formulation and execution of grand strategy. These trends may indicate that continued study of grand strategy is inevitable — but it is also beneficial for several reasons. First, grand strategy as a field of study is inherently relevant to policy.[112] By illuminating the origins of state behavior, theories of grand strategy help policymakers understand the drivers of allies’ and adversaries’ foreign policies, as well as the conditions for change in their own countries’ grand strategies. Meanwhile, studying grand strategy requires academics to engage with policymakers, who provide insight into real-world processes of grand-strategy development and implementation. Rather than alienate these practitioners with inscrutable research methods, all three grand-strategy research agendas invite engagement by practitioners. At a time when international relations continues to fight off the cult of the irrelevant, the study of grand strategy provides a useful corrective against the field’s growing obsession with mid-range theory and hypothesis testing.[113] Second, grand strategy is inherently interdisciplinary. The rich grand-strategy literatures in history and political science invite dialogue between two fields that share many interests but are too often estranged by methodological differences. Studying grand strategy encourages social scientists to mine historians’ work for case studies and encourages historians to engage social scientists’ theories. As Brands and Porter argue, the historical record contains much variation that political scientists can leverage: “History offers instructive examples of effective grand-strategic behavior, where states have effectively brought power and commitments into balance, either by expanding means (resources, alliances, opinion) to meet ends, or refocused depleted resources to strengthen its core security interests.”[114] Grand strategy also invites dialogue with the literatures of psychology, organizational studies, and business administration — connections that have yet to be fully explored and exploited.[115] [quote id="6"] Similarly, a focus on grand strategy can help policymakers think in a more interdisciplinary — which is to say, interagency — manner. Breaking down entrenched barriers between diplomatic, military, informational, and economic activities will be necessary as the United States grapples with the intensification of competition and aggression below traditional conflict thresholds. From island-building in the South China Sea and economic coercion, to election interference and proxy warfare in Ukraine, China, and Russia have already shown the capability and willingness to challenge American interests in the “gray zone.” Despite the growing prevalence of such measures short of war, however, the United States is ill prepared to respond.[116] As the National Defense Strategy Commission wrote, “Because gray-zone challenges combine military and paramilitary measures with economic statecraft, political warfare, information operations, and other tools, they often occur in the ‘seams’ between DOD and other U.S. departments and agencies, making them all the more difficult to address.”[117] As a policymaking framework, grand strategy can help overcome this challenge by integrating — first conceptually and then practically — the work of government agencies responsible for the United States’ myriad tools of national power. Third, grand strategy as a field illustrates the value of methodological diversity in international relations. Qualitative methods, especially process tracing, are suited to the study of grand strategy.[118] Unpacking the complexity of grand strategies and the factors that drive their continuity or change requires in-depth historical knowledge and attention to micro-processes that are difficult to capture with quantitative data or to test using an experiment. As such, the study of grand strategy helps to demonstrate the importance of pluralistic approaches to causal inference, with preference for the method best suited to the subject. Of course, grand strategy also has its flaws. As a corollary to its bias toward qualitative methods, studies of grand strategy are not amenable to cutting-edge quantitative methodologies and may never be taken seriously by political scientists outside of international relations who rely on methodological sophistication as a proxy for scholarly value. More charitably, the overdetermined nature of many grand-strategic choices may legitimately erode scholars’ ability to draw high-confidence causal inferences. Beyond methodological issues, grand strategy is laden with significant political baggage. The predominance of right-leaning funders in seeding programs for its study, the recent interest of the Koch foundation, and grand strategy’s long-standing association with Henry Kissinger can create the appearance of a political agenda that  intellectuals on the left find objectionable.[119] Finally, grand strategy should not be projected onto governmental decision-making where it does not exist, and critics are correct to warn against overselling grand strategy’s potential for elegant implementation or its transformative effects.[120] Even so, while scholars of grand strategy should be cognizant of this context, these objections do not justify rejecting wholesale either the study or practice of grand strategy. Indeed, scholarly engagement with grand strategy is gravely necessary. Foreign policy elites broadly agree that the tenets that have guided American grand strategy since the end of the Cold War, and in many ways since the end of World War II, are under great strain and may no longer be tenable. Trump’s presidency seems both to ratify concerns about adverse trends and to raise the possibility that his leadership will accelerate them. For the first time in decades, it is plausible that the U.S. theory of national security that has guided a liberal-hegemony strategy since the dawn of the Cold War may be reevaluated. From this perspective, previous “revolutions” in American foreign policy, which entailed adjustments to subordinate grand-strategic assumptions, seem small by comparison.[121] Whether or not such seismic changes ultimately materialize, the time is ripe for serious study of grand strategy. To fully seize this opportunity, those of us who study grand strategy must place the field on stronger conceptual ground. This article represents an initial step toward strengthening that foundation.   Acknowledgements: For helpful discussions and suggestions, the author would like to thank Jon Askonas, Hal Brands, David Edelstein, John Gaddis, Michael Horowitz, Richard Immerman , Bruce Jentleson, Charlie Kupchan, Sarah Maxey, John McNeill, Sara Plana, Brad Potter, Mira Rapp-Hooper, Jim Steinberg, Marin Strmecki, Stephen Wertheim, Micah Zenko, two anonymous reviewers, the Texas National Security Review editors, and participants in seminars convened by International Security Studies at Yale University, Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Carnegie International Policy Scholars Consortium. Particular thanks to Frank Gavin for his enthusiastic support.    Rebecca Friedman Lissner will be an assistant professor at the Naval War College (beginning in January 2019).      Image: Chris Goldberg [post_title] => What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => what-is-grand-strategy-sweeping-a-conceptual-minefield [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-04-10 13:33:40 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-04-10 17:33:40 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Amidst acute geopolitical flux, the study of grand strategy is necessary for scholars and strategists alike. As a framework for scholarship, it trains attention on the highest-order questions of international relations: why, how, and for what purposes states employ their national power, including the crucible of military force. For policymakers, grand strategy defines a nation’s international role, guides the alignment of means and ends, and serves as a lodestar for discrete foreign policy decisions. Yet, despite its importance, the proliferation of academic and policy-analytical work on grand strategy has left the field disjointed, conceptually inconsistent, and difficult to navigate. This article resolves that confusion by distinguishing between three component research agendas within the grand strategy literature: those that treat grand strategy as a variable, process, and blueprint. The “grand strategy as variable” agenda provides a prism through which academics may study the origins of state behavior, with particular attention to the perennial question of how agency and structure interact to produce grand-strategic outcomes. The “grand strategy as process” agenda foregrounds the importance of grand strategizing, whether as a governmental strategic-planning process or as a more generic mode of decision-making. Finally, the “grand strategy as blueprint” agenda proffers broad visions in hopes of influencing future governmental behavior. Identifying these component research agendas and placing them in dialogue yields important policy insights and highlights ripe opportunities for future research. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 1 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Even as most scholars who research and write about grand strategy agree on its basic definition, they employ the concept in markedly different ways... ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => According to the structural-realist perspective, grand strategy is essentially the conveyor belt between systemic incentives and state behavior — or, an output. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Despite some critics’ contention that decision-making assumes a qualitatively different cast under conditions of peace rather than war, the extrapolation of grand strategy to include peacetime strategic planning has become common. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => [D]iscussions of grand strategy as blueprint assume that grand strategy is a tool, rather than an automatic output, and therefore can be manipulated by agents who enact intentional designs. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Despite the vast literature on grand strategy, scholars know remarkably little about the determinants of effectiveness. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => [A] sense of acute geopolitical flux and uncertainty about the future character of international politics has renewed the “Kennan Sweepstakes” for the post-post-Cold War era. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 1291 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 241 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Rebecca Friedman Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper, “The Day after Trump: American Strategy for a New International Order,” Washington Quarterly 41, no. 1 (Spring 2018): 7–25, [2] For distillations of these proclivities: Thomas Wright, “Trump’s 19th Century Foreign Policy,” Politico Magazine, Jan. 20, 2016,; Colin Kahl and Hal Brands, “Trump’s Grand Strategic Train Wreck,” Foreign Policy, Jan. 31, 2017, On the gap between the president’s views and his administration’s policy statements, particularly the 2017 National Security Strategy, see: Peter Beinart, “Trump Doesn’t Seem to Buy His Own National Security Strategy,” Atlantic, Dec. 19, 2017,; Hal Brands, “Trump Doesn’t Believe in His Own Foreign Policy. Does That Matter?” Foreign Policy, Jan. 16, 2018,; Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “The National Security Strategy Is Not a Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, Dec. 19, 2017, [3] Micah Zenko and Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “Trump Is Going to Regret Not Having a Grand Strategy,” Foreign Policy, Jan. 13, 2017,; Rebecca Friedman Lissner and Micah Zenko, “There Is No Trump Doctrine, and There Will Never Be One,” Foreign Policy, July 21, 2017, [4] Stephen Wertheim, “Quit Calling Donald Trump an Isolationist. He’s Worse Than That,” Washington Post, Feb. 17, 2017, [5] Jeffrey Goldberg, “A Senior White House Official Defines the Trump Doctrine: ‘We’re America, Bitch,’” Atlantic, June 11, 2018, [6] The term “grand strategic deficit” is borrowed from John Lewis Gaddis: John Lewis Gaddis, “What Is Grand Strategy?” (Karl von der Heyden Distinguished Lecture, Duke University, Feb. 26, 2009). [7] Nina Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” Security Studies 27, no. 1 (2018): 27–57,; Thierry Balzacq, Peter Dombrowski, and Simon Reich, “Is Grand Strategy a Research Program? A Review Essay,” Security Studies (2018): 58–86, [8] For in-depth conceptual analyses, see: Lukas Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought (Oxford University Press, 2016); Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy.’[9] According to Earle: “Strategy is the art of controlling and utilizing the resources of a nation — or a coalition of nations — including its armed forces, to the end that its vital interests shall be effectively promoted and secured against enemies, actual, potential, or merely presumed. The highest type of strategy — sometimes called grand strategy — is that which so integrates the policies and armaments of the nation that the resort to war is either rendered unnecessary or is undertaken with the maximum chance of victory.” Edward Mead Earle, “Introduction,” in Makers of Modern Strategy: Military Thought from Machiavelli to Hitler, ed. Edward Mead Earle, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), viii. For his part, Liddell Hart offered this definition: “Grand strategy should both calculate and develop the economic resources and manpower of nations in order to sustain the fighting services. Also the moral resources — for to foster the peoples’ willing spirit is often as important as to possess the more concrete forms of power. ... Moreover, fighting power is but one of the instruments of grand strategy — which should take account of and apply the power of financial pressure, of diplomatic pressure, of commercial pressure, and, not least of ethical pressure, to weaken the opponent’s will... It should not only combine the various instruments, but so regulate their use as to avoid damage to the future state of peace — of its security and prosperity.” See: Basil Liddell Hart, Strategy (New York: Praeger, 1967), 322. [10] Paul Kennedy, “Grand Strategy in War and Peace: Toward a Broader Definition,” in Grand Strategies in War and Peace, ed. Paul Kennedy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991), 5. [11] Posen proffers a slightly different formulation in Restraint: “A grand strategy is a nation-state’s theory about how to produce security for itself.” Barry R. Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 1. [12] Hal Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft from Harry S. Truman to George W. Bush (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 3. [13] Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” 19–23. [14] Lawrence Freedman, “The Meaning of Strategy, Part I: The Origins,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 1 (November 2017),; Lawrence Freedman, “The Meaning of Strategy, Part II: The Objectives,” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 2 (February 2018),; Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought. [15] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 321. On the distinction between military strategy and grand strategy, see: Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” 19–21. Nevertheless, this distinction can be muddled by scholars who operationalize grand strategy as military strategy; Balzacq et al. call this the “classicist tradition of grand strategy.” Balzacq, Dombrowski, and Reich, “Is Grand Strategy a Research Program? A Review Essay,” 11–14. [16] An exception to the means-ends conception of strategy is that used by game theorists. When Thomas Schelling employed the word “strategy,” he clarified: “The term ‘strategy’ is taken, here, from the theory of games … The term is intended to focus on the interdependence of the adversaries’ decisions and on their expectations about each other’s behavior. This is not the military usage.” Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 3 fn 1. [17] Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” 21. [18] Statecraft lacks a widely accepted definition but is frequently invoked in the context of particular instruments of national power, such as “economic statecraft.” [19] For example: Kennedy, “Grand Strategy in War and Peace: Toward a Broader Definition”; Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy?; William C. Martel, Grand Strategy in Theory and Practice: The Need for an Effective American Foreign Policy (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought. [20] For instance: the “grand plans” camp is exemplified by the work of military historians such as Paul Kennedy and Basil Liddell Hart, as well as iconic government documents like National Security Council Paper 68 (NSC-68) and Eisenhower’s Project Solarium; “grand principles” are manifest in studies that treat containment as a grand strategy, those that examine the strategic ideas of seminal leaders like John Quincy Adams, and the prescriptive literature on American grand strategy; and “grand patterns” are instantiated by the work of particular scholars, including Edward Luttwak and Christopher Layne, who are united less by their subject than their use of evidence. Silove even points to different conceptualizations of grand strategy within the oeuvre of a single prominent scholar, Hal Brands. Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” 8. [21] Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” 19. [22] Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” 25–26. [23] Jeffrey W. Legro, Rethinking the World: Great Power Strategies and International Order (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005), 122–42; Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991), 112–53; Charles A. Kupchan, The Vulnerability of Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994). [24] Snyder, Myths of Empire, 66–112; Legro, Rethinking the World, 84–122; Dennis E. Showalter, "Total War for Limited Objectives: An Interpretation of Germany Grand Strategy," in Grand Strategies in War and Peace, ed. Kennedy, 105–25; Thomas U. Berger, Cultures of Antimilitarism: National Security in Germany and Japan (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); John S. Duffield, World Power Forsaken: Political Culture, International Institutions, and German Security Policy After Unification (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998). Glaser identifies Nazi Germany’s bid for power as a crucial case: Charles L. Glaser, Rational Theory of International Politics: The Logic of Competition and Cooperation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 221–27. [25] E.g., Stacie E. Goddard, “The Rhetoric of Appeasement: Hitler’s Legitimation and British Foreign Policy, 1938–39,” Security Studies 24, no. 1 (2015): 95–130,; Arthur A. Stein, “Domestic Constraints, Extended Deterrence, and the Incoherence of Grand Strategy: The United States, 1938–1950,” in The Domestic Bases of Grand Strategy, ed. Richard Rosecrance and Arthur A. Stein (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993); Randall L. Schweller, Unanswered Threats: Political Constraints on the Balance of Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), chap. 3. [26] Condoleezza Rice, “The Evolution of Soviet Grand Strategy,” in Grand Strategies in War and Peace, ed. Paul Kennedy, 145–67; Snyder, Myths of Empire, 212–55; Legro, Rethinking the World, 142–60. Matthew Evangelista, “Internal and External Constraints on Grand Strategy: The Soviet Case,” in The Domestic Bases of Grand Strategy, ed. Rosecrance and Stein; Chris Miller, The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016). [27] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001), 31. [28] Kenneth N. Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War,” International Security 25, no. 1 (Summer 2000): 24, [29] Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 2. For additional articulations of offensive realism: Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); Fareed Zakaria, From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origins of America’s World Role (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Peter Liberman, “The Spoils of Conquest,” International Security 18, no. 2 (Fall 1993): 125–53, [30] Robert Jervis, “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma,” World Politics 30, no. 2 (January 1978): 167–214,; Barry R. Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine: France, Britain, and Germany Between the World Wars (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986); Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 1987); Snyder, Myths of Empire; Stephen Van Evera, Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 1999); Charles L. Glaser, “Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help,” International Security 19, no. 3 (Winter 1994): 50–90, [31] Aaron L. Friedberg, The Weary Titan: Britain and the Experience of Relative Decline, 1895–1905 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988), 8. [32] Paul K. MacDonald and Joseph M. Parent, “Graceful Decline? The Surprising Success of Great Power Retrenchment,” International Security 35, no. 4 (Spring 2011): 7–44, [33] Gideon Rose, “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy,” World Politics 51, no. 1 (1998): 144–72,; Colin Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); Peter Trubowitz, Politics and Strategy: Partisan Ambition and American Statecraft (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011). [34] Zakaria, From Wealth to Power. [35] Trubowitz, Politics and Strategy. [36] Kevin Narizny, The Political Economy of Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2007). [37] I borrowed this metaphor from Gideon Rose: Rose, “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy,” 147. [38] Trubowitz, Politics and Strategy, 97–105, 120–28. [39] Christopher Layne, The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2007); Patrick Porter, “Why America’s Grand Strategy Has Not Changed: Power, Habit and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment,” International Security 42, no. 4 (2018): 9–46, [40] Porter traces the “habit of primacy” to the final years of World War II and argues that a primacy grand strategy was “interrupted only occasionally” since then. Porter, “Why America’s Grand Strategy Has Not Changed: Power, Habit and the U.S. Foreign Policy Establishment,” 9. Layne traces “strategic internationalism” to “at least 1940.” Layne, The Peace of Illusions, 7. [41] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (Simon & Schuster, 1994), chap. 2; Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997); Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders. Walter Russell Mead goes beyond Kissinger’s dichotomy to propose four American traditions of grand strategy: Wilsonian, Hamiltonian, Jacksonian, and Jeffersonian. Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (New York: Random House, 2001). John Gaddis also identifies continuities in American grand-strategic culture, though in less taxonomic terms: John Lewis Gaddis, Surprise, Security, and the American Experience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005). [42] Christopher Hemmer, American Pendulum: Recurring Debates in U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2015); Stephen Sestanovich, Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014). [43] Although Legro frames his argument in terms of ideas about international society rather than strategic culture, his work is a model for future study in this area: Legro, Rethinking the World. [44] Sara Plana, “Making Sense of Grand Strategy,” paper presented at the 2018 International Studies Association annual convention, 12–14. [45] Among political scientists who study leaders, only Dan Byman and Ken Pollack attribute grand-strategic choice to individuals. Others usefully develop the causal mechanisms linking leaders’ preferences and attributes with state behavior but focus on more narrowly construed dimensions of foreign policy. Daniel L. Byman and Kenneth M. Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men: Bringing the Statesman Back In,” International Security 25, no. 4 (Spring 2001): 107–46; Elizabeth N. Saunders, Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2011); Jessica L.P. Weeks, Dictators at War and Peace (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2014); Michael C. Horowitz, Allan C. Stam, and Cali M. Ellis, Why Leaders Fight (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015). [46] Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy?; Hal Brands, Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016). [47] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy During the Cold War, rev. ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (New York: Penguin, 2018); Charles N. Edel, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic (Cambrdige, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). [48] For elaborations on this problem, see: Balzacq, Dombrowski, and Reich, “Is Grand Strategy a Research Program? A Review Essay”; Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy’”; Milevski, The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought. [49] I call these the first- and second-order dimensions of grand strategy. See: Rebecca Lissner, “Rethinking Grand Strategic Change,” paper presented at the 2018 International Studies Association annual convention. [50] Stephen Wertheim, “Grand Strategy: An American Power Politics,” in Rethinking Grand Strategy, ed. Elizabeth Borgwardt, Christopher McKnight-Nichols, and Andrew Preston (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). [51] Freedman, “The Meaning of Strategy, Part I: The Origins”; Freedman, “The Meaning of Strategy, Part II: The Objectives.” [52] Gaddis, “What Is Grand Strategy?” [53] Charles Hill, Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft, and World Order (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010); Linda Kulman, Teaching Common Sense: The Grand Strategy Program at Yale University (Prospecta Press, 2016). [54] Rumelt cited in: Walter A. McDougall, “Can the United States Do Grand Strategy?” Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Telegram, April 13, 2010,; Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, chap. 2. [55] Liddell Hart, Strategy, 321–22. [56] Timothy Andrews Sayle, “Defining and Teaching Grand Strategy,” Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Telegram, Jan. 15, 2011, [57] On strategic planning in a cross-national context, see: William I. Hitchcock, Melvyn P. Leffler, and Jeffrey W. Legro, eds., Shaper Nations: Strategies for a Changing World (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016). [58] Jordan Tama, “Does Strategic Planning Matter? The Outcomes of U.S. National Security Reviews,” Political Science Quarterly 130, no. 4 (2015): 735–66, [59] James Goldgeier and Jeremi Suri, “Revitalizing the U.S. National Security Strategy,” Washington Quarterly 38, no. 4 (2015): 35–55, On the relationship between the National Security Strategy and American grand strategy, see also: Hemmer, American Pendulum, 3–6. [60] Lissner, “The National Security Strategy Is Not a Strategy”; Richard Fontaine and Shawn Brimley, “Don’t Expect Too Much From Obama’s National Security Strategy,” Foreign Policy, Feb. 5, 2015,; Raphael S. Cohen, “Why Strategies Disappoint—and How to Fix Them,” Lawfare, March 19, 2017, [61] Cohen, “Why Strategies Disappoint—and How to Fix Them”; Fontaine and Brimley, “Don’t Expect Too Much From Obama’s National Security Strategy.” [62] On the lack of reform, see: Raphael S. Cohen, Air Force Strategic Planning: Past, Present, and Future (RAND Corp., 2017),; Joe Gould, “QDR Dead in 2017 Defense Policy Bill,” DefenseNews, April 25, 2016, [63] Daniel W. Drezner, ed., Avoiding Trivia: The Role of Strategic Planning in American Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2009); Andrew F. Krepinevich and Barry D. Watts, Regaining Strategic Competence (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2009),; Aaron L. Friedberg, “Strengthening U.S. Strategic Planning,” Washington Quarterly 31, no. 1 (Winter 2007–2008): 47–60,; Flournoy and Brimley, “Strategic Planning for US National Security: A Project Solarium for the 21st Century”; McDougall, “Can the United States Do Grand Strategy?[64] Leslie H. Gelb and Richard K. Betts, The Irony of Vietnam: The System Worked (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2016), 365. See also: Richard K. Betts, “Is Strategy an Illusion?” International Security 25, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 5–50, [65] David M. Edelstein and Ronald R. Krebs, “Delusions of
Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 94, no. 6 (November/December 2015), [66] Ionut Popescu, Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy: How American Presidents Succeed in Foreign Policy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 6. [67] Popescu, Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy, 19. [68] James Graham Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014). [69] Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski, The End of Grand Strategy: US Maritime Operations in the 21st Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018). [70] Hal Brands and Patrick Porter, “Why Grand Strategy Still Matters in a World of Chaos,” National Interest, Dec. 10, 2015, [71] Michael J. Green offers a good example of an evolutionary perspective on grand strategy. See his By More Than Providence: Grand Strategy and American Power in the Asia Pacific Since 1783 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). [72] Risa Brooks’ work provides a model for future scholarship. See: Shaping Strategy: The Civil-Military Politics of Strategic Assessment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008). [73] Although blueprints may emerge from a strategic planning process, the two are generally addressed separately in international relations literature, as those who attend to planning think that such a process should be open-ended whereas those who advocate a particular doctrine believe the “right answer” is already evident. [74] Hitchcock, Leffler, and Legro, eds., Shaper Nations. [75] Scholars on both sides of this debate agree that this is the core dimension of disagreement: Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, “Don’t Come Home, America: The Case Against Retrenchment,” International Security 37, no. 3 (2013): 10,; Barry R. Posen, “A New U.S. Grand Strategy,” Boston Review, July 1, 2014, As examples of the case for retrenchment, see: Posen, Restraint; Barry R. Posen, “Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 1 (January/February 2013),; Barry R. Posen, “The Case for Restraint,” American Interest 3, no. 2 (2007): 7–32,; Stephen M. Walt, “Taming American Power,” Foreign Affairs 84, no. 5 (September/October 2005): 105–20,; John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior U.S. Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 4 (July/August 2016): 70,; Eugene Gholz, Daryl G. Press, and Harvey M. Sapolsky, “Come Home, America: The Strategy of Restraint in the Face of Temptation,” International Security 21, no. 4 (Spring 1997): 5–48,; Layne, The Peace of Illusions; Christopher Layne, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy,” International Security 22, no. 1 (Summer 1997): 86–124,; Christopher A. Preble, The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2011). [76] Brooks and Wohlforth provide a particularly nuanced parsing of these distinctions: Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, America Abroad: The United States’ Global Role in the 21st Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). For additional examples of the variants of liberal hegemony, see: Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth, “Don’t Come Home, America”; Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth, “Lean Forward: In Defense of American Engagement,” Foreign Affairs 92, no. 1 (January/February 2013),; Robert J. Art, A Grand Strategy for America (Cornell University Press, 2003); Robert J. Lieber, Power and Willpower in the American Future: Why the United States Is Not Destined to Decline (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Robert J. Lieber, Retreat and Its Consequences: American Foreign Policy and the Problem of World Order (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016); Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force (New York: Basic Books, 2017). [77] Brooks, Ikenberry, and Wohlforth, “Don’t Come Home, America,” 11. [78] Fareed Zakaria, “Trump Is Changing the International Order,” CNN, Jan. 27, 2017, [79] Hal Brands, “The Pretty Successful Superpower,” American Interest 12, no. 3 (November 2016), [80] Layne, The Peace of Illusions, 30. [81] Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior U.S. Grand Strategy.” [82] Posen, Restraint. [83] Hal Brands and Eric Edelman, “Avoiding a Strategy of Bluff: The Crisis of American Military Primacy,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017, [84] Bruce W. Jentleson, “Strategic Recalibration: Framework for a 21st-Century National Security Strategy,” Washington Quarterly 37, no. 1 (2014): 115–36, [85] Paul B. Stares, Preventive Engagement: How America Can Avoid War, Stay Strong, and Keep the Peace (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017). [86] Richard Haass, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (London: Penguin Press, 2017). [87] Thomas G. Weiss, Governing the World? Addressing Problems Without Passports (New York: Paradigm Publishers, 2014). [88] Anne-Marie Slaughter, The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 19. [89] Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, chap. 2. [90] Mearsheimer and Walt, “The Case for Offshore Balancing: A Superior U.S. Grand Strategy.” [91] On the influence of structural realists on the grand-strategy debate inside and outside the ivory tower, see: Hal Brands, “The Real Gap: Why Scholars and Policymakers Disagree,” American Interest 13, no. 1 (2017),; Hal Brands and Peter Feaver, “Saving Realism from the So-Called Realists,” Commentary, Aug. 14, 2017, On the debate over alignment between realist restrainers and the Trump administration, see: Stephen M. Walt, “The Foreign-Policy Establishment Reeks of Desperation,” Foreign Policy, Nov. 5, 2018,; Hal Brands, “Intellectuals Who Hate the ‘Blob’ Have a Lot in Common With Trump,” Bloomberg Opinion, Oct. 31, 2018, [92] Williamson Murray, “Thoughts on Grand Strategy,” in The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy, and War, ed. Williamson Murray, Richard Hart Sinnreich, and James Lacey (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 3–4. Emphasis added. Krasner makes a similar point: Stephen D. Krasner, “An Orienting Principle for Foreign Policy,” Policy Review, no. 163 (October/November 2010): 3, [93] Betts, “Is Strategy an Illusion?” 18. [94] On British grand strategy, see, for example: Michael Howard, “British Grand Strategy in World War I,” in Grand Strategies in War and Peace, ed. Paul Kennedy; Eliot A. Cohen, “Churchill and Coalition Strategy in World War II,” in Grand Strategies in War and Peace, ed. Paul Kennedy. On U.S. and Allied grand strategy, see footnote 44. [95] The literature on each is vast. On the Roman Empire, for example: Edward N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979). For an alternate view: Kimberly Kagan, “Redefining Roman Grand Strategy,” Journal of Military History 70, no. 2 (2006): 333–62, On the British Empire, for example: Layne, The Peace of Illusions; Layne, “From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy”; Charles P. Kindleberger, “International Public Goods without International Government,” American Economic Review 76, no. 1 (1986): 1–13; Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery (London: Penguin, 2017). [96] For example: Posen, The Sources of Military Doctrine, 24–25. [97] Silove makes a similar point in “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” 35–37. [98] On the value of an explicitly comparative approach: Balzacq, Dombrowski, and Reich, “Is Grand Strategy a Research Program? A Review Essay,” 28. [99] Brooks, Shaping Strategy; Popescu, Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy; Ionut C. Popescu, “Grand Strategy vs. Emergent Strategy in the Conduct of Foreign Policy,” Journal of Strategic Studies 41, no. 3 (2018): 438–60, [100] Hal Brands, American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump (Brookings Institution Press, 2018), chap. 4; Friedman Lissner and Rapp-Hooper, “The Day after Trump: American Strategy for a New International Order.” [101] Chicago Council on Global Affairs, “America Engaged,” Oct. 2, 2018, [102] For the introduction to a special issue of Security Studies devoted to this topic: Stacie E. Goddard and Ronald R. Krebs, “Rhetoric, Legitimation, and Grand Strategy,” Security Studies 24, no. 1 (2015): 11, [103] Ronald R. Krebs, Narrative and the Making of US National Security (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge Studies in International Relations, 2015). [104] Ole R. Holsti, “Public Opinion and Foreign Policy: Challenges to the Almond-Lippmann Consensus,” International Studies Quarterly 36, no. 4 (December 1992): 457–58, [105] Carroll Doherty, “7 Things to Know About Polarization in America,” Pew Research Center’s FactTank blog, June 12, 2014,; Shanto Iyengar, Gaurav Sood, and Yphtach Lelkes, “Affect, Not Ideology: A Social Identity Perspective on Polarization,” Public Opinion Quarterly 76, no. 3 (2012): 405–31,; Lilliana Mason, “‘I Disrespectfully Agree’: The Differential Effects of Partisan Sorting on Social and Issue Polarization,” American Journal of Political Science 59, no. 1 (January 2015): 128–45,; Alan I. Abramowitz and Steven Webster, “The Rise of Negative Partisanship and the Nationalization of U.S. Elections in the 21st Century,” Electoral Studies 41 (March 2016): 12–22, [106] Rebecca Friedman Lissner and Mira Rapp-Hooper, “The Day After Trump,” working paper, December 2018. [107] Alexandra Guisinger and Elizabeth N. Saunders, “Mapping the Boundaries of Elite Cues: How Elites Shape Mass Opinion Across International Issues,” International Studies Quarterly 61, no. 2 (June 2017): 425–41,; Daniel W. Drezner, The Ideas Industry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). [108] Kenneth A. Schultz, “Perils of Polarization for U.S. Foreign Policy,” Washington Quarterly 40, no. 4 (2017): 7–28, [109] There are, of course, some notable contributions on China, for example: Alastair Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998); Michael D. Swaine and Ashley J. Tellis, Interpreting China’s Grand Strategy: Past, Present, and Future (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp., 2000),; Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security (Stanford University Press, Studies in Asian Security, 2005); M. Taylor Fravel, “Shifts in Warfare and Party Unity: Explaining China’s Changes in Military Strategy,” International Security 42, no. 3 (Winter 2017–2018): 37–83,; Sulmaan Wasif Khan, Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018). On Japan, see: Richard J. Samuels, Securing Japan: Tokyo’s Grand Strategy and the Future of East Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, 2008); Michael J. Green, Japan’s Reluctant Realism: Foreign Policy Challenges in an Era of Uncertain Power (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001); Adam P. Liff, “Japan’s Defense Policy: Abe the Evolutionary,” Washington Quarterly 38, no. 2 (2015): 79–99, [110] Ziba Kashef, “Grand Strategy Program Celebrates 15 Years of Promoting Global Leadership,” YaleNews, Oct. 18, 2016, [111] E.g., King’s College London Centre for Grand Strategy, “About” page, n.d.,; “Introducing the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs,” Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, n.d., [112] Feaver also makes the case for grand strategy’s utility in bridging theory and practice: Peter Feaver, “What Is Grand Strategy and Why Do We Need It?” Foreign Policy, April 8, 2009, [113] Alexander L. George, Bridging the Gap: Theory and Practice in Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 1993); Stephen M. Walt, “Rigor or Rigor Mortis? Rational Choice and Security Studies,” International Security 23, no. 4 (Spring 1999): 5–48; Lawrence M. Mead, “Scholasticism in Political Science,” Perspectives on Politics 8, no. 2 (June 2010): 453–64,; Francis J. Gavin, “Politics, History and the Ivory Tower–Policy Gap in the Nuclear Proliferation Debate,” Journal of Strategic Studies 35, no. 4 (2012): 573–600,; Francis J. Gavin and James B. Steinberg, “Mind the Gap: Why Policymakers and Scholars Ignore Each Other, and What Should Be Done About It,” Carnegie Reporter 6, no. 4 (Spring 2012): 10–17,; Daniel Byman and Matthew Kroenig, “Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower: A How To Manual,” Security Studies 25, no. 2 (2016): 289–319,; Paul C. Avey and Michael C. Desch, “What Do Policymakers Want From Us? Results of a Survey of Current and Former Senior National Security Decision Makers,” International Studies Quarterly 58, no. 2 (2014): 227–46,; Joseph S. Nye Jr., “Scholars on the Sidelines,” Washington Post, April 13, 2009,; Nicholas Kristof, “Professors, We Need You!” New York Times, Feb. 15, 2014, For a different view, see: Byman and Kroenig, “Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower: A How To Manual,” 304. [114] Brands and Porter, “Why Grand Strategy Still Matters in a World of Chaos.” [115] Popescu begins to bridge the gap between corporate and state strategy by drawing on relevant business literature: Popescu, “Grand Strategy vs. Emergent Strategy in the Conduct of Foreign Policy.” [116] Thomas Wright, All Measures Short of War (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017). [117] Eric Edelman and Gary Roughead, Providing for the Common Defense: The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2018), 9, [118] Layne, The Peace of Illusions, 10–11; Alexander L. George and Andrew Bennett, Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Sciences (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005). [119] For example: Wertheim, “Grand Strategy: An American Power Politics”; Thomas Meaney and Stephen Wertheim, “Grand Flattery: The Yale Grand Strategy Seminar,” Nation, May 28, 2012, [120] Reich and Dombrowski, The End of Grand Strategy, x–8; Popescu, Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy, chap. 1; Cohen, The Big Stick, 203–6. [121] Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay, America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005). ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [6] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 663 [post_author] => 193 [post_date] => 2018-08-14 05:00:56 [post_date_gmt] => 2018-08-14 09:00:56 [post_content] => In 2011 and 2012, Israel repeatedly indicated that it was fast approaching the point when it might take unilateral military action against Iran’s advancing nuclear program, before Iranian capabilities became resilient to an Israeli attack. In a shift from its previous policy, which characterized Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a global challenge, Israel now strongly indicated that it might be forced to take it upon itself to stop Iran’s nuclear advances — and that an attack could be imminent. Led and articulated almost exclusively by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak — himself a former prime minister — this new posture created deep concern in Washington, where it was thought that an Israeli attack could ignite a regional war and jeopardize key U.S. interests. Indeed, Israel had created a war scare, which was designed to enhance its bargaining power with the United States. Israel then tried to leverage its enhanced position to get its senior ally to urgently make an explicit, credible, and binding commitment to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon — by military force if necessary — beyond what President Barack Obama had already stated.[1] Israel effectively attempted to influence, and even force, the United States to realign according to Israeli interests and strategic constraints, thus producing one of the tensest periods in the history of the two countries’ relationship. Drawing on open-source material and original interviews with former senior Israeli and U.S. officials, this article seeks to explain the ultimate outcome of that strategic interaction. The overarching theme of international relations and foreign affairs pertains to actors’ efforts to shape their strategic environment and control outcomes. Alliances are one of the major tools states employ in this regard,[2] whether to accumulate power, deter adversaries,[3] pursue their quest for security in the international system,[4] or restrain others.[5] Although all alliances function “in the shadow of war,”[6] scholars distinguish between two major categories — defensive peacetime alliances and offensive wartime alliances. Whereas peacetime alliances are designed to aggregate military power to deter and prevent aggression, wartime alliances are formed to fight a common adversary. Of course, the same alliance can engage in defensive and offensive missions.[7] The 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerstone famously asserted that the United Kingdom had neither eternal allies nor perpetual enemies but eternal and perpetual interests.[8] Indeed, at the core of alliance politics is the fact that no two states, including close allies, share eternal, perfectly overlapping interests.[9] Yet, alliances require some measure of commitment to use force. This means that alliance formation and management are shaped by a bargaining process animated by the willingness and ability of the actors involved to offer or extract credible commitments. Whether in the context of threats or promises, to be perceived as credible, commitments require self-enforcing obligations that visibly undercut an actor’s flexibility in a way that convinces another actor (friend or foe) that the one making the commitment is, without question, tied to a certain course of action. To appear credible, commitments require measures that decision-makers will often hesitate or refuse to take. These can include explicit public statements and inherently costly military moves, such as alerting forces, canceling leave for military personnel, and moving units closer to a potential theater of operations.[10] Classic, symmetric alliances between states of roughly equal capability are used as tools for aggregating capabilities against a threat, meaning that both partners receive security from their alliance.[11] To appear meaningful, allies engaged in symmetric alliances are required to undercut their own freedom of action through self-enforcing obligations and realignment according to their partner’s interests.[12] This renders alliances a source of concern for their members, who often fear that their allies’ preferences and interests might ultimately come at the expense of their own. A state entering into an alliance could become the victim of entrapment by an ally deliberately seeking to embroil it in war. Conversely, having trusted the ally and counted on its support, a state could be abandoned in a time of need.[13] Alliance commitments could also inadvertently embolden an otherwise risk-averse ally and result in what Glenn Snyder describes as an alliance security dilemma: This occurs when states provide an ally with too sweeping a reassurance in order to deter a third actor, only to become entrapped in war.[14] This inherent tension between allies’ interests and preferences constitutes the essence of alliance politics. These perceived problems are further exacerbated in asymmetric settings. If symmetric alliances provide their members with security, asymmetric alliances provide the weaker ally with security and the stronger partner with autonomy.[15] While all allies fear becoming embroiled in someone else’s wars, asymmetric alliances worsen actors’ fear of entrapment. Entrapment — or “chain-ganging” — looms large in such relationships, with both sides afraid of falling prey, albeit for different reasons. Having traded its autonomy, the weak ally fears that its partner’s military superiority provides overwhelming leverage and jeopardizes its independence.[16] By contrast, the senior ally worries that its counterpart might exploit its superior capabilities, initiate a crisis, and manipulate it into coming to its aid. This concern, however, appears greatly exaggerated given the variety of ways strong allies are capable of mobilizing their resources and exploiting their leverage to shield themselves from entrapment or rein in a weaker ally. Jeremy Pressman has found that when strong allies mobilize their superior resources to restrain a weaker ally, they prevail.[17] Also, powerful allies use their stronger bargaining power to introduce escape clauses into their alliance agreements and arm-twist their partners into compliance.[18] In this vein, Michael Beckley has found that, while the fear of entrapment may be prevalent in international relations literature, in reality, it is rare. Drawing on an extensive empirical analysis of the vast U.S. alliance network, Beckley has shown that the United States successfully dictates the terms of its security commitments.[19] This finding is congruent with Tongfi Kim’s argument that victims of entrapment are more likely to be weaker allies with little power.[20] The historical record indicates that Israel, which greatly depends on the United States, fits into this pattern.[21] After all, as Henry Kissinger remarked, “For Israel to go to war at the known displeasure of the U.S. would be a monumental decision.”[22] [quote id="7"] This, of course, does not mean that weak allies lack ways of influencing their senior allies. As Robert Keohane has pointed out, superior capabilities do not guarantee full or automatic small-ally compliance with the interests and desires of senior allies. Weak allies are sometimes capable of exploiting mutual dependence to generate bargaining power. If the weaker ally is sufficiently important to its partner, it could deny benefits to its senior ally and even “threaten collapse if not aided sufficiently.”[23] Writing about the U.S. alliance system during the Cold War, Keohane argued that U.S. perception of its weak allies’ importance gave them “a degree of influential access to American decision-making and decision-makers far out of proportion to their size.”[24] Keohane identified three avenues through which America’s weaker allies shaped U.S. policy: formal state-to-state negotiations, bargaining with separable elements of the U.S. government, and using private interest groups to influence domestic public opinion.[25] Notably, Keohane focused on relatively limited small-power influence, and some scholars argue that entrapment has caused major wars, namely World War I, in which the European powers chain-ganged one another into disaster.[26] Israel’s relationship with the United States has attracted special scholarly attention given the power disparity between the two countries and Israel’s perceived capacity to punch above its weight. Expanding on Keohane’s work, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt attribute the effectiveness of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States to its influence over Congress.[27] That the empirical record does not reveal unambiguous cases of entrapment is of little relevance or consolation for states fearing future entrapment. Leaders are afraid of becoming the exception to this rule. Moreover, the prevailing fear of being chain-ganged to a reckless ally can be deliberately manipulated by a weaker ally in a purposeful effort to bolster its bargaining position and improve the terms of the alliance. This effort could even have coercive attributes. Ultimately, this means tying the other ally into a stronger commitment and limiting its freedom of action. The literature on alliance politics so far has overlooked the manner in which a country might seek to deliberately exploit an ally’s fear of entrapment as an instrument of bargaining. This article tells the story of just that. The episode analyzed in this article offers an exceptional opportunity to advance an understanding of coercive bargaining in an asymmetric alliance. After all, Israel and the United States are considered extremely close, and both were opposed to Iran ever obtaining a nuclear weapon. When it came to confronting the Iranian challenge, however, not only did their interests, constraints, and preferences not overlap, but the issue was also one in which the stakes were extremely high for both sides — potentially even existential for Israel. This led both parties — perhaps Israel more than the United States — to bring their influence to bear on the other. In this article, I offer a rigorous examination of the strategic interaction and the intense bargaining that took place between Israel and the United States in 2011 and 2012. Ultimately, neither country attacked Iran, but this result was not preordained. Nor was Tehran’s and Washington’s preparedness to engage in direct diplomacy inevitable, though this led to the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. Nonetheless, this outcome cannot be fully understood without first understanding the strategic interaction that preceded diplomacy. Given the recent U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, this topic is of acute relevance.

Israeli and U.S. Perspectives on the Iranian Nuclear Question

Different states, including close allies, do not view threats in the same way. Interests and preferences in international politics diverge because all countries operate under disparate strategic circumstances, confront different threats, possess specific military capabilities to cope with those threats, and face unique constraints. Allies are no different. Rarely will allies feel equally threatened by the same challenge. These structural tensions were on full display over the Iran nuclear issue. Although Israel and the United States generally shared the objective of preventing Iran from obtaining military nuclear capability, the prospect of a nuclear Iran posed a graver threat to Israel than to the militarily preponderant and geographically distant United States. The two allies thus disagreed on the urgency of the situation and on the proper means and level of economic pressure required to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Importantly, they differed on what constituted the nuclear threshold. For Israel, the threshold represented the stage at which Iran — having hardened and dispersed its nuclear program to render it resilient to an Israeli strike — could, if it so chose, “break out” and produce a bomb in a short period of time. For Obama, however, the threshold represented not Iran’s potential to break out, but the act itself.[28] The United States had been imposing sanctions on Iran unilaterally since 1979 and through the U.N. Security Council since 2006. However significant and painful for Iran, these sanctions were nonetheless relatively limited in scope, focusing primarily on the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.[29] Israel, however, called for the urgent imposition of far-reaching sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector. In early 2010, for example, Netanyahu demanded that “crippling sanctions” be imposed “right now.”[30] [quote id="1"] Although Obama had entered the White House determined to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, including, he said, with military force if necessary, he was determined to achieve this outcome through diplomacy and direct engagement.[31] As part of this approach, the U.S. financial pressure campaign on Iran, begun in 2006, was put on hold in 2009 and not fully resumed until mid-2010.[32] Weeks into his presidency, having already secretly reached out to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during the election campaign, Obama sent two additional letters to Khamenei. While Iran’s leader responded to Obama’s first letter, he never replied to the second letter, in which the president had proposed direct talks between the United States and Iran over its nuclear program.[33] Meanwhile, quiet efforts were being exerted by Oman to establish a secret line of communication between the United States and Iran. While Oman’s efforts with the State Department reached an impasse, Sen. John Kerry used Oman to convey messages to Tehran in 2011 and the first half of 2012.[34] Israel, which had picked up on these secret contacts and found them troubling, leaked them to the Israeli press in April 2012.[35] As Barak would later tell this author, “We knew quite a bit about the informal, indirect contacts between the Americans and the Iranians. ... I was very concerned that the American tone was not sufficiently clear so as to bring the Iranians to a decision.”[36] It was not until March 2013, however, that a direct and permanent diplomatic back-channel in Oman was established between Iran and the United States.[37] All this time, Iran continued to develop its uranium enrichment capabilities. In late September 2009, Obama publicly disclosed that Tehran had been constructing a secret nuclear fuel enrichment plant near Fordow, a village northeast of the city of Qom.[38] This “constituted the final straw for the administration, which now had no choice but to go into pressure mode again,” according to former senior Treasury official Juan Zarate. In the fall of 2009, Obama sought to restart the financial pressure campaign on Iran but decided to first seek a new U.N. resolution mandating tougher sanctions — a process that lasted several months.[39] In June 2010, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1929, which constituted the strictest round of sanctions up to that point. The resolution noted “the potential connection between Iran’s revenues derived from its energy sector and the funding of Iran’s proliferation-sensitive nuclear activities.”[40] This language would eventually pave the way for a full EU embargo on Iranian oil.[41] It was against the backdrop of increasingly aggressive international pressure on Iran that the U.S. Senate passed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act. Placing significant new restrictions on Iran’s energy sector, the legislation stipulated that banks conducting transactions with the Central Bank of Iran could not do business in the United States.[42] Still, at this stage in 2010, the U.S. Treasury Department was pursuing a “gradualist constriction campaign” designed to avoid “blunt steps that would upset the balance of the international financial system” or cause U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, who depended heavily on Iranian oil imports, to resist cooperation with tougher sanctions.[43] As I discuss later in this article, additional pressure would be needed to influence the White House to unleash measures long referred to by the Treasury as the “final bullet” and “the nuclear weapon” in its arsenal: an oil embargo and sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran.[44] At least part of this pressure and its outcome can be attributed to Israeli influence. Divergence of Interests Within the U.S.-Israel Alliance In November 2011, Israeli Defense Minister Barak began stressing that, in less than a year, “probably three-quarters,” Iran’s nuclear program would enter a “zone of immunity,” effectively rendering it resilient to an Israeli attack.[45] Unlike Israel, the United States possessed advanced munitions capable of penetrating Iran’s fortified installations, as well as the bomber jets to deliver them. Therefore, the United States would remain capable of executing a decisive military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities long after they had become invulnerable to an Israeli assault. Or, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told Barak, whereas Israel could give the Iranians only “a black eye,” the United States had the military capability to “deliver the knockout punch” and “take out Fordow.”[46] The two allies were thus operating on different timetables. In March 2012, addressing the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Netanyahu warned,
Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue. We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation.[47]
Days later, he explained, “The biggest difference is between the American clock ... and the Israeli clock,” adding that, “America is big and far away; we aren’t as big and are more nearby. We have different capabilities — nothing to belittle — but nonetheless different.”[48] Washington’s opposition to a military strike was driven by indisputable strategic constraints. The United States was engaged militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan and was still recovering from the 2008 financial crisis. With two military commitments already underway, Obama — now entering an election year — was averse to risking a third war involving an oil-rich country in a particularly sensitive part of the world, with potentially ominous implications for global energy markets. As the United States was well aware, these constraints were not lost on Israel. In August 2012, the Israeli daily, Yediot Aharonot, ran a front-page report by its two most senior columnists in which they argued that, if it were up to Netanyahu and Barak, a military strike would take place “before the November elections in the United States.”[49] Obama was therefore particularly vulnerable to Israeli manipulation and exploitation. According to former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, “The perception in Washington was that the Israeli leadership — especially Netanyahu — saw their leverage as greatest in the run-up to the 2012 elections.”[50] The United States was clearly concerned that its junior ally might simply present it with a fait accompli, a worry exacerbated by Israel’s determination to keep the United States at arm’s length. In March 2012, after a U.S. official had already warned, “We don’t have perfect visibility” into Israel’s arsenal or calculations,[51] the Washington Post cited U.S. officials as noting that “no formal agreement has been reached with Israel over how a strike would be conducted — or when Obama would be informed about it.” Other officials added that the “assumption inside the White House and the Pentagon is that Israel would not give the United States warning, allowing the administration to deny prior knowledge but also limiting its ability to defend U.S. military assets in the region.”[52] [quote id="2"] From a U.S. perspective, if Israel was indeed planning unilateral action in a deliberate attempt to entrap the United States in the ensuing conflict, the question of whether Israel possessed the military capability to achieve a substantial delay in Iran’s nuclear program was of less importance. Former CIA director Michael Hayden has noted that if Israel attacked the “disbursed and hardened” Iranian nuclear program, “there would be many of us in government thinking that the purpose of the raid wasn’t to destroy the Iranian nuclear system, but the purpose of the raid was to put us at war with Iran.”[53] Indications of U.S. fear of entrapment appeared in real time. In February 2012, a front-page New York Times article cited defense analysts in Washington as questioning “whether Israel even has the military capacity” to attack Iran. The report said, “One fear is that the United States would be sucked into finishing the job — a task that even with America’s far larger arsenal of aircraft and munitions could still take many weeks.”[54] The following month, Panetta told U.S. troops that “if Israel decides to go after Iran and we have to defend ourselves, we could be engaged sooner than any of us want.”[55] Was Israel indeed contemplating such an attack only to embroil its senior ally in a war? It seems that way. According to Barak, in the summer of 2012 he was approached by a Netanyahu confidant who sounded him out on launching a strike on Iran two weeks before the U.S. elections. Barak recalls the person explaining that, politically, Obama would feel “compelled to support Israel’s action, or at the very least to refrain from criticizing it. In other words, we would be setting a political trap for the president of the United States.”[56] From a U.S. standpoint, Israel was militarily capable of dodging its surveillance capabilities and presenting it with an established fact. Panetta, who had served as CIA director before being appointed secretary of defense, noted in this regard that, although the United States “had sources that could provide some pretty good intelligence on whether or not that kind of attack was being prepared for,” a country “as sophisticated as Israel” could have found ways to “effectively cover up that kind of possibility, because they know that we have those kinds of sources.”[57] Daniel B. Shapiro, who was U.S. ambassador to Israel at the time, added, “We were pretty certain that if they didn't give us warning we would not have advance warning. They were fully capable of surprising the U.S. and give us not more than an hour or two’s notice."[58] While the United States feared entrapment, Israel feared abandonment. Jerusalem was especially concerned that, as Tehran’s nuclear program became increasingly dispersed and resilient, Israel would become dependent upon others — namely the United States — for the elimination of a potentially existential threat. Yet, this was precisely what Israel’s senior ally was asking. As Panetta would later write, “Israel had to trust that we would act if the time came, that we would not flinch at the moment of truth even if the graver threat was not to the United States but to Israel. That’s a lot of trust to place in an ally, even a close and historic ally.”[59] From Israel’s perspective, even if Obama was sincere about not removing any option from the table, he was still, in a sense, bluffing. As Barak reported telling Obama in 2012,
There are no future contracts in statesmanship. There’s no way that you, or any leader, can commit yourself to what will happen in a year or two. When the moment of decision arrives, nothing will be able to free you from your responsibility to look at the situation as it is then, with American interests in mind.
Barak further told Obama that when “it comes to issues critical for the security and future of Israel, and in a way for the security of the Jewish people … we can’t afford to delegate responsibility even to our best friend and ally.” Alluding to the United States, Barak went on to stress: “Our problem, Mr. President, is that we can’t be sure our friend will show up.”[60] From Israel’s vantage point, if Israel were ever to lose its credible military option against Iran, it “would no longer be an actor” in the Iranian context.[61] In other words, having lost its military options, leverage, and bargaining power, Israel’s interests would become less of a factor, including in U.S. policy considerations. As Barak later put it, while stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon was a “vital interest” for Israel, it was only “an important interest” for the United States.[62] Given the stakes for each country, this made for an impossible situation for both sides. With limited direct leverage over Iran, Israel sought to harness the militarily superior United States in the service of forcing Tehran to choose between pursuing its nuclear program and risking devastating economic sanctions and possibly even a military attack. Israel thus sought to limit Obama’s flexibility and wrest an explicit, credible U.S. commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — in other words, a commitment Iran would take seriously. Of course, given the prerequisites for credibility in international relations, Obama was essentially being asked by the United States’ junior ally to restrict his maneuverability and control. This perception was precisely why the Obama administration resisted Israel’s efforts. Israel’s leaders proceeded to present the United States with two explicit demands. First, Israel wanted Washington to lead an international effort to impose crippling economic sanctions on Iran. As noted, Israel demanded broad sanctions that would go beyond those that had already been implemented. Jerusalem wanted sanctions that would cripple Iran’s energy and financial sectors. To prod its ally into action, Israel’s defense minister declared in November 2011, “We are probably facing the last opportunity for internationally coordinated deadly sanctions that will force Iran to stop.” Specifically, Barak called for “sanctions on the financial transactions, on the ability to carry out international financial deals, including the Central Bank, sanctions that stop — physically if needed — the import and export of oil and refinements.”[63] That Israel was expecting the United States to lead this effort was reflected in the words of a “senior Israeli official” cited the next day as having said, “The name of the game now is the ability of U.S. President Obama to gather the leaderships of important countries such as Germany, France, Canada, and Australia in a coalition, and rein in Russia and China to impose paralyzing sanctions on Iran.”[64] That same demand was repeated in a coercive, yet informal, fashion, which implicitly threatened to entrap the United States in a conflict with Iran: Senior Israeli military affairs analyst Ron Ben-Yishai said Israel was communicating an “important signal” to Washington, Moscow, and Beijing: “Either you impose truly painful sanctions to block Iran’s race to a bomb, with minimum cost to all of us, or we will be forced to act and then we will all pay the price.”[65] Coming from a well-connected analyst, these words almost certainly reflected a briefing by a senior official. Second, Israel expected the United States to establish a credible military threat against Iran or, in the words of Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon, to take measures that would make “the Iranian regime understand that if it does not stop its military nuclear program someone will attack it.”[66] Referring to the U.S. position toward Iran, an Israeli official asked, “There are a lot of general statements they [the United States] think we want to hear… How are the Iranians to understand that if they don’t stop then they will eventually get hit?”[67] On another occasion, a senior Israeli official told the New York Times, in reference to the Obama administration, that “For the Iranians to understand that they really mean it, they [the Iranians] have to hear it publicly and clearly.”[68] From Israel’s standpoint, a credible U.S. military threat that Iran would take seriously required a credible Israeli military threat that the United States would take seriously.

A History of the Iran Debate Before October 2011

Israeli concern regarding Iran’s nuclear program and the prospect of nuclear-weapons capability dates to the 1990s. Although in subsequent years, especially during President George W. Bush’s second term, U.S. concern would emerge regarding the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iran, no stage was as intense and urgent as that of late 2011. Even when Israel was working on a military option, it did not engage in a concerted, strategic pressure campaign against the United States until 2011. Nor had the United States engaged in such forceful dissuasion efforts toward Israel as it would in the period discussed in this article. Although Iran’s perceived quest for military nuclear capability had long been a topic of debate and concern, Israel deliberately presented it as a global challenge rather than a challenge for Israel alone. Israeli policy maintained that the effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon should be led by the entire international community.[69] At the same time, however, Israel was also investing in a military option against Iran. In mid-2008, media reports began to emerge about atypically large-scale, Israeli aerial exercises. These were widely interpreted as rehearsals for a preventive strike on Iran. But if these drills were designed to create the impression that Israel might be preparing to target Iran, such intentions were undercut by statements that Israel was still giving precedence to diplomacy and economic sanctions and that it would not surprise its U.S. ally with a unilateral military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. In May 2008, Bush reportedly rejected Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s request for a green light to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.[70] That same month, Israel presented the United States with several arms requests, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates saw as presaging a military attack on Iran. “I recommended saying no to all the Israelis’ requests,” Gates later recalled. “Giving them any of the items on their new list would signal U.S. support for them to attack Iran unilaterally.”[71] Gates also worried that U.S. acquiescence to Israel’s arms requests would have provided it with a dangerous degree of autonomy to act independently against Iran and thus grant it leverage over the United States. “I said we would be handing over the initiative regarding U.S. vital national interests to a foreign power,” he noted.[72] Gates believes it was “probably not coincidental” that on June 2, 2008, the Israeli Air Force conducted a major exercise that included more than a hundred fighter jets, helicopters, and refueling tankers.[73] On June 20, the New York Times reported the unusual Israeli aerial mission and cited U.S. officials as describing the exercise, in which the planes had flown from Israel to Greece and back, as a multi-pronged Israeli signal. “They wanted us to know, they wanted the Europeans to know, and they wanted the Iranians to know,” a Pentagon official said. “There’s a lot of signaling going on at different levels.”[74] Whether the exercise was intended as an Israeli signal to its principal ally, it was perceived as such in Washington. As Gates later wrote,
The Israelis held a military exercise they knew would be monitored by many nations. … The distance the fighters flew was 862 nautical miles. The distance from the Israeli airfield to the Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Natanz was 860 nautical miles. Israel wanted to signal that it was prepared for a strike and could carry it out.[75]
At the same time, however, U.S. officials ruled out an imminent Israeli attack on Iran.[76] Moreover, Israel signaled it would adhere to diplomacy,[77] confirming that military action was not in the offing.[78] Still, Israel’s efforts to establish a military option persisted. In 2009, a French weekly revealed that the Israeli Air Force carried out another large-scale military rehearsal — this time, over the Strait of Gibraltar, some 1,800 miles from Israel.[79] However, an Israeli intelligence official commenting on the matter just two weeks before the French report said that it was unlikely Israel would attack Iran without receiving at least tacit U.S. approval.[80] Moreover, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman remarked that Israel would not attack Iran militarily even if sanctions failed. Saying that the most effective means to stop Iran were “severe sanctions, very severe sanctions,” he added, “We are not talking about a military attack.” Towing Israel’s official line, Lieberman stressed, “Israel cannot resolve militarily the entire world's problems. I propose that the United States, as the largest power in the world, assume responsibility for resolving the Iranian question.”[81] [quote id="3"] That Israel was honing its military option undoubtedly generated concern in Washington. But still, this was a general worry about the possibility that Israel would ultimately feel compelled to act unilaterally. At times, this broad concern led the United States into taking greater risks than it may have otherwise in order to reassure and restrain the Israelis. One such example is Operation Olympic Games (“Stuxnet”), in which the United States and Israel joined forces in a cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment facility at Natanz. Although not the only reason, anxiety about the prospect of an Israeli strike on Iran reportedly played an important role in persuading the United States to engage in the attack.[82] On March 31, 2009, Netanyahu returned to the office of prime minister, a post he had left a decade earlier. Unlike his predecessors, who portrayed Iran as a global challenge, Netanyahu described Iran as analogous to Nazi Germany.[83] As prime minister, Netanyahu would gradually “take ownership” of the Iranian issue. In 2009 and 2010, however, Israel remained committed to working together with the United States to deal with the perceived Iranian threat.[84] In July 2010, Obama was asked whether Israel might unilaterally attack Iran. He responded that Netanyahu was “committed” to a coordinated approach.[85] A year later, when Shapiro began his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Israel, he too found that the two countries’ national security establishments shared a “coordinated approach” toward Iran.[86] This would change within three months.

Israel’s Pressure Campaign: Generating a War Scare

The possibility of an Israeli military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities had long been a topic of speculation and concern.[87] This is not surprising given Israel’s history of preventing other countries in the Middle East from developing nuclear capability, as well as the sort of military exercises described above. In 1981, the Israeli Air Force conducted a surprise attack in which it destroyed Iraq’s nuclear plant at Osirak. In 2007, Israel carried out a similar attack, this time destroying a nuclear facility secretly being built in Syria.[88] The Iranian case is factually different — Israel never attacked. But it is also qualitatively different: Rather than attacking, Israel deliberately created the impression of an impending unilateral attack and then harnessed this perception in a deliberate effort to limit Obama’s flexibility, influence U.S. policy, and alter Iran’s strategic calculus. It was not until late 2011, however, that general concern about an Israeli attack on Iran turned into genuine alarm. As one television report in Israel put it, “After years of just threats, it seems that the ground has started to shake.”[89] U.S. intelligence agencies detected stepped-up activity by the Israeli military that appeared to presage a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.[90] On Oct. 3, 2011, Panetta arrived in Israel for what was described as an “urgent discussion” on Iran.[91] That the main impetus for his trip was U.S. alarm about a potential Israeli strike was reflected in Panetta’s public statement in Israel that “the most effective way to deal with Iran is not on a unilateral basis.”[92] The United States and Israel, he added, must confront all challenges “together.”[93] In his private meetings, Panetta demanded — and was refused — early warning in the event that Israel decided to attack.[94] The U.S. sense of urgency manifested in numerous other ways. In early November, a U.S. military official said that Washington had enhanced its “watchfulness” of both Israel and Iran.[95] The United States then bolstered its contingency military planning in the Middle East and augmented its intelligence-gathering on Israel. Obama, Panetta, and other top officials conveyed a string of private messages to Israel, warning of the “dire consequences of a strike.”[96] In addition, U.S. intelligence agencies began to closely monitor Israel’s military bases and eavesdrop on its secret communications for indications of a forthcoming strike. The United States detected when Israeli pilots were put on alert and identified moonless nights, which would give the Israelis better cover for a strike.[97] Other U.S. surveillance activities included spying on the prime minister’s office and hacking into Israeli drone and fighter-jet surveillance feeds in search of indications of preparations for a strike.[98] In December 2011, Shapiro drafted a cable in which he later recalled stressing that the United States “could not in any way rule out the possibility” of an uncoordinated Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.[99] That month, Panetta publicly warned that if Israel attacked Iran,
The United States would obviously be blamed and we could possibly be the target of retaliation from Iran, striking our ships, striking our military bases. ... the consequence could be that we would have an escalation that would take place that would not only involve many lives, but I think could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.[100]
In January 2012, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon informed Panetta that Obama’s twin foreign policy goals for that year were to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and “to avoid a war in the Middle East,”[101] the latter being the scenario the administration feared would result from an Israeli strike.[102] As senior New York Times correspondent David Sanger wrote, the “outbreak of a public debate in Israel over whether to strike soon clearly shook the Obama administration.”[103] In February 2012, Panetta spoke of a “strong likelihood” that Israel would strike before June.[104] It was against this backdrop that the Associated Press wrote, “For the first time in nearly two decades of escalating tensions over Iran's nuclear program, world leaders are genuinely concerned that an Israeli military attack on the Islamic Republic could be imminent.”[105] This sense of urgency was confirmed in later interviews with multiple senior Obama administration officials, including Panetta,[106] Deputy Secretary of State William Burns,[107] National Security Council member and senior Obama adviser Gary Samore,[108] and Shapiro.[109] The following section analyzes the various tactics Israel employed to create the perception of an impending military strike, instill a sense of urgency in the United States, and limit Obama’s room to maneuver. 

How Israel Generated and Harnessed the War Scare

This section explores the primary methods by which Israel exacerbated the Obama administration’s concerns and led its senior ally to infer that a unilateral military assault on Iran could be imminent. Military Moves Designed to Be Picked Up by U.S. Intelligence Israel’s efforts to manipulate Washington into thinking a strike could be imminent included sensitive military activities designed to be intercepted by the United States, as well as actions bearing an intelligence signature too noticeable to conceal. For example, according to one Israeli report citing multiple sources, Israel carried out a significant covert measure in early October 2011 that pertained to the “diplomatic-security” realm, and was widely perceived by the sources as a sign that preparations for an attack had “shifted up a gear.”[110] The report did not detail the exact nature of the covert measure, but, since then, it has been revealed that, in 2011, the Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were ordered to begin preparations for a possible military strike on Iran within 15 days.[111] It was also in late 2011 that U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly had detected Israeli aircraft entering and exiting Iran’s airspace, supposedly probing the country’s air defenses. This appeared to be a dry run for a commando raid on a nuclear site and was sufficiently alarming to merit the deployment of a second U.S. aircraft carrier to the region.[112] On another occasion, multiple U.S. intelligence sources said the United States had learned that Israel, through a series of quiet understandings, had been granted access to airbases across Iran’s northern border in Azerbaijan.[113] Barak himself would later acknowledge instances in which Israel was “on the verge” of an attack and units “had entered a state of preparedness,”[114] but a senior military analyst later revealed that some of these instances “were designed to motivate the U.S. administration and the Europeans to increase the pressure on Iran and bring the Americans to a stage in which they would wield a military option and would be ready to use it.”[115] Tamir Pardo, then-director of the Mossad, similarly raised the possibility that, when he was instructed in 2011 by the prime minister to enter a state of preparedness and stand ready for an attack on Iran within 15 days, Netanyahu was “signaling” to the United States “to do something.”[116] Given that the United States, as Panetta later noted, had “fail-safe methods of determining whether or not in fact planes and pilots and crews were all being prepared for action,”[117] Washington was likely receiving real-time indications of such activities. Barak later admitted that Israel was acting on the premise that Washington was capable of monitoring its activities and that the United States inferred from Israel’s intelligence efforts that “we were getting ready.”[118] Explaining the perception of an imminent strike, Barak said, “The atmosphere was a reflection of our actual real preparations. The Americans were following us, watching what we were doing and what the Air Force was rehearsing.”[119] Strict Secrecy to Achieve Message Discipline  A core element of Israel’s pressure campaign pertained to the way Netanyahu and Barak deliberately kept their various alarmed audiences — namely Israel’s defense establishment, the cabinet, and the United States — at arm’s length. From Barak’s vantage point, keeping Israel’s establishment in the dark was crucial for the success of the campaign. Israel’s security chiefs opposed a unilateral strike, and, as Barak would later reveal, he and Netanyahu knew that some of them were talking to their U.S. counterparts “on a daily basis.”[120] By holding their cards extremely close, Netanyahu and Barak prevented leaks, maximized their message control, enhanced their credibility and bargaining leverage, and kept their various audiences guessing. Barak and Netanyahu made all cabinet members sign an additional protocol of secrecy prohibiting them not only from making statements on Iran but also from giving strictly-off-record briefings.[121] As National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror put it, “Nothing leaked because … the ministers knew nothing.” Although Amidror claims to have been one of a handful of Israelis who were truly in the know, his statement that “I personally believe they were serious, I truly believed they were not bluffing” implies that the national security adviser, too, was in the dark about Netanyahu and Barak’s actual intentions.[122] And he was not the only senior Israeli official to find himself in that position. Asked in January 2012 whether Netanyahu and Barak were truly serious about an attack, a “very high-ranking intelligence source,” likely the head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate, replied, “I don’t know, there are only two people who know the answer to this question, and they are Netanyahu and Barak.”[123] Two months later, a senior Israeli official said of the two men, “Together, they control this issue.”[124] [quote id="4"] When asked about the possibility that a unilateral attack was never truly intended to take place, then-Mossad Director Pardo retrospectively admitted, “The same doubts that you raise now — I had them all along.” Pardo hypothesized that “a deception at this level requires that no more than one or two people be in the loop,” meaning that, if the Israeli campaign was intentionally deceptive, the deception was conducted either by “the prime minister alone, or the prime minister and Barak. And all the rest, including yours truly, were among those who were being duped.”[125] Even if Pardo had his doubts and, referring to the possibility of a unilateral Israeli attack, “did not believe that this could happen,” he still admits that when the prime minister “tells me to commence the countdown, you realize that he is not playing games with you. These things [entering a state of preparedness] have enormous implications. It’s not something he is allowed to do only as a drill.”[126] Cabinet member Dan Meridor, who served as Israel’s intelligence minister at the time, and theoretically should have been in the know, admitted that he had “spent nights and days” with the intelligence chiefs “asking ourselves what was going to happen. … I could not just assume that it was all a show.”[127] Amos Gilead, then-Director of Policy and Political-Military Affairs at the Ministry of Defense, similarly admits that “we will never be able to know” if Netanyahu and Barak “really meant it,” although “according to every parameter they acted as if they did.”[128] Beyond the message clarity gained by such tactics, this information asymmetry made it significantly more difficult for the United States to affect Israel’s decision-making. Israeli Refusal to Provide Advance Warning Diplomacy was the basic means by which Israel first indicated to the United States the shift in its approach toward the Iranian issue and its refusal to coordinate its moves with its senior ally. In November 2011, a top U.S. military official said that Israeli reassurances to Washington that it would receive early warning if Israel decided to strike Iran no longer seemed “ironclad.”[129] This implies that Israel had previously provided such an assurance to the United States.[130] Later that month, when Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked if Israel would alert the United States ahead of an attack on Iran, he replied, “I don’t know.”[131] In January 2012, the United States received yet another powerful signal when Barak informed Panetta of Israel’s decision to call off a joint military exercise scheduled for May. A biography of Barak claims that this exercise was delayed ahead of a “decisive session” regarding Iran.[132] In his memoir, Panetta recalls pressing Barak “to reconsider the cancellation,” to which the Israeli defense minister replied that, although Israel had not yet made a decision about whether to strike Iran, “I can’t in good conscience hide the fact from our best ally that we are discussing it.”[133] Barak later recalled, “Panetta realized that Israel was serious, and asked for a two-week early warning. I told him, no. Not two weeks, and not even 24 hours. However, I did tell Panetta that we would give them a sufficiently long early warning so as to not jeopardize any American soldier in the Middle East.”[134] Whereas the cancellation was likely designed to alarm Washington, an entirely different signal was conveyed to the Israeli public. Domestically, the cancellation was falsely portrayed as a joint decision resulting from U.S. budgetary constraints and a mutual desire to avoid sending a bellicose signal to Iran.[135] Two days later, Barak told IDF Radio that an Israeli decision to attack Iran was “very far off.”[136] In other words, Barak tailored different signals to different target audiences. If Israel had intended to set off alarm bells in Washington and manipulate its anticipation of violence, it succeeded. Within days, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff landed in Israel for high-level discussions,[137] and Panetta told the Washington Post that there was a “strong likelihood” of an Israeli attack on Iran before spring 2012.[138] Media Campaign Israel’s public media campaign dates to Oct. 12, 2011, a day when the entire Israeli media agenda was dominated by the dramatic announcement of a prisoner-exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas. One particular analysis stands out: In a column with the headline “It’s All Because of Iran,” Yediot Aharonot veteran military analyst Alex Fishman argued that the main impetus behind the prisoner swap was Netanyahu’s desire to “clear the desk” and “set the stage for something different, bigger, and more important.” When one looks for signs of worry in Netanyahu and Barak, Fishman continued, “it somehow always has to do with Iran. … What is happening exactly with respect to the Iranian issue? It is unclear. But it is clear that this is going to be the next hot story.”[139] Fishman’s column was the bellwether of an official effort to spark an intense public debate about Iran.[140] An especially interesting case in point is the apparent use of the daily Yisrael Hayom, known for its intimate ties to Netanyahu, as a signaling device. In March 2012, the paper published as its banner headline a lengthy opinion column by its editor-in-chief, Amos Regev, who strongly advocated for an Israeli attack. The article concluded, “With the Americans or without them, it will be hard. It will be bold. It is doable.” A photo of three Israeli fighter jets flying over Auschwitz accompanied the article.[141] Alarmed by the column, Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn posted a reaction piece later that morning in which he argued that Netanyahu’s signals “are indeed preparations for war and not a bluff,” adding that Regev “is writing what Netanyahu cannot say in speeches.”[142] International media outlets also played a role in Israel’s pressure campaign. In January 2012, the New York Times Sunday supplement dedicated its cover story to the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran. The article, by well-connected Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, concluded, “After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.”[143] The following day, Bergman’s conclusion prompted a debate in the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Asked about the article, U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper commented that this “is a matter that we are very, very concerned about.”[144] Clapper, who later characterized the Israeli campaign as an “attempt to pressure the United States,” suspected the article was in some way an Israeli initiative:
When you’ve got rhetoric like that, you have to wonder how did that article get planted. The Israelis know us, they play us like a fiddle. They know how our Congress works — they play to that. They know how our media works — they influence that. So, sure, every time you have rhetoric like that, you have to be concerned. I didn’t think it was appropriate to blow it off.[145]
Public Statements Israel’s public statements regarding a possible strike on Iran, made almost exclusively by Netanyahu and Barak, featured a single recurring theme: Israel was entitled, capable, and prepared to look after its vital interests. For instance, on Nov. 1, 2011, Barak remarked that “events in the Middle East over the past year” show that “there can emerge situations in which Israel will have to protect its own interests” by itself and not rely on “other powers.”[146] Although he would later claim to have been referring to the events of the Arab Spring, Barak’s statement was widely perceived as a signal that Israel might strike Iran unilaterally.[147] The following month, speaking at the annual memorial ceremony for Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu alluded to the ongoing debate over Iran. Ben-Gurion, he said, had "a very hard time gaining support" within pre-state Israel for the declaration of independence in 1948. “Huge pressure,” he said,
was exerted on Ben-Gurion, from within and from without, not to make this move. … Everyone told him: this is not the time, not now. Among those pressuring him were important statesmen and friends. … All of us are here today because Ben-Gurion made the right decision at the right time. … I want to believe that we will always act with responsibility, courage, and determination to make the right decisions to ensure our future and security.[148]
These remarks coincided with a statement by Barak stressing that “Israel cannot exempt itself from making decisions as a sovereign [country]. If the [Iranian] program can be stopped with diplomacy, that’s great, but all options are on the table. ... Israel is responsible for its own security, future, and existence.”[149] Clearly, Israel’s goal was to signal to the United States that it had the sovereign right to safeguard its vital interests. Lobbying U.S. Congress To impact U.S. decision-making on Iran, Israel harnessed multiple Washington-based, pro-Israel organizations.[150] But Israel also worked directly with members of Congress to influence the Obama administration. Visiting Israel in November 2011, a group of U.S. lawmakers updated their interlocutors about a new initiative — legislation urging the White House to support Israel’s “right” to employ “any means necessary” to confront the Iranian nuclear threat.[151] In February 2012, Netanyahu discussed the Iranian issue with a group of U.S. senators, headed by Sen. John McCain.[152] It was reported that Netanyahu had asked senior senators and members of Congress to exert pressure on Obama regarding the Iranian issue.[153] In early 2013, the Senate passed a resolution calling on the United States to support and “stand with Israel” if Jerusalem is “compelled to take military action in legitimate self-defense against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.”[154] Congress’s role in promoting tough sanctions — and essentially forcing them upon a more reluctant White House — is discussed in more detail later in the article. Israel used the above-discussed tactics to create the perception of a potentially imminent military attack on Iran, instill a sense of urgency in the United States, and push the Obama administration to adopt a tougher approach toward Iran than it would have pursued otherwise. How did this play out, and how effective was Israel’s pressure campaign? Was Israel able to get its way, despite clear U.S. superiority, or did the senior ally essentially prevail? These questions are the focus of the remainder of the article. The next section analyzes the manner in which the United States, in reaction to Israel’s pressure campaign, leveraged elements of its overwhelming influence to restrain its junior ally.

U.S. Counter-Pressure: Dissuasion, Dissociation, and Reassurance

Far from being a passive receiver and perceiver of Israeli signals and pressure tactics, the United States engaged in measures of its own to dissuade its junior ally from attacking Iran. This had become a top U.S. foreign policy priority, one that Panetta would describe as his primary task as secretary of defense.[155] Going even further, Samore claimed that “Much of U.S. strategy at that time was built around ‘how do we stop the Israelis from attacking.’ In some ways, that became the more immediate objective than stopping Iran.”[156] Some of this played out in public view as the crisis unfolded, such as when a senior administration official said, “We’re trying to make the decision to attack as hard as possible for Israel.”[157] To resist Israeli pressure and ensure compliance, the United States utilized a variety of dissuasion instruments. What follows is a discussion of the most salient ones. Publicly Questioning the Prudence of an Israeli Attack U.S. opposition to an Israeli attack was expressed by senior officials from the outset of the Israeli campaign. With time, this sentiment grew increasingly blunt. In February 2012, the New York Times ran a front-page article citing U.S. experts as casting doubt on Israel’s military capacity to successfully attack Iran.[158] Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey publicly described an Israeli attack as both “destabilizing” and “not prudent,” saying Israel would fail to achieve its “long-term objectives.”[159] Seeking to undermine the credibility of Israel’s military option, Dempsey later said that an Israeli attack would "delay but probably not destroy” the Iranian program.[160] In August 2012, an Israeli daily newspaper cited a U.S. warning to Israel to the effect that Saudi Arabia would forcefully resist any Israeli attempt to use its airspace to attack Iran.[161] Signaling Potential Dissociation from Israel In reference to a unilateral Israeli strike, Dempsey alluded to the possibility of U.S. military dissociation from Israel, saying at a press conference: “I don't want to be complicit if they choose to do it."[162] Days later, Yediot Aharonot reported that the United States had informed Iran that it would not back an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities — as long as Iran steered clear of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf.[163] Stalling for Time For several months, Washington kept a steady flow of senior American officials traveling to Israel in part of what U.S. officials depicted as a deliberate strategy to forestall such an attack. According to Shapiro, the former U.S. ambassador, “We used all the dissuasion tactics and tools of dissuasion we could think of,” including high-level visits. “You buy yourself three weeks at a time. The week or two before the visit, the week or two after the visit. That tempo was all relevant to us. There were other factors, but it was definitely part of our strategy."[164] Samore noted in this regard that the administration was “certainly watching Israel very closely. That’s part of the reason why people went every two weeks. Because they figured that Israel couldn’t launch an attack when the vice president was on his way, or Tom Donilon was on his way, or Gen. Dempsey was on his way.” Samore described this as “a very conscious, deliberate strategy to stop the Israelis from attacking.”[165] Amplification of Domestic Opposition in Israel to a Strike The United States also worked to influence Israeli public opinion by exposing the fact that Israel’s own security chiefs opposed a unilateral strike. In July 2012, the banner headline of Yediot Aharonot cited “sources in the United States” as saying that Israel’s military and security chiefs were unanimous in their opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran.[166] The Obama administration also leveraged its influence with Israel’s president and elder statesman, Shimon Peres. In June 2012, Obama honored Peres at the White House with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.[167] The next month, Peres began to express scathing opposition to a unilateral attack and to underline his trust in Obama’s determination to prevent Iran from ever obtaining a nuclear bomb.[168] In mid-August, Peres said that “after having talks with” Obama he was “convinced” that Israel could trust the U.S. president on the issue of Iran. “Now, it’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. … It’s clear to us we have to proceed together with America. There are questions about coordination and timing, but as serious as the danger is, this time at least we are not alone.”[169]

Israel’s War Scare Ends: Assessing its Strategic Impact

These measures were designed to restrain Israel while also maintaining flexibility for Obama. To the degree that an Israeli attack was genuinely being planned, U.S. pressure ultimately prevailed without the United States having to resort to far-reaching threats or taking action. Although it is difficult to identify a specific time when Israel’s military option came off the table, one can point to September 2012 as a turning point in terms of Israel’s credibility with the United States, which practically collapsed in the wake of a reassuring message that Barak privately conveyed to Obama. According to several accounts, Barak met with Obama’s confidant Rahm Emmanuel and told him, without having updated Netanyahu, that he no longer favored a strike.[170] Then, on Sept. 27, 2012, Netanyahu delivered a speech before the U.N. General Assembly in which he publicly drew a red line to Iran but also pushed the critical stage of Iran’s nuclear program to “next spring” and possibly even “next summer.”[171] It was with these last words, widely interpreted as a “nod to Obama,” that Netanyahu removed the possibility of an imminent Israeli military strike on Iran.[172] By “next summer” the United States and Iran were already deeply engaged in diplomatic talks and, for all intents and purposes, the military option was off the table. Acceleration of Crippling Economic Sanctions on Iran On the core issue of preventing an Israeli strike, especially in the critical run-up to the U.S. elections, the United States clearly got its way. The United States neither greenlighted an Israeli strike nor unleashed an attack of its own. Nor did Obama severely limit his latitude by making a binding commitment to use military force against Iran. If entrapment was ever a genuine possibility, the United States clearly evaded being chain-ganged into a military confrontation. In some respects, however, Washington’s counter-campaign appears not to have been entirely successful. To forestall an Israeli attack, Obama was compelled to pursue measures he otherwise probably would not have — and at a faster pace than he otherwise would have chosen. This means Israel succeeded in influencing U.S. policy. [quote id="5"] Most notably, perhaps, the United States led an unprecedented international effort to cast Iran into economic isolation — an Israeli demand that the Obama administration initially was reluctant to pursue and had tried to keep in reserve.[173] Wary of measures that could destabilize global markets, the executive branch, in the words of senior Treasury official Zarate, sought to strike a balance between increasing economic pressure and “not spooking the oil markets and spiking prices,”[174] a sentiment expressed in real time.[175] To force the Obama administration to escalate sanctions on Iran, Israel engaged in heavy lobbying on Capitol Hill. Sanctions against Iran’s oil sector and Central Bank were passed as part of the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2011. So strong was its support of Israel that the entire Senate unanimously voted in favor of sanctions.[176] Against this backdrop, Obama imposed unprecedented sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank and an embargo on Iran’s oil exports.[177] David Sanger of the New York Times noted that, although “few in Washington are persuaded” that the sanctions would force Iran’s supreme leader to fold, “most go along with the assumption because the more forceful alternatives are too unpleasant to contemplate.”[178] The European Union soon imposed its own economic sanctions on Iran, including an oil embargo.[179] These sanctions would result in a 60 percent drop in Iranian crude oil exports from their pre-2011 rate.[180] And, in March 2012, in an unprecedented move enabled by the U.S. and EU sanctions, Iranian banks were disconnected from the SWIFT international financial system.[181] Netanyahu would later attribute Iran’s economic isolation to Israel’s “projection of genuine resolve.”[182] It is hard to definitively say whether Israel can claim the credit for this outcome. However, the initial impetus for the toughest of U.S. sanctions came from a Congress strongly aligned with Israel. Consider the words of Sen. Robert Menendez, one of the driving forces behind the legislation. In December 2011, he said, “The clock is ticking. Published reports say we have about a year. Whenever you’re going to start our sanctions regime robustly, six months before the clock has been achieved? Before they get a nuclear weapon?”[183] Was rigorous implementation of the economic sanctions hastened as a result of Israel’s pressure and the perceived threat of a unilateral Israeli attack? Lending credence to this argument, Dennis Ross, who served as a senior director at the National Security Council and as special assistant to Obama, has written,
Israel was very much a factor in this approach. To forestall Israeli military action against what Israel perceived as an existential threat, the president understood we needed to show we could apply meaningful pressure on the Iranians that would alter their nuclear program.[184]
For his part, Deputy Secretary of State Burns said that, although Obama would have eventually imposed sanctions regardless of Israel’s actions, Israel’s campaign “accelerated” the process. “Maybe [otherwise] it would have taken another year or so.” According to Burns, Obama “moved at a faster pace because of the concern of a potential Israeli military strike and the very real political pressure that existed in Washington in part because of the depth of the Israeli Government's concern.”[185] Making a similar argument, Shapiro said the United States “was motivated to go the extra mile in part to show the Israelis that they didn't need to do something on their own, that we were serious. … It’s fair to say that Israel probably did push us to go farther, faster on sanctions.”[186] Pointing to another important effect that Israel’s threat had on U.S. policy, senior Obama administration officials said the United States, while genuinely pressured by Israel’s signals, harnessed the perception of a credible Israeli strike in the service of persuading other actors to implement the debilitating sanctions on Iran. This included China, which had long opposed such measures.[187] Burns added,
We used it [the threat of an Israeli attack] with the Russians, we used it with the Chinese, with the Europeans, we used it with the Indians and those we were trying to persuade to curb oil purchases from Iran. It was a useful tool … to maximize the economic pressure on the Iranians and to get other countries — mostly quite grudgingly — to go along with this, because it wasn't in their economic interest in the short term in any way.[188]
According to Shapiro, the perceived Israeli threat
was also in some way a useful tool for us in our discussion with other countries. ‘Hey, you know, the last thing you want is these crazy Israelis to go and do something, so let’s show them that there’s a better way. Let’s make these sanctions stick.’ I think it definitely affected the Chinese. ... There’s no question the Chinese would sit up in their chairs and listen intently if you would present this possibility of a serious Israeli strike.[189]
In sum, according to Samore, “It sure helped to have the Israeli threat out there.”[190] This could be described as an amplification effect that may result from a relatively weak ally’s ability to establish a credible threat in the eyes of a much more powerful actor and influence its behavior. Obama Toughens Rhetoric, But Stops Short of Red Line for Iran Israel’s campaign succeeded, albeit to a lesser degree than it had hoped, in wresting a public commitment to resort to military force against Iran from the U.S. president. Most notably, in March 2012, Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic that both Iran and Israel should take seriously the possibility of U.S. action against Iran’s nuclear facilities, stressing that "as president of the United States, I don't bluff.” Obama added, “When the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say.”[191] Addressing AIPAC two days later, Obama said, “I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.” That, he said, “includes all elements of American power,” including “a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.”[192] This was the first time the United States publicly drew a distinction between prevention and containment of a nuclear Iran.[193] These two statements, directed more to Israel than to Iran, would remain Obama’s most explicit reference to the military option. Both statements were later described by Panetta as “carefully crafted” gestures to the Israelis, designed to “reinforce their confidence that we would not abandon them.”[194] While Barak was convinced that the United States possessed a credible and realistic military option to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, he remained unconvinced by Obama’s political reassurances. For instance, after Obama said that “as president of the United States, I don't bluff,” the Israeli defense minister privately wondered whether Obama’s statement was itself a bluff.[195] As Barak himself told this author, he remained “highly skeptical” about the U.S. commitment to ever pursue the military option against Iran.[196] Barak later explained, “Though the president intermittently declared that ‘all options’ remained on the table, I knew from senior administration members that it was extremely unlikely to happen.”[197] In September 2012, the clash between Israel’s desire for a clear U.S. commitment and Obama’s determination to secure his latitude entered a new stage, with Netanyahu openly urging the president to publicly draw a “red line” for Iran that, if violated, would be met with “consequences.” The administration rejected the demand on the grounds that “we need some ability for the president to have decision-making room,”[198] which was precisely what Netanyahu wanted Obama to have less of. The exchange took a fiercer turn when Panetta implicitly accused Israel of attempting to coerce the United States. “Red lines,” he asserted, “are used to try to put people in a corner.”[199] To this, Netanyahu responded, “I know that people value flexibility. … but I think that at this late stage of the game, Iran needs to see clarity.”[200] Israel’s efforts were designed to limit Obama’s freedom of action and pin him down to an explicit use-of-force commitment. Given this, Obama administration officials viewed Israel’s campaign as intended to motivate, if not push, the United States itself to launch an attack. According to Burns, “There was certainly concern in Washington that the object of this Israeli effort was not so much to get a green light to launch a unilateral Israeli strike as it was to box Obama into launching a U.S. military strike, with the kind of second-best option being an even more intense effort to build sanctions.”[201] [quote id="8"] Israel’s pressure campaign had yet another important effect on the United States, which is that Washington, in an attempt to reassure Israel, accelerated its efforts to enhance the credibility of its own military option. In January 2012, U.S. officials said the Pentagon was ramping up its efforts to improve the Massive Ordnance Penetrator, a weapon specifically designed to penetrate Iranian and North Korean fortifications.[202] In August, an Israeli daily newspaper disclosed in its lead story details of the U.S. military plan for an attack on Iran, as discussed in Panetta’s visit to Israel just days before. The report maintained that the United States would potentially launch its attack “in a year and a half.”[203] Shedding further light on Washington’s reassurance efforts, Panetta later remarked,
We in the United States were developing a weapon that could in fact be able to penetrate and do serious damage to their [Iran’s] capability, and it was in the effort to kind of show him [Barak] what we had developed and its capability that, I think, he recognized that we indeed did have a weapon that could, in fact, do some real damage to their enrichment capability.[204]
Lending credence to Panetta’s account, Barak recalled that, during the first two years in which Israel prepared its military option, the United States “was no more ready” than Israel. The existing U.S. military plan, Barak wrote, was “so obviously prone to lead to a wider conflict, that it would never have received the go-ahead from President Obama, or probably any president.” By 2012, however, “that had changed …an intensive research-and-development effort and enormously improved planning and testing had yielded results. The Americans now had high-precision heavy munitions we couldn’t dream of.”[205]


In late 2011, Israel deliberately led the United States to infer that a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program could be imminent — a scenario that deeply alarmed the Obama administration. The stakes involved one of the core issues animating asymmetric-alliance politics: the possibility that a junior ally — Israel — might present its senior strategic ally — the United States — with a fait accompli and entrap it in a military confrontation. With two military commitments already underway and a presidential election on the horizon, the United States strongly opposed an Israeli attack, which it deemed unnecessary, and had little interest in a confrontation with Iran. More importantly, Iran did not pose the same threat to the militarily superior United States as it did to Israel. It was for these reasons that a fierce intra-alliance bargaining episode occurred. As noted in the outset of this article, asymmetric alliances represent a trade-off: The weaker ally trades its autonomy for security. In essence, Israel attempted to retain its autonomy in a way that the United States deemed extremely detrimental to its own interests. Ultimately, neither Israel nor the United States attacked Iran. This implies that, at the most overarching level, the stronger ally prevailed. How can this outcome be understood? And what are its implications for international and alliance politics? Any attempt to discuss these questions must begin with the fact that, in the year under discussion, Israel purposefully created the perception of a potentially imminent military attack. This granted Israel more leverage than it otherwise would have wielded over the United States. Israel then harnessed this leverage in a calculated effort to force its senior ally to more closely align with Israeli constraints and interests. This meant influencing Washington into adopting measures it otherwise would not have — steps that nudged the United States closer to a confrontation with Iran. These measures included the economic isolation of Iran, a credible presidential commitment to prevent Iran’s nuclearization, and the development of a more effective and “realistic” U.S. military option. Israel employed this strategy as a form of extended coercion — that is, in an attempt to manipulate Iran’s strategic calculus via a powerful third party with considerable leverage over Tehran. Put differently, although the direct target of Israel’s campaign was its primary ally, its ultimate target was Iran, which Israel sought to prevent from further developing its nuclear program. At a minimum, Israel strived to keep Iran’s nuclear capabilities sufficiently vulnerable to its own military option, meaning that Israel would not have to rely on the United States for the removal of a potentially existential threat and that it would retain its autonomy despite its alliance with the United States. It may also be the case that Israel sought to influence the United States into tacit compliance with an Israeli attack or even to persuade it to unleash its own military option against Iran. It is also possible that Israel never genuinely intended to execute a unilateral attack against Iran. Israel pursued its goal in an effort that, at times, met the definition of coercion. Having instilled a sense of urgency in its major ally, Israel implicitly threatened the United States with a fait accompli, doing little to allay obvious U.S. fears of entrapment. And still, at the most overarching level, the fact that Israel’s perceived threat never materialized implies that the senior ally in this relationship got its way and that superior U.S. bargaining power overwhelmed Israeli decision-making. The United States proved capable of avoiding entrapment, of resisting its ally’s demand for an explicit commitment to attack Iran, and of restraining its ally. This outcome is perhaps not surprising given that the United States was, by far, the more powerful actor in the relationship. This structural reality becomes all the more pronounced given that, whereas Israel had reached the pinnacle of its bargaining power and exerted extraordinary pressure on its senior ally, Obama appeared to be in a particularly vulnerable situation. Especially because it was an election year, Obama sought to avoid a brutal clash with a close ally wielding considerable political influence. The balance of interests seemed to favor Israel, whose prime minister had consistently depicted Iran as an existential threat. Furthermore, the United States did not come close to exploiting the full range of dissuasion tactics at its disposal. Although Israel implicitly threatened its senior ally with entrapment, Washington neither reciprocated with a threat of abandonment nor threatened Israel with a “reassessment” of relations — steps that the administration may have dismissed as politically prohibitive. Ultimately, the United States prevailed in this atypically intense episode. The broader implications for coercive bargaining in an asymmetric relationship are that, even at the height of its bargaining power, a weaker ally will find it extremely difficult to entrap a superior ally or otherwise cause it to move in a direction it deems incompatible with its national security interests. This basic reality does not preclude the weaker ally from wielding surprising leverage or from exploiting its ally’s fear of entrapment for coercive purposes — something Israel appears to have done in this case. Indeed, to reassure Israel and forestall an attack, the Obama administration took measures it otherwise probably would not have, namely meeting Israel’s demand for unprecedented economic sanctions on Iran and tougher rhetoric from the U.S. president. In the final analysis, however, the United States proved capable of restraining its particularly influential ally. This conclusion squares with the findings of scholars such as Jeremy Pressman, Michael Beckley, and Tongfi Kim, cited in the outset of this article. One can, perhaps, draw even wider conclusions about patterns of power and influence in international politics. Scholars have suggested the current era is characterized by accelerated “power diffusion,” which ultimately favors the weak.[206] The outcome of this case study suggests that, even when the weak punch above their weight, the basic balance of power persists. In other words, the weak may be getting stronger, but the strong still get their way. [quote id="6"] This case study also lends itself to a more nuanced appreciation of the second-order effects that occur when an actor introduces a credible threat to use military force. For instance, while genuinely worried by Israel’s perceived threat, the United States, according to several Obama administration officials, harnessed Israel’s threat to persuade major actors like China to join the sanctions effort as an alternative to what appeared to be a credible scenario — a unilateral Israeli strike. This speaks to the way weak actors might be capable of amplifying their influence by impacting third parties — in this case the United States — and motivating them to use their leverage with other actors. By establishing the perception of a credible threat, Israel, in a sense, provided the United States not only with motivation but also with leverage it previously lacked, which the United States then used vis-à-vis other countries, like China. Attempting to achieve desirable outcomes in foreign affairs can, of course, have unintended consequences. While Israel’s pressure campaign produced several achievements — namely the economic isolation of Iran — it also helped to create the conditions for direct talks between its strategic ally and its archenemy. If Israel had hoped to influence Washington toward a more belligerent posture regarding Tehran, the opposite occurred, as the diplomatic channel culminated in a nuclear deal that Netanyahu denounced as a “historic mistake.”[207] Former Mossad director Meir Dagan claimed to be speaking from personal knowledge when he asserted that by “signaling to the entire world” that Israel was preparing to attack Iran, Netanyahu motivated the United States to “search for an alternative in the form of an agreement.”[208] Echoing Dagan’s assertion is this point from Burns, who, along with Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s top policy adviser (and later national security adviser for Vice President Joe Biden), initiated the secret talks between the United States and Iran in the wake of Israel’s pressure campaign:
The increased decibel level of the potential Israeli preparations for a strike accelerated the interest of the administration in pushing this diplomatic track simply because it certainly seemed as if we were getting closer and closer to the point of a real military conflict and that added a sense of urgency to this.[209]
And as Panetta noted,
There is no question that there’s nothing like a military attack to get your attention. So, I'm sure that it heightened activity both in terms of what we were trying to do militarily as well as what the administration was looking at diplomatically. … There was this effort to push on these other buttons to see if there might be a diplomatic solution to that threat.[210]
This article sheds important light on a key topic for the theory and practice of international relations, namely the question of credibility. In their statements, Barak and Netanyahu stopped short of explicit threats to attack Iran. When he was asked, at the height of Israel’s campaign, whether Jerusalem intended to attack Iran, Barak responded, “I think it should remain behind closed doors as part of a vague understanding that there is a big stick in the background.”[211] And, as he tellingly pointed out toward the end of the campaign, “The prime minister and myself have never come out and announced what it is we are interested in.”[212] Nonetheless, their various statements — and Israel’s calibrated signals and military moves — created a context that appeared less like a “vague understanding” and more like an alarmingly credible military threat. This was made possible by two elements, the first of which corresponds with Thomas Schelling’s assertion that, to appear credible, actors must “make it true.” Barak himself would retrospectively attribute the belief that Israel was serious to “the fact that it was all real, which doesn’t necessarily mean that we would have done it.”[213] The second, and less explored, element pertains to secrecy. If Israel’s campaign contained an element of deception, the strict secrecy and message discipline made it impossible to prove. Nowhere was this more evident than in the words of Pardo, the Mossad director, who noted that if Israel’s pressure campaign was a bluff, at most two people knew it. Asked about the painstaking efforts exerted by the United States to unveil Israel’s genuine intentions, Barak confided, “It is not as if there was some secret chamber that if only you could penetrate you would discover everything was a bluff. And if nobody can tell you it is a bluff, you have to assume it is real.”[214] While the potential costs and implications of a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran seemed too immense to be credible, Israel’s preparations for such a strike seemed too real and costly to be dismissed as mere deception. The combination of Israel’s genuine military moves and strict message discipline made the incredible look credible, and the unbelievable, believable. As things stand, and in sharp contrast to the period discussed in this article, Israel and the administration of President Donald Trump appear to be tightly coordinated with respect to the Iranian nuclear issue. It is inescapable, however, that the challenge Iran poses to Israel is considerably graver than any threat it may pose to the militarily powerful and geographically distant United States. With the United States no longer part of the Iran nuclear deal, and in the absence of a new agreement, this challenge may present itself sooner than expected. Further down the line, this divergence of interests between Israel and the United States might yet again produce a political clash similar to the one explored in this article. Acknowledgements: For helpful comments and advice, the author wishes to thank Graham Allison, Oren Barak, Shai Feldman, Charles Freilich, Kelly Greenhill, Robert Jervis, Arie Kacowicz, Morgan Kaplan, Sean Lynn-Jones, Martin Malin, Steven Miller, Karen Motley, Michael Poznansky, Galia Press-Barnathan, Henry Rome, Amit Sheniak, Susan Rosenberg, Stephen Walt, Alec Worsnop, three anonymous reviewers, and participants in the 2016–2017 International Security Program seminar at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. The author gratefully acknowledges support from the Israel Institute during his appointment as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School. Daniel Sobelman is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. Image: Department of Defense [post_title] => Restraining an Ally: Israel, the United States, and Iran’s Nuclear Program, 2011–2012 [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => restraining-an-ally-israel-the-united-states-and-irans-nuclear-program-2011-2012 [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-01-17 13:07:04 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-01-17 18:07:04 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => In asymmetric alliances, a superior state provides security to a weaker ally, who in exchange surrenders its autonomy to its stronger protector. But what happens when the weaker state’s vital interests clash with its stronger ally’s preferences? In 2011 and 2012, as Iran continued to develop and harden its nuclear program, Israel feared becoming dependent upon the United States to defend it against this potentially existential threat. To escape this scenario, and to enhance its leverage over the United States, Israel led its principal strategic ally to infer that a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran could be imminent. Israel then attempted to force the United States to realign more closely with Israel’s strategic interests and constraints. Determined not to get “chain-ganged” into a conflict, the United States increased its pressure on Iran, but also brought restraining influence to bear on Israel, thus producing one of the tensest chapters in U.S.-Israel relations. The following article explains the outcome of this strategic interaction. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 1, Iss 4 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The two allies thus disagreed on the urgency of the situation and on the proper means and level of economic pressure required to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => While the United States feared entrapment, Israel feared abandonment. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Even when Israel was working on a military option, it did not engage in a concerted, strategic pressure campaign against the United States until 2011. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => A core element of Israel’s pressure campaign pertained to the way Netanyahu and Barak deliberately kept their various alarmed arm’s length. ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => If entrapment was ever a genuine possibility, the United States clearly evaded being chain-ganged into a military confrontation. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Israel pursued its goal in an effort that, at times, met the definition of coercion. ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => While all allies fear becoming embroiled in someone else’s wars, asymmetric alliances worsen actors’ fear of entrapment. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Obama administration officials viewed Israel’s campaign as intended to motivate, if not push, the United States itself to launch an attack. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => 839 ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 193 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama vowed to “use all elements of American power to pressure Iran” and to “prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” including through keeping “the threat of military action on the table.” See “Transcript: Obama's Speech at AIPAC,” NPR, June 4, 2008, As president, however, Obama struck a more cautious tone, stating generally, and without explicitly invoking the threat of military action, that no option was off the table. For instance, in late 2011, he said, “I have said repeatedly and I will say it today, we are not taking any options off the table.” See “President Obama Holds a Press Conference at the APEC Summit,” White House, Nov. 13, 2011, According to former Obama adviser Dennis Ross, only in 2012 did the president state publicly that he was determined to prevent the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Until then, the United States had made do with describing Iran’s potential nuclearization as “unacceptable.” See Dennis Ross, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 369. [2] Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), 12. [3] Brett Ashley Leeds, “Do Alliances Deter Aggression? The Influence of Military Alliances on the Initiation of Militarized Interstate Disputes,” American Journal of Political Science 47, no. 3 (July 2003),; Brett B. Benson, “Unpacking Alliances: Deterrent and Compellent Alliances and Their Relationship with Conflict, 1816–2000,” Journal of Politics 73, no. 4 (October 2011), [4] Glenn H. Snyder, “The Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics,” World Politics 36, no. 4 (July 1984): 461, [5] Paul W. Schroeder, “Alliances, 1815–1945: Weapons of the Power and Tools of Management,” in Historical Dimensions of National Security Problems, ed. Klaus Knorr (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976); Jeremy Pressman, Warring Friends: Alliance Restraint in International Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008); Victor D. Cha, “Powerplay: Origins of the U.S. Alliance System in Asia,” International Security 34, no. 3 (Winter 2010), [6] James D. Morrow, “Alliances: Why Write Them Down?” Annual Review of Political Science 3 (2000): 63,; Schroeder, “Alliances, 1815–1945,” 230. [7] Patricia A. Weitsman, Waging War: Alliances, Coalitions, and Institutions of Interstate Violence (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), chap. 2. [8] “Lord Palmerston 1784–1865 British statesman; Prime Minister, 1855–8, 1859–65,” in Oxford Essential Quotations, ed. Susan Ratcliffe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). [9] Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), 166–67. Stephen Walt notes that allies share only “some level of commitment.” Walt, Origins of Alliances, 1. [10] According to Thomas Schelling, “to take advantage of the usually superior credibility of the truth over a false assertion,” actors need to “make it true,” make an irrevocable, binding and “unambiguously visible” commitment. Put differently, for threats to be credible the threatener must remove all easy and cheap options from the table and visibly destroy his own escape routes. Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1981) chap. 2; and Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 99–105. Branislav L. Slantchev, Military Threats: The Costs of Coercion and the Price of Peace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), chap. 3. [11] James D. Morrow, “Alliances and Asymmetry: An Alternative to the Capability Aggregation Model of Alliances,” American Journal of Political Science 35, no. 4 (November 1991): 904, [12] Morrow, “Alliances and Asymmetry,” 930. [13] Thomas J. Christensen and Jack Snyder, “Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks: Predicting Alliance Patterns in Multipolarity,” International Organization 44, no. 2 (Spring 1990), [14] Snyder, “Security Dilemma in Alliance Politics.” [15] Morrow, “Alliances and Asymmetry.” [16] Galia Press-Barnathan, “Managing the Hegemon: NATO Under Unipolarity,” Security Studies 15, no. 2 (2006): 283–84, Tongfi Kim argues that victims of entrapment are more likely to be weaker allies with little power, as “stronger states have stronger bargaining power,” in “Why Alliances Entangle but Seldom Entrap States,” Security Studies 20, no. 3 (2011): 357, [17] Pressman, Warring Friends, 121. [18] Morrow, Alliances: Why Write Them Down, 79; Gene Gerzhoy, “Alliance Coercion and Nuclear Restraint: How the United States Thwarted West Germany’s Nuclear Ambitions,” International Security 39, no. 4 (Spring 2015), [19] Michael Beckley, “The Myth of Entangling Alliances: Reassessing the Security Risks of U.S. Defense Pacts,” International Security 39, no. 4 (Spring 2015): 11, [20] Kim, “Why Alliances Entangle,” 357. [21] Pressman, Warring Friends, 121–22. Perhaps most strikingly, on the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson minced no words when warning Israel not to initiate war with Egypt, stressing that “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone.” See “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Vol. XIX, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1967,” U.S. State Department, Office of the Historian, [22] “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XXVI, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1974–1976,” U.S. State Department, Office of the Historian, 588, [23] Robert O. Keohane, “The Big Influence of Small Allies,” Foreign Policy, no. 2 (Spring 1971): 162, 164–72, [24] Keohane, “Big Influence,” 162. [25] Keohane, “Big Influence,” 165–66. On this, see John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), chaps. 5 and 6. [26] Christensen and Snyder, “Chain Gangs and Passed Bucks”: 137–68; Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), 166–67. [27] Mearsheimer and Walt, The Israel Lobby, 152. [28] Asked if he would have taken military action against Iran, Obama said, “I actually would have. If I saw them break out. Now, the argument that can’t be resolved, because it’s entirely situational, was what constitutes them getting [the bomb]. This was the argument I was having with Bibi Netanyahu.” See Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” Atlantic, April 2016, [29] Gary Samore, Sanctions Against Iran: A Guide to Targets, Terms, and Timetables (Cambridge, Mass.: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2015), 3–11. [30] Douglas Hamilton, “Israel Urges ‘Crippling’ Sanctions Now Against Iran,” Reuters, Feb. 9, 2010, [31]Obama had indicated this explicitly throughout his campaign. See “Interview With Barack Obama,” New York Times, Nov. 1, 2007, [32] Juan C. Zarate, Treasury’s War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare (New York: Public Affairs, 2013), 324.  It was not until July 2012, however, that a direct diplomatic back-channel would be established between Iran and the United States, in Oman. See Mark Landler, Alter Egos: Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and the Twilight Struggle Over American Power (New York: Random House, 2016), 252; and Jay Solomon, The Iran Wars: Spy Games, Bank Battles, and the Secret Deals that Reshaped the Middle East (New York: Random House, 2016), 242–44. [33] Christiane Amanpour, “Obama Sent Letter to Iran Leader Before Election, Sources Say,” CNN, June 24, 2009, [34] Landler, Alter Egos, chap. 10. [35] In April 2012, the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot cited a senior Israeli source as saying that Israel had found out that semi-official U.S. figures had been in contact with the Iranian government in a bid to reach a compromise on the nuclear issue. The official said, “The Iranians are convinced that given the secret channel and the United States’ request that Israel does not attack Iran, Israel will not dare do it, at least for the time being. The Iranians believe they’ve achieved at least a postponement of the attack, if not more than that.” Ronen Bergman, “An All-Clear Siren for Tehran,” Yediot Aharonot, April 8, 2012. [36] Author telephone interview with Ehud Barak, April 26, 2016. [37] Landler, Alter Egos, 253–54. [38] Karen DeYoung and Michael D. Shea, “U.S., Allies Say Iran Has Secret Nuclear Facility,” Washington Post, Sept. 26, 2009, [39] Zarate, Treasury’s War, 328. [40] United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, adopted June 6, 2010, [41] Samore, Sanctions Against Iran, 6. [42] Zarate, Treasury’s War, 336–37. [43] Zarate, Treasury’s War. [44] Washington had regarded sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank and oil sector as the “final bullet” in the U.S. arsenal. See Zarate, Treasury’s War, 307–9, 314–16. In the Treasury Department, such sanctions were referred to as the “nuclear option” and were thus held in reserve. See Solomon, The Iran Wars, 194–95. [45] “Fareed Zakaria GPS,” CNN, Nov. 20, 2011. Declaring that 2012 was “a very important year,” Barak argued, “After 2012 it will become difficult to achieve a meaningful delay in the Iranian nuclear project by any means.” Channel 2 TV, Feb. 23, 2012. [46] Leon Panetta, Worthy Fights: A Memoir of Leadership in War and Peace (New York: Penguin, 2015), 404. [47] “Netanyahu’s Speech at AIPAC (Full Text),” Times of Israel, March 6, 2012, [48] Channel 2, March 12, 2012. Two months later, Barak noted with respect to the Israel-U.S. debate about Iran’s nuclear program, “There are obviously differences between us — in the approach, in the speed at which our clocks are ticking. It is no secret that our clock is ticking faster.” See Institute for National Security Studies Annual Conference, Tel Aviv, May 30, 2012, [49] Dan Williams, “Israel Wants to Attack Iran Before U.S. Vote: Israeli Report,” Reuters, Aug. 10, 2012, [50] Author telephone interview with William Burns, June 15, 2017. [51] Elisabeth Bumiller, “Iran Raid Seen as a Huge Task for Israeli Jets,” New York Times, Feb. 19, 2012, [52] Scott Wilson, “In Meeting, Obama to Warn Netanyahu Against Military Strikes on Iran,” Washington Post, March 2, 2012, [53] “Zero Days,” directed by Alex Gibney (New York: Magnolia Pictures, 2016). [54] Bumiller, “Iran Raid.” [55] “Secretary Panetta All Hands Call USS Peleliu,” Department of Defense, March 30, 2012, [56] Ehud Barak, My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2018), 435–36. In a separate interview, Barak noted, “In 2012 Netanyahu was playing around with all sorts of ideas. I was opposed to them. I reemphasized my position: we will not endanger the life of even one American soldier.” See Nahum Barnea, “Why We Did Not Attack Iran,” Yediot Aharonot, April 27, 2017. [57] Author telephone interview with Leon Panetta, Aug. 12, 2016. [58] Author interview with Daniel B. Shapiro, Tel Aviv, Jan. 10, 2018. [59] Leon Panetta, Worthy Fights, 404. [60] Ehud Barak, My Country, My Life, 433–34. [61] Ari Shavit, “The Decision-Maker Is Warning: U.S. Cannot Be Trusted to Attack Iran on Time,” Haaretz, Aug. 10, 2012, [62] Author interview with Ehud Barak, New York, May 31, 2016. [63] “Hakol Diburim,” Voice of Israel, Nov. 1, 2011, [64] Shlomo Tsezna, “Israel: The World Must Stop Tehran,” Yisrael Hayom, Nov. 10, 2011, [65] Ron Ben-Yishai, “The IDF Is Already Prepared for Attack on Iran,” Ynet, Nov. 3, 2011,,7340,L-4143344,00.html. [66] “Ha-Nivharim with David Ben-Bassat,” Hot TV, Aug. 31, 2012, [67]Barak Ravid, “The Prime Minister to Ask Obama to Threaten to Attack Iran,” Haaretz, Feb. 29, 2012, [68] Jodi Rudoren, “U.S. Envoy to Israel Says Nation Is Ready on Iran,” New York Times, May 17, 2012, [69] As Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert stressed in a 2006 interview that Israel should not stand “on the forefront of this war.” Iran, he added, was a “major threat” to “Europe and America just as much as it is for the state of Israel.” See Romesh Ratnesar, "Israel Should Not Be on the Forefront of a War Against Iran," Time, April 9, 2006. [70] Jonathan Steele, “Israel Asked US for Green Light to Bomb Nuclear Sites in Iran,” Guardian, Sept. 25, 2008, [71] Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), 190–91. [72] Gates, Duty. [73] Gates, Duty, 192; “Israeli Air Exercise Probably Message to Iran, U.S. Official Says,” CNN, June 20, 2008, [74] Michael R. Gordon and Eric Schmitt, “U.S. Says Israeli Exercise Seemed Directed at Iran,” New York Times, June 20, 2008, [75] Gates, Duty, 192. [76] Gordon and Schmitt, “U.S. Says Israeli Exercise Seemed Directed at Iran.” [77] Commenting on the report, an Israeli official urged Tehran to “read the writing on the wall … this was a dress rehearsal. … If diplomacy does not yield results, Israel will take military steps to halt Tehran's production of bomb-grade uranium.” Sheera Frenkel, “Israeli Jets in Long-Range ‘Test Mission’ for Airstrike on Iran,” Times (London), June 21, 2008. [78] Israeli Infrastructure Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a former defense minister, stated, "We are not planning any attack against Iran." See “Top US Military Officer Heads to Israel With Iran on the Agenda,” Agence France-Presse, June 25, 2008. When Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, previously the minister of defense and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, warned that if Iran continued its plans to produce a nuclear weapon, “we will attack it,” he was promptly reprimanded by Barak, who characterized his statements as “harmful.” Mofaz, Barak said, “knows there is a decision that when it comes to the Iranian issue Israel does not stand at the forefront.” Barak Ravid, Yossi Verter, and Mazal Mualem, “Defense Minister Barak: Mofaz Statements on Attack on Iran Irresponsible,” Haaretz, June 8, 2008. [79] “L’Express: IAF Held Iran Strike Drill Above Strait of Gibraltar,” Jerusalem Post, May 3, 2009; “IDF Staged Drills Over Gibraltar, in Preparation for Iran Strike,” Haaretz, May 3, 2009. [80] Sheera Frenkel, “Israel Stands Ready to Bomb Iran’s Nuclear Sites,” Times (London), April 18, 2009. [81] Ofer Aderet, “Lieberman: Israel Will Not Attack Iran — Even if Sanctions Fail,” Haaretz, April 26, 2009. [82] David E. Sanger, “Obama Order Sped Up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran,” New York Times, June 1, 2012,; and David E. Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2012), 188–225. [83] Peter Hirschberg, “Netanyahu: It’s 1938 and Iran Is Germany; Ahmadinejad Is Preparing Another Holocaust,” Haaretz, Nov. 14, 2006; and Shmuel Rosner, “Playing the Holocaust Card,” New York Times, April 25, 2012, [84] For instance, in late July 2009, standing alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Barak once again reaffirmed that “at this stage, the priority should be given, still, to diplomacy and probably sanctions.” See “Defense Minister Barak meets with US Secretary of Defense Gates,” Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, July 27, 2009. Asked about a potential Israeli attack on Iran, Gates replied that, in his meetings in Israel, “I had every sense that the Israeli government is prepared to let our strategy play out in terms of trying to use a combination of diplomatic pressures, economic sanctions and other peaceful means to try to get the Iranian government to change its mind in terms of its nuclear ambitions.” See Jim Garamone, “Gates Praises U.S., Jordan Strategic Partnership,” Department of Defense, July 27, 2009,; “Press Conference with Secretary Gates and Israeli Defense Minister Barak,” Ministry of Defense, April 27, 2010. In the joint press conference between Gates and Barak in March 2011, the topic of Iran was overshadowed by the events of the Arab Spring. See “Joint Press Conference with Secretary Gates and Minister Barak from Tel Aviv, Israel,” Department of Defense, March 24, 2011, [85] “Interview of the President by Yonit Levi, Israeli TV,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, July 8, 2010, [86] Author interview with Daniel B. Shapiro, Tel Aviv, Jan. 10, 2018. [87]Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Point of No Return,” Atlantic (September 2010),; Emily Alpert, “Will Israel Attack Iran? It's Been Asked Before,” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 3, 2012, [88] As Panetta noted, “Everybody understood that when you look at the history here, Israel was a nation that if it thought that its existence was threatened in any way it would take action with or without the United States.” The former defense secretary cited Israel’s attacks on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007 and the Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981 as indicative of Israeli determination to remove potential existential threats. Author telephone interview with Leon Panetta, Aug. 12, 2016. [89] “Meet the Press,” Channel 2, Dec. 3, 2011. [90] Solomon, The Iran Wars, 197–98. [91] Amos Harel and Reuters, “U.S. Defense Secretary to Arrive in Israel to Discuss Iran Nuclear Program,” Haaretz, Oct. 3, 2011. [92] “Israel 'Increasingly Isolated' in Middle East: US,” Agence France-Presse, Oct. 3, 2011, [93] Yaakov Katz, “International Community Needs to Cooperate on Iran,” Jerusalem Post, Oct. 4, 2011. [94] Ron Ben-Yishai, “IDF Is Already Prepared to Attack in Iran,” Ynet, Nov. 3, 2011; Barak Ravid, “Netanyahu and Barak Refused to Commit to Not Attacking Iran Without Coordinating with the United States,” Haaretz, Nov. 6, 2011; and author interview with Ehud Barak, New York, May 31, 2016. [95] Barbara Starr, “U.S. Concerned Israel Could Strike Iran,” CNN Security Clearance Blog, Nov. 4, 2011, [96] Adam Entous, Julian E. Barnes, and Jay Solomon, “U.S. Warns Israel on Strike,” Wall Street Journal, Jan. 14, 2012, [97] Adam Entous, “Spy vs. Spy: Inside the Fraying U.S.-Israel Ties,” Wall Street Journal, Oct. 22, 2015, [98] Adam Entous and Danny Yadron, “U.S. Spy Net on Israel Snares Congress,” Wall Street Journal, Dec. 29, 2015,; Cora Currier and Henrik Moltke, “Spies in the Skies,” Intercept, Jan. 28, 2016. [99] Interview with Daniel B. Shapiro, Tel Aviv, Jan. 11, 2018. In an indication of the credibility he attributed to this scenario, Shapiro noted that he disseminated the cable to an especially broad audience so as to “protect myself” in case Israel indeed attacked Iran. [100] “Remarks by Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta at the Saban Center,” Department of Defense, Dec. 2, 2011, [101] Panetta, Worthy Fights, 404. [102] Thom Shanker, Helene Cooper, and Ethan Bronner, “U.S. Sees Iran Attacks as Likely if Israel Strikes,” New York Times, Feb. 29, 2012,; and Mark Mazzetti and Thom Shanker, “U.S. War Game Sees Perils of Israeli Strike Against Iran,” New York Times, March 19, 2012, [103]David E. Sanger, “Confronting Iran in a Year of Elections,” New York Times, Jan. 21, 2012, [104]David Ignatius, “Is Israel Preparing to Attack Iran?” Washington Post, Feb. 2, 2012, Another U.S. official said later that month, “We believe that Israel has not yet decided whether to attack or not, but it is clear to us that the matter is being weighed seriously.” See Barak Ravid and Natasha Mozgovaya, “National Security Adviser Visiting Israel,” Haaretz, Feb. 18, 2012. [105] Dan Perry and Josef Federman “Just a Bluff? Fears Grow of Israeli Attack on Iran,” Associated Press, Feb. 5, 2012, [106] Panetta said, “My conclusion, and I think the conclusion of the National Security Council and the president, was that Israel was giving serious consideration to this possibility.” Author telephone interview with Leon Panetta, Aug. 12, 2016. [107] Burns added, “There was a genuine concern that the Israeli government might launch such a strike.” Author telephone interview with William Burns, June 15, 2017. [108] Author interviews with Gary Samore, Obama’s coordinator for weapons of mass destruction, counterterrorism, and arms control, Cambridge, Mass., March 21, 2016 and March 9, 2017. According to Samore, with the exception of Vice President Joseph Biden, “who thought it was all a big bluff,” the most senior members of the administration, including Obama and Panetta, felt “pressured” by Israel’s signals. [109] Interview with Daniel B. Shapiro, Tel Aviv, Jan. 11, 2018. According to Shapiro, “We did take it seriously; Obama took it seriously.” [110] Yossi Verter, “Iran, Who Knows,” Haaretz, Nov. 4, 2011. [111] “Uvda with Ilana Dayan,” Channel 2, June 2, 2018. [112] Entous, “Spy vs. Spy.” [113] Mark Perry, “Israel’s Secret Staging Ground,” Foreign Policy, March 28, 2012, [114] Ilan Kfir and Danny Dor, Barak: Milkhamot Hayay [Barak: Battles of My Life] (Tel Aviv: Kinneret Zmora-Bitan, 2015), 330. [115] Ron Ben-Yishai, “Israel Has Understood: Only the U.S. Will Stop Iran,” Ynet, Aug. 3, 2012. [116] “Uvda with Ilana Dayan,” Channel 2, June 2, 2018. According to the program, the Mossad and the IDF were ordered in 2011 to begin preparations for a possible military strike on Iran within 15 days. Referring to this step, Pardo said when a leader orders such a move, “It can serve one of two purposes. The first is that he really means it. The other possibility is that he is signaling so that somebody out there will know about it — maybe even that someone in the United States will find out about it in one way or another — and that someone will be motivated to do something.” [117] Author telephone interview with Leon Panetta, Aug. 12, 2016. [118] Author interview with Ehud Barak, New York, May 31, 2016. [119] Author telephone interview with Ehud Barak, April 26, 2016. [120] Nahum Barnea, “Why We Did Not Attack Iran,” Yediot Aharonot, April 27, 2017. Shedding more light on this point, Shapiro noted that the United States knew that Israel’s security chiefs opposed a military attack: “Without being disloyal to their political leadership they found ways of conveying to us that they were not advocating for it and to some degree were resisting it. This was knowable.” Interview with Daniel B. Shapiro, Tel Aviv, Jan. 11, 2018. [121] Author interview with Ehud Barak, New York, May 31, 2016. [122] Author telephone interview with Yaakov Amidror, June 9, 2016. [123] Rachel Nolan, “Behind the Cover Story: Ronen Bergman on Whether Israel Will Attack Iran,” New York Times, Jan. 30, 2012, See also Ethan Bronner, “2 Israeli Leaders Make the Iran Issue Their Own,” New York Times, March 27, 2012, [124] Bronner, “2 Israeli Leaders.” [125] Author interview with Tamir Pardo, Cambridge, Mass., May 2, 2016. That the Mossad chief himself was kept at arm’s length can be inferred from his assertion that whether or not a unilateral attack was genuinely in the cards was an “irrelevant” question for him as Mossad director: “For an operational organization, it makes absolutely no difference if it is a deception or not. I have to play along to the fullest extent, because I do not know.” [126] “Uvda with Ilana Dayan,” Channel 2, June 2, 2018. [127] Author telephone interview with Dan Meridor, June 7, 2016. [128] Author interview with Gen. (Ret.) Amos Gilead, Herzliya, July 29, 2018. [129] Starr, “U.S. Concerned.” [130] For instance, asked in July 2010 whether he was concerned Israel might decide to unilaterally attack Iran, Obama replied that relations were “sufficiently strong” that neither would “try to surprise each other.” He went on to say, “We try to coordinate on issues of mutual concern. And that approach is one that I think Prime Minister Netanyahu is committed to.” See “Interview of the President by Yonit Levi, Israeli TV.” [131] Phil Stewart, “U.S. Uncertain Israel Would Advise Before Iran Strike,” Reuters, Nov. 30, 2011, [132] Kfir and Dor, Barak: Milkhamot Hayay [Barak: Battles of My Life], 319­–20. [133] Panetta, Worthy Fights, 406. [134] Author interview with Ehud Barak, New York, May 31, 2016. [135] Attila Somfalvi and Yoav Zitun, “Israel-U.S. Aerial Defense Exercise Postponed,” Ynet, Jan. 15, 2012; Shlomo Tsezna and Lilach Shoval, “The Exercise Was Postponed So As ‘Not to Warm Up the Region,’” Yisrael Hayom, Jan. 16, 2012. [136] “Ma Bo’er With Razi Barkai,” IDF Radio, Jan. 18, 2012. [137]Isabel Kershner, “U.S. General Urges Closer Ties With Israel,” New York Times, Jan. 20, 2012, [138] Ignatius, “Is Israel Preparing to Attack Iran?” [139] Alex Fishman, “It’s All Because of Iran,” Yediot Aharonot, Oct. 12, 2011. [140] Senior Israeli military affairs analyst Ben-Yishai would later note that the Israeli government itself had initiated this debate. See Ben-Yishai, “The IDF Is Already Prepared for Attack on Iran.” Moreover, a Haaretz military affairs analyst later alluded to Barak as the source behind these messages. See Amos Harel, “Barak Reveals in the United States Considerations for Possible Israeli Strike on Iran,” Haaretz, Jan. 27, 2012. [141] Amos Regev, “Difficult, Courageous, Doable,” Yisrael Hayom, March 15, 2012. [142] Aluf Benn, “Netanyahu Issues Order 8 to Himself and the Public,” Haaretz, March 15, 2012. [143]Ronen Bergman, “Will Israel Attack Iran?” New York Times, Jan. 25, 2012, [144] “Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States,” Hearing Before the Select Committee on Intelligence, 112th Congress, Second Session, Jan. 31, 2012. [145] Author telephone interview with James Clapper, May 12, 2017. Clapper recalls interpreting Israel’s signals as “a combination of genuine concern and an attempt to pressure the United States. ... I thought this had more to do with information warfare, if you will, information influence.” [146] Evening Newscast, Channel 10, Nov. 1, 2011. [147] Barak Ravid, “Netanyahu Consolidating Majority in the Cabinet for Military Attack on Iran’s Nuclear Facilities,” Haaretz, Nov. 2, 2011; Evening Newscast, Channel 10, Nov. 1, 2011; “In Israel, Speculation Over Strike on Iran Grows,” Agence France-Presse, Nov. 2, 2011. [148] “Prime Minister’s Speech at the David Ben-Gurion Memorial Ceremony,” [YouTube], Dec. 4, 2011. [149] Shlomo Tsezna, “Netanyahu Drops Heavy Hints in Speech,” Yisrael Hayom, Dec. 5, 2011. [150] For example, see Eli Clifton and Ali Gharib, “How the Anti-Iran Lobby Machine Dominates Capitol Hill,” Nation, July 15, 2014. [151] Mati Tuchfeld and Boaz Bismuth, “Congressional Initiative: United States Will Support Israel