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Unlocking the Gates of Eurasia: China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Its Implications for U.S. Grand Strategy

Unlocking the Gates of Eurasia: China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Its Implications for U.S. Grand Strategy

What is the Belt and Road Initiative and what implications could it have for America’s grand strategy? As many observers have pointed out, China’s Belt and Road suffers from a number of problems and ambiguities. However, it is a much more coherent, potent,…

Raison d’Etat: Richelieu’s Grand Strategy During the Thirty Years’ War

Raison d’Etat: Richelieu’s Grand Strategy During the Thirty Years’ War

Renowned for his fierce intellect, mastery of the dark arts of propaganda, and unshakeable belief in the centralizing virtues of the French monarchy, Cardinal Richelieu’s actions as chief minister under Louis XIII from 1624 to 1642 have been heatedly debated…

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…

How to Think About Nuclear Crises

How to Think About Nuclear Crises

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…

Rethinking the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons and American Grand Strategy

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

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

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…

The Purposes of Arms Control

The Purposes of Arms Control

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…

What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield

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…

Restraining an Ally: Israel, the United States, and Iran’s Nuclear Program, 2011–2012

Restraining an Ally: Israel, the United States, and Iran’s Nuclear Program, 2011–2012

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…

Japan’s Security Policy in the “Abe Era”: Radical Transformation or Evolutionary Shift?

Japan’s Security Policy in the “Abe Era”: Radical Transformation or Evolutionary Shift?

Widely considered Japan’s most powerful prime minister in decades, Shinzo Abe has responded to a changing security environment in the Asia-Pacific — including an increasingly powerful and assertive China and growing North Korean nuclear threat — by…

Artificial Intelligence, International Competition, and the Balance of Power

Artificial Intelligence, International Competition, and the Balance of Power

World leaders, CEOs, and academics have suggested that a revolution in artificial intelligence is upon us. Are they right, and what will advances in artificial intelligence mean for international competition and the balance of power? This article evaluates how…

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

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

Following the 9/11 attacks, the Afghan Taliban were obliterated in a lightning war prosecuted by the United States. Their Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan ceased to exist as a physical entity, and the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, fled to Pakistan.…

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                    [post_content] => The Belt and Road Initiative, an unprecedented infrastructure program that extends across and beyond the Eurasian continent, has elicited increasingly hostile reactions in the West and come to symbolize U.S. leaders’ disillusionment regarding Beijing’s growing assertiveness and authoritarianism under Xi Jinping.[1] However, the initiative’s nature and its potential repercussions remain unclear. What is Belt and Road? What implications could it have for America’s grand strategy?[2] This article investigates these questions with a particular focus on security dynamics, arguing that, despite multiple problems and ambiguities, Belt and Road spearheads a coherent Chinese grand strategy that could weaken the foundations of America’s post-World War II hegemony but also advance some U.S. interests.[3]

Many observers view Beijing’s initiative as a threat. The Trump administration, whose December 2017 National Security Strategy declared China a “revisionist” power that aims “to erode American security and prosperity,” has vehemently denounced Beijing’s predatory economic practices and, along with some allies and partners, is developing alternative investment projects.[4] Likewise, most scholars are skeptical about Chinese intentions. Some perceive Belt and Road as an opportunity.[5] Others stress that its primary goal is to advance China’s domestic economic growth.[6] Yet, many believe that under the guise of spreading prosperity Beijing intends to centralize global economic activity, weaken America’s alliances, and erode the U.S.-led international order, with baleful consequences.[7]

At the same time, most experts contend that China’s prospects of success are slim. Belt and Road’s closest equivalent, the Marshall Plan for Western Europe, which the United States launched while at the height of its power, had a much narrower financial reach and timeline (1947 – 1951) and covered far fewer nations — but ones that were economically stronger.[8] While some scholars anticipate that Belt and Road will generate modest returns,[9] many criticize it as a mere slogan or an “endless list of unrelated activities” that will drain Beijing’s finances and damage recipient countries.[10]

In this article, I engage this conversation and argue that, for all its flaws, the Belt and Road Initiative is much more coherent, potent, and resilient than many believe. First, it leverages China’s unique geoeconomic assets, such as state control over national actors, a vast national market, and growth rates superior to those of most countries, to circumvent Washington’s military primacy.[11] Second, Belt and Road works in tandem with Beijing’s industrial modernization, defense buildup, omni-directional engagement, and sophisticated propaganda, thereby transcending the U.S. military-centric approach. Third, the initiative advances a hybrid cross-regional geostrategy that yields powerful sea-land synergies, in contrast with America’s more circumscribed vision. Finally, China’s initiative exploits Washington’s post-Cold War overreach — militarization, political interference, neoliberalism — and the strains in its alliance network. Left unchecked, Belt and Road could erode America’s post-World War II hegemony. However, it also offers opportunities that could be leveraged to advance some U.S. interests.

This article makes two contributions to the literature. First, and most important, its multidisciplinary and comprehensive approach helps capture Belt and Road’s mutually reinforcing foundations. Excellent studies have addressed the genesis and contours of China’s initiative in general terms, or have explored its implementation in specific domains (e.g., finance and technology), geographic areas (e.g., Pakistan and Southeast Asia), or projects, like Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port.[12] However, investigating its historical and cultural roots, multidimensional nature, synergy with other Chinese policies, and geostrategic manifestations altogether against the backdrop of America’s hegemony helps uncover why Beijing’s endeavor is more coherent, potent, and sustainable than many believe.

Second, the article stresses the role of geoeconomics in grand strategy. Leading scholars have shown how economic assets can elevate a state’s international position.[13] Recent studies have demonstrated how “deeper, faster … and more integrated” markets impact foreign policy, or have compared the U.S.-China competition to the contest between Germany and Great Britain in infrastructure, technology, trade, and finance in the late 19th century.[14] However, endorsing the realist paradigm that “effective power is [essentially] a function of … military forces,”[15] many experts “shy away” from economic analysis.[16] To them, grand strategy mostly relies on “military remedies,”[17] “concentrates … on how the military instrument should be employed,”[18] and necessitates the ability to “use … force internationally.”[19] This analysis builds on these vital contributions but it reintroduces geoeconomics into the picture.

The article proceeds in three sections. First, it outlines Belt and Road’s progress, its position within China’s grand strategy and strategic culture, and its resilience. Second, it explores how Belt and Road helps protect the foundations of Beijing’s power. Third, it investigates how the initiative allows China to project influence abroad. In each section, the article also discusses the impact of Beijing’s ambitions on the interdependent levers of influence — military, economic, diplomatic, and geostrategic — that have underpinned America’s post-World War II hegemony. It concludes with policy recommendations for U.S. leaders.

Belt and Road: More than a Slogan

Despite its many problems, the Belt and Road Initiative relies on powerful drivers that are sources of coherence, strength, and sustainability. After a brief overview of Belt and Road, this section discusses the initiative’s position within China’s grand strategy and strategic culture, and its resilience in the face of uncertainties, setbacks, and rising competition. Emerging Features The Belt and Road Initiative was launched in the fall of 2013. At its core, it seeks to use trade and foreign direct investment, most of which emanate from state-owned banks, to build connectivity across Eurasia. Its two main branches, the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt, initially radiated in six directions: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor, the China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor, the China-Central Asia-Western Asia Corridor, the China-Indochina Peninsula Economic Corridor, and the New Eurasian Land Bridge. As formalized in March 2015, Beijing intends to develop transport, energy, and telecommunication infrastructure to bolster commerce, financial integration, policy coordination, and “people-to-people bonds.”[20] [quote id="1"] One oft-cited description of the Belt and Road Initiative portrays a multidecade undertaking of $4 trillion spanning areas that represent 70 percent of the world’s population, 55 percent of the global economic output, and 75 percent of the planet’s energy reserves. Another study predicted that Belt and Road funding would ultimately exceed $8 trillion.[21] These estimates are speculative. However, the initiative has already become a concrete reality. Beijing spent $138 billion in investments — meant to acquire “ownership stake[s]” — and $208 billion in construction projects conducted for third parties in Belt and Road countries between 2014 and 2017, compared to $76 billion and $140 billion, respectively, between 2010 and 2013. Belt and Road’s share in China’s foreign direct investments rose from less than 20 percent in 2017 to 40 percent in 2018, although that increase partly resulted from expanding membership in the initiative.[22] Moreover, Belt and Road trade exceeded $1.3 trillion in 2018, a 16.3 percent jump that dwarfed China’s 12.6 percent overall trade increase.[23] The scope and content of the initiative are ambiguous and in constant flux. However, these characteristics do not necessarily handicap it. Belt and Road’s membership — currently more than 100 countries — continues to expand. Although many observers have derided the vagueness of its Memoranda of Understanding, these documents have real political value and initiate processes that can gain momentum over time. Moreover, many actors located outside Belt and Road’s boundaries are collaborating with China’s initiative, including the Saudi government, British banks, and American companies.[24] Finally, Belt and Road works in conjunction with Beijing’s industrial modernization, economic and diplomatic outreach, propaganda, and military expansion. Observers rightly point out that the initiative lacks transparency and that its projects are impacted — sometimes corrupted — by Chinese substate actors who compete against each other to serve their own agendas.[25] Indeed, the post-1978 “fragmentation, decentralization and internationalization of … state apparatuses” in China has allowed bureaucracies and state-owned companies to work around governmental directives, and has left provinces free to engage internationally without much oversight.[26] Furthermore, Chinese government elites themselves use Belt and Road to build “discourses of hopes and fears” that shift the domestic narrative away from growing economic difficulties.[27] However, Beijing’s authorities are highly committed to rationalizing the process. Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, involved his own legitimacy in Belt and Road, enshrined the latter into the national constitution, created a high-level committee that regularly intervenes to address the initiative’s dysfunctions, and presented Belt and Road to the rest of the world as a symbol of China’s rise and credibility.[28] To be sure, problems will persist, but they are likely to remain under control. Some experts emphasize that Belt and Road is merely a slogan because many of the methods and projects that it encompasses existed before its launch. Indeed, the initiative doubles down on state control of the national economy and exploitation of Beijing’s foreign commercial appeal. It resonates with the Western development strategy, designed in the late 1990s to reduce inequalities between China’s coastal and continental provinces; the “Going Out” investment plan for strategic assets, begun in the 2000s; growth-seeking infrastructure campaigns launched in 1997 and 2008; and rhetorical catchphrases, such as “peaceful rise,” promoted in the mid-2000s.[29] The same can be said of specific projects. For instance, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor builds upon a long friendship rooted in a common interest in encircling India. Yet, these continuities suggest a real degree of coherence. Additionally, Belt and Road is taking past endeavors to new heights. Moreover, the initiative publicizes China’s emerging global ambitions at a time of widespread perception of America’s relative decline. Belt and Road’s Position Within China’s Grand Strategy and Strategic Culture The coherence of the Belt and Road Initiative also stems from its symbiotic integration within the arc of Communist China’s grand strategy. That strategy was largely defined by the “century of humiliation” — the period between the start of the First Opium War in 1839 and the creation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 — which destroyed the “extraordinarily high … civilizational self-regard in which the Celestial Empire had for so long insisted on holding itself.”[30] The trauma generated a “post-imperial ideology” of victimization,[31] and convinced many Chinese that their country’s “destiny” was to recover “global status and power.”[32] This perspective reflects important facets of China’s strategic culture itself. Beijing’s leaders have long claimed to have a unique “pacifist, non-expansionist, and purely defensive” orientation.[33] Endorsing this assessment, many experts who delved into the writings of traditional figures such as Confucius or Sun Tzu stressed a national preference for “strategic defense,” “diplomatic intrigue,” “alliance building,” and “the restrained application of force for clearly enunciated political ends.”[34] Those virtues are often contrasted with Western civilization’s allegedly aggressive outlook. Indeed, according to some scholars, Chinese leaders developed a “siege mentality” that they now direct toward the United States, which they consider to be in opposition to Beijing’s resurgence.[35] Belt and Road aligns with this intellectual framework. China promotes it to pursue “strategic hedging” — optimizing its ability to handle potential threats coming from the international system’s hegemon without taking explicit military action.[36] More broadly, Belt and Road is being used to “shape [an] environment that is conducive to … [Beijing’s] economic, social, and political development.”[37] In doing so, the initiative departs from the Western strategic tradition, which stresses “force on force.”[38] Designed to circumvent U.S. military superiority, its geoeconomic thrust, omni-directional engagement, and hybrid maritime-continental orientation reflect centuries-old tactics, such as “forestalling hostile coalitions … seeking relative advantage rather than high-risk confrontations,”[39] and “[using] the soft and gentle to overcome the hard and strong.”[40] Moreover, Belt and Road conveys a narrative of peaceful benevolence.[41] Honoring the spirit of the ancient Silk Road, the initiative officially welcomes everyone, offers “win-win cooperation,” and promotes “friendship, shared development, peace, harmony and a better future.”[42] This lofty rhetoric obliquely refers to the tribute system that helped China dominate Asia via “civilizational attraction” from the 3rd century B.C. to the mid-19th century.[43] [quote id="2"] However, this narrative could be curtailed by other facets of Beijing’s strategic culture. To begin with, that culture is characterized by a Sino-centrism stretching back to the third millennium B.C. according to which all those who lived beyond China’s peripheries were “subordinate barbarians.”[44] Those patterns have been exacerbated by the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology and nationalism. In fact, Belt and Road’s early implementation has shown some propensity to ignore local expectations in recipient countries. Additionally, the initiative perpetuates China’s perennial “pull between closure and openness,” as illustrated by its lack of transparency or by the promotion of authoritarian standards via the Digital Silk Road.[45] Most important, Belt and Road constitutes an open “counter-hegemonic” effort.[46] Breaking with the “hide and bide” approach defined by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, Xi Jinping publicly announced a plan to achieve “global [leadership] in … comprehensive national power” by 2049.[47] This declaration marks the end of the “strategy of transition,” adopted after the 1996 Taiwan crisis, to emerge “within … a unipolar international system.”[48] Xi’s growing assertiveness could illustrate what some leading scholars have presented as the dominant face of China’s strategic culture, one that heavily relies on violence and offensive warfare.[49] After all, over the centuries, many Chinese leaders have conducted “campaigns of conquest” and built their legitimacy on territorial expansion.[50] Some aspects of Belt and Road might reflect that logic. For one thing, as illustrated by recent controversies, the initiative could facilitate economic coercion.[51] Moreover, it is working in tandem with a strong military buildup and an expanding defense doctrine, and it might help Beijing establish a foreign base network. However, even the experts who argue that China’s strategic culture is predominantly aggressive explain that such impulses are tempered by “posturing that stresses … disinterested and violence-averse benevolence,” and by “a conscious sensitivity to changing relative capabilities.”[52] Additionally, in some ways Beijing still wants to let a declining America assume the costly responsibilities of maintaining the international order.[53] Considering all of these aspects, Belt and Road is useful in that it allows the defensive and offensive facets of China’s dual strategic culture to cohabitate while keeping all options open for the future. However, other cultural characteristics deserve attention as well when examining Beijing’s initiative. Chinese leaders have often privileged long-term vision over immediate gains and tended to approach strategic issues with “the whole situation in mind” rather than one single battlefield. They also focus less on specific assets than on the way these assets “work … in concert” in a logic of encirclement or counter-encirclement.[54] Such elements might help reveal the potency of Belt and Road. Although the initiative’s ambiguous and disaggregated aspects have attracted valid criticism, over time synergies may emerge between its various dimensions, its regional manifestations, and the other instruments of Beijing’s grand strategy. Consider, for instance, how the nascent Polar Silk Road and the combination of infrastructure investments in continental Eurasia, the Suez Canal, and European port terminals might propel China’s commercial penetration of wealthy northwestern European economies.[55] Likewise, a growing naval presence, new land corridors through Pakistan and Myanmar, and a rising influence in island states like Sri Lanka and the Maldives could turn Beijing into a “resident power” in the Indian Ocean region.[56] Admittedly, none of these outcomes is predetermined. But they seem reasonably plausible and, should they materialize, could have far-reaching implications for the United States. Belt and Road’s Resilience Observers have expressed legitimate doubts about Belt and Road’s sustainability in view of Beijing’s domestic difficulties, its setbacks in recipient states, and rising alternatives. However, although those challenges could potentially cripple the Chinese initiative, it may nevertheless prove resilient if Beijing’s leaders make certain adjustments. One of Belt and Road’s key challenges stems from China’s domestic troubles. These include an economic slowdown, debt, corruption, inequality, and a rapidly aging population. Additionally, traditional measurement methods like Gross Domestic Product (GDP) have overestimated the strength of the Chinese economy.[57] Furthermore, Xi Jinping’s centralization of power could compromise the regime’s effectiveness, not to mention its system of succession. Each of these problems could single-handedly derail the country’s trajectory.[58] Belt and Road itself could exacerbate those tensions by diverting money that might better be used at home. Beijing’s economy could also suffer from the graft, rent-seeking, and domestic agendas of the initiative’s foreign recipients.[59] In fact, the steep fall of Chinese overseas investments since 2016 might jeopardize Belt and Road’s future.[60] Yet, those problems must be put into perspective. China has made phenomenal progress since the 1980s: It repeatedly disproved the experts who prophesied its demise, and its economy still has major assets including competent leadership, low government debt, vast foreign exchange reserves, manufacturing dominance, a much-underestimated ability to innovate, and solid growth — whether measured in GDP or alternative methods such as “inclusive wealth.”[61] As for Belt and Road, it is likely to prove financially sustainable. While considerable, the amount of money involved in the initiative pales in comparison to the $5.9 trillion that the United States has spent on the global war on terrorism since 2001 or will inevitably spend in the form of interest rates, veterans’ care, and other obligations.[62] Some of Belt and Road’s losses were anticipated from the start and, despite the controversies surrounding China’s failures, many of its projects could yield high returns. Moreover, Beijing’s recent foreign direct investment review may optimize decision-making.[63] Forecasts put annual Belt and Road investments and construction contracts at $50 billion and $60 billion, respectively. Such predictions seem rather reasonable given China’s low stock-to-GDP ratio — 10.9 percent versus America’s 28.9 percent — and private investments could push them further.[64]  Therefore, drawing any conclusions from Beijing’s current difficulties would be highly premature. The future of Belt and Road could also be compromised by the growing tensions observed in recipient states. China’s promises have not always materialized and corrupt projects make the headlines, stirring disappointment among local populations. Beijing’s nondiscriminative approach means lower governance standards than those of Western institutions like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund, especially when it comes to transparency and social responsibility. Additionally, Chinese actors capture most of Belt and Road’s contracts at the expense of local companies.[65] Furthermore, the massive loans extended to recipient states can create what many observers have called a “debt trap,” as illustrated by China’s takeover of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port in December 2017, and skyrocketing national debt levels in countries like the Maldives, Djibouti, or Montenegro.[66] Local discontent has torpedoed major contracts, including Pakistan’s $14 billion Diamer-Bhasha dam in November 2017 and Malaysia’s $20 billion East Coast Rail Line in May 2018. Discord could intensify as Belt and Road loans near expiration and as China gets embroiled in regional rivalries — such as the one between Saudi Arabia and Iran — and local politics. Finally, Chinese citizens have been the target of terrorist or insurgent attacks, for example in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. [quote id="3"] Yet, Belt and Road’s appeal remains strong. To begin, the initiative’s relevance is guaranteed by the fact that projected global infrastructure needs from 2013 to 2030 may amount to $57 trillion.[67] Additionally, Western-led organizations have long neglected building infrastructure and have been highly risk-averse, which led them to ignore many poor countries, a gap that Beijing is now trying to bridge.[68] Moreover, while the criticism of China deserves attention — after all, it uses its economic power to gain leverage and some of its practices are dangerous — its development financing has had positive effects. This impact, which includes economic growth, job creation, and providing alternatives to austerity in times of crisis, explains Beijing’s undeniable popularity in Africa and Latin America.[69] As for the “debt trap” accusations, they have their limits. Seeking too many bankruptcies would not make sense for China as it would cripple its finances. Authoritative institutions such as the Center for Global Development concluded that Belt and Road “is unlikely to cause a systemic debt problem.”[70] In fact, Beijing’s credit from 2000 to 2016 only counted for 2 percent of the developing countries’ $6.9 trillion accumulated debt, which largely results from the West’s colonial legacies, unfair commercial terms, austerity measures, and dollar-denominated payment requirements.[71] Additionally, China is not the only actor that indulges in assets takeover, as exemplified in August 2015 when a German firm took control — with the European Union’s and the International Monetary Fund’s approval — of 14 Greek airports valued at $1.23 billion for 40 years due to Athens’ unsustainable debt.[72] Xi Jinping’s promises during the April 2019 Belt and Road summit to ameliorate some aspects of the initiative may prove to be empty words. However, his public acknowledgement of the criticism that Beijing has received might suggest otherwise, not to mention the adjustments — albeit insufficient ones — that are already under way, such as increasing local hires, improving transparency, and consulting with local leaders.[73] Importantly, early studies on foreign perceptions of the Chinese initiative are not overly alarming.[74] Despite notable hiccups, Beijing’s financial reach, non-discriminative approach, cheap technical assets, fast delivery, and anti-imperialist rhetoric often suffice to preserve Belt and Road’s appeal. For example, Middle Eastern state leaders believe that the initiative could help them exploit their energy resources, diversify their economies, create jobs, and integrate global supply chains.[75] Additionally, China’s momentum persists even in countries where severe controversies have erupted. For instance, Pakistan and Sri Lanka’s new leaders “softened” their electoral campaign criticisms of Belt and Road. Malaysia is still pursuing the $10.5 billion Melaka Gateway, resumed the $34 billion “Bandar Malaysia” project, and revived the East Coast Rail Line after obtaining a 30 percent discount, which signals Beijing’s willingness to compromise. Similarly, after years of interruption, Myanmar gave the green light to the Kyaukpyu port project — potentially worth $6 to $7 billion — in November 2017.[76] Belt and Road could also lose momentum due to the alternative infrastructure projects that are emerging. In the last two years, Western countries have expressed growing concerns about China’s low governance standards in the context of their disillusionment over Beijing’s increasing protectionism, authoritarianism, and military assertiveness. The main alternatives to Belt and Road include Japan’s “quality infrastructure” blueprint, which would invest $200 billion over five years; the Indo-Japanese Asia-Africa Growth Corridor; the European Union’s Eurasia connectivity plan; and a revamped U.S. development finance agency with a $60 billion portfolio.[77] This competition could hurt China’s endeavor given these countries’ strong expertise, economic firepower, and determination to work together. It could also create a healthy competition that would ultimately benefit recipient states and their local populations. However, these counter-initiatives may face a number of obstacles: First, most of them are still in their infancy and are progressing more slowly than Belt and Road. Second, for all the criticism of China’s practices, the West’s political and economic interferences and austerity standards have also generated their fair share of controversy among developing countries in the past. As such, the appeal of these competing projects should not be overestimated.[78] Third, while Western countries’ foreign direct investment, which originates mostly from private actors, are much higher in the aggregate, China can more easily use its foreign direct investment for strategic purposes thanks to a much tighter, if imperfect, control over national actors.[79] Fourth, these countries may have difficulty coordinating their counter-initiatives because of differing standards, priorities, and underlying strategic objectives. Fifth, domestic economic hardships could stand in the way. While China’s share in East Asia’s GDP rose from 8 percent to 51 percent between 1990 and 2014, Japan’s plunged from 72 percent to 22 percent. Meanwhile, India struggles with poverty, socio-ethnic and religious strife, and security threats.[80] Interestingly, the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor proposed by Tokyo and New Delhi remains “abstract … and both governments may be de-emphasizing the idea.”[81] As for European economies, they are declining and Brussels’ Eurasia connectivity plan only offers “an increased fire-power of up to €60 billion” spread out between 2021 and 2027.[82] Finally, America’s response is blunted by deep fiscal deficits, a liberal outlook that rejects state interventionism, and the participation of powerful U.S. multinationals in Belt and Road.[83] Meanwhile, the frustrations prompted by Beijing’s commercial practices do not compromise the appeal of its market and products across the world. Moreover, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and suspension of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations expand China’s window of opportunity. Admittedly, Washington is pushing for deals akin to the revised North American Free Trade Agreement (announced in October 2018), which forbids commercial deals with Beijing. Yet, President Donald Trump may not be able to impose his views as easily on Japan, the European Union, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), heavyweights that value economic relations with China and oppose Washington’s protectionism.[84]

Protecting the Foundations of China’s Power

The Belt and Road Initiative helps protect the foundations of Chinese national power in three areas. First, it bolsters the country’s national sovereignty and domestic stability. Second, it buttresses its economic security. Third, it enhances its industrial-military potential. These mutually reinforcing dynamics allow Beijing to hedge against potential U.S. aggressions. Border and Domestic Security Belt and Road is designed to bolster China’s border and domestic security. The vastness of the country’s western and southern peripheries, the local demographic superiority of non-Han ethnic groups, and the historical weakness of local state authority have always exposed Chinese leaders to domestic unrest and foreign interference.[85] In that light, the United States has, in recent history, been a perennial concern. Washington tried to exploit turmoil in Tibet and Xinjiang during the early Cold War.[86] Beijing has also worried for decades about America launching ideological attacks to “bring [China] into its own system.”[87] For example, in recent years, Chinese leaders have resented Washington’s decision to grant political asylum to Xinjiang activists as well as its support for the National Endowment for Democracy and Radio Free Asia.[88] Furthermore, the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia caused Beijing to pay even greater attention to its neighbors.[89] The Indo-American rapprochement, starting in the mid-2000s, compounded Sino-American tensions. Indeed, China has long competed with India across territories that stretch from Myanmar to Kashmir and Tibet, and it deeply resents New Delhi’s protection of the Dalai Lama.[90] [quote id="4"] The Belt and Road Initiative addresses those problems in several ways. First, it is likely to stimulate the economies of China’s remote provinces, thereby reducing incentives for unrest. Second, combined with a robust military buildup in Tibet, the $62 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Beijing’s investments in Central Asia, northern South Asia, and continental Southeast Asia, are aimed at blunting regional separatist and terrorist threats.[91] Third, the Digital Silk Road, which promotes Chinese telecommunications equipment and internet standards, optimizes surveillance and repression, buttresses domestic security cooperation with like-minded regimes, including Russia, and secures data from interception by foreign governments.[92] Moreover, Belt and Road increases China’s push against New Delhi’s regional influence and could even tighten the encirclement of India, whose vulnerable northern flank, especially the Siliguri Corridor, provides strategic leverage to Beijing. Most important, the initiative reduces the harm that America could potentially inflict on Chinese peripheries.[93] However, the increase in Beijing’s border and domestic security should not pose insurmountable problems for the United States. Although Belt and Road reduces Washington’s ability to interfere in China’s backyard, doing so would have always been highly dangerous given Beijing’s nuclear status and growing power. Furthermore, as it improves China’s security, Belt and Road may allow American leaders to manage bilateral tensions more easily. The initiative has the potential to increase autocratic tendencies in Central Asia, inner Southeast Asia, and northern South Asia. However, promoting local democracy was never a priority for Washington. The United States does have an interest in backing India in its border disputes with China. Yet, beyond that specific imperative, massive regional efforts would risk diluting America’s resources in distant areas where Beijing often has a comparative advantage. Pakistan deserves attention, especially given India’s strident opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. However, given Washington’s inability to influence Islamabad — despite spending more than $33 billion in economic and military assistance since 2001  — striving to match Beijing’s local grip would be pointless.[94] China’s vested interest in stability could actually restrain the Pakistani army and facilitate a U.S. withdrawal from the deadlocked war in Afghanistan. More broadly, Belt and Road could bolster counter-terrorism efforts, help economic development, and divert (at least temporarily) some of Beijing’s resources away from areas that are of utmost strategic importance to the United States, like the Strait of Malacca. Economic Security Belt and Road is also designed to enhance China’s economic security. This effort targets multiple contingencies but the challenges posed by America rank particularly high among them. Chinese leaders have never forgotten Washington’s trade embargo, which lasted from 1950 to 1971, nor its support of Taiwanese operations against Beijing’s sea lines of communication in the mid-1950s.[95] The United States became a tacit ally of China in the later decades of the Cold War. However, Beijing’s concerns gradually resurfaced following the fall of the Soviet Union. Washington’s persistent military encirclement of China, its debates about blockade scenarios, and its Air-Sea Battle Doctrine only aggravated those concerns.[96] Doubling down on longstanding patterns, Belt and Road targets fast-growing, underdeveloped countries to boost national growth, attenuate industrial overproduction, transition away from a low-cost, low-end production paradigm, and reduce exposure to competitors. This reorientation appears sound — Belt and Road partners’ share in global GDP rose from 21 percent to 37 percent from 1995 to 2015.[97] The trade war that the Trump administration launched in mid-2018 gave this process more urgency. However, Beijing’s ability to resist pressures is rising. Washington disrupted China’s supply chains and businesses, but its measures also hurt American companies and are unlikely to have transformative effects on Beijing’s behavior.[98] Belt and Road also optimizes Chinese trade routes. By 2015, China had already invested in two-thirds of the 50 largest container ports worldwide and represented 39 percent of the top 10 operators’ traffic.[99] Beijing has concentrated its attention on chokepoints. Indeed, 10 of its main port installations surround the South China Sea and eight command access to the Strait of Malacca, a crucial chokepoint that is exposed to the U.S. Navy. But China is also pressing for the Kra Canal in Thailand, which could more quickly link the Indian and Pacific Oceans.[100] It is expanding its influence near the straits of Hormuz and Bab-el-Mandeb, including in Djibouti, which hosts Africa’s largest free-trade zone, and Oman’s $10.7 billion port in Duqm.[101] Likewise, Beijing acquired a 20 percent share in the Suez Canal container terminal, is erecting a second local terminal, purchased southern European port facilities, and is developing major ports and a Red Sea-Mediterranean railway with Israel. China also ramped up investments in northern Europe, including a 35 percent share in Rotterdam’s Euromax terminal.[102] Finally, the nascent Polar Silk Road could bypass current chokepoints, cut sailing time to rich northwestern European markets, and save Beijing between $533 billion and $1.274 trillion annually.[103] In parallel, Belt and Road is betting on roads, railways, and facilities across Central Asia, the South Caucasus, Turkey, and Eastern and Southern Europe. Although most Eurasian economic centers abut coastlines and maritime shipping remains more capable, affordable, and predictable,[104] land transportation, which is faster than the sea and cheaper than the air, could help the high-tech, fashion, agriculture, and heavy machinery sectors, among others. The digitization of border procedures and the ongoing logistics revolution could boost traffic further.[105] Moreover, major hybrid sea-land routes are set to emerge. For example, transportation infrastructure across Greece and the Balkans will link up with the Suez Canal maritime routes to allow products in Beijing to reach northwestern European markets eight to 12 days faster than through the Strait of Gibraltar.[106] China is also focusing on energy and food security. Beijing has leveraged America’s post-Cold War regional security architecture and the unpopularity of the war on terrorism to nurture its economic presence in the oil-rich Middle East. China’s trade in the region grew by 350 percent from 2005 to 2016 and its foreign direct investment reached $29.5 billion in 2016, compared to Washington’s $6.9 billion.[107] Saudi Arabia is gravitating toward Belt and Road: A number of bilateral deals worth $65 billion were signed during King Salman’s visit in March 2017 and Riyadh has signed agreements worth $20 billion as a preliminary investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Iran, an old ally of Beijing, has enjoyed renewed favors since the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal: China’s local foreign direct investment rose 20 percent between March 2014 and January 2018, bilateral trade soared 19 percent from 2016 to 2017, and joint ventures like the North Azadegan and Yadavaran oil fields, estimated at $5 billion, are moving forward.[108] The Trump administration’s recent sanctions have curtailed this momentum; however, Beijing — which may be joined by others, including European countries — is likely to work around them, as it has in the past. Meanwhile, China’s noninterference principles have helped to spread its regional influence, as illustrated by the fact that Qatar, Kuwait, Syria, and Iraq support Sino-Iranian ties while Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel see Beijing’s relationship with, and potential leverage over, Iran as a reason to engage China diplomatically and economically.[109] Similarly, Beijing is investing in energy assets in Central Asia, Africa, Latin America, Canada, and the Arctic. It has also become the main producer of 23 of the 41 most strategically valuable metals and minerals worldwide.[110] Finally, China’s investments in Belt and Road partners’ agricultural sectors and in companies such as the Swiss Syngenta — a leader in agrochemicals, seeds, and biotech acquired for $43 billion in 2016 — improve the country’s resilience by diversifying suppliers and increasing domestic production.[111] These trends could create challenges for Washington. For example, Chinese port operators could collect intelligence on docked U.S. vessels in allied countries such as Israel. The Belt and Road Initiative will also diminish the likelihood of an American blockade by strengthening Beijing’s sea lines of communication, incentivizing littoral states to prevent trade disruptions, and, through continental pathways in Central Asia, Pakistan, and Myanmar, diversifying its shipping options.[112] More broadly, China’s gains could erode Washington’s influence since guaranteeing the “provision of [Middle Eastern] oil” has long given the United States strategic leverage over other countries.[113] Additionally, Beijing has secured “a lock on supplies of nine of the 10 [metals and minerals] judged to be at the highest risk of unavailability,”[114] and might “lock up … farmland … and food processing assets” worldwide.[115] [quote id="5"] However, the impact of these dynamics on American security should not be overestimated. In the first place, although the possibility of imposing a blockade against China has decreased, such a move would have always been highly complex and dangerously escalatory.[116] In reality, the decline of Beijing’s insecurity reduces the risk of war. Moreover, although they have given America some influence, military interventions in the Middle East since the early 1990s have incurred severe costs, destabilized local countries, diverted Washington’s attention away from East Asia, and allowed China to free-ride.[117] Admittedly, the United States retains an interest in the free flow of oil, but so does Beijing. More broadly, America has enough military assets in the region and beyond to deter misbehavior. Therefore, Belt and Road, rather than exclusively posing a threat, might in fact offer Washington an opportunity to rethink how it engages in the Middle East and to cooperate with China in efforts such as countering terrorism and fighting piracy. As for the Chinese challenge in domains like food security, access to key metals and minerals, and influence on other states, a determined geoeconomic response would go a long way toward preserving key American interests. One final way in which China is ensuring its economic security is via its investments in green energy. The Belt and Road Initiative financed “clean” projects worth $11.8 billion in 2015 and 2016, and issued a $2.15 billion climate bond in 2017. Pointing to Beijing’s skyrocketing pollution levels, most observers have castigated Belt and Road as a scheme designed to export polluting industries.[118] These critiques have merit. However, current trends might hide a deeper shift toward renewable energies.[119] Either way, a green Belt and Road would be in Washington’s interest. Although this outcome could potentially allow Beijing to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels, build resilient infrastructure, curtail the appeal of the American shale gas revolution, dominate emerging industries like electric cars, and command international “regulations [and] pricing policies,” Washington could mitigate those risks by rekindling its own environmental ambitions.[120] More importantly, a green China would more proactively help fight global warming, a threat that should dwarf any other concerns. Industrial-Military Potential The Belt and Road Initiative is geared toward enhancing China’s industrial-military potential. Although multiple factors drive this effort, the United States looms large. America’s prowess during the 1990 – 1991 Gulf War, the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq gave Beijing powerful incentives to modernize. Additionally, Chinese leaders have resented Washington’s regular attempts to curtail their country’s progress, including pressuring European allies not to lift their post-Tiananmen embargo on exports of military hardware.[121] Belt and Road could facilitate Beijing’s defense modernization in several ways. Indeed, it overlaps with “Internet Plus,” a plan to integrate new technologies like big data and advanced manufacturing sectors to make China more competitive in the global markets.[122] It also works in conjunction with “Made in China 2025” — a program to dominate high-tech industries, such as semi-conductors, by increasing subsidies and attracting foreign companies that will be squeezed out of the market once their knowledge is extracted.[123] Belt and Road optimizes those efforts by opening new markets for Chinese companies, exporting technical standards, and facilitating industrial espionage.[124] However, significant obstacles remain. Beijing’s state-centric approach is plagued by inertia, talent deficits, intellectual property violations, and rising Western investment-screening mechanisms. Moreover, many foreign firms only use China to assemble components that were manufactured abroad.[125] Yet, the technological gap with the United States is narrowing. Beijing is training more STEM graduates than in the past — a projected 48 million between 2015 and 2030 compared with America’s 10 million for the same time period — attracting more graduate returnees, whose number jumped from 272,900 in 2012 to 432,500 in 2016; progressing in academic rankings; and claiming more patents than ever before, with a 28 percent increase between 2016 and 2017. Additionally, its research and development spending could overtake Washington’s by 2022.[126] Furthermore, the huge size of its national market allows China to replicate foreign technology, generate a “learning curve” effect, and collect more data, a crucial asset for artificial intelligence and biotech. Beijing, which accounted for 42 percent of the global digital economy in 2017, could soon dominate underequipped regions like Southeast Asia and the Middle East.[127] The number of Chinese enterprises ranked in a list of the 20 most valuable internet companies worldwide rose from two to nine between 2013 and 2018, and China could be the first major power to roll out 5G technology on a large scale — although recent U.S. sanctions on Huawei might delay that process.[128] Finally, despite new protections, most advanced economies and private companies remain exposed to Beijing’s foreign direct investment, espionage, and commercial appeal, while countries like Israel or Singapore have yet to ramp up their defenses.[129] The security implications of China’s technological progress are significant. Building on the Strategic Support Force, a new branch of Beijing’s military dedicated to electronics, space, and cyber, and capitalizing on its financial reach, civil-military fusion, lesser ethical concerns, and the larger amounts of data that it can collect from its population, China is investing in disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and hypersonic weapons that could diminish America’s competitive edge 15 years down the road to win “informatized wars” — conflicts whose outcome will be determined by the mastery of telecommunications and computer systems.[130] The Digital Silk Road supports these efforts by strengthening the country’s best companies and improving industrial-military espionage.[131] For example, new submarine cable projects — which jumped from representing 7 percent of the world total between 2012 and 2015 to 20 percent between 2016 and 2019 — could boost China’s intelligence and anti-submarine capabilities.[132] Likewise, Belt and Road partnerships help export and upgrade BeiDou, a satellite navigation system that will allow Beijing to “shift away from reliance on [America’s] GPS for precision strike[s]” by 2020.[133] Progress in China’s military sector is plagued by bureaucratic inertia, welfare and personnel costs, as well as the costs incurred by domestic instability. Moreover, turning economic power into military capabilities becomes more difficult as technological sophistication increases.[134] Yet Beijing, which allocated only 1.9 percent of its GDP to defense in 2018 — compared with America’s 3.2 percent — has consistently outpaced intelligence forecasts so far, and may soon pull ahead in key domains like artificial intelligence.[135] Washington, on the other hand, retains significant industrial potential and can build upon the investment stock that it has accumulated since World War II.[136] However, its defense industrial base “continues to shrink,” per-troop expenditures have soared by 50 percent in 15 years,[137] and, having “over-invested in legacy systems,” the United States must shoulder “huge financial burdens … and … [conservative] constituencies.”[138] The country’s performance is further hurt by the Trump administration’s poor record on innovation and its strained relations with tech companies.[139]

Projecting Strategic Influence

The Belt and Road Initiative not only helps China blunt potential aggressions, it also allows it to project strategic influence at the bilateral, regional, and systemic levels. Although the United States remains dominant on each of those levels, Beijing could gradually erode America’s hegemony and weaken its security system in the Indo-Pacific. Systemic Benefits Belt and Road is designed to erode America’s grip on the international governance architecture, a dominance that Beijing has long resented. Chinese-led financial bodies like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has a $50 billion endowment and has attracted dozens of states despite U.S. attempts to stop them from joining, or Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa’s (BRICS’) New Development Bank, which has a similar endowment, accelerate the momentum generated by the Chiang Mai Initiative — an endeavor that works to decrease regional defaults in partnership with ASEAN, Japan, and South Korea — the Shanghai Cooperation Organization’s Interbank Consortium, and maybe soon a non-Western credit rating agency.[140] Additionally, Belt and Road has led to the signature of many bilateral commercial agreements and the creation of China-based international courts for conflict resolution. It boosted negotiations over the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which could lift the barriers that separate leading Asian economies, including China, India, Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN, on more than 90 percent of the products that they exchange. Finally, Beijing’s new Cross-Border Interbank Payment System and clearing centers help internationalize the RMB (or yuan, as it is commonly known).[141] Although this effort is curtailed by capital controls, the Chinese central bank’s lack of independence, Beijing’s investments in U.S. treasury bonds, and the dollar’s domination, the International Monetary Fund added the RMB to its Special Drawing Reserve, and European financial centers are positioning themselves as “‘hubs’ for its use.”[142] Meanwhile, the newly created “petro-yuan” could transform the pivotal worldwide commodity market.[143] [quote id="6"] Systemic consequences might follow from the strides Beijing has made. By offering alternatives to loan recipients, promoting infrastructure building, and distinguishing economics from politics, China-led financial institutions, in combination with Chinese bilateral development policies, could slowly weaken the austerity principles that the so-called “Washington Consensus” has dictated for decades.[144] Belt and Road’s commercial agreements could consolidate Beijing’s “agenda-setter” status.[145] Finally, while the RMB may never achieve dominance, it could erode the dollar’s supremacy, which is already threatened by America’s fiscal deficits and large-scale “economic warfare” with countries like China, Russia, and Iran, not to mention digital currencies and the BRICS’ de-dollarization campaign.[146] Washington’s security interests may be affected by those dynamics. Thanks to its leadership in international institutions — such as the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank — and its monetary dominance, America became a “system-maker” after 1945. Combined with the appeal of its loans, investments, and market, this status allowed the United States to borrow without consequences, navigate financial crises, offload adjustment costs, dictate lending terms, tame economic competitors, and open foreign markets.[147] In turn, these gains strengthened the foundations of America’s hard power. They also contributed to weakening Britain’s empire, maintaining Europe and Japan’s strategic dependency, and convincing most allies to fund U.S. military enterprises. They even helped punish Washington’s enemies — for example, Russia following its 2014 military aggression against Ukraine.[148] As it erodes America’s “system-maker” status, Belt and Road could reduce these benefits. Eurasian Integration Belt and Road may help China optimize its geostrategic posture in Eurasia. Breaking with its historical continental orientation, Beijing has significantly developed its sea power following the Soviet breakup, Taiwan’s democratization process, and the growing dependence of the Chinese economy on foreign resources.[149] However, there are a number of challenges to achieving maritime dominance. To begin with, building a fleet is extraordinarily costly. Moreover, many Eurasian land powers over history, including Imperial Germany and the Soviet Union, failed to command the oceans because they faced too many continental contingencies. China faces a similar predicament. It has to cope with a superior U.S. navy that “operate[s] freely on exterior lines.”[150] But it must also protect its vulnerable heartland, and a “March West” helps project influence with less risk of conflict with Washington.[151] Beijing’s current hybrid sea-land posture raises complex dilemmas in domains like threat management and resource allocation. However, provided Chinese leaders utilize the country’s huge national resources effectively, this posture could optimize China’s “independence and geostrategic flexibility.”[152] From that perspective, the nascent strategy of “using the land to control the sea, and using the seas to control the oceans” signals Beijing’s determination to make the most of both its continental depth and its location along the Eurasian rimland.[153] Belt and Road may contribute to this strategy by facilitating the integration of neighboring economies in Eurasia. Although China has encountered some issues in Central Asia due to local graft, corruption, and politics, bilateral trade, which is 30 times greater than it was in the early 1990s, covers a massive share of these countries’ GDP. Belt and Road infrastructure is also becoming indispensable for them to access markets in the region and beyond.[154] Most importantly, the Ukraine crisis has accelerated the rapprochement that China and Russia had initiated in the post-Cold War era. Indeed, the rift that it caused with the West encouraged Moscow to increase the technological sophistication of its military exports to Beijing,[155] and to endorse Belt and Road, which provides Russia with international legitimacy, lowers its reliance on the West, and fortifies its flailing Eurasian Economic Union.[156] To be sure, the two countries have a long history of strategic competition and Moscow often allied with maritime powers against Eurasian competitors. However, even prominent skeptics recognize that China and Russia “are committed to making things last.”[157] Both Moscow and Beijing uphold an authoritarian model, seek regional counter-terrorism and economic development, aspire to blunt U.S. influence, and want to minimize their border frictions to pursue ambitions elsewhere.[158] Additionally, China holds significant leverage over Russia. While their GDPs were similar in 1993, Beijing’s is now more than 10 times greater than Moscow’s. Russia’s dismal infrastructure and energy sector need Belt and Road capital, as illustrated by the 30-year, $400 billion oil deal signed in 2014 and ambitious joint ventures in the Arctic. Besides, Moscow is well aware that China could use its significant demographic superiority to infiltrate and destabilize its neighbor’s thinly populated Far East.[159] More broadly, the Middle Eastern oil industries’ growing independence from the West, Iran’s Islamic revolution, the Soviet Union’s unravelling, and China’s and India’s rise opened new opportunities for integration. The resource-rich and capital-rich countries of Eurasia complement one another, which could help lay the foundations of a “new continentalism.”[160] For example, Iran could become a major energy provider for Pakistan and E.U. countries and a critical export outlet for Central Asia and the South Caucasus.[161] This Eurasian integration is accentuated by the European Union’s post-Cold War enlargement eastward; the growing connections between western China’s supply chains and those dominated by Germany in central Europe; and the search for continental connectivity of middle powers such as South Korea, Turkey, and Kazakhstan.[162] This process, which also benefits from the “national and domestic resonance” of the ancient Silk Road in most of these countries, could thrive further under organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.[163] The latter, whose institutional prerogatives now extend to defense and diplomacy, welcomed India and Pakistan in 2017 and might soon be joined by Iran and Turkey. Likewise, Beijing’s “New Security Concept” for Asia, which stresses economic cooperation and implicitly rejects U.S. involvement, could gain momentum.[164] These trends could have important security implications. Since the early days of the post-World War II era, fears that a rising hegemon could capture Eurasia’s unmatched resources and markets have led American leaders to forge local alliances and to systematically oppose regional organizations and cross-regional energy networks. These efforts helped entrench Washington’s hegemony and have legitimized its military, political, and economic interferences across Eurasia for decades.[165] But today’s emerging “continentalism” alters this paradigm. Combined with China’s expanding security dialogues with entities such as the Arab League and the African Union and its growing responsibilities at the United Nations, including contributions to the budget and peacekeeping efforts, institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could gradually weaken America’s ability to isolate its enemies.[166] Belt and Road could ultimately create a “continental zone of pre-eminent Chinese influence” and allow Beijing to concentrate on the seas.[167] These trends ought to be worrisome for Washington. However, because some of the continental geographic areas coveted by Beijing have less strategic value to American leaders, China’s efforts in those regions might (at least temporarily, but possibly much longer) divert some of its resources away from areas that are of key interest to the United States. Additionally, some of the most proactive and geographically expansive forms of engagement that Washington has adopted in Eurasia in the past led to disasters such as the Vietnam and Iraq wars, incurring enormous costs in blood, treasure, and reputation. In that sense, Beijing’s rise could help check the temptation to overreach. Moreover, a less systematic opposition to China may ease bilateral tensions and help advance other American objectives, such as economic development and counter-terrorism. Bilateral Leverage Belt and Road’s geoeconomic approach also enhances China’s bilateral leverage. Beijing’s ability to coerce other states is constrained by its insufficient, albeit significant, control over Chinese companies and bureaucracies, its competitors’ ability to find alternatives, and financial and reputational costs. Nevertheless, China has had some success steering other countries in its preferred direction. For instance, by cutting oil imports, Beijing was able to drive Iran into the 2015 nuclear deal, which facilitated Belt and Road’s development in Tehran. Similarly, economic pressures convinced Turkey to restrict the activism of its Uyghur community, which had created concerns in China. Likewise, Chinese sanctions targeting South Korea’s installation of America’s THAAD missile-defense system in 2017 persuaded Seoul to reject future deployments of this kind.[168] These coercion efforts could grow as China refines its instruments to target specific companies, institutions, sectors, and “politically salient constituencies.”[169] However, Beijing’s long-term strategy relies primarily on inducements, long-term engagement, the identification of common goals, and joint solutions that rely on China’s ability to address development gaps.[170] This approach could breed significant influence. For instance, many African and Latin American states tend to align with Beijing at the United Nations, while Taiwan has lost almost a quarter of its diplomatic partners since 2016. More broadly, despite occasional tensions, Asian states already accept most of China’s strategic interests.[171] Over time, more and more world leaders may be tempted to “pre-empt [its] demands” on various issues.[172] [quote id="7"] Finally, Belt and Road works in tandem with China’s rising military influence. Beijing has already leveraged U.S. fears of escalation to assert its claims, deploy its assets, and display an image of inevitability in the South China Sea.[173] But Belt and Road complements these dynamics by providing more instruments to pressure or incentivize other states to follow China’s interests without reaching escalatory thresholds.[174] Moreover, the global spread of its national assets requires Beijing to deploy its military and its private defense companies, and to partner with host nations in the arenas of law enforcement, intelligence, and defense. Despite the opening of a base in Djibouti in mid-2017, the dredging of fortified artificial islands in the South China Sea beginning in 2014, reports of covert military outposts in Tajikistan since 2016, news coverage of a secret agreement for facilities in Cambodia in spring 2019, and rumors about future installations on various sites, such as Pakistan’s Gwadar port, a large base network seems unlikely for now, as it would contradict Beijing’s “anti-imperialist” ideology and risk controversies.[175] However, China is likely to create more bases over time, and current arrangements, such as refueling and port of calls, already bolster its international presence. America’s global military network remains absolutely unrivaled. But current trends could constrain the mobility of U.S. forces in some areas.[176] Dislocating the U.S.-Led Maritime Security System Over time, Belt and Road could heavily impact security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, the main flashpoint of the U.S.-China contest. Washington has long maintained a robust security system that uses the “energy resources, well-situated … port facilities, large land masses, sophisticated infrastructures,” and “secure rear-basing facilities” of allies and partners in Southeast Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific.[177] Combined with the “stopping power of water,” this strategy helped contain the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War.[178] But its importance increased as Asia’s share in the world’s economic output skyrocketed and as Beijing emerged as a potential competitor. China’s key objective today is to break what it sees as America’s strategic island chains to gain room for maneuvering, facilitate the projection of military power, and burnish its credibility.[179] In response to Beijing’s ambitions, the Trump administration, building on President Barack Obama’s pivot-rebalance to Asia, revived “the Quad,” a naval partnership with India, Australia, and Japan, in November 2017. It also ramped up its “Freedom of Navigation Operations” in the South China Sea. Additionally, its withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in February 2019 will allow the United States to upgrade its ground-based missiles, and to expand its firepower across Asia.[180] However, Beijing’s proximity to the fields of competition means it is more able to absorb setbacks, while America’s distance means it needs key Asian powers to balance or hedge in its favor. Leading scholars have argued that most local leaders will continue to align with the United States due to the threat posed by China, the path-dependence created by past agreements, and the fact that far-flung sea hegemons often seem more benign than continental neighbors.[181] Yet, there are reasons to doubt this outcome. Balancing carries with it significant political and financial costs and can hinder strategic autonomy, while domestic strains can stymie its execution.[182] Moreover, as illustrated by China’s tribute system, balancing theories do not necessarily apply well to Asia.[183] Furthermore, despite aggressive moves like the establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone in East Asia in 2013 and island-building in the South China Sea since 2014, Beijing today is a far cry from the threatening regime that fought the United States, South Korea, India, the Soviets, and Vietnam during the Cold War.[184] Additionally, because maritime systems advantage military defense over military offense, many local states may decide that buck-passing preserves their security more effectively than balancing.[185] Finally, most regional leaders are perceiving a “precipitous decline” in America’s influence.[186] According to the Rand Corporation’s U.S.-China Military Scorecard, “trend lines are moving against [Washington] across a broad spectrum.” Beijing’s technological progress and ability to deploy assets in more and more massive numbers threaten to overwhelm the United States’ local advantages and could compromise its resolve to fight.[187] Such assessments might even underestimate the damage caused by initial Chinese missile strikes, the degree to which America’s submarines are stretched thin across the Pacific Ocean, and China’s mine warfare capabilities.[188] However, recent U.S. defense budget increases are unlikely to change this trend. Washington’s military superiority has been receding for years despite the fact that its overall defense expenditures are more than three times the size of China’s (underreported) budget and that the People’s Liberation Army also has to deal with domestic security. Indeed, while the United States must honor commitments across the globe, Beijing only has to concentrate on its own geographic region. Moreover, America’s security paradigm seems unsustainable. The U.S. Navy’s 355-ship buildup is crippled by severe financial and industrial limitations, the Air Force fleet is older than ever, with the average airframe at 27 years of age, and the modernization of Washington’s satellite system and nuclear triad remains unbudgeted.[189] This is not to mention Trump’s tax cuts, with losses expected to reach $260 billion annually,[190] sector pensions that remain unfunded and could amount to as much as $5 trillion, and the looming exhaustion of Social Security and Medicare funds. The Congressional Budget Office itself calculates that defense expenditures could fall to 2.6 percent of GDP by the mid-2020s.[191] In sum, perceptions of the regional balance of power will most likely continue to shift against Washington, something that the Trump administration’s notoriously erratic and raucous foreign policy only aggravates. Beijing does not have an easy path ahead. Nevertheless, combined with its diplomatic outreach, propaganda, and military rise, China’s geoeconomic offensive seems poised to exploit the underlying strains of the U.S.-led regional security system. From that standpoint, some recent trends are concerning. Although Southeast Asian countries have long hedged with a preference for Washington, Beijing’s ascendance is increasingly magnifying America’s distance, receding economic clout, and unpopular efforts to promote democracy and Western governance standards locally. Most regional states, including the Philippines, have leaned closer to China since 2016.[192] In East Asia, Japan’s relative assertiveness under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe constitutes “a rear-guard attempt to slow down” Tokyo’s dramatic decline.[193] Nearly half of Japanese companies’ overseas operations are located in China, whose share in Tokyo’s exports and imports now reaches 20 percent and 25 percent, respectively, compared to America’s declining shares — 18 percent and 11 percent, respectively. In the last two years, Abe has striven to defuse diplomatic tensions with Beijing, approved a currency-swap deal worth $29 billion, decided to cooperate with Belt and Road, and distanced his government from Taiwan.[194] Similar patterns emerged in South Korea. Trade with China surged 82 percent in five years to hit $90 billion, overshadowing America’s $46 billion. Seoul also tried to delay the deployment of the THAAD missile-defense system, dismissed Washington’s “free and open Indo-Pacific,” and agreed to collaborate with Belt and Road.[195] Further away, Australia has opposed Beijing’s political interference and its influence in neighboring Pacific islands. Yet, bilateral commerce rose 29 percent in 2017 and reached 29 percent of Canberra’s foreign trade in 2018.[196] Australia estimates that China’s GDP will far surpass America’s by 2030 — $42 trillion versus $24 trillion — and that domestic politics will inhibit Washington’s response.[197] Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a plan to “turbo-charge [the] national effort in engaging China.”[198] India rejected Belt and Road but despite ambitious projects such as the co-development of the Iranian port of Chabahar, it has struggled to offer any alternatives. Moreover, India understands that a close rapprochement with America could curtail its “strategic autonomy,” antagonize China, and disrupt relations with Russia and Iran.[199] New Delhi is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank’s main beneficiary, its dismal infrastructure needs investments, and booming trade with Beijing reached a record $84.4 billion in 2017, representing 22 percent of India’s foreign commerce. Combined with other facets of China’s power, such ties incentivize New Delhi to alleviate bilateral tensions.[200] Prime Minister Narendra Modi has charted a more nonaligned course since the mid-2017 Doklam plateau standoff, and according to a recent survey, only 43 percent of India’s strategic elites want “closer collaboration with [Washington] in the event of greater U.S.-China competition.”[201] [quote id="8"] The European Union recently branded Beijing a “systemic rival.” Some of its members, including France and the United Kingdom, have deployed military assets and developed ties with Japan, India, or Australia to address the “return of … power assertiveness” in the Indo-Pacific. Additionally, more and more European actors have criticized China’s commercial and industrial practices, espionage, and attempts to gain political influence.[202] However, their tone is significantly milder than that of American leaders, and Beijing’s economic appeal remains. Despite severe U.S. pressures, many European countries are reluctant to exclude Chinese companies from their 5G networks. Beijing’s leaders have also successfully approached some of the region’s smaller states on a bilateral basis, exploiting their economic hardships, rivalries, and resentment toward Brussels to divide and paralyze the European Union.[203] Italy joined Belt and Road in March 2019, while Brexit prospects boosted the appeal of China’s market in Great Britain, where London’s financial elites have already begun their “rebalancing” toward East Asia and are assisting the Chinese initiative. Finally, despite expressing reservations, the European Union, Germany, and France themselves still intend to engage Beijing, including on Belt and Road.[204] Meanwhile, prospects of transatlantic convergence are corroded by Trump’s hostility to multilateralism, free trade, environmental regulations, the Iran nuclear deal, and the European Union itself.[205]


It may take decades to parse the strategic consequences of the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s enormous endeavor will undoubtedly inspire more controversies and record more failures. It might even unravel. Yet, its coherence, potency, and resilience should not be underestimated. Belt and Road reflects core aspects of Beijing’s grand strategy and strategic culture. It deftly enhances, publicizes, and knits together China’s geoeconomic leverage, industrial-technological capacity, omni-directional diplomacy, propaganda, and military power. If Beijing can make enough adjustments to optimize returns, nurture partnerships, and sustain economic growth, Belt and Road could have far-reaching implications. Some of them may serve American interests. But, if left unchecked, China’s initiative could pull apart the interdependent levers of influence that have underpinned U.S. hegemony in the post-World War II era. Washington must develop an ambitious response to Beijing. The first step is to restore a sense of domestic bipartisanship, recognizing that a divided America will struggle to maintain credibility and prestige abroad. The second step is to strengthen the economic foundations of the United States’ power. At home, American leaders must boost investments in infrastructure, healthcare, education, and research. They should tighten technology transfer restrictions and ramp up counter-intelligence and cyber-defense capabilities.[206] Cuts in the modernization of America’s overwhelmingly superior nuclear triad may be necessary. Moreover, although occasional operations will always be required, U.S. leaders should wind down what remains of the global war on terrorism, the costs of which have been overwhelming. Likewise, Washington must definitively renounce nation-building, a costly undertaking that has yielded dubious results, diverted America’s resources, and allowed China to increase its clout in Iraq and Afghanistan.[207] Additionally, the United States ought to rethink its efforts to shrink Russia’s and Iran’s resilient spheres of influence to conserve resources, reduce risks of entanglement, and refocus on Beijing. Having freed up those resources, Washington should project its geoeconomic power more ambitiously. It must re-endorse multilateralism, join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, resume negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and stop pressing allies on commercial issues. It should also more actively exploit the leverage provided by the shale gas revolution (without neglecting environmental reforms), boost foreign infrastructure financing, and shore up the economies and political systems of key allies, partners, and pivotal states.[208] Moreover, Washington ought to pursue “competitive strategies” to “channel [Beijing’s] attention, effort, and resources toward actions … that are least threatening.”[209] Reducing U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia would force China to assume costly responsibilities in its backyard. Likewise, an ambitious, but fair, communication strategy regarding Belt and Road’s abuses could compel Beijing to respond constructively. Similarly, improving relations with Russia and Iran — even to a limited extent — would help exploit their underlying competition for influence with China. By contrast, aggressive policies will only push Moscow and Tehran further into Beijing’s arms. However, Washington must also recalibrate some aspects of its China strategy toward greater conciliation. It ought to maintain its overall military superiority, support its allies, and deter misbehavior. But its “attack-in-depth” doctrine and its ambition to retain full command of the Indo-Pacific are costly, dangerous, and self-defeating, as illustrated by the steady erosion of U.S. military superiority along China’s coastline.[210] Instead of pursuing an unsustainable posture whose sudden breakdown could dramatically hurt its credibility, the United States should incrementally adapt to the structural evolution of the local balance of power. It should refrain from operations that are too aggressive, disperse some of its assets to reduce their vulnerability to potential Chinese strikes, capitalize on cheap but highly effective anti-access/area-denial capabilities for deterrence purposes, encourage allies to contribute more actively to the regional military balance, and recognize Beijing’s legitimate concerns about American encirclement. These moves may appear to be signs of decline, but combined with the aforementioned geoeconomic measures, they would boost U.S. credibility by consolidating more sustainable positions and tracing a less dangerous path. An aggressive zero-sum-game approach, on the other hand, could increase the risk of war and disincentivize other leaders from high-end collaboration with the United States.[211] Furthermore, while some aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative must be steadily opposed, U.S. leaders should acknowledge that Beijing has made some positive contributions in the developing world and that their own policies toward those countries have not always been particularly benevolent or flawless. A more open stance may yield Chinese concessions on debt, job creation, and environmental questions, and open up more business deals for American companies. By contrast, systematic attempts to portray Belt and Road as a predatory scheme are likely to isolate the United States. To be sure, Washington must continue to be vigilant. However, moderation and a keener grasp of the limits of American power would reduce the risk of catastrophic escalation, unlock cooperation opportunities, and maintain the theoretical possibility of a modus vivendi in Asia. These adjustments would help chart a more sensible and sustainable U.S. grand strategy.   Acknowledgements: For invaluable comments and suggestions, the author would like to thank Michael Beckley, Joshua Rovner, two anonymous reviewers, the editorial team at the Texas National Security Review, and participants in seminars hosted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School. He would also like to thank Monica Toft for her support.   Thomas P. Cavanna is a visiting assistant professor at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy in the Center for Strategic Studies. He writes on U.S. grand strategy and U.S. foreign policy toward China and South Asia. He holds a French “Agrégation” and a Master’s degree and doctorate in history from Sciences Po. He was also a Fox Fellow at Yale. Dr. Cavanna is currently working on a book on the Belt and Road Initiative and U.S. grand strategy.   Image: dcmaster [post_title] => Unlocking the Gates of Eurasia: China's Belt and Road Initiative and Its Implications for U.S. Grand Strategy [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => open [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => unlocking-the-gates-of-eurasia-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-and-its-implications-for-u-s-grand-strategy [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-07-31 12:09:16 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-07-31 16:09:16 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => What is the Belt and Road Initiative and what implications could it have for America’s grand strategy? As many observers have pointed out, China’s Belt and Road suffers from a number of problems and ambiguities. However, it is a much more coherent, potent, and resilient endeavor than many experts believe. Belt and Road is deeply grounded within Chinese grand strategy and strategic culture, helps protect the foundations of China’s national power, and allows Beijing to project influence across and beyond the Eurasian continent. If left unchecked, it could erode the foundations of America’s post-World War II hegemony. However, provided U.S. leaders respond the right way, it could offer important benefits to Washington. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 3 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The scope and content of the initiative are ambiguous and in constant flux. However, these characteristics do not necessarily handicap it. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The coherence of the Belt and Road Initiative also stems from its symbiotic integration within the arc of Communist China’s grand strategy.  ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => The future of Belt and Road could also be compromised by the growing tensions observed in recipient states.  ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Although Belt and Road reduces Washington’s ability to interfere in China’s backyard, doing so would have always been highly dangerous given Beijing’s nuclear status and growing power.  ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Beijing has leveraged America’s post-Cold War regional security architecture and the unpopularity of the war on terrorism to nurture its economic presence in the oil-rich Middle East. ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Belt and Road is designed to erode America’s grip on the international governance architecture, a dominance that Beijing has long resented.  ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Moreover, a less systematic opposition to China may ease bilateral tensions and help advance other American objectives, such as economic development and counter-terrorism. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Meanwhile, prospects of transatlantic convergence are corroded by Trump’s hostility to multilateralism, free trade, environmental regulations, the Iran nuclear deal, and the European Union itself. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 285 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] On the risk of war, Graham T. Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017); Aaron L. Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2011); for a pessimistic view of America’s prospects, Martin Jacques, When China Rules the World: the Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World (London: Allen Lane, 2009); for optimistic accounts, Michael Beckley, Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018); Thomas J. Christensen, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015); David L. Shambaugh, China Goes Global: the Partial Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013). [2] At its core, grand strategy is “the intellectual architecture that lends structure to foreign policy”; Hal Brands, What Good is Grand Strategy? Power and Purpose in American Statecraft (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 1. For debates on the nature and relevance of grand strategy, see Brands, What Good Is Grand Strategy? 1–16; Nina Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword: The Three Meanings of ‘Grand Strategy,’” Security Studies 27, no. 1 (January 2018): 27–57,; Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield,” Texas National Security Review 2, no. 1 (November 2018), 53–73, [3] Like primacy or preponderance, hegemony entails superior power, but it also implies acknowledgement of a state’s authority by most of the other members of the international system; G. John Ikenberry, Charles A. Kupchan, “Socialization and Hegemonic Power,” International Organization 44, no. 3 (Summer 1990): 283–315, [4] National Security Strategy of the United States of America, The White House, December 2017, 2, 25,; Jeff Smith, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Strategic Implications and International Opposition,” Heritage Foundation, Aug. 9, 2018, 9–10, [5] Gal Luft, “China’s Infrastructure Play: Why Washington Should Accept the New Silk Road,” Foreign Affairs 95, no. 5 (September/October 2016): 68–75,; Parag Khanna, "Washington Is Dismissing China's Belt and Road. That’s a Huge Strategic Mistake," Politico, April 30, 2019, [6] Peter Cai, “Understanding China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” Lowy Institute, March 2017, 1–22,; Tim Summers, “China’s ‘New Silk Roads’: Sub-National Regions and Networks of Global Political Economy,” Third World Quarterly 37, no. 9 (2016): 1628–43,; Christopher K. Johnson, “President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative: a Practical Assessment of the Chinese Communist Party’s Roadmap For China’s Global Resurgence,” Center for International and Strategic Studies, March 28, 2016, 19–20, v, [7] Bruno Maçães, Belt and Road: a Chinese World Order (London: Hurts & Company, 2018), 5–8; Jennifer Lind, “Life in China’s Asia: What Regional Hegemony Would Look Like,” Foreign Affairs 97, no. 2 (March/April 2018): 72–75,; Alek Chance, “American Perspectives on the Belt And Road Initiative: Sources of Concern, Possibilities for U.S.-China Cooperation,” Institute for China-America Studies, November 2016, 15–17,; Dalton Lin, “The One Belt One Road Project and China's Foreign Relations,” Carter Center, china Program Policy Paper 1, no. 2 (September  2015), [8] It cost $122 billion (current dollars); Ely Ratner, Elizabeth Rosenberg, Daniel Kliman, “The China Challenge,” Center for a New American Security, June 27, 2018, [9] Johnson, “President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road,’” vi. [10] Jonathan E. Hillman, “China’s Belt and Road is Full of Holes,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Sept. 4, 2018,; David G. Landry, “The Belt and Road Bubble Is Starting to Burst,” Foreign Policy, June 27, 2018,; Landry, “The Belt and Road Bubble”; Tanner Greer, “One Belt, One road, One Big Mistake,” Foreign Policy, Dec. 6, 2018, [11] Geoeconomics is the “use of economic instruments…to produce beneficial geopolitical results”; Robert D. Blackwill and Jennifer M. Harris, War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft (Cambridge, MA: Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 2016), 20. For additional information on China’s geoeconomic assets, see Blackwill and Harris, War by Other Means, 129–51. [12] For works of reference, see, Bruno Maçães, Belt and Road; and Nadège Rolland, China’s New Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2017). [13] Albert Hirschman, National Power and the Structure of Foreign Trade (Berkeley: UCLA Press, 1945); Richard N. Rosecrance, The Rise of the Trading State: Commerce and Conquest in the Modern World (New York: Basic Books, 1986); Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987). [14] Harris and Blackwill, War by Other Means, 37; Parag Khanna, Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (New York: Random House, 2016); Markus Brunnermeier, Rush Doshi, and Harold James, “Beijing’s Bismarckian Ghosts: How Great Powers Compete Economically,” Washington Quarterly 41, no. 3 (Fall 2018): 161–76, [15] John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014), 55. [16] Silove, “Beyond the Buzzword,” 28–29. On the diminishing returns of military power, see Daniel W. Drezner, “Military Primacy Doesn’t Pay (Nearly As Much As You Think),” International Security 38, no. 1 (Summer 2013), 52–79,; for an article arguing that military capabilities are more influential than economic “dependency,” see Robert S. Ross, “Balance of Power Politics and the Rise of China,” International Security 15, no. 3 (2006), 355–95, [17] Barry Posen, Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014), 1. [18] Robert J. Art, A Grand Strategy for America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), 2. [19] Colin Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy (Princeton, NY: Princeton University Press, 2006), 10. [20] “Xi Says Belt and Road Vision Becoming Reality,” Xinhua, May 14, 2017, [21] Gisela Grieger, “One Belt, One Road: China’s Regional Integration Initiative,” European Parliament Research Service, July 2016, 4,; Thomas S. Eder and Jacob Mardell, “Belt and Road Reality Check: How to Assess China’s Investment in Eastern Europe,” Mercator Institute for China Studies, July 7, 2018, [22] Cecilia Joy-Perez and Derek Scissors, “The Chinese State Funds Belt and Road but Does Not Have Trillions to Spare,” American Enterprise Institute, March 28, 2018, 1–2,; Derek Scissors, “Chinese Investment: State-Owned Enterprises Stop Globalizing, For Now,” American Enterprise Institute, Jan. 17 2019, 5, [23] “2018 Belt and Road Trade Reached $1.3 Trillion,” Maritime Executive, Jan. 26, 2019, [24] See later sections. [25] Richard Ghiasy and Jiayi Zhou, The Silk Road Economic Belt: Considering Security Implications and EU-China Cooperation Prospects (Stockholm: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), 5, [26] Lee Jones and Yizheng Zou, “Rethinking the Role of State-Owned Enterprises in China’s Rise,” New Political Economy 22, no. 6 (2017): 744,; Shahar Hameiri and Lee Jones, “China Challenges Global Governance? Chinese International Development finance and the AIIB,” International Affairs 94, no. 3 (May 2018): 580, 584, [27] Ngai-Ling Sum, “The Intertwined Geopolitics and Geoeconomics of Hopes/Fears: China’s Triple Economic Bubbles and the ‘One Belt, One Road’ Imaginary,” Territory, Politics, Governance, published online Oct. 5, 2018, 1–2, [28] “China Moves to Define ‘Belt and Road’ Projects for the First Time”, Taiwan Straits, April 3, 2019,; Rolland, China’s New Eurasian Century, 50, 55. [29] Rolland, China’s New Eurasian Century, 7, 108; Alice Ekman et al., “Three Years of China’s New Silk Roads: From Words to (Re)action?” Institut français des relations, February 2017, 10, 17–21,; Johnson, “President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road,’” 5. [30] Christopher A. Ford, China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 90. [31] Manjari Chatterjee Miller, Wronged by Empire: Post-Imperial Ideology and Foreign Policy in India and China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 2. [32] Ford, China Looks at the West, 421. [33] Quoted from Andrew Scobell, China and Strategic Culture (Honolulu: Hawaii University Press, 2004), 3. Strategic culture is the “central paradigmatic assumptions about the nature of conflict and the enemy and collectively shared by decision makers”; Alastair I. Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), ix. [34] Johnston, Cultural Realism, 25. [35] Scobell, China and Strategic Culture, 11–12, 17; Andrew Scobell, “China’s Real Strategic Culture: A Great Wall of the Imagination,” Contemporary Security Policy 35, no. 2 (2014): 220–21, [36] This definition largely builds upon Brock Tessman and Wojtek Wolfe, “Great Powers and Strategic Hedging: The Case of Chinese Energy Security Strategy,” International Studies Review 13, no. 2 (June 2011): 220, [37] Zhang Yuling and Tang Shiping, “China’s Regional Strategy,” in, Power Shift: China and Asia’s New Dynamics, ed. David Shambaugh (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 48. [38] David Lai, “Learning from the Stones: A Go Approach to Mastering China’s Strategic Concept, Shi,” Strategic Studies Institute, May 2004, 5, [39] Flynt Leverett and Wu Binging, “The New Silk Road and China’s Evolving Grand Strategy,” China Journal, no. 77 (January 2017): 113, On the People’s Liberation Army and ancient Chinese strategic thought, see, Andrea Ghiselli, “Revising China’s Strategic Culture: Contemporary Cherry-Picking of Ancient Strategic Thought,” China Quarterly, no. 233 (March 2018): 177–80, [40] Lai, “Learning From the Stones,” 5. [41] Randall L. Schweller and Xiaoyu Pu, “After Unipolarity: China’s Visions of International Order in an Era of U.S. Decline,” International Security 36, no. 1 (Summer 2011): 44, [42] “Full Text of President Xi’s Speech at Opening of Belt and Road Forum,” Xinhua, May 14, 2017, [43] Christopher A. Ford, “Realpolitik with Chinese Characteristics: Chinese Strategic Culture and the Modern Communist Party-State,” in, Strategic Asia 2016-2017: Understanding Strategic Cultures in the Asia-Pacific, ed. Michael Wills, Ashley J. Tellis, and Alison Szalwinski, (Seattle: National Bureau of Asian Research, 2016), 34. [44] Julia Lovell, The Great Wall: China against the World, 1000 B.C.-A.D. 2000 (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2006), 36. [45] Lovell, The Great Wall, 348–49. [46] Leverett and Binging, “The New Silk Road,” 113. [47] Bonnie S. Glaser and Matthew Funaiole, “Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress Speech Heralds Greater Assertiveness in Chinese Foreign Policy,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Oct. 26, 2017, [48] Avery Goldstein, Rising to the Challenge: China’s Grand Strategy and International Security (Redwood, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005), 12, 38, 103, 176. [49] Johnson, Cultural Realism, x. [50] Andrew R. Wilson, “The Chinese Way of War,” in, Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security, ed. Thomas J. Mahnken and Dan Blumenthal (Redwood, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), 109–11. [51] Kari Lindberg and Tripti Lahiri, “From Asia to Africa, China’s ‘Debt-Trap Diplomacy’ Was Under Siege in 2018,” Quartz, Dec. 28, 2018, [52] Ford, “Realpolitik with Chinese Characteristics,” 30; Alastair Iain Johnston, “Cultural Realism and Strategy in Maoist China,” in, Cultures of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics, ed. Peter J. Katzenstein (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 219. [53] Schweller and Pu, “After Unipolarity,” 65. [54] Lai, “Learning from the Stones,” 27–28; Henry A. Kissinger, On China (New York: Penguin Press, 2011), 22–25. [55] See below. [56] David Brewster, “Silk Roads and Strings of Pearls: The Strategic Geography of China’s New Pathways in the Indian Ocean,” Geopolitics 22, no. 2 (2017): 270–71, 277–80, [57] Wei Chen et al., “A Forensic Examination of China’s National Accounts,” Brookings Institution, March 7, 2019,; Michael Beckley, “The Power of Nations: Measuring What Matters,” International Security 43, no. 2 (Fall 2018), 7–44, [58] Michael Beckley, “China’s Century? Why America’s Edge Will Endure,” International Security 26, no. 3 (2012): 33–78,; Elizabeth C. Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018). [59] Alexander K. Cooley, “The Emerging Political Economy of OBOR: The Challenges of Promoting Connectivity in Central Asia and Beyond,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, October 2016, 1–15, [60] Louise Moon, “Chinese Overseas Deals Fall Amid Heightened Scrutiny in U.S.,” South China Morning Post, Aug. 21, 2018, [61] William H. Overholt, China’s Crisis of Success (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 70, 176, 181; Sebastian Heilmann, Red Swan: How Unorthodox Policy Making Facilitated China’s Rise (Hong-Kong: Chinese University Press, 2018); Editorial Board, “China’s Slowing Economic Growth Should Not Be a Concern,” Financial Times, Oct. 21, 2018, China’s “inclusive wealth” ratio vis-à-vis America rose from 0.6 to 0.686 between 2005 and 2018 (author’s calculation). Between 2014 and 2018, their “inclusive wealth” increased by 2.4 percent and 2 percent, respectively; Shunsuke Managi and Pushpam Kumar, eds., Inclusive Wealth Report 2018: Measuring Progress Toward Sustainability (New York: Routledge, 2018), 230, 234, 249, 252, [62] Neta C. Crawford, “United States Budgetary Costs of the Post-9/11 Wars Through FY2019: $5.9 Trillion Spent and Obligated,” Watson Center for International and Public Affairs, 1, [63] David Dollar, “Is China’s Development Finance a Challenge to the International Order?” Asian Economic Policy Review 13, no. 2 (July 2018): 283–98,; Keith Bradsher, “China Taps the Brakes on its Global Push for Influence,” New York Times, Oct. 17, 2017, [64] For now, private actors are reluctant; Joy-Perez, Scissors, “The Chinese State,” 2, 4; “Credit Suisse Says China Belt-Road Plan May Top $500 Billion,” Bloomberg News, May 4, 2017,; “China Going Global Investment Index 2017,” Economist Intelligence Unit, Undated, 23, [65] According to some sources, 89 percent of contractors are Chinese; Jonathan E. Hillman, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Five Years Later,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jan. 25, 2018, [66] For an overview, see John Hurley, Scott Morris, and Gailyn Portelance, “Examining the Debt Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative from a Policy Perspective,” Center for Global Development, March 4, 2018, 1–37, [67] “Infrastructure Productivity: How to Save $1T a Year,” McKinsey Global Institute, January 2013, [68] Khanna, Connectography, 95; David Dollar, “Lessons for the AIIB from the Experience of the World Bank,” Brookings Institution, April 27, 2015,; Branko Milanovic, “The West is Mired in ‘Soft’ Development. China is Trying the ‘Hard’ Stuff,” Guardian, May 17, 2017, [69] Axel Dreher et al., “Aid, China, and Growth: Evidence from a New Global Development Finance Dataset,” AidData Working Paper #46, (October 2017); Deborah Brautigam, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Stephen B. Kaplan, “The Rise of Patient Capital: A Tectonic Shift in Global Finance and Developing Countries?” SSRN, June 5, 2019, 1–33, [70] Hurley, Morris, and Portelance, “Examining the Debt Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative from a Policy Perspective,” 5; Deborah Brautigam, “Is China the World’s Loan Shark?” New York Times, April 26, 2019, [71] W. Gyude Moore, “2018 FOCAC: Africa in the New Reality of Reduced Chinese Lending,” Center for Global Development, Aug. 31, 2018,; “Third World Debt, Deficits, Debt and the Role of the IMF,” Mount Holyoke College, undated,; El Hadji Guissé, “Effects of Debt on Human Rights,” United Nations Economic and Social Council, July 1, 2004,; Daron Acemoğlu and James Robinson, “The Economic Impact of Colonialism,” Center for Economic and Policy Research Policy Portal, Jan. 20, 2017,; Michael Mussa, “U.S. Macroeconomic Policy and Third World Debt,” CATO Journal 4, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 1984): 81–95,; J. Shola Omotola and Hassan Saliu, “Foreign Aid, Debt Relief and Africa's Development: Problems and Prospects,” South African Journal of International Affairs 16, no. 1 (2009): 91, [72] Sam Ball, “German Firm to Run Greek Airports as Sell-off Begins,” France 24, Aug. 20, 2015, [73] Jonathan E. Hillman, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Five Years Later,” Hearing Before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 115th Congress, Second Session, (Hereafter, USCESRC), Jan. 25, 2018, 48, Transcript - January 25, 2018_0.pdf; Andrew Small, “China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Five Years Later,” Hearing Before the USCESRC, Jan. 25, 2018, 119, Transcript - January 25, 2018_0.pdf; for a larger perspective, see Alvin A. 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Redefining a Critical Alliance,” War on the Rocks, Sept. 5, 2018,; Jaechun Kim, “South Korea’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Dilemma,” The Diplomat, April 27, 2018,; Patrick Monaghan, “Is the U.S.-South Korea Alliance in Trouble?” The Diplomat, April 21, 2018, [196] Yang, “Belt and Road Initiative Warmly Welcomed in Australia’s Northern Territory,”, July 16, 2018,; “Australia Records Bumper Trade Surplus in 2018,” Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, Feb. 5, 2019, [197] Hugh White, “The White Paper’s Grand Strategic Fix: Can Australia Achieve an Indo-Pacific Pivot?”, Nov. 28, 2017, [198] Jason Scott, “Australia Looks to Repair China Relationship After Huawei Spat,” Bloomberg, March 28, 2019, [199] Tanvi Madan, “Dancing with the Dragon: Deciphering India’s ‘China Reset,’” War on the Rocks, April 26, 2018,; Lara Seligman, “Washington Warns of Sanctioning India over Russian Missile System,” Foreign Policy, Aug. 29, 2018,; Rajesh Rajagopalan, “India’s Strategic Choices: China and the Balance of Power in Asia,” Carnegie India, Sept. 14, 2017, 11, 31, [200] “India Becomes Largest Recipient of AIIB Financing,” RWR Advisory Group, June 27, 2018,; “Spotlight: China-India Trade Ties Set to Deepen,” Xinhua, March 31, 2018, [201] Dhruva Jaishankar, “Survey of India’s Strategic Community,” Brookings Institution, March 1, 2019,; Derek Grossman, “India Is the Weakest Link in the Quad,” Foreign Policy, July 23, 2018,; Arzan Tarapore, “Using Uncertainty as Leverage: India’s Security Competition with China,” War on the Rocks, June 18, 2018, [202] “France and Security in the Indo-Pacific,” French Ministry of the Armed Forces, May 2019, 4,; “China and the Rules-Based International System”, U.K. House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, 16th Report of Session 2017–19, April 4, 2019, 5–7, 23–25, 46–47,; Andrew Small, “Why Europe Is Getting Tough on China,” Foreign Affairs, April 3, 2019, [203] Ellen Nakashima, “U.S. Pushes Hard for a Ban on Huawei in Europe, but the Firm’s 5G Prices Are Nearly Irresistible,” Washington Post, May 29, 2019,; Nadège Rolland, “The Belt and Road in Europe: Five Years Later,” The Diplomat, Sept. 1, 2018, [204] Jeremy Green, “The City’s Pivot to China in a Post-Brexit World: A Uniquely Vulnerable Policy,” London School of Economics Blog, June 15, 2018,; Nazvi Careem, “UK Supports the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ Behind the Scenes,” South China Morning Post, Sept. 20, 2018,; Brenda Goh, “Britain Calls China’s Belt and Road Initiative a ‘Vision,’” Reuters, April 25, 2019,; Rolland, “The Belt and Road in Europe.” [205] Small, “Why Europe Is Getting Tough on China”; Li Jie Sheng, “Where Is Britain’s Indo-Pacific Strategy?” The Diplomat, June 7, 2019, [206] Aaron L. Friedberg, “Competing with China,” Survival 60, no. 3 (2018): 39–50, [207] Joseph Sassoon, “China and Iraq,” in, The Red Star and the Crescent: China and the Middle East, ed. James Reardon-Anderson (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2018), 159, 165. [208] Blackwill and Harris, War by Other Means, 220–50; Friedberg, “Competing with China,” 27, 33. [209] Evan Braden Montgomery, “Competitive Strategies Against Continental Powers: The Geopolitics of Sino-Indian-American Relations,” Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 1 (2013): 77–78, [210] Michael Beckley, “The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia: How China’s Neighbors Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion,” International Security 42, no. 2 (Fall 2017): 79–81,; Avery Goldstein, “First Things First: The Pressing Danger of Crisis Instability in U.S.-China Relations,” International Security 37, no. 4 (Spring 2013), 49–89, [211] Michael D. Swaine, “Creating an Unstable Asia: The U.S. ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ Strategy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2, 2018, ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [1] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1525 [post_author] => 172 [post_date] => 2019-06-25 05:00:55 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-06-25 09:00:55 [post_content] =>


On a cold winter day in 1793, a crowd of French revolutionaries burst into the chapel of the Sorbonne. Streaming toward a large sarcophagus in the center of the apse, the mob laid into the cool marble with their rifle butts, hammering away at the central figure’s aquiline features. Howling vandals dragged a desiccated cadaver from the crypt, and a grisly — and most likely apocryphal — tale describes how street urchins were later spotted playing with its severed head.[1] Alexandre Lenoir, an archeologist, waded into the whirlwind of mayhem and — at the price of a bayonet-skewered hand — managed to save one of baroque sculpture’s masterpieces from total destruction.[2] The object of the sans-culottes' ire was a man who had been dead for over a century and a half, but who remains to this day a towering symbol of Ancien Régime absolutism: Armand Jean du Plessis — better known as Cardinal Richelieu. The clergyman, who served as Louis XIII’s chief minister from 1624 to 1642, has long constituted one of the more polarizing and fascinating figures in the history of Western statecraft. Renowned for his fierce intellect, mastery of the dark arts of propaganda, and unshakeable belief in the centralizing virtues of the French monarchy, Richelieu’s actions as chief minister have been debated by generations of historians, political philosophers, novelists, and biographers.[3] Richelieu is best known for three things: his unabashed authoritarianism, his efforts to stiffen the sinews of the French state, and his decision to position France as a counterweight to Habsburg hegemony through a network of alliances with Protestant powers. It is these aspects of his domestic and international legacy — all of which are frequently viewed as closely intertwined — that have triggered the most controversy. On the one hand, there are the aforementioned critics — those that viewed the cardinal as a devious and shadowy character, the mustachio-twirling villain of The Three Musketeers who cloaked his naked ambition and venal appetites under his crimson robes.[4] On the other hand, there has always been an equally strong cohort of Richelieu enthusiasts. For many modern French writers, Louis XIII’s chief minister was an early patriot who contributed to the secularization (laïcisation) of French foreign policy, and by extension, of French national identity.[5] Eminent German historians have viewed the cleric as a symbol of diplomatic prudence and dexterity, and have compared him in glowing terms to another “white revolutionary,” Otto Von Bismarck.[6] Henry Kissinger, a great admirer of the Frenchman, memorably characterized him as “the charting genius of a new concept of centralized statecraft and foreign policy based on the balance of power.”[7] This article focuses on this last aspect of Richelieu’s life and legacy: his conception and practice of great power competition. The goal is not to engage in a moral examination of his actions, but rather to debate their overall effectiveness in advancing France’s foreign policy interests during the Thirty Years’ War. What philosophy of power and statecraft underpinned the cardinal’s approach to counter-hegemonic balancing? How did he view France’s role in the world and what was his vision of collective security? Finally, what insights can be derived from Richelieu’s approach to foreign policy and great power competition? Is Richelieu the embodiment of prudentia, or sagacious statecraft, as some have argued? Perhaps most importantly, are the policies and writings of a 17th-century clergyman relevant and worthy of scrutiny by contemporary security managers?[8] In an effort to answer these questions, the article proceeds in three main parts. The first section will explore the intellectual foundations of Richelieu’s foreign policy. The cardinal was a product of early European nationalism, and he — along with other segments of the country’s ruling elites — was steeped in a heavily mythicized belief in French exceptionalism. These messianic and nationalist tendencies were buttressed by the development of a sophisticated body of thought on raison d’état — or reason of state. Raison d’état fused foreign ideological imports, such as Machiavellianism, with neo-stoicism and France’s own tradition of divine absolutism. The net result was a philosophy of power tempered by prudence — one which sought to transcend confessional divisions in favor of domestic unity and international strength. Richelieu’s vision of foreign policy, and of an “Augustan golden age” in which France would play the arbitral role in a carefully balanced order of nation-states, can thus best be understood as a subtle amalgamation of these two intellectual currents, raison d’état and French exceptionalism. In the second part, the paper examines Richelieu’s strategy in action. At the beginning of the chief minister’s tenure, it was readily apparent that the kingdom of Louis XIII was in no position to directly challenge Habsburg dominance. Weakened by years of war and religious turmoil, and riven with bitter divisions, France, which only a century earlier was considered the greatest military power in the West, was in a defensive crouch, ill-equipped and reluctant to engage in a transcontinental armed struggle. Its finances were in shambles, its military system in dire need of reform, and its security elites almost irreconcilably disunited in their approach to grand strategy. For the first decade or so of his tenure as chief minister, Richelieu sought, therefore, to recover France’s strategic solvency by strengthening its state apparatus, dampening internecine hatreds, and crushing perceived political threats to the monarchy. In the decades-long competition with the Habsburgs, Richelieu viewed time as a precious strategic commodity, and opted wherever possible for a strategy of exhaustion and harassment — la guerre couverte (covert war) — over one of frontal confrontation. He waged war via a complex constellation of proxies, while his most able diplomats were dispatched to foment internal divisions within both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Meanwhile, Richelieu’s attempts to craft a more flexible and dynamic form of foreign policy ran into fierce opposition from the dévots — Catholic zealots who rejected French alliances with Protestant powers, and sought to accommodate Habsburg Spain. Even as the cardinal sought to prevail in these bitter ideological struggles and establish some modicum of strategic consensus, he also embarked on an ambitious — and only partially successful — effort to enact internal reforms and strengthen France’s overall state capacity.[9] In 1635, drastic changes in the regional configuration of power forced Richelieu to reluctantly transition from la guerre couverte to la guerre ouverte — or open war. Until his death in 1642, the cardinal found himself in the challenging position of overseeing a war unprecedented in scale, and waged on several fronts, a conflict that drained the state’s coffers and placed considerable stress on a public administration still in its adolescence. Increasingly unpopular and ever fearful of falling out of his mercurial monarch’s favor, the chief minister’s frail constitution finally gave way in 1642. He thus never got to witness the French victory over Spain at the battle of Rocroi only a few months later— a triumph that, in the eyes of many, marked a definitive shift in the European balance of power.[10] What lessons can be derived from Richelieu’s 18 years at the apex of government? In the third and final section, the essay engages in an assessment of the actions undertaken by this complex and remarkable figure. It conducts a postmortem of Richelieu’s grand strategy of counter-hegemonic balancing and points to its successes as well as its failures and shortcomings. The French historian Philippe Ariès once quipped, “Time sticks to the historian’s thoughts like soil to a gardener’s spade.”[11] As the current generation of strategic thinkers grapples with a period marked by geopolitical upheaval and political disunion, Richelieu’s era — full of its own ideological tumult and nationalist fracas — provides a particularly rich soil in which to start digging.

Richelieu's Vision

Categorizing or succinctly defining Richelieu’s approach to great power competition is no easy task. Unlike other great strategic thinkers such as Clausewitz or Machiavelli, the body of thought bequeathed to us in his voluminous writings does not easily lend itself to systematization.[12] The cardinal was certainly deeply intellectual: He read Greek, Latin, Italian, and Spanish; was a major patron of the arts; and his personal library, which contained proscribed works, including books on Calvinist theology, was considered one of the finest in Europe.[13] Above all, however, he was a statesman and a policy practitioner, less interested in articulating a set of novel theoretical constructs or in pioneering a school of thought than in harnessing knowledge for the purpose of advancing the interests and ideology of the French state. At a time when European political leaders and counselors were avid consumers of new translations and interpretations of Roman history, Richelieu warned against viewing the works of Tacitus, Cicero, or Seneca as precise instruction manuals for the present, stating, for instance, that
There is nothing more dangerous for the state than men who want to govern kingdoms on the basis of maxims which they cull from books. When they do this they often destroy them, because the past is not the same as the present, and times, places, and persons change.[14]
Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of Richelieu’s career was precisely his struggle to preserve a degree of intellectual (and political) maneuverability by circumventing the strictures that accompanied narrow ideologies, politicized confessional divisions, or overly systematized schools of thought. That said, it is also evident upon further examination that he operated under the clear guidance of an overarching vision — one that is best understood as a deep yearning for order in a dislocated world. The cardinal’s lifelong battle against what he perceived as the forces of entropy, chaos, and decline — both within France and, on a more macrocosmic level, overseas — can no doubt be partially explained by two factors. First, Richelieu’s quest for order cannot be dissociated from his own experiences growing up in war-torn France.[15] Second, the cardinal was a product of a historical context propitious to such thinking: early modern Europe as it transitioned from the late Renaissance to the Baroque era, and an intellectual environment marked by the blossoming of thought on raison d’état and a revival of French exceptionalism. Richelieu was raised in a country rent by confessional divisions, wracked with penury and famine, and haunted by the specter of its own decline. Born in 1585 into the Poitou region’s minor nobility, his family’s travails provide a vignette of the broader pressures affecting late 16th-century France. As one biographer notes, “Not a year of his [Richelieu’s] early life was passed in peace, and the waves of war and plague broke right against the frowning walls of the family castle.”[16] Even as a young child, he would have been aware of the disastrous effects of the collapse of royal authority and of the many years of conflict that had pitted French Catholics against their Protestant, Huguenot neighbors.[17] The verdant plains of Poitou — traditionally a major thoroughfare in times of war — remained dotted with gutted buildings and charred crops. The du Plessis lands had been repeatedly despoiled by roving war bands and brigands regularly visited their depredations on local villagers.[18] [quote id="1"] This climate of bloody lawlessness extended to Richelieu’s own relatives, who had been embroiled in a Shakespearean feud with another local family, the Maussons, who ruled over a small castle about a mile and a half away. Following an ugly dispute over control of a local church, the Maussons butchered Richelieu’s uncle, Louis du Plessis. His younger brother — and Richelieu’s future father — the 17-year-old François, was serving as a page at the royal court at the time. Upon hearing the news, the teenager returned to his ancestral lands, lay in wait for the Lord of Mausson by a small bridge, and murdered him.[19] This revenge killing was only the beginning of a remarkably successful — and blood-spattered — military career for Richelieu’s father, who became one of Henri III’s most effective commanders and executioners, personally overseeing the gruesome deaths of a number of declared enemies of the state.[20] Following the king’s assassination at the hands of a Catholic fanatic, François du Plessis immediately pledged loyalty to his designated successor, Henri de Navarre, even though the latter had yet to convert to Catholicism. In this, he displayed a form of “supra-confessional” loyalty to the state that, in some ways, foreshadowed that of his son.[21] Shortly after Henri de Navarre’s coronation as Henri IV, his flinty henchman succumbed to fever. Richelieu was only five at the time and for much of the remainder of his youth his mother struggled with mounting debts and exacting circumstances. A sickly child, Richelieu compensated for his physical frailty with a remarkable intellect coupled with a voracious appetite for learning. Once he came of age, his family directed him toward the bishopric of Luçon, which he acquired in 1607, after having received a special papal dispensation for his young age.[22] A decade later, he entered the royal court as a secretary of state, and in 1622 was named cardinal. Two years later, he ascended to the rank of chief minister, and in 1629 he was awarded the title under which we know him today — that of Duke of Richelieu — Richelieu being the small hamlet where the du Plessis tribe had been raised. A Product of Early French Exceptionalism From his vantage point at the height of France’s royal bureaucracy, the cardinal looked back at the past half-century of chaos, during which five French kings had either died prematurely or been assassinated by religious fanatics and his country had been ravaged by a seemingly endless cycle of war. For men such as Richelieu, these decades of unrest had not only resulted in widespread misery and the weakening of royal authority, they had also turbocharged France’s decline on the international stage. Among a certain constituency of French elites — the politiques or bons français — France’s inability to overcome its communal tensions had only redounded to the advantage of its European competitors, who had capitalized on those divisions. These sentiments were laid bare in pamphlets that lamented that lesser European powers had descended on a weakened France like vultures, “extinguishing the torches of their ambition in France’s blood, emptying their humors on its bosom, and importing their quarrels to its very altars.”[23] If the people of France did not unite, warned such writers, the nation’s fate would be a grim one indeed — it would be reduced to “some little monster of a republic, to some canton (…) or some gray league” of disparate parts.[24] And indeed, during the second half of the 16th century, foreign powers had repeatedly interfered in the nation’s domestic politics and intervened in its civil wars. Philip II’s Spain, which had an interest in keeping France in a state of civil strife, had been especially meddlesome, supporting and subsidizing the uprising of the Catholic League during the succession crisis that followed Henri III’s death in 1589.[25] In short, France in the late 16th century was much like Syria today: a nation crisscrossed with foreign soldiers, mercenaries, and proxies, and a spectacle of almost unremitting misery and desolation, with some modern estimates putting the numbers of casualties at well over a million out of a population about 16 times that size.[26] The reign of Henri IV, from 1589 to 1610, brought a measure of stability to domestic affairs, with the king proving as skilled at fostering unity as he had been at waging war. The signing of the Edict of Nantes, in 1598, ushered in a period of almost unprecedented religious toleration and a fragile peace returned to the realm. Despite his manifold accomplishments, Henri IV’s reign remained fiercely contested by religious extremists on both sides. After miraculously surviving over a dozen assassination attempts, death finally caught up with the “good King Henri” when, in 1610, an unhinged zealot stabbed him to death. His murder constituted something of a unifying trauma for a country weary of the endless spirals of bloodletting and desperate to recover its lost grandeur.[27] Indeed, while conventional wisdom has long held that the messianic character of French nationalism is essentially a modern phenomenon and a natural outgrowth of the universalism of the French enlightenment and revolution, historians have increasingly demonstrated the extent to which French intellectual elites from the medieval era onward already viewed their country as predestined for continental leadership and as a role model for other European monarchies.[28] This form of pre-modern exceptionalism was structured around three main pillars, or conceptual templates. The first was France’s history of imperial glory and martial prowess, with a particular focus on the empire of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, and on France’s leading role during the Crusades, during which it provided the bulk of expeditionary military power. The early 17th century bore witness to a revival of interest in these myth-shrouded eras of France’s past and contemporary texts frequently reprised the medieval papal designation of the French as God’s “chosen people,” or peuple élu.[29] The second was a sense that French dominance was the natural “order of things,” due to the nation’s size, central position, fertile lands, and demographic heft. (The kingdom of France was the most populous in Europe).[30] And the third pillar was a unique brand of French Catholicism — Gallicanism — that argued against excessive papal interference in domestic matters and was closely tied to France’s tradition of divine absolutism.[31] The French monarch, or “most Christian” king, as he was formally known, was revered as a religious figure vested with certain sacred powers and abilities (such as the ability to cure scrofula and other ailments through the power of touch) and as one of God’s “lieutenants” on Earth.[32] [quote id="2"] All of this was accompanied by a sense of cultural superiority that had become increasingly widespread with the diffusion of vernacular French, which many viewed as the “purest” of European tongues after Latin, and the continued circulation of exceptionalist origin myths, such as that the French were descended from the Trojans.[33] These expressions of civilizational pride occasionally went hand in hand with territorial revisionism, as an increasingly vocal body of French jurists and pamphleteers argued in favor of the “recapture” of French imperial possessions harking back to the era of Charlemagne. In so doing, their revanchist arguments bear a resemblance to those of certain contemporary Chinese nationalists, who argue that the People’s Republic of China should hold sway over all territories once controlled by the Ming or Qing dynasties.[34] This cocktail of wounded nationalism and frustrated exceptionalism was rendered more potent by the rise of foreign adversaries that French elites had long perceived as their natural inferiors. While France had been consumed with internal struggles, the Habsburg powers — with their two dynastic branches in Spain and Austria — had been consolidating their strength. Writers in Paris emitted dark warnings of Madrid’s ultimate ambition to establish a “universal monarchy,” which would exert uncontested hegemony from Iberia to Bohemia.[35] Spain — which had humiliated France during the Council of Trent and displaced it as Europe’s most redoubtable military power — was viewed as the most serious and immediate threat. Portrayed in French writings as a “mongrel,” corrupt, and upstart nation, Habsburg Spain had succeeded with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 in strong-arming the French monarchy into acknowledging Spanish dominance over much of Italy.[36] This was a source of intense dismay for a whole generation of French nobles, who had been reared on the tales of their ancestors’ transalpine exploits. A social caste that had drawn much of its raison d'être from the martial luster of foreign ventures feared that it had been trapped in a “post-heroic era.” As one soldier-aristocrat wrote at the time, commenting on the signing of the treaty, “In the space of an hour, with a simple gesture with a quill, we were forced to surrender everything, and to tarnish all our glorious past victories with a few drops of ink.”[37] At the same time, a growing body of nobles had begun to look at France’s religious conflicts with distaste — viewing them as dishonorable, fratricidal, and barbaric — and pined for the “glory days” of foreign wars.[38] As a member of the minor nobility, and the son of a renowned warrior who had served across confessional lines, Richelieu was a direct product of this melancholic, fin-de-siècle zeitgeist. The sections of his writings that expound on the nature and characteristics of the French people frequently resemble those of an exasperated, yet loving, parent. His works also reflect the intellectual tradition of viewing France as uniquely positioned for European leadership and its people as destined for greatness, provided they ceased to wallow in the mediocrity brought about by internal divisions.[39] The cardinal was hardly subtle in his suggestion that he was destined for a leading role, with an almost sacred responsibility to inject discipline into France’s boisterous society and channel its formidable energy into the recovery of its natural place at the cockpit of European geopolitics. The latter goal would require him to pursue a bold and controversial foreign policy vision — one intellectually grounded in theories of raison d’état. Raison d’Etat and Authoritarianism Few political theorists have generated quite as much heated controversy as Niccolò Machiavelli.[40] The Machiavellian assertion of a clear and necessary distinction between private morality and state behavior was viewed as a moral affront — or at least a severe intellectual challenge — by many early modern Christian thinkers. And then, of course, there was the whiff of sulfur that came with the mere mention of the Italian humanist’s name. His works were placed on the papal index of proscribed books and he had become associated in popular culture with atheism and republicanism. In early 17th-century France, in particular, there was a radioactive quality to affirming oneself as a disciple of Machiavelli, whose very “Italianness” rendered his ideas suspect.[41] For many political theorists of the early Baroque era, it was safer to simply bypass the works of the controversial Florentine to plumb the ruminations of the sages of the ancient world. Tacitus, in particular, was considered, in the words of Montaigne, to be a veritable “nursery of ethical and political discourses for the use and ornament of those who have status in the management of the world.”[42] As one historian notes, 17th-century writers began to contrast Machiavellianism with Tacitism, framing them as “two terms connoting either a pejorative or a positive interpretation of raison d’état principles.”[43] The rise of this particular brand of Tacitism coincided with the growth of the neo-stoic movement, which drew solace from the virtues celebrated by Roman stoics such as Seneca — constantia, self-discipline, obedience, and rationality. The spread of neo-stoicism, many have argued, was a natural reaction to decades of violence and disruption.[44] Neo-stoicism was more than just a consolatory credo, however. It was also a philosophy of action that emphasized patriotism and public service.[45] In that sense, it aligned neatly with the goals of many Christian political theorists of the Counter-Reformation, who had set out to prove that it was possible to advance the interests of the state without completely severing ties with the Christian ethical tradition.[46] The flowering of such writings gave birth to a remarkably rich and sophisticated body of thought, one that largely succeeded in its mission to develop a pragmatic, yet religiously inflected, foreign policy ethos. It is through this prism that one should read Richelieu’s own writings on statecraft, rather than viewing him simply as the “French Machiavelli,” or as the harbinger of a continent-wide secularization of foreign policy.[47] Indeed, in lieu of detaching France’s secular interests from its faith-based traditions, Richelieu and the writers and polemicists with whom he surrounded himself sought to combine the two and “endeavored to show that the good of the state coincided with that of the religion.”[48] In this Richelieu and his supporters were greatly aided by France’s pre-existing exceptionalist mythos and tradition of divine absolutism. The first provided the kingdom with an ideological predisposition toward strategic autonomy, while the second lent a religious “cover” for actions that might otherwise appear hostile to the interests of the Catholic Church. French raison d’état was deeply intertwined with the nation’s tradition of divine absolutism. For Richelieu and his absolutist fellow travelers, monarchy was not only the most effective form of government, it was also the most natural.[49] The French monarch, by virtue of his divine nature, was infused with a purer, higher form of reason, which allowed him to pursue a more pragmatic foreign policy at a remove from the unruly passions and parochial concerns of the common man.[50] This view of the king as the metaphysical embodiment of the state is evident throughout the works of Richelieu’s closest collaborators, with one of them writing that the king was so divinely “animated by the power of reason,” that “the interests of the state” had replaced the “passions of his soul.”[51] At the same time, however, the corporeal structure of the state — its territorial integrity, armies, and institutions — remained profoundly mortal. Its defense could only be guaranteed by a small, trusted group of icy-veined custodians mounting an undying — and unforgiving — vigil. Richelieu thus warned that Christian charity could hardly be extended to seditious actors, for while
man’s salvation occurs ultimately in the next world … states have no being after this world. Their salvation is either in the present or nonexistent. Hence the punishments that are necessary to their survival may not be postponed but must be immediate.[52]
Indeed, raison d’état was also inherently authoritarian. French raison d’état theorists were not just ruthless, they were also elitists, convinced that the arcana imperii, or mysteries of state, could only be mastered and entrusted to a select few.[53] Having witnessed mob violence and religious cleansing on a horrific scale over the course of the past century, thinkers such as Richelieu were ever wary of the fickleness of their nation’s subjects — ordinary men and women who could fall prey to demagoguery and who, in their minds, were incapable of rising above their petty needs and brutish impulses in order to pursue the greater good. This paternalistic and imperious view of how a nation’s grand strategy should be conducted undergirds the infamous passage in which Richelieu compares the common people to stubborn mules requiring a careful mixture of cajolement and discipline.[54] Richelieu’s seeming dismissal of the everyday concerns of the French peasantry went hand in hand with a determination to impose order both at home and abroad — regardless of temporary hardship or foreign opposition. This single-mindedness was more than just the sign of a merciless operator, however. Although the chief minister was suffused with the pessimism and misanthropy characteristic of authoritarian thinkers, his vision for the future of French and European foreign policy was also strangely optimistic and, some might argue, enlightened for his age. Balancing and Collective Security In 1642, only a few weeks before Richelieu’s death, a heroic comedy, entitled Europe, was performed at the royal court. By all accounts, the production was terrible, with wooden performances and leaden dialogue.[55] Partly ghostwritten by Richelieu on his deathbed, the play was an allegorical representation of the cardinal’s foreign policy. It depicted a struggle between the aggressive, wolfish Ibère (Spain) and the brave, noble Françion (France) for the heart of a delicate princess, Europe. Ibère is portrayed as a haughty, insensitive, and controlling suitor. Europe winds up asking Françion to be her protector and begs him to shield her from the lust-filled Spaniard’s unwanted attentions. The play has little artistic merit, but as a late-career encapsulation of Richelieu’s foreign policy vision, it makes for an interesting read, especially the discussions on the sovereignty of small nation-states, wars of necessity versus wars of choice, and the means by which to attain a lasting peace on the continent. As one analyst notes, the play lays out a vision for a future European defense system that would ensure peace — “but always with France in the driver’s seat.”[56] One segment, in which Françion describes his willingness to sacrifice his own ambitions to shield Europe from Ibère’s predations, is particularly noteworthy:
The innocent and the weak will find in me the source of their support, I was born the tutor of all young princes My strength is what maintains the trembling provinces Everywhere my allies implore my aid And it is with reason, Princess, that I run to them, For fear of otherwise being powerless in my own defense, At last war is needed, and I am drawn into it Not by ambition, but by necessity.[57]
This passage captures several key aspects of Richelieu’s grand strategy: his desire to position France not only as a counterweight to Spanish dominance but also as a future arbiter of state sovereignty; his conviction that France’s foreign policy should be tempered by prudence and not fueled solely by the desire for territorial aggrandizement; and his fixation on his nation’s reputation and credibility, particularly among its smaller allies. One of the unique aspects of the cardinal’s vision to achieve a “general peace” was his desire to position France both as one of the scales in the balance and as the “holder of the [said] balance.”[58] As the weaker party in the Franco-Habsburg rivalry, the French monarchy hoped smaller states could be incited to buy into a more benign model of European geopolitics, with France promising to act as the guarantor of their “ancient freedoms” and “sovereign rights” and as the enforcer of a continent-wide “public liberty.”[59] Naturally, there was an element of cynicism to these pledges as well as to the cardinal’s professed desire to landscape the European jungle into a neatly manicured French garden. Richelieu’s quest for diplomatic equilibrium, along with his hopes for a durable peace settlement, were undoubtedly driven by an ambition, first and foremost, to recover French primacy. That said, notes William Church, all evidence shows that Richelieu was also quite sincere in his hopes for a more peaceful regional order and that he was “sufficiently astute to realize that a Europe-wide system of sovereign states was the only viable alternative to Habsburg universalism.”[60] German historians, such as Fritz Dickmann and Klaus Malettke, have focused on the importance of legalism in Richelieu’s thought and diplomatic instructions and have convincingly argued that the clergyman was already thinking of a collective defense system buttressed by international law and shared security guarantees in addition to balance-of-power politics.[61] [quote id="3"] Of course, Richelieu was hardly the only European thinker to tout the stability-inducing virtues of a regional power equilibrium.[62] David Sturdy has noted that his tenure also coincided with advances in the field of philosophy (such as Cartesianism), and science (such as the discovery of celestial mechanics), which increasingly viewed the physical universe as an intricate assemblage of multiple, self-regulating states of equilibrium. “By analogy,” Sturdy ventures,
Richelieu thought of a Europe in which smaller, satellite states would orbit larger benevolent protectors, none of which would seek hegemony, but which instead would preserve in Europe a peace and equilibrium corresponding to the harmony of the heavens.[63]
There are also some more easily discernible sources of inspiration drawn from history — despite Richelieu’s distaste for warmed-over compilations of ancient aphorisms. Both the chief minister and his most trusted aide, Father Joseph — a  wily Capuchin monk who “combined in his own persons the oddly assorted characters of Metternich and Savonarola” — frequently referred to the advent of a new “Augustan golden age” they hoped would dawn on European affairs following the bloody unrest of the Thirty Years’ War, much as the reign of Augustus had put an end to the chaos of Rome’s civil wars.[64] Neo-stoicism relayed a strongly cyclical view of foreign affairs and baroque raison d’état theorists focused intensely on the lessons to be derived from the study of the rise and fall of ancient empires.[65] One of the most eloquent articulations of the era’s predilection for applied history was made by the Savoyard Giovanni Botero in his masterpiece Della Ragion di Stato (The Reason of State), when he stated that, while one could learn from both the living or the dead, “a much greater field from which to learn is that offered to us by the dead with the histories written by them.”[66] For classically educated nationalists such as Richelieu, it appeared evident that France was in many ways the new Rome and Spain — with its kaleidoscope of ethnicities, dispersed territories, and maritime empire — was Carthage.[67] The challenge was how to effectively implement a strategy that would allow France to buy time, gather its strength, and eventually defeat Spain, much as Rome finally prevailed over its trans-Mediterranean foe after a century of bitter struggle.

Richelieu's Strategy

The Habsburg Challenge and the Art of the Long View When Richelieu was elevated to the rank of chief minister in 1624, France’s strategic position, locked in the heart of a war-torn Europe, appeared — at first glance — rather grim. With the kingdom surrounded on all sides by Habsburg possessions, from the Spanish Netherlands in the north to the Iberian Peninsula in the southwest, the cardinal labored to develop a strategy that would allow France to break out of its constricted geopolitical environment. This strategy was undergirded by three main assumptions. First, France and its underdeveloped army were not yet ready to engage in direct confrontation with their battle-hardened Spanish counterparts, and a weary, fractious French political establishment was unlikely to support any drawn-out military effort. Time was therefore the recuperating nation’s most precious strategic commodity. A strategy of delay and protraction was not only required to muster its martial strength but also to forge the necessary elite consensus. Provided France could continue to buy time and bleed the Habsburgs via a league of well-funded and militarily capable proxies, Richelieu was convinced that France’s demographic and economic resources would allow it to eventually gain the upper hand in its protracted competition with Spain. As he had confidently predicted in a letter to his ambassador in Madrid in 1632,
Nowhere is Spain in a position to resist a concentrated power such as France over a long period, and in the final analysis the outcome of a general war must necessarily be calamitous for our Iberian neighbor.[68]
Second, Richelieu believed that France’s geographic predicament — its location at the center of the European chessboard and its seeming state of encirclement — could, in fact, be leveraged to its advantage. As one recent study of past rivalries has noted, great powers with extended economic and military interests must frequently grapple with two major challenges: First, they offer many points for enemies to threaten and attack, and second, their capacity to project military strength is eroded the further the contested zone is from the core of their power.[69] With its dispersed holdings, Spain was heavily reliant on the lines of communication that formed the connective tissue of its sprawling empire — whether by sea, or by land, via the so-called Spanish road that ran from the Netherlands through the Italian peninsula.[70] As Richelieu later gloated in the Testament Politique, France’s centrality and superior interior lines of communication provided it with the means to sever the various strands of Spain’s imperial web:
The providence of God, who desires to keep everything in balance, has ensured that France, thanks to its geographical position, should separate the states of Spain and weaken them by dividing them.[71]
J.H. Elliott, an eminent scholar of early modern Spain, has shown the extent to which Richelieu’s Spanish counterpart and longstanding nemesis, the Count-Duke of Olivares, was aware of the inherent vulnerabilities that came with Spain’s sprawling empire.[72] Elliott notes that Richelieu’s fears of encirclement were paralleled by Olivares’ “obsession with the French threat to the network of international communications on which Spanish power depended. … What to France was a noose, was to Spain a life-line.”[73]  

Image 1: Map of Europe During Richelieu’s Time as Chief Minister

  Richelieu did not confine his strategy of great power competition to the continental theater, however. From the very beginning of his time as chief minister he stressed the importance of seapower and resolutely focused on the development of France’s naval strength.[74] While prestige undoubtedly played a role in Richelieu’s energetic pursuit of seapower, it was not the only motivation. His quest to see France emerge as a full-spectrum great power was also undergirded by an ambition to better compete for access to an increasingly globalized market and a desire to shield France’s maritime approaches and seaborne trade from predatory naval action.[75] Threatening some of Spain’s most vital maritime resupply lines and further complicating its strategic planning was simply the icing on the cake.[76] The story of Richelieu’s stewardship of the French Royal Navy is not one of untrammeled success. His efforts to vault France into the ranks of Europe’s greatest oceanic powers were chronically undermined by bureaucratic and logistical travails and the fleet’s funding was often neglected in favor of a perpetually resource-starved army.[77] Overall, however, the cardinal’s overarching goals were more than met. By 1635, he had succeeded in creating a navy that overshadowed England’s and matched that of Spain in the Mediterranean.[78] Finally, Richelieu knew that France would struggle to prosecute a multifront campaign against the combined military might of the Habsburgs’ two dynastic branches. Through dexterous and continuous diplomacy, he therefore sought to forestall the advent of a formalized military alliance between Vienna and Madrid. At the same time, Richelieu worked to accentuate internal frictions within both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, supporting secessionist movements in Portugal and Catalonia, and quietly stoking the resentment of liberty-starved prince-electors in Germany.[79] In this, Richelieu was aided by a formidable coterie of advisers, bureaucratic allies, and diplomatic envoys, who tirelessly crisscrossed the continent and produced exquisitely detailed strategic forecasts. Some of these studies, which engage in a dispassionate, multilevel analysis of the respective competitive advantages and disadvantages of different European powers, apply the same level of analytical rigor that one would expect from the best of contemporary net assessments.[80] La Guerre Couverte Many of Richelieu’s first actions as chief minister focused on domestic consolidation and on preempting any perceived political threats to the reign of a youthful and unseasoned monarch. In his earlier incarnation as bishop of Luçon, an area with a heavy Calvinist minority population, Richelieu had displayed a proclivity for toleration. Both in his actions as bishop and in his theological writings, he had repeatedly argued that Protestants should be converted by the power of reason and dialectical discussion, rather than force of arms.[81] As a government official, however, he and other leading members of the royal council took an increasingly hardline approach to the various Huguenot enclaves that dotted French territory. Under the terms of the Edict of Nantes, these communities had been granted a strong degree of autonomy, and, with their fortified cities and independent political assemblies, appeared, in the words of Richelieu, to seek to “share the state” with the French monarch.[82] Fears over the emergence of a parallel political structure, or of a “state within the state” with strong ties to potentially hostile foreign powers, were accompanied by a more diffuse sense of ideological peril. French absolutist thinkers fretted over the subversive appeal and longstanding popularity of Calvinist republicanism, which they perceived as profoundly antipathetic to monarchic government, among the higher echelons of the French nobility.[83] These tensions came to a head in 1627 with the royal siege of the Huguenot port-city of La Rochelle — a massive military undertaking that was led by the king, overseen by the cardinal-minister, and involved the bulk of royal military resources at the time. [quote id="4"] Richelieu, whose earlier attempts at preserving peace with the great Huguenot lords had led to his being derisively dubbed the “Cardinal of La Rochelle” by his dévot opponents, now showed himself to be methodical and ruthless in his prosecution of the year-long siege. England’s decision to dispatch a large amphibious task force in an (unsuccessful) bid to aid its beleaguered co-religionists in La Rochelle had only strengthened the cardinal-minister’s determination to forcibly subsume Huguenot communities within the French state. The monarchy’s eventual victory over the Huguenot rebels and their great power sponsor precipitated the collapse of Protestant opposition to royal rule and considerably burnished young Louis XIII’s martial credentials in the eyes of fellow European leaders. It was succeeded by the Peace of Alais, which erased most of the Huguenots’ past political privileges, while continuing, by and large, to accord them freedom of worship. Leading figures of the Huguenot uprising were pardoned or treated with clemency after having sworn fealty to the French king, and some, such as the Duke of Rohan, went on to number among some of France’s greatest generals.[84] Subsequently, royal historians took great pains to stress that the king’s Protestant subjects had not been punished on account of their religion, but rather because they had chosen the path of armed rebellion and collusion with a foreign power.[85] Richelieu’s suppression of the Huguenot uprising was part of a broader effort to do away with alternative power centers or codes of loyalty within France, carried out via an expansion of the definition of treason or lèse-majesté, and a series of policies targeting the French nobility that focused on its capacity to resist royal authority and its distinct strategic sub-culture.[86] In 1626, for example, Richelieu ordered the destruction of all fortresses not situated on the nation’s frontiers, regardless of the religious affiliation of their proprietors. That same year, he issued a much-decried edict against dueling. While this measure may seem almost quaint to a modern reader, it was in fact hugely significant.[87] It took direct aim at some of the French nobility’s most cherished beliefs, including their hallowed honor code. Richelieu, whose elder brother perished in a duel in 1619, was weary of witnessing promising members of the nation’s warrior caste ritually kill one another at an alarming rate.[88] As historians of the Ancien Régime have noted, these deadly contests fulfilled an important symbolic and social function within a French nobility still wedded to ideals of Homeric heroism and medieval chivalry.[89] The aristocracy’s fighting ethos was undergirded by its members’ desire to demonstrate their worth to other members of their social caste and win that most precious of social currencies — gloire. Dueling had progressively become like a religion — death in single combat was a “human sacrifice to the god of peer opinion.”[90] Richelieu, like many of his contemporaries, was of two minds regarding the French nobility’s warrior ethos. He appreciated its age-old emphasis on courage and personal sacrifice, but also criticized its tendency toward erratic emotionalism, along with its vainglorious and self-destructive tendencies.[91] In his later correspondence with French nobles deployed to the front, it is telling that he sometimes advised his soldier-aristocrats to rein in their natural hotheadedness and to behave with “prudence.”[92] More than anything, the cardinal-minister wished to redirect the famed furia francese and thirst for glory of the nobility so that it served the broader geopolitical ambitions of the French crown rather than merely the competitive impulses of a narrow and fractious social stratum. As the monarchy cemented control, it also found itself embroiled in a series of foreign policy crises, whose management by Richelieu and his allies spurred fierce domestic controversy. Lashed by gusts of bureaucratic opposition, the chief minister strove to husband France’s military resources, bleed its enemies, and buy time. All the while, he sought, with the help of his extensive network of foreign envoys and spies, to maintain as many diplomatic channels as possible and to avert any precipitate escalation to a full-spectrum and system-wide war with a unified Habsburg foe. Richelieu consistently emphasized the importance of prevailing, first and foremost, in the diplomatic arena — at the lavish royal courts and stuffy religious conclaves where the fate of European politics was truly decided. In Testament Politique, he opines that the ability to negotiate without ceasing, openly or secretly, and everywhere, even if it yields no immediate fruit and the expected one is not yet apparent, is absolutely necessary for the well-being of states.[93] The Valtellina and Mantuan Succession Crises The most significant crises during the guerre couverte period occurred at the bloody peripheries and messy intersections of each great power’s sphere of interest. France and Spain vied for access and influence, probed each other’s weaknesses, and worked to dilute each other’s ability to maintain alliance structures and project power across the European theater. As the Duke of Rohan later noted, the Franco-Spanish rivalry had become the structuring force across Christendom. The two states formed “the two poles from which stemmed the pressures for war and peace upon other states,” with France seeking to play the “counterpoise” to Spanish ambitions, and the princes of Europe “attaching themselves to one or the other according to their interests.”[94] This increasingly tense cold war was fundamentally a two-level game — a combination of geopolitical competition and interference in one another’s domestic politics — accentuating pre-existing movements of internal unrest with the hope of precipitating an abrupt dislocation of their rival’s fragile state structure. For close to a century, since the early 1500s, France and Spain had jostled for control over the portes or gateways that provided staging points into their respective heartlands and over the military corridors that allowed each state to safely siphon funding and troops toward their junior partners and proxies.[95] One such artery was the Valtellina (or Val Telline), a valley that snaked through the central Alps, connecting Lombardy with the Spanish Netherlands. The Valtellina had long constituted a territorial flashpoint. Ruled by a league of Swiss Protestant lords, the Grisons, the Valtellina was of critical importance to both France and Spain. For Spain, the winding mountain passes provided one of the main land routes through which it could bolster its military presence in the Spanish Netherlands, and, if the need ever arose, provide the Holy Roman Empire with reinforcements. For Richelieu and his disciples, the prospect of Spanish dominion over the Valtellina was therefore an alarming one, adding to longstanding French fears of encirclement by combined Habsburg forces. Furthermore, were France to find itself suddenly locked out of the Valtellina, it would no longer be able to rapidly supplement the martial efforts of its own traditional allies on the Italian peninsula, such as Venice. The dispute over control of the Valtellina was driven both by concerns over military response times and logistical supply, and by status considerations and alliance politics. In 1620, Madrid shrewdly sought to capitalize on the momentary chaos triggered by a revolt of the Catholic subjects of the Grisons by erecting a chain of military bases along the Valtellina. Two years later, its garrisons facing expulsion by allied forces of France, Venice and Savoy, Spain reluctantly agreed to let its soldiers be replaced by papal troops. For Richelieu, however, this settlement remained inadequate, as the Vatican had allowed Spain to continue to use the Valtellina as one of its prime military thoroughfares. A few months after becoming chief minister, Richelieu sought to rebalance the situation by conducting secret negotiations with Savoyard and Swiss allies, catching Spain off guard. A small force of French and Swiss troops flowed into the Valtellina and unceremoniously expelled its papal custodians. Meanwhile, a larger French army joined forces with its Savoyard allies in a protracted siege of Genoa, in a bold attempt to neutralize one of Spain’s main bankers and truncate the southern arm of the Spanish road. This last endeavor ultimately proved unsuccessful, with Madrid succeeding in breaking through a French naval interception force in the Mediterranean and relieving Genoa by sea. France and Spain subsequently entered lengthy negotiations, which ultimately led to the signing of the Treaty of Monzon in 1626. The treaty restored control of the Valtellina to the Grisons, while enshrining and protecting the exercise of Catholicism in the valley. All fortifications were levelled and papal troops were once again dispatched to preserve the peace. Most importantly, the treaty granted equal rights of transit to both Spain and France, thus reinstating — at least in the military sphere — the old status quo.[96] [quote id="5"] Barely a year later, another crisis flared up in northern Italy. In this case, tensions revolved around the Duke of Mantua’s succession. This minor dynastic squabble quickly took on geopolitical significance. The duchy of Mantua and its dependency of Monferrato were fiefs of the Holy Roman Empire, strategically located along the Po river, abutting the Spanish duchy of Milan. Following the death of Duke Vincent II of Mantua in 1627, who had failed to produce a son and heir, the duchy was claimed by his closest male relative, the flamboyant French noble Charles de Nevers. De Nevers, in a typical display of impetuosity, preemptively took possession of the duchy without consulting Vienna, as feudal protocol would have dictated.[97] His actions precipitated the reluctant intervention of Europe’s three greatest powers — France, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire — all of which would rather have focused their attention and resources elsewhere.[98] The conflict soon devolved into a slugging match, dragging on for close to four years, and only coming to an end with the signing of the Treaty of Cherasco in 1631. The troublesome de Nevers was ultimately granted his imperial investiture and the right to rule over his now-ravaged duchy, albeit at the price of territorial concessions. More importantly for Richelieu, the conflict imposed significant financial costs on both Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, strained relations between the two partners, and forced them to divert large numbers of troops away from more critical theaters of operation for extended periods.[99] Madrid’s decision to intervene on the Italian peninsula negatively affected its military operations in Flanders. Meanwhile, the imperial troops Olivares had been hoping would join his prosecution of the Dutch, and who were also much needed in Germany to stave off the advance of the Swedes, were instead channeled southward, toward Mantua, where they were decimated by plague.[100] Through secretly negotiated clauses, France also gained access to the strategically positioned mountain fortress of Pinerolo in the Piedmont, which it had quietly wrested from Savoy.[101] All in all, therefore — and despite the cost and clear risks associated with France’s decision to intervene in support of its belligerent proxy, Richelieu’s calculus seemed to have paid off — France weathered the protracted crisis far better than its two main competitors. The Challenges of Alliance Management The Mantuan succession crisis also showed, as David Parrott notes, that
While the rulers of the major powers may have wished to construct their political strategies in the clear light of state interest and international Realpolitik, they were frequently confronted by lesser territories whose juridical status and succession arrangements were often diffuse or ambiguous, and whose rulers were explicitly determined to assert and defend their rights as sovereigns. (…) In circumstances such as the Mantuan crisis, where the grip of the major Italian powers was for various reasons weakened, the initiatives and interests of these lesser states could lead to dramatic destabilization.[102]
Richelieu was well aware of the risks of entanglement and entrapment inherent to asymmetric alliance structures. The unexpected ramifications of the Mantuan succession crisis undoubtedly helped shape some of his more interesting — and still resonant — reflections on the challenges of alliance management. In Testament Politique, for instance, the cardinal warns future statesmen “not to embark voluntarily on the founding of a league created for some difficult objective” unless they are sure “they can carry it out alone,” should their allies desert them. He argues this is for two reasons:
The first is based is on the weakness of unions, which are never too secure when headed by central sovereigns. The second consists in the fact that lesser princes are often as careful and diligent in involving great kings in important commitments as they are feeble in aiding them, although they are fully obligated to do so.[103]
Despite these wry observations on the fickleness of security partners, Richelieu put alliance politics at the very center of his grand strategy, seeking to develop, in parallel, two separate German and Italian leagues. The Italian league, with Savoy and Venice at its core, was designed to exert a slow stranglehold over Spanish possessions in Naples and Milan. In Germany, Richelieu sought to stoke the resentment of restive prince-electors, and to further fragment the empire’s political mosaic by supporting the establishment of a separate pro-French and anti-Habsburg Catholic League under the leadership of Bavaria.[104] On occasion, France’s policy of political disruption bore fruit. This was evident, for instance, during the Diet of Regensburg in 1630, when Richelieu’s agents, led by the wily Father Joseph, succeeded in dealing a major blow to Emperor Ferdinand II’s power and prestige by quietly encouraging the elector counts to veto the election of his son as his successor and dismiss one of the Imperial Army’s more talented commanders, Albrecht Von Wallenstein. France’s overarching goal was to keep the Holy Roman Empire in a state of managed disequilibrium and to buy time — time that could be used to further erode the foundations of Habsburg power in Germany. This cynical policy could be implemented, the sly monk argued in a memorandum to the king, in a relatively straightforward fashion, by simply continuing the centuries-old French tradition of mediation in German affairs.[105] Weakening the Viennese Habsburgs also provided France with greater latitude to exert control over the lands circling its eastern periphery, in particular the duchy of Lorraine. Lorraine was technically a fiefdom of the Holy Roman Empire, and its leader, the young duke Charles IV, had become a thorn in Richelieu’s side. Bright but brash, Charles IV was less adept at balancing France and the Holy Roman Empire than his forebears. He was also far less canny at steering a middle course than, for instance, the dukes of Savoy in Italy, whose adroit manipulation of the Franco-Spanish rivalry forced grudging admiration in both Paris and Madrid.[106] The duke of Lorraine, on the other hand, pursued a lopsided policy that was consistently and aggressively hostile to the interests of the French crown — plotting with its foreign enemies, abetting its insurgencies, and providing a safe haven for the leaders of France’s domestic opposition.[107] Over the course of a decade, France engaged in a series of punitive raids and limited encroachments on Lothringian territory, pressuring the contumacious duke into a series of increasingly unequal and humiliating treaties, until, in 1633, Richelieu ordered a full-scale invasion and annexation of Lorraine. Charles IV eventually abdicated and fled overseas and Lothringian lords were forced to swear oaths of loyalty to the French crown.[108] Most of the time, however, Richelieu’s behavior was not classically expansionist, as he did not seek to engage in a rigid linearization of a new, more extensive set of French boundaries. Instead, he wove a web of protectorates along the kingdom’s borders, offering to ensure the defense of weaker principalities, fiefdoms, and bishoprics in exchange for transit rights or the stationing of small detachments of French troops in strategically positioned fortresses — often overlooking key segments of the Spanish road. These garrisoned protectorates were viewed by the chief minister as serving a dual function — both as watchtowers and as potential staging areas for future military interventions.[109] Even as Richelieu pursued his strategy of delay, limited military involvement, and tailored assertiveness within France’s near abroad, he also sought to sap Habsburg power from afar, through a policy of indirect or subsidized warfare. This policy of remote-control balancing was not only financially onerous — involving the disbursement of increasingly large flows of subsidies to France’s Protestant proxies — but also diplomatically challenging. French envoys were sent to broker agreements and mediate disputes between France’s partners and third parties, such as Sweden and Poland, so that the former could redirect the entirety of its military machine toward the German theater.[110] The sheer heterogeneity of France’s many coetaneous alliance structures proved to be a major, sometimes insuperable, challenge. Indeed, managing such a disparate array of security partners with competing territorial and confessional agendas eventually became almost impossible — leading a reluctant Richelieu to privilege the preservation of the alliance with Sweden over that with Bavaria.[111] Another chronic set of difficulties encountered by Richelieu and his envoys will be familiar to any modern student of security studies: the fact that proxies and/or client states rarely share similar objectives to those of their sponsors, and that, generally speaking, the stronger a proxy is, the less dependent and politically beholden it is to its patron.[112] This was a clear and recurring feature of the France-Sweden relationship during Richelieu’s tenure. When France first signed the Treaty of Barwalde with Sweden in 1631, promising one million livres per annum over the course of five years in exchange for Stockholm maintaining a fully equipped army of 30,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry in Germany, Richelieu was enthusiastic. He waxed lyrical about the martial prowess of Gustavus Adolphus, the Swedish king, comparing him to Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great.[113] Following Adolphus’ crushing victory over imperial forces at the Battle of Breitenfeld, however, the Swedish warrior-king’s relentless advance through a war-torn Germany began to foster French anxieties.[114] His victories — too definitive and complete — ran the risk of completely unraveling France’s efforts to portray itself as a neutral arbitrator of state interests and led to a lasting rift with an embittered Maximilian of Bavaria. Richelieu also began to wonder whether Sweden, flush with the fruits of its conquests and no longer in need of French subsidies, might decide to turn its attention against France’s cluster of German protectorates. It was not without some relief, therefore, that the cardinal heard the news of the Northern Lion’s death at the battle of Lützen in 1632. Propaganda Wars Throughout his political life, Richelieu was constantly reminded of both the tenuousness of his position and his own mortality. An unpopular man working for a sickly king, the chief minister was the target of countless foreign plots and elaborate court machinations.[115] Much of the resentment directed at him stemmed from his domestic policies: his blunt and wide-ranging efforts to centralize power, increase taxation, and rein in the nobility, along with his habit of supplanting old court favorites with his own sprawling networks of clientele.[116] His relatively moderate stance on confessional issues also stirred controversy in some quarters. The most vivid and substantive debates, however, centered on issues of foreign policy. Richelieu’s dévot opponents — whether in meetings of the Royal Council or via the clandestine production of vitriolic pamphlets — relentlessly assailed the core aspects of his grand strategy, most notably his alliance with and subsidization of Protestant powers, along with his decision to confront rather than align with Spain, a fellow Catholic nation. Although Richelieu’s vision was the one that ultimately triumphed, it is worth noting that there were many compelling reasons for distinguished statesmen to oppose his foreign policy. In a country still reeling from decades of civil strife, many wanted to focus on domestic recovery and reducing the burden of taxation that helped finance France’s foreign military ventures and proxies — even if it came at the cost of appeasing Spain.[117] France’s hamlets and villages were seething with discontent, and local uprisings — often euphemistically designated as “popular displays of emotion” (émotions populaires) — were commonplace.[118] In fretful whispers, perfumed courtiers would share their grisly tales from the dark forested hinterland — of peasants hacking a “tax collector to pieces and dismembering a surgeon whom they mistook for a revenue official.”[119] For many who had lived through the Boschian hell of France’s religious wars, the fear of being catapulted into yet another cataract of anarchy and bloodletting was ever present. [quote id="6"] Furthermore, some argued, why not choose to align with the Habsburgs? Would that not bring about a much-needed peace, advance the cause of international Catholicism, and be preferable to funding the systematic, continent-wide slaughter of co-religionists by foreign heretics? After all, Habsburg blood flowed in Marie de Medici’s veins, Anne of Austria was Spanish, and the queen of Spain was Louis XIII’s own younger sister, Elizabeth. From some of the gilded chambers of the Louvre, Richelieu’s grand schemes thus ran the risk of appearing not only unethical, but also increasingly fratricidal.[120] It took over six years for the chief minister to quash this fierce internal opposition and it was only after the famous Day of the Dupes in November 1630 — when he dramatically prevailed over both the queen mother and his two main political opponents, the Marillac brothers — that he achieved unvarnished royal support for his agenda. Even after 1630, Richelieu still had to contend with the periodic opposition to his policies and fretted that the spiritual and impressionable Louis XIII might find himself persuaded by a member of his entourage to jettison his Protestant allies.[121] These struggles over the direction of France’s foreign policy were not confined to the corridors of power. Beyond the ornate antechambers and soaring palace walls, the future of French grand strategy was being debated in another wider and more untamed space — in the pages of the political pamphlets and news gazettes that had become a ubiquitous feature of early 17th-century France.[122] Richelieu, like many of his European contemporaries, was acutely aware of the growing power and malleability of public opinion in the era of the printing press, and of the need to shape collective perceptions through targeted, state-directed propaganda efforts. From the earliest days of his tenure as chief minister, he moved decisively to exert control over the political media, appointing his minions to head leading publications such as Le Mercure François, France’s first yearly newspaper, and the Gazette, a weekly publication, and waging a tireless counter-intelligence campaign against clandestine printing activities. Richelieu surrounded himself with a “politico-literary strike force” of some of the nation’s most accomplished political theorists and polemicists, who labored to defend France’s European grand strategy from a fierce onslaught of dévot-inspired critiques.[123] These critiques, particularly those penned by talented writers such as Matthieu de Morgues — one of Richelieu’s more formidable and relentless opponents — were often incisive and compelling.[124] Not only did they consistently assail Richelieu’s Protestant alliances as “ungodly,” they also sought to depict the chief minister as a grasping and vulpine figure, an “antichristus purpuratus,” who pursued his grandiose diplomatic schemes despite widespread popular discontent, and who, in contempt of his status as a “prince of the church,” worked to methodically undermine the Vatican. The ideological counteroffensive launched by the bons politiques was equally robust, clearly articulated, and often remarkably well-timed. In countless tracts, treatises, and pamphlets, the politiques strenuously argued in defense of the cardinal’s character, stressing his personal loyalty to the king, as well as the strategic merits of his foreign policy — however disquieting the short-term costs may be. Tugging at their readers’ patriotic heartstrings, they stressed the urgency of recovering France’s “natural” primacy on the continent and warned of the long-term perils of a premature peace settlement that would confine the French monarchy to a subordinate status. In response to those who advocated an alignment with Madrid, they pointed to Spain’s history of interference in French domestic politics and to its perceived duplicity. To trust that such a history of enmity could be reversed, argued one of Richelieu’s disciples, was not only naïve, it was also a sign that one had inherited some of the seditious leanings “of a member of the old Catholic league” and had “thus ceased to be French.”[125] Furthermore, argued Richelieu’s supporters, one need only look at Spain’s crimes against its foreign subjects or against colonized indigenous people in the new world to see the extent of its hypocrisy.[126] The sanctimonious Spaniards, “who held a sword in one hand and a breviary in another,” had, according to this counteroffensive, “erected a god of blood and destruction” and pursued their dream of a universal monarchy “under specious pretexts draped in painted crosses and invocations of Jesus.”[127] Their wealth, added one noteworthy critique, was tarnished with the misery of the native American peoples whose resources they had brutally exploited.[128] As for France’s alliances with Protestant powers, where was it written that “God had expressly declared that he wished for the Spaniards to become the masters of the Dutch,” and for Spain to emerge as the unrivalled hegemon in Europe?[129] Emphasizing the importance of credibility and reputation in international politics, the bons politiques invoked France’s historic role as a security patron in key regions such as the Valtelline and Northern Italy, arguing that, in the case of the Grisons, for instance, “heresy alone did not suffice to deprive them of their sovereignty and of their right to (French) protection and assistance.”[130] These day-to-day propaganda efforts were accompanied by a more ambitious and externally-oriented policy of cultural grandeur, whereby the industrious cleric sought to transform Paris into the artistic and academic capital of Europe — a city which would eventually outshine Madrid, Vienna, and maybe even Rome. He famously created the Académie Française, which initially hosted many of the more proficient politique theorists, and established the royal press, or Imprimerie Royale, in the Louvre, which turned France into a publishing hub for high-quality books and engravings.[131] Richelieu was particularly intent on nurturing a body of sophisticated legal theorists. These experts could then work to weaponize the rapidly evolving field of international jurisprudence — not only to lend credence to France’s territorial pretensions but also to justify French military actions in the eyes of international public opinion.[132] This aspect of Richelieu’s diplomacy was to become abundantly evident in May 1635, when France finally formally declared war on Spain. La Guerre Ouverte Louis XIII was a traditionalist with a deep attachment to chivalric values and ancient courtly rites. The flamboyant manner in which war was declared on Spain — with a mounted herald delivering the message before the Hallegate of Brussels after having been announced by trumpet — was characteristic of the French monarch. For years he had been champing at the bit, urging Richelieu to move from la guerre couverte to la guerre ouverte. The chief minister had consistently counseled patience, pleading with his sovereign to delay a full declaration of war as long as possible. By the spring of 1635, however, it was clear to Richelieu that this strategy, which had served France so well over the past decade, could no longer continue. The Habsburgs’ resounding victory at the battle of Nördlingen in 1634 — during which a combined force of imperial and Spanish troops decisively routed their Swedish-led Protestant foes — abruptly reconfigured the European balance of power.[133] France’s newly imperiled allies — Sweden and the Dutch United Provinces in particular — were increasingly insistent that their great power sponsor commit large-scale military forces to the fray. In the tense months following Nördlingen, the Vatican desperately sought to arrest the slide toward war, even offering to host a peace summit where Madrid and Paris could resolve their disputes through a process of mediated arbitration. Pope Urban VIII’s frantic diplomatic efforts were to no avail, however. Both Richelieu and Olivares had resigned themselves to the inevitability of conflict, and the massive, clunking cogs of their respective nations’ military machineries had begun to turn, as thousands of fresh troops were mobilized for war. Decision-makers in Spain — pointing to France’s much larger population and advantageous geographical position — became increasingly convinced that any protracted military struggle with France would not redound to their benefit. It was therefore necessary, argued Olivares, to seek an early end to the conflict by striking hard and fast. Military preparations were conducted “in width rather than in breadth.”[134] The plan was to overwhelm French defenses on several fronts with the hope that the resolve of its less battle-hardened troops would crumble.[135] These war plans were driven, in part, by Spain’s alarm over France’s massive military buildup under Richelieu’s tenure, which included the cardinal’s attempts to create a first-class navy. The development of France’s ground forces, however, was far more spectacular and of greater immediate concern to its enemies across the Pyrenees. As the cardinal’s network of spies at the Spanish court began to apprise him of Madrid’s plans for a series of preemptive military strikes, this buildup accelerated and France fielded an army of unprecedented size on the eve of war. [quote id="7"] Throughout the religious wars of the previous half-century, French royal forces rarely exceeded 16,000 men.[136] During the brief periods of peace that followed each flare-up of civil violence, the bulk of these troops were often demobilized. When larger hosts were assembled, they were frequently composed primarily of foreign mercenaries, sometimes reaching up to 70 percent of the total number, rather than troops levied on French soil. In the absence of a well-organized and institutionalized standing army, French kings relied most often on a nucleus of gens d’ordonnance, or gendarmerie, a small body of heavy cavalry that was the country’s only permanently mobilized and fully professional military force — not including a few small garrisons lightly sprinkled across its borders. At its peak, Henri IV’s army in 1610 may have numbered up to 55,000 men.[137] In contrast, by the time Louis XIII and Richelieu were mobilizing for war with Spain in 1634, documents show that they were accounting for up to 100,368 soldiers in service.[138] As military preparations continued apace, these numbers steadily grew.[139] French officials diligently recorded numbers of raised troops between 135,000 and 211,000 in the early years of their nation’s conflict with Spain, with one scholar estimating that up to 150,000 men may have been under arms in 1635.[140] Before unleashing his freshly minted legions, however, the French chief minister insisted on getting France’s diplomatic house in order. Although the decision to go to war was made as early as April, he waited until France had fully cemented its renewed alliances with both the United Provinces and Sweden before dispatching the herald to Brussels. Following the envoy’s theatrical declaration, a public diplomacy campaign was launched whereby French propagandists moved to preempt their Spanish counterparts by issuing a series of manifestos clearly geared toward an international as well as a domestic audience, emphasizing the moral legitimacy of France’s actions. There is evidence that these carefully coordinated communication efforts were successful in shaping the overall narrative, as Olivares evinced frustration that the cardinal’s publicists always seemed to move faster and more efficiently than his own.[141] The official justification for France’s declaration of war was Spain’s capture of the town of Trier, a French protectorate, the slaughter of its small French garrison, and the abduction of its archbishop-elector in March 1625. This act of great power aggression, read the herald’s declaration, was “against the law of nations” and an “offense against the interests of all princes of Christianity.”[142] France once again positioned itself as the guardian of smaller states’ interests and the bulwark against Habsburg ambitions of universal monarchy. This time, however, the chief minister’s legion of lettrés was working to lay the moral underpinnings for a much more direct and overtly militarized French bid for European leadership. Louis XIII issued his own royal communiqué, arguing that while he had patiently tolerated, thus far, the constant “outrages” of Spain’s interference in France’s domestic affairs, the “Spaniards, by their arms and practices,” were now threatening the “very foundations of public liberty” in Europe.[143] Naturally, the view from Madrid ­was very different. Indeed, for Olivares and his indignant acolytes, France — with its heady ambitions, exceptionalist ethos, litany of grievances, and overall truculence — was the revisionist power and great disruptor of the status quo. From the very get-go, therefore, the conflict was not framed as a mere tussle over territory and resources, but rather as a paradigm-defining battle for leadership legitimacy and shaping the international order. Significantly, the French monarchy’s declaration of war was aimed at only one of the Habsburg branches. Richelieu hoped that Ferdinand II, already consumed with the difficult internal negotiations leading up to the Peace of Prague, would be reluctant to lend imperial military strength to the fight against France. This last-ditch attempt at alliance decoupling, however, proved unsuccessful. After months of prevarication, a reluctant Ferdinand II succumbed to the pressure exerted by the imperial court’s pro-Spanish lobby and formally declared war on France in March 1636.[144] Richelieu was now facing the climactic struggle he had often anticipated but always dreaded: a war waged on an unprecedented scale, on multiple fronts, and against the combined might of both dynastic branches of the Habsburgs. France’s military performance at the outset of this war was decidedly mixed. After a promising initial victory over an outnumbered Spanish force at the battle of Aveins, French forces, suffering from hunger and afflicted with typhus, encountered a series of military setbacks. In the summer of 1636, a joint Habsburg force led by Cardinal-Infante Ferdinand (the governor of the Spanish Netherlands and younger brother of King Philip IV) conducted a major counter-attack into French territory. The invading force met unexpectedly feeble resistance as it ravaged Picardy and Champagne and swept through a series of northern forts. The garrisons, untested and unsettled by their enemies’ novel use of shrieking mortar bombs, surrendered one after another.[145] The Habsburg army, a large proportion of which was mounted, moved quickly, thrusting ever deeper into French territory, until it had captured the stronghold of La Corbie, along the Somme. Due to the rapid and unexpected nature of the troops’ advance, there was no sizable interposing military force in between them and Paris, barely sixty miles away. At the news of the cardinal-infante’s blitzkrieg-style incursion into France’s fertile northern plains, Richelieu was reportedly plunged into a deep depression. An unnerved Parisian populace directed its seething resentment at the unpopular chief minister and called for his ouster. The shaken cardinal tendered his resignation and nervously awaited his fall from grace. But although the king may have been occasionally frustrated with his adviser, he was astute enough to realize that there was no individual better suited to the position of chief minister, or more dedicated to the advancement of French prestige and interests. He therefore crisply rejected Richelieu’s offer and the fiery Father Joseph was dispatched to shake his master out of his crippling state of despondency.[146] Meanwhile, Louis XIII — in perhaps his finest hour — initiated a mass recruitment drive. Cantering through the cobbled streets of Paris, the monarch, who had always fancied himself as something of an Arthurian warrior-king, called upon every man capable of bearing arms to join him in expelling the hated foreigners from French territory. In reality, however, the panic of the French royal court — while understandable — was unjustified. The Habsburg advance had proved remarkably successful, but the cardinal-infante was concerned that his forces’ supply lines were overextended and was already planning his withdrawal. The Corbie campaign had proved to “be no more than a short-lived pyrotechnical display.”[147] It did succeed, however, in galvanizing French public sentiment and in temporarily uniting royal court factions in support of Richelieu’s war efforts. From that point, the Franco-Habsburg conflict slipped into a numbing see-saw of partial gains mitigated by temporary losses, a war of attrition that severely strained the resources, stability, and organizational capacity of the French state. The challenges associated with coordinating the simultaneous operations of multiple armies over vast distances at a time when communications were both rudimentary and easily subject to delay or disruption were daunting. While military dispatches to Flanders or Italy would take perhaps 12 to 16 days when sent overland from France, they could take almost three months to arrive by sea from Spain. As a result, notes J.H. Elliott, it was “considerably easier to run a war from Paris than from Madrid.”[148] Even then, there was inevitably a “lag effect,” when it came to issuing precise directives to faraway generals: the distance between Richelieu’s chambers and the frontlines was not only spatial — it was also temporal. The cardinal therefore often encouraged commanders to operate under their own initiative and to exercise their own judgment — provided they were not brash — as to when to seize opportunities to push into enemy territory. French generals could be reluctant to do so, however, if only because they feared the cardinal’s wrath in the event of failure. Indeed, Richelieu could be a singularly demanding overseer, demanding thick stacks of detailed correspondence on every aspect of the war effort and meting out severe punishment in response to perceived cowardice or military shortcomings.[149] More broadly, many of the civil-military pathologies affecting French higher command during the Thirty Years’ War would be familiar to any student of authoritarian regimes. Most notably, Richelieu’s focus on “coup-proofing” meant that the perceived loyalty of a noble would often count more in terms of his military advancement than his battlefield performance. As contemporary scholars in the field of security studies have noted, regimes facing significant internal threats frequently adopt sub-optimal organizational practices, basing their promotion patterns on political loyalty rather than on combat prowess. [150] Richelieu, who, like all of his 17th-century European counterparts, operated at the heart of a complex web of patronage, was consistently torn between his desires to shore up his own power base and to shield his monarch from internal threats, as well as the need to effectively use the very small pool of able generals he had at his disposal.[151] This sometimes resulted in confusing and counterproductive personnel policies, whereby he dismissed or disgraced competent military commanders and promoted mediocre alternatives. On other occasions, however, Richelieu could demonstrate a measure of tolerance and foresight, forgiving a proficient general’s past transgressions in favor of advancing the war effort. And at times, the canny clergyman managed to have it both ways, by preemptively absorbing promising commanders within his own networks of clientage, thus ensuring their future loyalty. This was the case, for instance, with the Count of Harcourt, whose military acumen impressed Richelieu, and who was therefore allowed to marry into the chief minister’s family despite his middling aristocratic standing.[152] From then on, Harcourt was entrusted with a series of high-level military commands. [quote id="8"] The French monarchy’s perennial fear of a resurgence of domestic disorder also led it to adopt a more centralized approach to the management of military operations. Whereas most other European powers continued to subcontract the levying and management of military forces to powerful nobles and “military entrepreneurs,” the royal administration of Louis XIII insisted on preserving a degree of direct control over its expanding military apparatus.[153] Foreign military entrepreneurs, such as the highly effective Bernard of Saxe-Weimar, could be hired for the prosecution of overseas campaigns, but armies based and recruited on French territory remained strictly answerable to royal authority. A degree of local autonomy and decentralization remained necessary, given the bureaucratic limitations of the early 17th-century French state, and French nobles or bishops could thus continue to raise troops on their own account. The levied soldiers, however, remained under the proprietorship of the French monarchy, which stubbornly refused to take the easier — but in its eyes riskier — path of formalized military delegation. France’s rejection of the military entrepreneurship system was accompanied by the expansion of a body of civil servants — the famed intendants d’armée — whose role was to act as agents of royal authority, operating alongside French generals and co-supervising their military operations.[154] The decision to empower and deploy additional numbers of intendants was part of a broader move toward greater bureaucratic control over every aspect of the French war effort, from taxation to infrastructure development.[155] The intendants were entrusted with a broad set of responsibilities that ranged from investigating corruption and dispensing justice, to managing funds and supervising army expenditure. One should guard oneself, however, from overstating their ability to enact immediate change and override the decisions and policies undertaken by powerful local commanders. As David Parrott notes, the popular perception that Richelieu’s intendants were “seventeenth-century equivalents of the bolshevik commissars within the Red Army,” is in need of revision.[156] Indeed, the relationships between field generals and royal intendants were often overshadowed or subsumed within complex pre-existing networks of clientele, and in some cases these culturally entrenched alternative power structures severely diluted the intendant’s authority.[157] The general-intendant relationship was thus most often characterized by careful negotiation, as royal agents walked an administrative tightrope, making their best efforts to enact centralized directives — which were often somewhat overambitious or outdated — all while remaining mindful of local conditions, power dynamics, and logistical constraints. In some cases, this dual command structure acted as an impediment to military effectiveness, with royal intendants frequently butting heads with the commanders of their assigned military units. In other cases, however, the relationship could prove to be far more harmonious and productive. Military correspondence, after all, flowed in both directions, through a revamped network of dedicated postal relays that aimed to reduce some of the delays in communication. Intendants funneled reams of vital information back to the state center, keeping Richelieu and the secretariat of war somewhat better apprised of the manifold challenges plaguing the efforts of their frontline commanders.  Although France, unlike Spain, benefited from interior lines of communication, the distances remained vast and the terrain nearly impassable in many parts of the country, with thick forests, underdeveloped roads, and large, rugged mountainous regions.[158] Problems of transportation and supply were a chronic source of concern, as were those of funding. The colossal costs of fielding such a large military force — one that sometimes included half a dozen armies operating simultaneously — placed a terrible strain on French finances, as well as on the country’s internal stability. Even before the war, in 1630, Richelieu grumblingly queried whether
There is a kingdom in the world that can regularly pay two or three armies at once … I would like to be told whether reason does not require that one better fund an army operating on enemy territory against powerful forces against whom it has been tried in combat, and where expenses and incommodities are indeterminate, rather than one that remains within the kingdom out of precaution of the harm that could befall it.[159]
This complaint pointed to one of the core quandaries confronted by the resource-hungry French armies. For the first half-decade or so of guerre ouverte, they operated largely on their own soil and thus were deprived of the possibility of engaging in the traditional practice of collecting “contributions” in the form of rapine and punitive payments extracted from enemy territory. When French troops were deployed abroad, particularly across the Rhine, their numbers often began to melt away as soldiers fled the unfamiliar and hostile German landscapes and streamed back to their villages and homesteads. This helps explain why it was deemed preferable to wage war with foreign mercenaries deep within imperial territory, while using national troops for operations in France or within its near abroad. For much of this period, the French monarchy teetered on the edge of financial collapse, staggering from one socio-economic crisis to another and racking up sizable debts to financiers who charged exorbitant rates. On average, funds allocated to defense amounted to 72 percent of government expenditure during Richelieu’s ministry.[160] During the years of guerre ouverte these expenditures were rendered all the more extravagant by the crown’s continued subsidy of the Dutch and Swedes, as well as of the mercenary army of Saxe-Weimar. Unlike his Spanish rival, Richelieu could not rely on the riches from a sprawling network of overseas colonies, nor, for the reasons described above, could he hope to transfer the costs of military operations onto despoiled tracts of enemy territory. The preservation of the kingdom’s newly aggrandized military machine was therefore largely dependent upon a massive expansion of domestic taxation. In this, Richelieu was mostly successful, with some estimates showing that the income of the French crown doubled in real terms over the course of his tenure.[161] Per capita taxation also soared and the country’s peasantry — already reeling after a series of harsh winters and poor harvests — was plunged into an even more dire state of poverty. Throughout the war, the country was gripped by a series of rural uprisings, with some — such as the massive croquant revolt of 1637 or the rebellion of the Va-Nu-Pieds in Normandy in 1639 — requiring the temporary redirection of thousands of French troops away from the frontlines.[162] A careful perusal of Richelieu’s writings show that, although he could sometimes appear dismissive of the common folk’s plight (and ruthless in the quashing of mass uprisings), he was not as callous or unyielding as some have taken him to be. He frequently expressed concern over the severity of the peasantry’s conditions, often granting temporary concessions in an attempt to stave off further unrest.[163] His steely determination to prevail in the competition with the Habsburgs was interwoven with a deeper and more nagging fear: that the French state and people would not withstand the enormous pressures placed upon them, and that if he did not “keep a few steps ahead of financial disaster and uncontrollable social insubordination,” the country would slide back into civil war and find itself at the mercy, once again, of the predatory appetites of foreign powers.[164] In this, he was not aided by the hodgepodge character of France’s new army. Many of the troops he had raised over the past decade were relatively unseasoned and the question of whether it was more judicious to concentrate the minority of experienced veterans in distinct “crack” units or to sprinkle them across the force was one that frequently remained unresolved. Most importantly, France’s high command drew on a more heterogeneous set of wartime experiences than its Spanish or imperial counterparts.[165] The generals who had remained in France during the Wars of Religion were often unfamiliar with the rapidly evolving mechanics of large-scale, infantry-intensive warfare, having spent decades engaging in shadowy struggles for territorial control or denial and conducting mounted raids against nearby opponents. Others had chosen to pursue military careers in exile, with all the attendant variations in training, tactics, and doctrine. During France’s period of civil turmoil, Huguenot lords had often left to fight alongside the Dutch, while Catholic aristocrats had sometimes served under the imperial banner in the Hungarian Marches or alongside co-religionist forces elsewhere on the continent.[166]  The sheer variety of the military lessons gleaned by France’s warrior class, both resident and expatriate, during those tumultuous decades could, in some ways, be viewed as a strategic asset. The different terrains and adversaries confronted by Louis XIII’s armies in their continent-spanning operations — from the waterlogged plains of the Low Countries to the craggy defiles of Alpine Italy or Switzerland — certainly called for a mixture of strategies and for different forms of force structure. In other instances, however, Richelieu was clearly at pains to find enough commanders with the kind of experience needed for the most important theater of operations — the northeastern frontier. This was not only where Madrid chose to concentrate most of its elite units, it was also where the nature of the terrain (as evidenced during the Habsburg advance to Corbie in 1636) made large-scale enemy encroachments both most likely and difficult to counter. Inevitably, there were fierce debates in Paris over the distribution of finite military resources and the use of the handful of talented generals, as well as over how to prioritize the different military theaters.[167] The northeastern front was often privileged to the detriment of other contested areas, such as Italy or the Valtelline, where — despite Henri de Rohan’s consummate military skill — the French expeditionary force eventually dissolved once the slow stream of funding and provisions sputtered to a halt.[168] Having enumerated the multitudinous difficulties that the Bourbon monarchy had to contend with during this period, it is necessary to stress two facts. First, despite all of these challenges — whether in command and control, logistics, or domestic stability — the French war effort was somehow maintained.[169] Second, perhaps most importantly, France’s organizational frailties and deficiencies were hardly unique. Across Europe, chief ministers and private secretaries grappled with a similar set of challenges as the small and overburdened bureaucracies they oversaw groaned under the pressure of resourcing and coordinating protracted military operations waged on an unprecedented scale across multiple theaters.[170] Spain’s Count-Duke Olivares was no exception to this rule, and in fact faced some far more serious problems of his own. Like Richelieu, the volcanic Spaniard had to navigate the treacherous world of court politics with its webs of patronage and cronyism. And just like his French nemesis, Olivares groused about the dearth of qualified commanders and the unreliability of his allies, and was often in a wretched mental state, overworked, depressed, and plagued with insomnia. Indeed, he often appeared on the verge of buckling under the mental weight of coordinating a multifront campaign across a far larger and less geographically cohesive space than that confronted by Richelieu.[171] However, whereas his French rival could increasingly rely on the expansion of domestic taxation to offset some of the exorbitant costs of military operations, Olivares remained heavily dependent on the steady flow of wealth — primarily silver — from Spain’s overseas colonies.[172] This revenue progressively dwindled as the yield of South American silver mines slowly declined and Spanish treasure fleets found themselves mercilessly hounded across the seven seas by increasingly powerful naval opponents, particularly the Dutch. The latter had made substantial inroads in Brazil and the West Indies and Spain’s transatlantic trade routes were now perpetually at risk. Dutch gains in Brazil, and Spain’s inability to protect Lisbon’s possessions from their encroachments, had the added effect of further aggravating Philip IV’s Portuguese subjects, who were already resentful over their heightened levels of financial contribution to the Spanish Empire’s collective defense.[173] [quote id="9"] Spain’s system of “composite” monarchy, whereby Philip IV ruled from the Castilian heartland over a union of different territories with unique local traditions and varying levels of autonomy, was a constant source of frustration for Olivares — and of competitive advantage for Richelieu.[174] Despite the Spanish chief minister’s zeal for internal consolidation, he faced an uphill battle in his campaign to more evenly apportion the cost of the war effort across Spain’s non-Castilian dominions. His attempts to reform and expand taxation and his plans for a “union of arms,” which proposed the creation of a reserve force of 140,000 men more equitably financed and recruited across Spanish territories, provoked widespread dissatisfaction in Catalonia and Portugal.[175] Richelieu and his agents gleefully kept tabs on the diffusion of such sentiments and cultivated the hope that — galvanized by the pressures of war — they would eventually grow into full-fledged secessionist movements. Both chief ministers were fully cognizant of the inadequacies of their respective state bureaucracies for the prosecution of such an onerous and large-scale war of attrition. Spain’s attempt to force France into a negotiated settlement by delivering a knock-out blow in the early stages of the war had floundered, and, as a result, Olivares now pinned his hopes on Richelieu either being forcibly ousted from power or succumbing to one of his many illnesses. This was a perfectly rational calculation. After all, the French were war-weary and Richelieu was deeply unpopular, was riddled with various ailments from crippling migraines to weeping abscesses, and had an occasionally fraught relationship with his royal patron. Moreover, were he to fall from grace, it was reasonable to assume that he and his accompanying network of politiques would be replaced with a power structure far more amenable to Spain’s interests and world vision.[176] Unfortunately for Olivares, the cardinal possessed both an uncanny gift for political survival and a robust counter-intelligence apparatus. As the war dragged on with no sign of resolution, the Spanish chief minister became increasingly desperate, covertly sponsoring a number of French schemes to remove the cardinal and feverishly discussing elaborate plots for his assassination.[177] Richelieu, for his part, continued to bet on Spain’s eventual dislocation and on its inability to weather the steady onslaughts from a more concentrated and populous country such as France. In the event, history smiled on the cardinal, who won his strategic wager. On the military front, French armies and proxies finally began to make some progress, making inroads into both Flanders and Imperial German territory. Joint Habsburg military operations became ever rarer as the Holy Roman Empire focused the bulk of its forces against the Swedes. In 1637, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II died and was replaced by his son, Ferdinand III, a man with a greater appetite for compromise and a new willingness to shed the formalized military alliance with Spain in favor of conflict resolution.[178] Richelieu’s fledgling navy also proved its worth, playing an important ancillary role in support of southward-facing land campaigns and winning a series of small but significant maritime skirmishes in the Mediterranean and along the Spanish coastline.[179] A new generation of talented generals — such as Louis II of Bourbon (later known as Le Grand Condé) and Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Viscount of Turenne — came of age, and French forces consolidated their control over Artois and portions of Northern Italy as well as Alsace and Lorraine. A cordon of military outposts was established across the upper Rhine and the southern Roussillon was occupied.[180] Most importantly, in 1640 Spain was finally engulfed by its internal tensions — as Richelieu had predicted — with both Catalonia and Portugal rebelling against their Castilian overlords and allying with France. In Catalonia, the ringleaders of the popular revolt opportunistically invoked ancient treaties from the time of Charlemagne and swore allegiance to Louis XIII, who promptly dispatched troops to garrison his new protectorate. Spain only succeeded in recapturing the renegade province twelve years later in 1652. In the case of Portugal, however, the divorce proved more permanent — after decades of bitter struggle, the Portuguese obtained their full independence in 1668. These developments almost fatally impeded the Spanish war effort. Cursing the fickleness of his crimson-garbed foe, a broken Olivares lamented the fact that Madrid was now “reduced to a new war inside Spain which is already costing millions, at a time when we already find ourselves in terrible straits.”[181] As Sir Richard Lodge later noted, events had
undergone a startling change since 1636. In that year the Spaniards had been victors on French soil, and their advance had excited a panic in the French capital. In 1640 France was not only secure against invasion, but its frontier had been advanced in the east, in the north, and in the south, and its great rival, Spain, was threatened with imminent dissolution. The connection with the Netherlands was already destroyed, and the French fleet in the Mediterranean made communication with Italy difficult and dangerous. In the peninsula itself two provinces were in open revolt, and one of them seemed likely to become a part of France.[182]
From then on — and although Spain would continue to wage war on its neighbor for almost two more decades — the strategic pendulum began to swing ever more strongly in France’s direction. Three years later, in 1643, the French army crushed a large Spanish force at the battle of Rocroi, in northeastern France, earning a spectacular and resounding victory.[183] Richelieu, however, was no longer there to see it. Exhausted and emaciated, he had finally succumbed to one of his many afflictions a few months prior, on a wintry day in December 1642. In the weeks leading up to Richelieu’s death, the king paid his longstanding adviser a final visit. Surrounded by a gaggle of nervous physicians, coughing up blood, and struggling to speak between fits of hacking coughs, the cardinal leaned toward his monarch and engaged in a final defense of his policies.[184] Whispering that he knew his days were numbered, he confided that he could comfort himself with the knowledge that he had left the “kingdom in the highest degree of glory and reputation it has ever been, and all [the king’s] enemies cast down and humiliated.”[185] Legend has it that a few days later, as he received his final rites, the statesman was asked whether he wished to forgive any of his numerous enemies. The cardinal responded that there was nothing and nobody to forgive. After all, he personally had never had any true enemies — other, of course, than those of the state.[186]

Assessing Richelieu's Grand Strategy

The Embodiment of Prudentia? In the introductory chapter to his Testament Politique, which he entitled “General Statement of the Royal Program,” Richelieu provides a succinct overview of the kingdom’s state of affairs when he was elevated to the rank of chief minister in 1624. Addressing himself directly to the king, he delivers a grim diagnosis of France’s former fragility in the following terms:
When Your Majesty resolved to admit me both to your council and to an important place in your confidence for the direction of your affairs, I may say that the Huguenots shared the state with you; that the nobles conducted themselves as if they were not your subjects, and the most powerful governors of the provinces as if they were sovereign in their offices. (…) I may further say that foreign alliances were scorned, private interests being preferred to those of the public, and in a word, the dignity of the royal majesty was so disparaged, and so different from what it should be, because of the misdeeds of those who conducted your affairs, that it was almost impossible to recognize it.[187]
Thereupon, he continues,
I dared to promise you, with assurance, that you would soon find remedies for the disorders in your state, and that your prudence, your courage, and the benediction of God would give a new aspect to this realm. I promised Your Majesty to employ all my industry and all the authority which it would please you to give me to ruin the Huguenot party, to abase the pride of the nobles, to bring all your subjects back to their duty, and to restore your reputation among foreign nations to the station it ought to occupy. In the broadest outline, Sire, these have been the matters with which Your Majesty’s reign has thus far been concluded. I would consider them most happily concluded if they were followed by an era of repose during which you could introduce into your realm a wealth of benefits of all types.[188]
This has generally been viewed as a frank and cogent encapsulation — “a broad outline” in the cardinal’s own words — of Richelieu’s agenda and his desire to address his country’s challenges in a neatly sequential fashion, first, by consolidating the monarchy’s domestic power, and, second, by restoring its primacy and reputation abroad. In one of his missives to Father Joseph, he provided a tripartite structure for this combination of internal and external balancing, noting that upon taking office “three things” had “entered his mind”:
First to ruin the Huguenots and render the king absolute in his state; second, to abase the House of Austria [by which he meant the Habsburgs with both their dynastic branches]; and third to discharge the French people of heavy subsidies and taxes.[189]
It is interesting to note that in both cases, he was intent on alleviating the French people’s economic suffering once it was clear that France had regained its international position. This once again runs counter to the notion that he was completely insensitive to the plight of common folk. More importantly for the purposes of this study, however, Richelieu’s writings indicate that over the course of his 18 years as chief minister his day-to-day policy decisions were being made under a clear, overarching intellectual framework for restoring French grandeur, a set of “action-oriented principles” prioritizing and connecting “threats to an overarching vision of the state’s role in the world” — in other words, a grand strategy.[190] At a time when the very notion of grand strategy is viewed with a certain skepticism, with many dismissing the concept as woolly and ethereal, or as an artificial and retrospective reordering of messy policy processes (“randomness parading as design”), Richelieu’s experience reminds us that, in some cases, statesmen do operate under the guidance of a clear long-term vision.[191] Naturally, the pursuit of Richelieu’s three-part agenda was not as smooth and linear as his self-promotional Testament Politique, written in his twilight years, would suggest. As one historian notes, “rather than being a precisely ordered chronological agenda, there was a great deal of moving back and forth.”[192] Strategy, as Sir Lawrence Freedman reminds us, is as much a matter of process as of design and this process “evolves through a series of states, each not quite as anticipated or hoped for, requiring a reappraisal and modification of the original strategy.”[193] Whether in terms of Richelieu’s financial or military initiatives, there was a fair amount of ad-hocism and improvisation. This was due, in large part, to the manifold bureaucratic limitations of the early modern French state — but not only. Decision-making in 17th-century Europe unfolded within a very distinct and elaborate constellation of pre-existing networks of aristocratic clientelism. Richelieu was certainly adept at playing the game of patronage politics, but this relentless flow of intrigue also consumed a lot of his time and energy and rendered a purely rationalized and meritocratic approach to government almost impossible. As we have seen, these socio-cultural constraints also adversely affected France’s military performance, most notably in the early years of la guerre ouverte with the Habsburgs. Important domestic reforms, such as the prohibition of dueling, were often unevenly applied, suspended, or even abandoned for temporary expediency, particularly if they triggered excessive degrees of aristocratic opposition. At the same time, as one of the greatest French historians of the period reminds us, the greatness of certain leaders depends largely “on the quality of their intelligence and their effectiveness in the conditions of their epoch.”[194] If one is to adopt this more measured and discriminating mode of evaluation, it hardly seems controversial to state that Richelieu was a singularly talented statesman and that, despite the occasionally inconsistent, incomplete, or spasmodic nature of his individual initiatives, he demonstrated a remarkable “continuity in the realization of his general aims.”[195] [quote id="10"] The chief minister was the first to recognize that any successful grand strategy must possess a degree of plasticity and that security managers should preserve the ability to adapt to sudden changes in circumstances. As contemporary scholars have noted, grand strategy “exists in a world of flux” and “constant change and adaptation must be its companions if it is to succeed.”[196] “At best,” suggests one historian, it can provide an “intellectual reference point” for dealing with evolving challenges and “a process by which dedicated policy makers can seek to bring their day-to-day actions into better alignments with their country’s enduring interests.”[197] Richelieu was perfectly cognizant of these enduring truths and in his writings consistently and eloquently stressed the need to adhere to a political wisdom structured around compromise and adaptability — prudence in the classical sense — when advancing a country’s interests. Any quest for policy perfection or moral purity when conducting affairs of state thus ran the risk of backfiring; seeking to adhere to overly formalized rules, theories, or schools of thoughts was profoundly misguided. The best rule when taking important decisions, he quipped, was precisely “to have no general rule.”[198] Within large and rambunctious societies, major domestic reforms should be undertaken with care and with an eye both to the limitations of the state to enact immediate change and to the potential for societal unrest that could result from their forcible imposition. Thus,
it is sometimes a matter of prudence to water down remedies to make them more effective; and orders that conform more to reason, because sometimes they are not well suited to the capacities of those called upon to execute them.[199]
In one particularly revealing analogy, Richelieu observed that
An architect who, by the excellence of his craft, rectifies the defects of an ancient building and who, without demolishing it, restores it to a tolerable symmetry, merits far more praise than the one who ruins it to erect a new and seemingly perfect edifice.[200]
Richelieu’s interpretation of the concept of prudence should not be equated, however, with the modern interpretation of the word, i.e., caution and a penchant for ponderousness or watchful inactivity. In some cases, it was certainly necessary to bide one’s time, husband one’s resources, and build up one’s strength. Other situations, however, called for decisive action, and for a measure of boldness and alacrity.[201] The soundness of such actions — and their eventual success — was directly tied to the validity and coherence of France’s long-term planning, for,
experience shows that, if one foresees from far away the designs to be undertaken, one can act with speed when the moment comes to execute them.[202]
The first approach, he claimed, had paid rich dividends during the period of guerre couverte, from 1624 to 1635, and the king, he crowed, had “demonstrated a singular prudence,” by “occupying all the forces of the enemies of his state with those of his allies,” and by putting his hand “on his purse and not on his sword.”[203] The second approach had proved necessary after the battle of Nördlingen, when it became clear that France would need to come directly to the aid of its allies “when they no longer appeared capable of surviving alone.” France chose to launch a multifront war, thus preempting and confounding Spain’s own plans to deliver a knock-out blow. Dissipating their neighbor’s strategic attention and resources had played a fundamental role in France’s success, noted Richelieu:
Pursuing such simultaneous attacks in such a variety of places—something that even the Romans and Ottomans never accomplished—would no doubt seem to many people to be of great temerity and imprudence. And yet, while it is proof of your power, it is also strong proof of your judgment, as it was necessary to focus the attention of your enemies in all places so they could be invincible in none.[204]
To what degree are these self-congratulatory statements justified? If one peruses the commentaries of his foreign contemporaries, who often admired and despised him in equal measure, the answer is quite a bit. Shortly after having received news of Richelieu’s death, a soon-to-be disgraced Olivares penned a memorandum that directly attributed “the acute situation in which we (Spain) now find ourselves” to the machinations of his hated rival, noting that under the latter’s leadership,
France against all right and reason has attacked us on every front, and has stripped Your Majesty of entire kingdoms in Spain by resorting to hideous treachery, and has provoked such a universal convulsion that the possibility of salvaging even a portion has generally been considered very slight.[205]
Even some of Richelieu’s harshest critics have been at pains to deny that the country he diligently served over the course of so many years was territorially larger, institutionally more robust, and militarily more powerful than when he came into office. As Olivares lamented, the cardinal’s policies had undoubtedly accelerated the process of Spanish decline.[206] By the mid-1600s, third-party observers, such as the English politician Algernon Sidney, were already writing that
The vast power of Spain that within these thirty years made the world tremble, is now like a carcass without blood and spirits, so that everyone expects the dissolution of it.[207]
France’s subsidization of Spain’s many foes had bled Madrid dry, its alliance with Portugal had fractured the Iberian Peninsula, and Richelieu’s careful nurturing of his cherished fleet meant that France was now a maritime power to be reckoned with. The chief minister’s many initiatives on the cultural front, from the creation of the Académie Française to the foundation of the Imprimerie Royale, revitalized French soft power and buttressed the aspirational self-image of its elites. Richelieu not only set the stage for future French military dominance, he also — through his various propaganda efforts and promotion of politique writings that stressed trans-confessional patriotism and unity — arguably laid the ideational cement for the more modern and missionary form of French nationalism that would erupt in the late 18th century. As international relations theorists have noted, a country’s strategic adjustment to evolving geopolitical circumstances is not merely the result of “shifts in the pattern of interests and power,” or in the structure of their political institutions, but also hinges upon evolutions in how that country’s leaders “visualize their world, their society’s mission in that world, and the relationship between military power and political ends.”[208] Richelieu’s vision for French foreign policy — with France playing a leading and arbitral role in a Europe of pacified nation-states whose relations are more defined by secular than confessional interests — is one that has endured and that, one could argue, endures in the Elysée Palace to this day. All of this, of course, came at a heavy price, a price disproportionately borne by France’s peasantry that suffered year after year of famine and privation. Years of subsidized warfare may have proven more cost-effective in terms of blood and treasure than total war, but it remained onerous and was only made possible by the imposition of crushing levels of taxation. It may well be, as the great 19th-century historian Lord Acton reluctantly posited, that European kingdoms such as France needed to traverse a period of repressive absolutism before attaining the internal coherence within which modern liberalism could flourish.[209] This does not render any of the more brutally authoritarian aspects of the thoughts of 17th-century statesmen such as Richelieu any less distasteful or painful to a modern reader. Some historians have viewed the series of revolts of La Fronde, which ravaged France from 1648 to 1653, as a direct result — and backlash against — the more oppressive aspects of Richelieu’s absolutist reforms. It is only fair, notes Elliott, to recognize that “The Fronde, as much as the France of Louis XIV, is the legacy of Richelieu.”[210] [quote id="11"] Once again, however, France’s grand strategy under the reign of Louis XIII — who deserves his own share of credit for his kingdom’s reforms and foreign policy triumphs — should be judged in accordance with the characteristics and specificities of the era.[211] At a time when all European rulers brutally repressed their subjects, and the lay, democratic nation-state was not even a glimmer on the historical horizon, would France’s peasants “have gained very much by remaining the subjects of a weakened realm,” delivered, yet again, to the rapaciousness of feuding warlords and foreign powers?[212] With regard to the practice of French statecraft, in particular, there is little doubt that the achievements of the Louis XIII and Richelieu “duumvirate” were remarkable. Indeed, they appear all the more so when juxtaposed with the unilateral, hubristic, and ultimately self-defeating policies of Louis XIII’s successor, Louis XIV. The Inexorability of Hubris? As if to emphasize one last time the entangled nature of their complex relationship, Louis XIII followed Richelieu to the grave only a few months after the cardinal’s passing. Thereupon followed an extended period during which — Louis XIV not having yet reached maturity — Anne of Austria ruled as regent of France and Cardinal Jules Mazarin served as chief minister. Personally selected by Richelieu as his successor, Mazarin proved to be a wise choice — at least with regard to the conduct of foreign policy.[213] While his heavy-handed approach to domestic affairs may have helped stoke the resentment which eventually led to La Fronde, his practice of diplomacy was largely in continuity with Richelieu’s and demonstrated a keen sense of prudence along with a shrewd appreciation for the virtues of multilateralism.[214] During the tortuous negotiations leading up to the Peace of Westphalia, Mazarin paid close attention to the interests and views of France’s weaker allies and ensured that his country’s commitments were respected. In this, he
demonstrated that alliances between strong and weak players can work best when the former operates as sponsor of the latter rather than treating them as dispensable junior partners.[215]
Unfortunately, this sagacious brand of statecraft did not survive Mazarin’s death in 1661. In the years that followed, a young, unfettered and gloire-obsessed Louis XIV began to pursue an increasingly reckless and expansionist foreign policy. Drawing on the immense resources of a country at the zenith of its power, the Sun King launched a series of bloody wars of conquest. Over the course of his long reign, he massively increased the size of France’s armed forces, heightened internal repression, and — with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 — reprised royal persecution of the Protestant minority. This was not only ruinous to France’s civil society and economy, with the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Huguenots overseas, but also immensely damaging to its international prestige.[216] Louis XIV’s military expansionism and general disdain for the interests of France’s allies resulted in the country’s isolation, its eventual bankruptcy, and the formation of a series of European coalitions designed to contest French dominance. The term raison d’état was now increasingly associated with French arrogance and assertiveness rather than with prudence and circumspection.[217] It is no doubt revealing that when the first edition of Richelieu’s Testament Politique was released, several decades after the statesman’s death and at the height of Louis XIV’s reign, it was from the press of a French Protestant living in exile in Amsterdam. The posthumous publication of the cardinal’s recollections and ruminations was intended to serve a didactic purpose, by highlighting the differences between the more enlightened attitudes toward religious tolerance and foreign policy that had prevailed under his tenure, and the rank chauvinism that had come to characterize the rule of Louis XIV.[218] Foreign commentators expressed their concern and bewilderment over France’s sudden strategic metamorphosis, and the same accusations that Richelieu and the politiques had once levied at Madrid — of its pretensions of hegemony and universal monarchy — were now directed toward Versailles.[219] John Lynn notes that France’s increased disdain for its allies was closely tied to its own ascendancy on the continent, which led Louis XIV to see France as “powerful enough to fight alone if it had to,” which, in turn, made him “unwilling to accommodate the interests and outlooks of others.”[220] This raises an important question, notes one historian:
[A]t what point, theoretically speaking, does an ascending hegemon cross the threshold from being a Westphalian guarantor of a general peace in Christendom to become something else, a predatory monarchia universalis or,  perhaps, a would-be “imperial power”?[221]
More broadly, are dominant states condemned to periods of self-defeating hubris? Some contemporary political scientists have suggested, for instance, that American grand strategy is locked in a repeating cycle, oscillating between eras of isolation and international engagement, with periods of damaging unilateralism or more constructive internationalism in between.[222] Is prudence therefore both period-dependent and a function of relative weakness (or the fear of becoming the weaker party)? Was French strategic competence under Richelieu largely a result of such perceptions of weakness? Does primacy and the absence of serious peer competitors systematically breed complacency over time, ultimately leading to hubris?[223] If so, how can a nation either mitigate or preempt such a natural tendency? Fully answering such complex questions is beyond the remit of this study. One remedial action, however, might be to follow the guidance of early Baroque theorists of statecraft such as Botero, and to pay closer attention both to the lessons of history and to the trials and tribulations of historical statesmen such as Richelieu. Tsar Peter the Great clearly shared this opinion. While riding through the streets of Paris on an official state visit in 1717, he suddenly called his carriage to a clattering halt, and requested to make a stop at the chapel of La Sorbonne. After standing a moment in respectful silence before the great marble sarcophagus, the Russian Tsar is reported to have suddenly exclaimed,
Great man, if you were alive today, I would shortly give you half my empire on condition you would teach me to govern the other half![224]
  Iskander Rehman is the Senior Fellow for International Relations at the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The author would like to thank TNSR’s editorial team, three anonymous reviewers, and the gracious staff of the diplomatic archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in La Courneuve, and the French National Archives, in Paris. Research for this article was made possible, in part, through the support of the Office of Net Assessment, Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, U.S. Department of Defense.   Image: National Gallery [post_title] => Raison d’Etat: Richelieu's Grand Strategy During the Thirty Years’ War [post_excerpt] => [post_status] => publish [comment_status] => closed [ping_status] => closed [post_password] => [post_name] => raison-detat-richelieus-grand-strategy-during-the-thirty-years-war [to_ping] => [pinged] => [post_modified] => 2019-07-17 16:56:02 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-07-17 20:56:02 [post_content_filtered] => [post_parent] => 0 [guid] => [menu_order] => 0 [post_type] => post [post_mime_type] => [comment_count] => 0 [filter] => raw [lead] => Renowned for his fierce intellect, mastery of the dark arts of propaganda, and unshakeable belief in the centralizing virtues of the French monarchy, Cardinal Richelieu’s actions as chief minister under Louis XIII from 1624 to 1642 have been heatedly debated by generations of historians, political philosophers, novelists, and biographers. The polarizing figure is best known for three things: his unabashed authoritarianism, his efforts to stiffen the sinews of the French state, and his decision to position France as a counterweight to Habsburg hegemony through a network of alliances with Protestant powers. This article focuses on this last aspect of Richelieu’s life and legacy: his conception and practice of great power competition. What philosophy of power and statecraft underpinned the cardinal’s approach to counter-hegemonic balancing? To what extent was Richelieu truly successful, and what insights can contemporary security managers derive from his policies and actions? Drawing on both primary and secondary literature, this essay engages in a detailed and interdisciplinary study of Richelieu’s grand strategy during the Thirty Years’ War. [pubinfo] => [issue] => Vol 2, Iss 3 [quotes] => Array ( [0] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Richelieu was raised in a country rent by confessional divisions, wracked with penury and famine, and haunted by the specter of its own decline. ) [1] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The early 17th century bore witness to a revival of interest in these myth-shrouded eras of France’s past and contemporary texts frequently reprised the medieval papal designation of the French as God’s “chosen people,” or peuple élu. ) [2] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => For classically educated nationalists such as Richelieu, it appeared evident that France was in many ways the new Rome and Spain — with its kaleidoscope of ethnicities, dispersed territories, and maritime empire — was Carthage. ) [3] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Richelieu’s suppression of the Huguenot uprising was part of a broader effort to do away with alternative power centers or codes of loyalty within France... ) [4] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => For close to a century, since the early 1500s, France and Spain had jostled for control over the portes or gateways that provided staging points into their respective heartlands... ) [5] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => In a country still reeling from decades of civil strife, many wanted to focus on domestic recovery and reducing the burden of taxation that helped finance France’s foreign military ventures and proxies — even if it came at the cost of appeasing Spain. ) [6] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => By the spring of 1635, however, it was clear to Richelieu that this strategy, which had served France so well over the past decade, could no longer continue. ) [7] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => The decision to empower and deploy additional numbers of intendants was part of a broader move toward greater bureaucratic control over every aspect of the French war effort, from taxation to infrastructure development. ) [8] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Unfortunately for Olivares, the cardinal possessed both an uncanny gift for political survival and a robust counter-intelligence apparatus.  ) [9] => Array ( [author] => [style] => right [text] => Richelieu’s writings indicate that over the course of his 18 years as chief minister his day-to-day policy decisions were being made under a clear, overarching intellectual framework for restoring French grandeur... ) [10] => Array ( [author] => [style] => left [text] => Richelieu’s vision for French foreign one that has endured, and that, one could argue, endures in the Elysée Palace to this day. ) ) [style] => scholarly [type] => Scholarly [style_label] => The Scholar [download] => Array ( [title] => PDF Download [file] => ) [authors] => Array ( [0] => 172 ) [endnotes] => Array ( [title] => Endnotes [endnotes] => [1] Léon Gabriel Toraude, Les Tribulations Posthumes de la Tête de Richelieu (Paris: Vigot Frères, 1928), 6. [2] See Alexandra Stara, The Museum of French Monuments 1795-186: Killing Art to Make History (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2013), 52–53. [3] For two excellent overviews of how Richelieu has been viewed over the centuries, see Robert Knecht, “Cardinal Richelieu: Hero or Villain?” History Today 53, no. 3 (2003): 10-17,; and Joseph Bergin, “Three Faces of Richelieu: A Historiographical Essay,” French History 23, no. 4 (2009): 517–36, [4] For example, see Voltaire, Le Siècle de Louis XIV (Paris: Folio, 2015 Edition), chap. 2; Victor Hugo, Marion DeLorme (Paris: Editions Broché, 2012 Edition); Alfred de Vigny, Cinq-Mars (Paris: Folio, 1980 Edition); and Hilaire Belloc, Richelieu: A Study (New York: Garden City Publishing, 1929). [5] This is the view partially taken, for example, by Etienne Thuau in Raison d’Etat et Pensée Politique à l’Epoque de Richelieu (Paris: Armand Colin, 1966). On the “Jacobin legend” of Richelieu, which was particularly prevalent in 19th century French historiography, see Marie-Catherine Souleyreau, Richelieu ou la Quête d’Europe (Paris: Flammarion, 2008), 11. [6] Jörg Wollenberg, Richelieu: Staatsräson und Kircheninteresse: Zur Legitimation der Politik des Kardinalpremier (Bielfeld: Pfeffersche Buchhandlung, 1977). [7] Henry Kissinger, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (New York: Random House, 2014), 20. [8] As Francis Gavin has noted, “An understanding of the past doesn’t just reveal how things relate over time; history can also expose ‘horizontal’ connections over space and in depth. … Good horizontal historical work can reveal the complex interconnections and trade-offs that permeate most foreign policies.” Francis J. Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 14. For a compelling discussion of the importance of historical analysis in the field of security studies, see Hal Brands and William Inboden, “Wisdom Without Tears: Statecraft and the Uses of History,” Journal of Strategic Studies 41, no. 3 (2018): 1–31, [9] As one well-known scholar of the period has noted, “the strengthening of the state within its borders he [Richelieu] believed necessary not only to discipline the French and channel their energies into the most profitable pursuits, but also to provide the indispensable material support of hostilities against the Habsburgs.” See William Farr Church, Richelieu and Reason of State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 302. [10] While there has been a debate among historians over whether the battle of Rocroi truly constituted a “decisive battle,” there is no doubt that the French victory over Spain was viewed by both nations’ leaderships as something of a turning point in the competition. See, for example, Fernando González de León, The Road to Rocroi: Class, Culture, and Command in the Spanish Army of Flanders 1567-1659 (Leiden, NL: Brill, 2009). [11] Philippe Ariès, Les Temps de l’Histoire (Paris: Plon, 1954), 298. [12] This point is made by Etienne Thuau, when commenting on 17th-century French theorists of raison d’état more broadly. According to Thuau, this body of thought was too composite in its origins, elastic in its definitions, and action-oriented to constitute what we would now call an “intellectual system.” See Etienne Thuau, Raison d’Etat et Pensée Politique à l’Epoque de Richelieu (Paris: Armand Colin, 1966), 411–21. [13] Alfred A. Franklin, La Sorbonne, Ses Origines, Sa Bibliothèque, Les Débuts de l’Imprimerie à Paris, et la Succession de Richelieu d’Apres les Documents Inédits, 2nd Ed. (Paris : L. Willem, 1875), 151–71. [14] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 2nd Ed. (Paris: Perrin, 2017), 185. On the importance attached to the writings of Tacitus and Cicero in 16th- and early 17th-century France, see J.H.M. Salmon, “Cicero and Tacitus in Sixteenth-Century France,” The American Historical Review 85, no. 2 (1980): 307–31, [15] As one recent academic study of leaders’ decision-making notes, early life experiences matter “in part because they form a mental Rolodex that both citizens and leaders turn to when making strategic decisions in the future.” See “Introduction,” in Michael C. Horowitz, Allan C. Stam, and Cali M. Ellis, Why Leaders Fight (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015). For an excellent study of the importance of leaders’ individual threat perceptions and personalized belief systems more broadly, see Elizabeth Saunders, Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011). [16] Carl J. Burkhardt, Richelieu: His Rise to Power (New York: Vintage Books, 1964), 162. [17] On France’s wars of religion and their effects on the French economy and society, see Nicolas Le Roux, Les Guerres de Religion 1559-1629 (Paris: Editions Belin, 2011). [18] Roland Mousnier, L’Homme Rouge ou la Vie du Cardinal de Richelieu (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1992), 28. [19] This vicious vendetta is memorably described in Eleanor C. Price, Cardinal De Richelieu (New York: McBride, Nast and Company, 1912), 5. [20] Roland Mousnier, L’Homme Rouge, 24. [21] As Jean-Vincent Blanchard notes, this was somewhat unusual, as many of Henri III’s paladins remained reluctant to swear allegiance to their new king prior to his official conversion to Catholicism in 1593. See, Jean-Vincent Blanchard, Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France (New York: Walker Publishing, 2011), 12. [22] Richelieu had initially been on track for a military career, but this training was cut short when one of his elder brothers, Alphonse, refused to take up the bishopric of Luçon as planned, deciding instead to become a Carthusian monk. The responsibility for the bishopric then fell on the shoulders of the younger sibling, Armand. [23] François de Clary, Philippiques, Contre les Bulles et Autres Pratiques de la Faction d’Espagne (Tours, 1592). Author’s translation of the French. [24] de Clary, Philippiques, Contre les Bulles et Autres Pratiques. [25] The League had first emerged in 1576 as a grouping of reactionary Catholic nobles in a favor of a more oppressive religious policy. Over time, some leaguers had become increasingly radical and hostile to the French crown, welcoming aid from antagonistic foreign powers such as Spain and — in a few noteworthy cases — openly advocating regicide. On the ideology of the Catholic League, see Frederic J. Baumgartner, Radical Reactionaries: The Political Thought of the French Catholic League (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1975); and Jean-Marie Constant, La Ligue (Paris: Fayard, 1996). [26] For a good overview of the French wars of religion, see Robert Jean Knecht, The French Religious Wars: 1562-1598 (Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2002). See also, James B. Woods, “The Impact of the Wars of Religion: A View of France in 1581,” Sixteenth Century Journal 15, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 131–68, [27] The French historian Michel Cassan has described how in the wake of the assassination French Protestant and Catholic communities, fearful of another descent into chaos and violence, preemptively renewed their “confessional coexistence pacts” in order to preserve stability. See, Michel Cassan, La Grande Peur de 1610: Les Français et l’Assassinat de Henri IV (Paris: Champ Vallon, 2010). [28] See the magisterial work of the French historian Colette Beaune in Naissance de la Nation France (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1985). On late medieval, and early modern manifestations of patriotism more broadly, see Joseph R. Strayer, On the Medieval Origins of the Modern State (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970). [29] The French diplomat Jacques Bongars’ compilation in 1611 of a number of historic chronicles of the Crusades under the title “Gesta Dei per Francos,” (God’s Deeds Through the Franks) proved particularly influential in reinvigorating the notion of the French as God’s chosen people. [30] See, Myriam Yardeni, La Conscience Nationale en France Pendant les Guerres de Religion (Paris: Editions Nauwelaerts, 1971), 32–37. It is worth noting that Richelieu also alludes to France’s demographic superiority over Spain as providing it with an edge in any long-term competition. See, for example, Richelieu, Testament Politique, 268. [31] On Gallicanism as a political ideology, see Jotham Parsons, The Church in the Republic: Gallicanism and Political Ideology in Renaissance France (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2004), 185–223. [32] As historians such as Marc Bloch have noted, this concept of sacred kingship took root at the intersection of two traditions: the philosophy of the French monarchy, which was defended by theorists such as Jean Bodin who viewed the king as the sole guarantor of unity and enforcer of sovereignty over an otherwise divided nation, and the religion of the French monarchy, which drew on folk traditions and village mysticism in a predominantly rural and deeply superstitious country. See, Marc Bloch, Les Rois Thaumaturges: Etude sur le Caractère Surnaturel Attribué à la Puissance Royale, Particulièrement en France et en Angleterre (Paris: Gallimard, 1983 Ed.); and Julian H. Franklin, Jean Bodin and the Rise of Absolutist Theory (Cambridge, UK : Cambridge University Press, 2009). [33] See, E.C. Caldwell, “The Hundred Years’ War and National Identity,” in Inscribing the Hundred Years’ War in French and English Cultures, ed. D.N. Baker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000), 237–65; and Paul Cohen, “In Search of the Trojan Origins of the French: The Uses of History in the Elevation of the Vernacular in Early Modern France,” in Fantasies of Troy: Classical Tales and the Social Imaginary in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Alan Shephard and Stephen D. Powell (Toronto: Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2004), 63–81. [34] On China’s revisionist instrumentalization of its imperial history, see Howard French, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power (New York: Vintage Books, 2017). [35] This hegemonic ambition was most notoriously laid out by the Dominican friar Tommaso Campanella in his 1600 treatise, A Discourse Touching the Spanish Monarchy: Laying Down Directions and Practices Whereby the King of Spain May Attain a Universal Monarchy. For a detailed analysis of Spanish writings on universal monarchy, see Anthony Pagden, Spanish Imperialism and the Political Imagination: Studies in European and Spanish-American Social and Political Theory 1513-1830 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990), 37–65. [36] On the strength of anti-Spanish sentiment, which often went hand in hand with a desire for greater French unity, see Alain Tallon, Conscience Nationale et Sentiment Religieux en France au XVIème Siècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2009), 56–58; and Yardeni, La Conscience Nationale en France. [37] Seigneur de Brantôme, Oeuvres Complètes Tome III (Paris: Editions Hachette, 2013 Ed.), 615–16. Author’s translation from the French. [38] See, Anne-Marie Cocula, “Des Héros Sans Gloire: Les Grands Capitaines des Guerres de Religion Vus par Brantôme,” Nouvelle Revue du XVIème Siècle 12, no. 1 (1994): 79–90,; Arlette Jouanna, Ordre Social, Mythes et Hiérarchies dans la France du XVIème Siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1977); and Nicolas Le Roux, “Honneur et Fidélité: Les Dilemmes de l’Obéissance Nobiliaire au Temps des Troubles de Religion,” Nouvelle Revue du XVIème Siècle 22, no. 1 (2004): 127–46, [39] See for example, Richelieu, Testament Politique, 268–69. [40] As the German historian Friedrich Meinecke wrote in the 1920s, the Florentine’s provocative reflections on ethics and statecraft constituted “a sword which was plunged into the flank of the body politic of Western humanity, causing it to shriek and rear up.” See, Friedrich Meinecke, Machiavellianism: The Doctrine of Raison d’Etat and Its Place in Modern History (New York: Routledge, 2017 Edition), 49. [41] Following Henri IV’s assassination, his wife Marie de Medici had ruled as regent for a decade before her son Louis XIII came of age. She and her Italian adviser Concino Concini were deeply unpopular and had been frequently accused of “Machiavellianism”i.e., corrupt and devious behavior by a hostile and xenophobic French populace. See, Henry Heller, Anti-Italianism in Sixteenth Century France (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003). [42] See, Michel de Montaigne, Essais Tome 2 (Paris: Folio, 2009 Ed.), 157. Author’s translation from the French. On the rise of Tacitism, see Alexandra Gadja, “Tacitus and Political Thought in Early Modern Europe, c.1530-c.1640,” in The Cambridge Companion to Tacitus, ed. A.J. Woodman (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 253–69. [43] Adrianna E. Bakos, “Qui Nescit Dissimulare, Nescit Regnare: Louis XI and Raison D’Etat During the Reign of Louis XIII,” Journal of the History of Ideas 52, no. 3 (1991): 399–416, Slowly but surely, Tacitus came to be viewed less as a diagnostician of the decay of civil liberties under the Roman Principate, and more as the father of prudence, and the “patron of state vigilance.” For one such example of Tacitist writing in 17th-century France, see Rodolphe Le Maistre, who famously described Tacitus as the “oracle of princes” in Le Tibère Français ou les Six Premiers Livres des Annales de Cornelius Tacitus (Paris: Robert Estienne, 1616). [44] See, Gerhard Oestrich, Neostoicism and the Early Modern State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Leonine Zanta, La Renaissance du Stoicisme au XVIème Siècle (London: Forgotten Books, 2018 Edition); and Raymond Lebegue, “La Littérature Française et les Guerres de Religion,” The French Review 23, no. 3 (1950): 205–13, [45] Oestrich, Neostoicism and the Early Modern State, 29. Mark Bannister notes that French neo-stoic writings argued “in favor of a much more active and patriotic response to the onslaughts of fate than would have been advocated by the (classically stoic) ancients.” See, Mark Bannister, “Heroic Hierarchies: Classic Models for Panegyrics in Seventeenth-Century France,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 8, no. 1 (Summer 2001): 38–59,, and Anthony Levi, French Moralists: The Theory of the Passions 1585-1649 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1964). [46] For an excellent overview of this intellectual current, see Robert Bireley, The Counter-Reformation Prince: Anti-Machiavellianism or Catholic Statecraft in Early Modern Europe (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990). Granted, the laborious efforts to define precisely which ethical violations were justifiable in service to the state occasionally veered into casuistry. In some instances, theorists clearly struggled to establish neat categories or “guides” of justifiable departures from Christian morality. For some of the more famous efforts at establishing such behavioral guides, see Justus Lipsius, Six Books on Politics or Civil Doctrine (Arnhem, 1647); Scipione Ammirato, Discourses on Cornelius Tacitus (Florence, 1594); and “Lettre du Seigneur de Silhon a Monsieur l’Eveque de Nantes,” in Recueil de Lettres Nouvelles, ed. N.Faret (Paris: 1627). [47] Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 44. [48] Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 44. [49] Thinkers such as François de Gravelles argued that the monarchical system of government was “approved by reason, and confirmed by nature,” and pointed to the hierarchical structure of various animal societies such as bee hives, which most naturalists believed at the time was centered around a king, rather than a queen, bee. See, François de Gravelles, Politiques Royales, (Lyon, 1596), 117. Author’s translation from the French. [50] The concept of reason, or what the cardinal sometimes referred to as the “natural light of reason,” was at the heart of his political thought. Françoise Hildesheimer notes, for example, that the word “reason” features 173 times in the Testament Politique. See, Françoise Hildesheimer, “Le Testament Politique de Richelieu ou le Règne Terrestre de la Raison,” Annuaire-Bulletin de la Société de l’Histoire de France (Paris: Editions de Boccard, 1994): 17-34, [51] Jean de Silhon, quoted in F.E. Sutcliffe, Guez de Balzac et Son Temps : Littérature et Politique (Paris: A.G. Nizet, 1959), 231. Author’s translation from the French. [52] Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Duc de Richelieu, Lettres, Instructions Diplomatiques du Cardinal de Richelieu Vol. III (Paris: Avenel, 1853 Ed.), 665–66. Author’s translation from the French. [53] For a seminal discussion of the concept of “mysteries of state” and its ties to absolutist ideology, see Ernst H. Kantorowciz, “Mysteries of State: An Absolutist Concept and Its Late Mediaeval Origins,” Harvard Theological Review 48, no. 1 (January 1955): 65–91, [54] “All political thinkers agree that if the common people were too comfortable, it would be impossible to hold them to the dictates of their duty (...)They must be compared to mules which, being accustomed to burdens, are spoiled by long rest more than work. But as this work should be more moderate and the burdens on these animals proportionate to their strength, so it is with regard to taxes on the common people. If they are not moderate, even though they might be useful to the public, they would still be unjust.” Richelieu, Testament Politique, 253–54. Author’s translation from the French. [55] Léopold Lacour, Richelieu Dramaturge et Ses Collaborateurs: Les Imbroglios Romanesques, Les Pièces Politiques (Paris: Ollendorf, 1926), 144–52. [56] Edward W. Najam, “‘Europe’: Richelieu’s Blueprint for Unity and Peace,” Studies in Philology 53, no. 1 (January 1956): 25–34, [57] Jean Desmarets, Europe: Comédie Héroïque (Paris: Editions LeGras, 1643), Act III, Scene 2. Author’s translation from the French. [58] Per Maurseth, “Balance-of-Power Thinking from the Renaissance to the French Revolution,” Journal of Peace Research 1, no. 2 (1964): 120–36, [59] See, Jörg Wollenberg, “Richelieu et le Système Européen de Sécurité Collective,” Dix-septième Siècle 1, no. 210 (2010): 99–112; Gaston Zeller, “Le Principe d’Equilibre dans la Politique Internationale Avant 1789,” Revue Historique 215, no. 1 (1956): 25–37; and Hermann Weber, “Une Bonne Paix: Richelieu’s Foreign Policy and the Peace of Christendom,” in Richelieu and His Age, ed. Joseph Bergin and Laurence Brockliss (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 45–71. [60] Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 297. [61] See, for example, Fritz Dickmann, “Rechtsgedanke und Machtpolitik bei Richelieu. Studien an Neuendeckten Quellen,” Historische Zeitschrift, no. 196 (1963): 265–319; and Klaus Malettke, “French Foreign Policy and the European States System in the Era of Richelieu and Mazarin,” in The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848: Episode or Model in Modern History? ed. Peter Kruger and Paul W. Schroeder (Munster: Lit Verlag, 2002), 29–45. [62] Other illustrious contemporaries of Richelieu, such as Sir Francis Bacon in England, were arguably equally sophisticated in their discussion of balance-of-power politics. See, in particular, his essay “Of Empire,” published in 1612 and expanded in 1625, available online at . As David Hume was to note a century and a half later, statesmen have always operated with such principles in mind, for the “maxim of preserving the balance of power is founded … on common sense and obvious reasoning.”[62] David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary Vol.1 (London: T.H. Green, 1882 Ed.), 348–56. [63] David J. Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin: A Study in Statesmanship (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 63. [64] See, Aldous Huxley, Grey Eminence (London: Vintage Books, 2005 Edition), 108. [65] See, Bireley, The Counter-Reformation Prince, 238–39. The ancient historian Polybius, with his focus on anacylosis (the life cycles of systems of government), pragmatiké historia (political and military history), and the study of historical parallels, was held in especially high esteem. For a recent discussion of the legacy of Polybian thought and its continued relevance, see Iskander Rehman, “Polybius, Applied History, and Grand Strategy in an Interstitial Age,” War on the Rocks, March 29, 2019, [66] Giovanni Botero, The Reason of State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017 Edition), 37. [67] Sycophantic artists often drew analogies between Richelieu and the Roman general Scipio Africanus, whether in works of art or in popular theater productions. See, for example Richelieu protégé Desmarets’ play Scipio, written while France was at a military low point in its war with Spain. Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, Scipion: Tragi-Comédie (Paris: H. Le Gras, 1639) ; and Jean Puget de la Serre, Le Portrait de Scipion l’Africain ou l’Image de la Gloire et de la Vertu Représentée au Naturel dans Celle de Monseigneur le Cardinal Duc de Richelieu (Bordeaux, 1641). [68] Quoted in Carl Jacob Buckhardt, Richelieu and His Age: Power Politics and the Cardinal’s Age (London: Allen & Unwin, 1971), 110. [69] James G. Lacey, ed., Enduring Strategic Rivalries (Arlington, VA: Institute for Defense Analyses, 2014), 1–16, Kenneth Boulding famously referred to this as the “loss of strength gradient.” See, Kenneth Boulding, Conflict and Defense: A General Theory (New York: Harper, 1962), 244–47. For a broader historical discussion of the risks of “force dispersal” that go hand in hand with overly rapid imperial expansion, see Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power Volume I: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 140–43. [70] For a seminal study of this logistical lifeline, see Geoffrey Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road: 1567-1659 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004 Edition). [71] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 406. Author’s translation from the French. [72] J.H. Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984). [73] Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 119–20. [74] Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 362. [75] On Richelieu’s views on maritime trade and commercial capitalism, see Henri Hauser, La Pensée et l’Action Economiques du Cardinal Richelieu (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1944). [76] As the statesman was to note in the Testament Politique, one of the motivations behind developing France’s naval might had been to compel Spain to redirect its finite flows of manpower and resources into the defense of its coastline, thus weakening its capacity to “trouble its neighbors to the same degree as it has done thus far.” Richelieu, Testament Politique, 291. Author’s translation of the French. For Richelieu’s force-structure goals, which included a fleet of “at least 30 good warships,” see “Memoire touchant la Marine, envoyé à M. Ie Garde des Sceaux, November 18, 1626,” in Papiers de Richelieu, ed. Pierre Grillon (Paris: Pedone, 1977), I, 531. [77] For an excellent and nuanced examination of the successes and failures of Richelieu’s naval endeavors, see Alan James, The Navy and Government in Early Modern France: 1572-1661 (London: The Royal Historical Society, 2004). [78] James, The Navy and Government in Early Modern France, 243. On the broader difficulties faced by countries such as France, which — due to the nature of their geography — have consistently had to balance between both continental and maritime threat perceptions, see James Pritchard, “France: Maritime Empire, Continental Commitment,” in China Goes to Sea: Maritime Transformation in Comparative Historical Perspective, ed. Andrew S. Erickson et al. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 123–45. [79] The prince-electors, or “electors,” were the most powerful rulers of the sprawling patchwork of principalities and ecclesiastical territories that composed the Holy Roman Empire. Together, they belonged to the Council of Electors within the Imperial Diet, or Reichstag, and were charged with electing the “King of the Romans,” or Holy Roman Emperor. [80] See, for example, the Discours des Princes et Etats de la Chrétienté plus Considérables à la France, Selon les Diverses Qualités et Conditions, authored by an anonymous member of Richelieu’s entourage, and which — in its intellectual subtlety and granular knowledge of the European security environment — seems, according to Meinecke, to almost be describing “the action of a delicate piece of clockwork, and, on the basis of the nature, the strength and relative positioning of its springs, to demonstrate the inevitability and certain quality of its oscillations.” Meinecke, Machiavellianism, 159. For a good overview of the discipline of net assessment, see Stephen Peter Rosen, “Net Assessment as an Analytical Concept,” in On Not Confusing Ourselves: Essays on National Security in Honor of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter, ed. Andrew W. Marshall et al. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991), 283–300. [81] As one colorful adage went, it was considered “sometimes better to let a child go snotty than to tear off its nose.” Quoted in R.J. Knecht, Richelieu (New York: Routledge, 2013), 170. On Richelieu’s policy of religious toleration during his time as bishop of Luçon, see l’abbé L. Lacroix, Richelieu à Luçon, Sa Jeunesse, Son Episcopat (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1890), 85–90. [82] See, David Parker, La Rochelle and the French Monarchy: Conflict and Order in Seventeenth Century France (London: Royal Historical Society, 1980), 15–20. [83] For an excellent overview of the ideological challenge posed by Calvinist republicanism, see Arthur Herman, “The Huguenot Republic and Antirepublicanism in Seventeenth-Century France,” Journal of the History of Ideas 53, no. 2 (1992): 249–69, [84] On the storied career of the Duke of Rohan, see Jack Alden Clarke, Huguenot Warrior: The Life and Times of Henri de Rohan 1579-1638 (Berlin: Springer Science, 1966). [85] See, Orest Ranum, Artisans of Glory: Writers and Historical Thought in Seventeenth-Century France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 183–85. [86] See, Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 179. [87] Richard Herr, “Honor Versus Absolutism: Richelieu’s Fight Against Dueling,” Journal of Modern History 27, no. 3 (1955): 281–85, [88] “Duels,” he later grumbled, “had become so commonplace in France that the streets of the town were being used as fields of combat, and since the day was not long enough to encompass their madness, men fought one another by star and torch light.” Quoted by Burckhardt, Richelieu and His Age—Volume III: Power Politics and the Cardinal’s Death (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1971), 57. [89] Pascal Broist et al., Croiser le Fer: Violence et Culture de l’Epée dans la France Moderne (Paris: Seyssel, 2002). Commenting on this obsessive focus on peer recognition, David Parrott observes that “the extent to which the (French) nobility in the seventeenth century still accepted and judged one another in terms of a traditional warrior culture should not be underestimated.” David Parrott, “Richelieu, the Grands, and the French Army,” in Richelieu and His Age, ed. Bergin and Brockliss, 146. [90] John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (New York: Perseus Books, 2008 Edition), 143. [91] On Richelieu’s complex rapport with the value system of the French nobility, see Orest Ranum, “Richelieu and the Great Nobility: Some Aspects of Early Modern Political Motives,” French Historical Studies 3, no. 2 (Autumn 1963): 184–204, [92] See for instance his letter to the Duke of Hallwin in Letters of the Cardinal Duke de Richelieu Great Minister of State to Lewis XIII of France Faithfully Translated from the Original, Vol. II, Letter XXV, June 04, 1635 (London: A. Roper, A. Bosville and T. Leigh, 1698). [93] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 347. Author’s translation from the French. The cardinal could be an exacting taskmaster, demanding a continuous flow of reports from his spies and diplomats and on occasion asking them to fine-tune their behavior in accordance with the personality traits of their foreign interlocutors. Olivares, for example, was known to be of a singularly choleric disposition. Richelieu therefore advised his ambassador to do everything he could to irritate the thin-skinned Spaniard, in the hope that he would accidentally betray his intentions in a fit of anger. This particular ploy is mentioned by Richelieu in his memoirs. See, “Mémoires du Cardinal de Richelieu Livre XXIII,” in Collection des Mémoires Relatifs à l’Histoire de France Depuis l’Avènement de Henri IV Jusqu’à la Paix de Paris, ed. M. Petiot (Paris : Foucault, 1823), 222. [94] Henri de Rohan, De L’Intérêt des Princes et Etats de la Chrétienté (Paris: 1634), 105–06. Author’s translation from the French. [95] John C. Rule, “The Enduring Rivalry of France and Spain 1462-1700,” in Great Power Rivalries, ed. William R. Thompson (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), 31–60. [96] The Treaty of Monzon did, however, sour France’s relations with its northern Italian allies, such as Venice, as it was discreetly negotiated over their heads. In that sense, one could argue that it constituted something of “an inauspicious beginning” in international affairs. For “inauspicious beginning,” see Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin, 40. [97] On the complex rules governing the resolution of dynastic disputes in the Reichsitalien (the Italian territories falling under the sovereign jurisdiction of the Holy Roman Empire), see Karl O. von Aretin, Das Reich: Friedensordnung und Europaisches Gleichgewicht, 1648-1806 (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta Verlag, 1986), 80–140. [98] The drivers behind each power’s decision to intervene and “self-entangle” in the Mantuan succession crisis were multiple and complex. For more on the various drivers and ramifications of the Mantuan crisis, see David Parrott, “A Prince Souverain and the French Crown: Charles de Nevers,” in Royal and Republican Sovereignty in Early Modern Europe. Essays in Honor of Professor Ragnhild Hatton, ed. G. Gibbs et al. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 149–88; and R.A. Stradling, “Prelude to Disaster; The Precipitation of the War of Mantuan Succession, 1627-29,” The Historical Journal 33, no. 4 (December 1990): 769–85, [99] Spain was frustrated by the tardiness of imperial support, whereas the Holy Roman Empire felt uncomfortably pressured into military action. For a good overview of these tensions, see J.H. Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 337–86. [100] The Mantuan War severely strained Spanish financial resources, costing more than 10 million escudos. See Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 458. As J.H. Elliott notes, “Flanders or Italy was an old Spanish dilemma,” and Spain clearly lacked the resources to pursue operations in both the Netherlands and Italy simultaneously. See, Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 101. For a more granular overview of the military costs and tactics of the conflict see Thomas F. Arnold, “Gonzaga Fortifications and the Mantuan Succession Crisis of 1613-1631,” Mediterranean Studies, no. 4 (1994): 113–30, [101] The means by which Richelieu acquired this fortress were particularly devious. Pretending to give it up during the negotiations settling the Mantuan succession, Richelieu ordered a task force of French soldiers concealed in the subterranean levels of the castle to rapidly neutralize the Savoyard garrison as soon as imperial forces left the vicinity. The Savoyards were then discreetly pressured into permanently ceding the fortress to France. See, Gregory Hanlon, Italy 1636: Cemetery of Armies (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016), 24. [102] David Parrott, “The Mantuan Succession Crisis, 1627–31: A Sovereignty Dispute in Early Modern Europe,” English Historical Review 112, no. 445 (1997): 65, [103] Richelieu, Testament Politique, chap. IV. These comments resemble, to a certain degree, Carl Von Clausewitz’s later observations in On War on the inherent fragility of coalitions. For a good overview of Clausewitz’s approach to alliances and foreign policy, see Hugh Smith, “The Womb of War: Clausewitz and International Politics,” Review of International Studies 16, no. 1 (January 1990): 39–58, [104] Most notably via the signing of the secret treaty of Fontainebleau, which lasted from 1631 to 1639, and which stipulated that each party would agree not to attack each other or lend assistance to each other’s enemies. On Franco-Bavarian diplomacy during this phase of the Thirty Years’ War see Robert Bireley, Maximilian Von Bayern, Adam Contzen S.J. und die GegenReformation in Deutschland 1624-1635 (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975). [105] See Père Joseph, "Mémoire au Conseil du Roi sur L’Etat des Affaires d’Allemagne, Janvier 1631," cited in G. Fagniez, “La Mission du Père Joseph à Ratisbonne 1630,” Revue Historique 27, no. 1 (1885): 38–67. [106] See, Toby Osborne, Dynasty and Diplomacy in the Court of Savoy: Political Culture and the Thirty Years’ War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007). [107] As Carl J. Burckhardt notes, at one time “every person who was in disfavor with the French government and acted against French interests seemed to be welcome in the neighboring state of Lorraine.” See, Burckhardt, Richelieu and His Age, 22. [108] Charles IV was later to renege on his abdication but remained the duke in exile until 1661. [109] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 239. Author’s translation from the French. [110] These particular diplomatic efforts are clearly summarized in B.F. Porshnev, Muscovy and Sweden in the Thirty Years’ War 1630-1635 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 4–8. [111] The difficulties and frustrations Richelieu faced in terms of alliance management are superbly laid out in Wollenberg, Richelieu, chap. 3. [112] On the timeless challenges inherent to the sponsor-proxy and patron-client relationship, see Chris Loveman, “Assessing the Phenomenon of Proxy Intervention,” Conflict, Security and Development 2, no. 3 (2002): 29–48,; Walter C. Ladwig III, The Forgotten Front: Patron-Client Relationships in Counter-Insurgency (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017); and Daniel Byman, “Why States Are Turning to Proxy Intervention,” National Interest, Aug. 26, 2018, [113] For an excellent overview of the Richelieu-Gustavus Adolphus relationship see Lauritz Weibull, “Gustave-Adolphe et Richelieu,” Revue Historique 174, no. 2 (1934): 216–29, [114] See, Michael Roberts, Gustavus Adolphus 1626-1632 (London: Longmans, Greens and Co., 1958), 467. [115] Surrounded by armed sentinels, and shadowed by a burly bodyguard who accompanied him even into his private chambers, the cardinal lived under the perennial fear that he might be viciously stabbed in his slumber or torn apart by a bomb surreptitiously placed under his carriage seat. At the back of his mind, there was no doubt always the cautionary tale of Concino Concini, the queen mother’s former favorite, whose murder Louis XIII had sanctioned in 1617, and whose mangled remains Richelieu had witnessed being borne across the Pont Neuf on a roaring mob’s pikes. See Jean-Vincent Blanchard, Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France (New York: Walker and Company, 2011), 82. For a good summary of the events leading up to Concino Concini’s brutal murder, see Sharon Kettering, Power and Reputation at the Court of Louis XIII: The Career of Charles D’Albert, Duc de Luynes 1578-1621 (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2008), 63–89. [116] Ranum, “Richelieu and the Great Nobility.” [117] See, Church, Richelieu and Reason of State, 202; and George Pages, “Autour du ‘Grand Orage’. Richelieu et Marillag: Deux Politiques,” Revue Historique 179, no. 1 (1937): 63–97, [118] See, Roland Mousnier, Fureurs Paysannes: Les Paysans dans les Révoltes du XVIIème Siècle (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1967); and George Mongredien, La Journée des Dupes (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), 35. [119] See, Lauro Martines, Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700 (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 253. [120] This point is made in Mongredien, La Journée des Dupes, 34. [121] On these battles for influence, see Julian Swann, Exile, Imprisonment or Death: The Politics of Disgrace in Bourbon France (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 345-346; and Robert Bireley, The Jesuits and the Thirty Years War: Kings, Courts and Confessors (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 190–96. [122] As Jeffrey Sawyer has noted, these political pamphlets were produced at an astonishing rate, with one inventory of the French national library listing close to 3,500 titles from the reign of Louis XIII alone. See, Jeffrey K. Sawyer, Printed Poison: Pamphlet Propaganda, Faction Politics, and the Public Sphere in Early Seventeenth Century France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 1. See also Sharon Kettering, “Political Pamphlets in Early Seventeenth-Century France: The Propaganda War Between Louis XIII and his Mother, 1619–20,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 42, no. 4 (2011): 963–80,; and Helene Duccini, Faire Voir, Faire Croire: L’Opinion Publique Sous Louis XIII (Paris: Champ Vallon, 2003). [123] For a classic study of this literary lobby, see Maximin Deloche, Autour de la Plume de Richelieu (Paris: Société Française d’Imprimerie et de Librairie, 1920). For “politico-literary strike force,” see Marc Fumaroli, “Richelieu Patron of the Arts,” in Richelieu: Art and Power, ed. Hilliard Todd Goldfarb (Montreal: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2002), 35. [124] Close to the queen mother, Mathieu de Morgues was initially an ally and collaborator of Richelieu before becoming his most ferocious critic in the years following the Day of the Dupes. On Matthieu de Morgues’ career and political thought, see Seung-Hwi Lim, “Mathieu de Morgues, Bon Français ou Bon Catholique?” Dix-Septième Siècle 213, no. 4 (January 2001): 655–72, [125] Jean de Silhon, De l’Immortalité de l’Ame (Paris: 1634). [126] Critiques of the Spanish treatment of native Americans was a leitmotiv in French writings at the time. In the early 17th century, France pursued a more humane (albeit deeply paternalistic) policy of “francization” — or assimilation — in its American colonies, seeking to comingle colonial and native peoples as a means of adding demographic weight to the sparsely populated new French territories. Interestingly, Richelieu was a strong proponent of this relatively enlightened approach. See, for instance, Saliha Belmessous, “Assimilation and Racialism in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century French Colonial Policy,” American Historical Review 110, no. 2 (April 2005): 322–49, [127] Jérémie Ferrier, "Le Catholique d’Etat ou Discours Politique des Alliances du Roi Très Chrétien Contre les Calomnies des Ennemis de son Etat," in Recueil de Diverses Pièces Pour Servir à l’Histoire, ed. Paul Hay du Chastelet (Paris: 1635) ; and Jean-Louis Guez de Balzac, Le Prince (Paris: 1631). [128] Indeed, “if one were to put all the gold on one side, and the blood of the Indians from which it is drawn on the other, the blood would still weigh more than the gold.”[128] Ferrier, Le Catholique d’Etat. [129] "Discours sur la Légitimité d’une Alliance avec les Hérétiques et les Infidèles,” in Mémoires du Cardinal de Richelieu, Tome V (Annexe) (Paris: Edition de la Société de l’Histoire de France, 1921), 283–88. In defense of France’s Protestant partnerships, politique pamphleteers also drew on biblical precedents such as King David’s alliance with the Philistines. [130] Ferrier, Le Catholique d’Etat. There is a vibrant debate — and voluminous attendant literature — in contemporary political science on the importance to be attached to the pursuit and/or defense of credibility and reputation in foreign policy. Even a cursory reading of the writings and correspondence of early modern statesmen such as Olivares and Richelieu makes it clear, however, that — at least in their eyes — there was no debate to be had. Indeed, the quest for prestige, credibility, and respect on the international stage verged on the obsessive and was woven into the strategic DNA of 17th-century Europe’s highly personalized monarchical powers. For a recent discussion of the abiding importance of reputation in international politics, see Alex Weisiger and Keren Yarhi-Milo, “Revisiting Reputation: How Past Actions Matter in International Politics,” International Organization 69, no. 2 (Spring 2015): 473–95, [131] As Maxime Préaud notes, Richelieu felt that it “was time to give Paris, and France, publications whose quality of presentation would be up to Antwerp’s standards, whether it was typography or book decoration.” He even went so far as to encourage the French ambassador to the Hague to engage in industrial espionage by stealing the formula for the typographic ink used in the Netherlands. See, Maxime Préaud, “L’Imprimerie Royale and Cardinal Richelieu,” in Richelieu: Art and Power, 201. [132] Dickmann, “Rechtsgedanke und Machtpolitik bei Richelieu.” [133] As J.H. Elliott notes, the effects of that battle had rippled throughout Europe, and had provided “an impressive reaffirmation of Spanish power at a time when many were beginning to wonder if it had not gone into eclipse.” Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 482. [134] R.A. Stradling, Spain’s Struggle for Europe 1598-1668 (London, UK: The Hambledon Press, 1994), 117. [135] Once blades were drawn, the Spanish chief minister insisted, rapidity was of the essence: “Everything must begin at once, for unless they are attacked vigorously, nothing can prevent the French from becoming masters of the world, and without any risks to themselves.” Quoted in R.A. Stradling, “Olivares and the Origins of the Franco-Spanish War, 1627-1635,” English Historical Review 101, no. 398 (1986): 90, [136] James B. Wood, The King’s Army: Warfare, Soldiers and Society During the Wars of Religion in France 1562-76 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 58–59 [137] John A. Lynn, Giant of the Grand Siècle: The French Army 1610-1715 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 41. [138] Lynn, Giant of the Grand Siècle, 43. [139] Some contemporary scholars have expressed reservations over the higher figures unconditionally accepted by former generations of historians, with David Parrott noting that due to desertion rates, seasonal recruitment variations, and the general tendency by government ministers to occasionally inflate the paper strength of units, “attempts to fix upon a figure for the size of the (French) army” should be seen as “arbitrary selections of temporary high-points,” as early 17th-century armies were “institutions whose size and composition fluctuated continually.” See, David Parrott, Richelieu’s Army: War, Government and Society in France, 1624-1642 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 178–79. Nevertheless, even if one takes such expressions of academic caution into account, there is little doubt that although the surge in French troop strength may not have equaled “the extreme estimates of some historians,” it still constituted “a quantum leap upward.” John A. Lynn, Giant of the Grand Siècle, 56. For two additional and differing perspectives on French troop numbers, see Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin, 58; and Wilson, The Thirty Years War, 557. [140] Lynn, Giant of the Grand Siècle, 56. [141] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 482, 490–92. [142] See, Randall Lesaffer, “Defensive Warfare, Prevention and Hegemony. The Justifications for the Franco-Spanish War of 1635 (Part I),” Journal of the History of International Law 8, no. 1 (December 2006): 92, [143] See, Lettre du Roi, Ecrite à Monseigneur le Duc de Mont-Bazon (...) Contenant les Justes Causes que Sa Majesté a Eues de Déclarer la Guerre au Roi D’Espagne (Paris: 1635). Available online at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France: [144] According to some accounts, it was Ferdinand II’s own, more pro-Spanish son (then the king of Hungary) who finally convinced him to declare war on France. See, Robert S.J. Bireley, Religion and Politics in the Age of the Counterreformation: Emperor Ferdinand II, William Lamormaini, S.J., and the Formation of the Imperial Policy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 227. [145] See, Jonathan I. Israel, Spain, The Low Countries and the Struggle for World Supremacy 1585-1713 (London: The Hambledon Press, 1997), 77. [146] Visiting the dispirited cardinal in his plush bedchambers, the coarse-robed monk exhorted him to action in the service of France, warning him that his present weakness was not only unseemly but also ungodly and would only further “excite the wrath of God and inflame his vengeance.” Quoted in Blanchard, Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the Rise of France, 163. [147] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 522. [148] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 506. [149] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army. [150] See, Caitlin Talmadge, The Dictator’s Army: Battlefield Effectiveness in Authoritarian Regimes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015). See also James T. Quinlavan, “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East,” International Security 24, no. 2 (Fall 1999): 131–65, [151] For a seminal discussion of the politics of patronage, see Sharon Kettering, Patrons, Brokers, and Clients in Seventeenth Century France (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1986). The fact that successful state-building often rests on the outcome of complex — and sometimes violent — negotiations between entrenched elites is something that has also been explored in the contemporary security studies literature. See, for example, Jacqueline L. Hazelton, “The ‘Heart and Minds’ Fallacy: Violence, Coercion, and Success in Counterinsurgency Warfare,” International Security 42, no. 1 (Summer 2017): 80–113, [152] These dynamics are detailed at length in Parrott, “Richelieu, the Grands, and the French Army,” 135–73. [153] See, David Parrott, The Business of War: Military Enterprise and Military Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012). [154] See, Douglas Clark Baxter, Servants of the Sword: French Intendants of the Army 1630-1670 (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976). [155] An excellent overview of the role of the intendants in this centralization process is provided in Richard Bonney, Political Change in France Under Richelieu and Mazarin: 1624-1661 (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1978). [156] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 439. [157] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 434–504. [158] Perhaps the best overview of these challenges is provided in Guy Rowlands, “Moving Mars: The Logistical Geography of Louis XIV’s France,” French History 25, no. 4 (2011): 492–514, Rowlands’ article delves into military logistics at a slightly later period, but the difficulties he lays out were arguably even more pronounced during Louis XIII’s reign. [159] Quoted in Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 95, in the original French. Author’s translation. [160] Richard Bonney, “Louis XIII, Richelieu, and the Royal Finances,” in Richelieu and His Age, ed. Bergin and Brockliss, 106. [161] See, Ronald G. Asch, The Thirty Years War: The Holy Roman Empire and Europe 1618-1648 (New York: Palgrave, 1997), 172; and Wilson, The Thirty Years War, 558. [162] See, Madeline Foisil, La Révolte des Nu-Pieds et Les Révoltes Normandes de 1639 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1970). These uprisings were often supported by local nobles, who sometimes even put their castles at the disposal of the croquants. See, J.H.M. Salmon, “Venality of Office and Popular Sedition in Seventeenth-Century France. A Review of a Controversy,” Past and Present, no. 37 (1967): 21­–43, [163] See, Victor L. Tapie, La France de Louis XIII et de Richelieu (Paris: Flammarion, 1967), 296–332. [164] Thomas Munck, Seventeenth Century Europe: State, Conflict and Social Order in Europe 1598-1700 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 51. [165] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 32–40. [166] Parrott, Richelieu’s Army, 32–40. [167] An excellent discussion of these debates over theater prioritization is provided in David Parrott, “Richelieu, Mazarin and Italy (1635-59): Statesmanship in Context,” in Secretaries and Statecraft in the Early Modern World, ed. Paul M. Dover (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 155–76. [168] See, Clarke, Huguenot Warrior, 197–215. [169] As Peter Wilson notes, “the French monarchy might have lurched … from one financial crisis to the next, but at least it kept moving forward. The famously centrally appointed intendants, were clearly not impartial agents of royal absolutism as once thought, yet they did ensure money reached the treasury, troops were paid, and warships equipped. French troops remained ill-disciplined, but they did not mutiny like Sweden’s German army.” See ,Wilson, The Thirty Years War, 559. [170] See, J.H. Elliott and L.W.S Brockliss, eds., The World of the Favorite (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998); and Dover, Secretaries and Statecraft in the Early Modern World. [171] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 286. [172] For a good overview of 17th-century Spain’s growing economic fragilities and the decline in the value of transatlantic trade, see Dennis O. Flynn, “Fiscal Crisis and the Decline of Spain (Castile),” Journal of Economic History 42, no. 1 (March 1982): 139–47, [173] See, Ronald G. Asch, The Thirty Years War, 150. [174] On early modern Spain’s system of composite monarchy, see H.G. Koenigsberger, “Monarchies and Parliaments in Early Modern Europe: Dominium Regale or Dominium Politicum et Regale,” Theory and Society 5, no. 2 (March 1978): 191–217,; and J.H. Elliott, “A Europe of Composite Monarchies,” Past and Present, no. 137 (November 1992): 48–71, [175] See, Colin Pendrill, Spain 1474-1700: The Triumphs and Tribulations of Empire (Oxford, UK: Heinemann Educational Publishers, 2002), 137. [176] See, Stradling, “Olivares and the Origins of the Franco-Spanish War.” [177] See, Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 606–07. [178] See, Lothar Höbelt, Ferdinand III (1608–1657): Friedenskaiser wider Willen (Vienna: Aries Verag, 2008). [179] James, The Navy and Government in Early Modern France, 77–91. [180] For David Sturdy, by the time Richelieu died, in 1642, it can be stated in “objective terms,” that “France’s frontiers were more secure than for many decades.” See, Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin, 64. [181] Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares, 596. [182] Richard Lodge, The Life of Cardinal Richelieu (New York: A.L. Burt Company, 1903 Edition), 224. [183] Russell Weigley notes that France’s victory at Rocroi (which was largely enabled by its much improved cavalry) by “no means signaled the end of its (France’s) difficulties in finding an adequate infantry, but this triumph of gendarmes, good fortune, and superior generalship nevertheless began the process of translating France’s potential ability to profit from the Thirty Years War into military actuality.” See, Russell F. Weigley, The Age of Battles: The Quest for Decisive Warfare from Breitenfeld to Waterloo (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 42. [184] Most historians believe Richelieu succumbed to pleurisy. [185] Quoted in Jean-Christian Petitfils, Louis XIII: Tome II (Paris: Perrin, 2008), chap. XIII. [186] “Je n’ai jamais eu d’autres ennemis que ceux de l’Etat,” quoted in G. D’Avenel, Richelieu et la Monarchie Absolue, Vol. 3 (Paris: Broche, 2011 Edition), 89. [187] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 40–44. [188] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 40–44. [189] Cited in A. Lloyd Moote, Louis XIII: The Just (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 177. [190] This oft-cited definition of grand strategy (and one of the more workable and succinct) is provided in Barry R. Posen and Andrew L. Ross, “Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy,” International Security 21, no. 3 (Winter 1996–97): 3, [191] For a recent sampling of such skeptical views see Ionet Popescu, Emergent Strategy and Grand Strategy (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); and Simon Riech and Peter Dombrowksi, The End of Grand Strategy: U.S. Maritime Operations in the Twenty-First Century (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2018). For “randomness parading as design,” see Steve Yetiv, The Absence of Grand Strategy: The United States in the Persian Gulf: 1972-2005 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015), 197. On the importance of certain exceptional individuals in shaping grand strategy, see 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, [192] Moote, Louis XIII: The Just, 178. [193] Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), xi. For an excellent recent overview of the academic literature on grand strategy, see Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “What Is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield,” Texas National Security Review 2, no. 1 (November 2018), [194] Victor L. Tapié, “The Legacy of Richelieu,” in The Impact of Absolutism in France: National Experience Under Richelieu, Mazarin, and Louis XIV, ed. William F. Church (London: John Wiley & Sons, 1969), 59. [195] Burckhardt, Richelieu and His Age, 54. [196] Williamson Murray et al., The Shaping of Grand Strategy: Policy, Diplomacy and War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 11. [197] 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), 190. [198] “La meilleure règle qu’on puisse avoir en ce choix est souvent de n’en avoir point de générale." Quoted in Guy Thuillier, “Maximes d’Etat du Cardinal de Richelieu," La Revue Administrative 9, no. 53 (September-October 1956): 482, [199] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 141. [200] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 139. [201] In this, Richelieu was echoing many of the writings of other 17th-century theorists of prudence, and figures such as the Spaniard Baltasar Gracian, who pointed to the Augustan motto festina lente — or “make haste slowly” — to later argue that “diligence carries out quickly what intelligence carries out slowly.” See, Baltasar Gracian, The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence (London: Penguin Classics, 2011 Edition), 53. [202]Quoted in Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 155. Richelieu also memorably put emphasis on the occasional need for rapid decisiveness in his famous 1629 memorandum to the king, noting that “Men do not create opportunities but are given them; they do not order time but possess only a small part of it, the present, which is but an almost imperceptible point as opposed to the vast extent of the limitless future. To achieve their ends, men must move quickly and in good time; they must make haste among immediate, transitory things.” Mémoires du Cardinal de Richelieu, Vol. IX (Paris: Honore Champion, 1929 Edition), 20–22. [203] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 66. [204] Richelieu, Testament Politique, 67. [205] Quoted in Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 154. [206] For Geoffrey Parker, by their continued funding of Spain’s Protestant adversaries, in the Low Countries in particular, “It was not the Dutch who destroyed the Spanish Empire, but the French. The Low Countries’ Wars resembled a weakening hold which, when long applied, debilitates a wrestler so that he submits more easily to a new attack from a different quarter.” Parker, The Army of Flanders and the Spanish Road, 221. [207] See, Algernon Sidney, Court Maxims (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996 Edition), 78. [208] Edward Rhodes, “Constructing Power: Cultural Transformation and Strategic Adjustment in the 1890s,” in The Politics of Strategic Adjustment: Ideas, Institutions, Interests, ed. Peter Trubowitz et al. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 29. See also the seminal work, Richard Rosecrance and Arthur A. Stein, eds., The Domestic Bases of Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993). [209] Lord Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power (Boston, MA: 1949 Edition), 58–88. [210] Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, 171. [211] Moote, Louis XIII: The Just; and Petitfils, Louis XIII: Tomes I et II (Paris: Perrin, 2008). [212] Victor L. Tapié, “The Legacy of Richelieu,” 55. [213] The loyal Father Joseph, who would have otherwise taken on this position, died in 1638. [214] This does not mean, however, that there were not subtle differences between both men’s approaches. For example, Mazarin was more expansionist in Italy, Alsace, and the Netherlands. That being said, there was a broad continuity in both cardinals’ policies, particularly with regard to their vision of France’s arbitral role and the attention devoted to alliance management. See, Sturdy, Richelieu and Mazarin; Geoffrey Treasure, Mazarin: The Crisis of Absolutism in France (New York: Routledge, 1997), 233–61; and Charles Derek Croxton, Peacemaking in Early Modern Europe: Cardinal Mazarin and the Congress of Westphalia, 1643-48 (Selingsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1999). [215] John A. Lynn II, “The Grand Strategy of the Grand Siècle: Learning from the Wars of Louis XIV,” in The Shaping of Grand Strategy, 51. [216] See, Janine Garrisson, L’Edit de Nantes et sa Révocation: Histoire d’une Intolérance (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1985). [217] One of the more penetrating critiques of Louis XIV’s policies was famously provided by the Archbishop Fénelon, who dismissed the cynical instrumentalization of theories of raison d’état to abet crudely hegemonic ambitions. See, Fénelon, Lettre à Louis XIV et Autres Ecrits Politiques (Paris: Omnia, 2011 Edition), 30–35. [218] Joseph Bergin thus notes that “praising Richelieu’s skills (prudence, foresight, etc.) could be (…) used to contrast favorably Richelieu’s dealings with the Huguenots to the brutal and futile policies of Louis XIV.” Bergin, “Three Faces of Richelieu,” 523. [219] See, David Saunders, “Hegemon History: Pufendorf’s Shifting Perspectives on France and French Power,” in War, the State and International Law in Seventeenth Century Europe, ed. Olaf Asbach and Peter Schroder (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), 211–31. [220] Lynn, “The Grand Strategy of the Grand Siècle,” 50. [221] Saunders, “Hegemon History,” 228. [222] See, for instance, Christopher Hemmer, American Pendulum: Recurring Debates in U.S. Grand Strategy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015). Robert Osgood made a similar observation in the 1980s, when he lamented what he perceived as being a U.S. “pattern of oscillation,” which “misled adversaries, unsettled friends, and dissipated national energy in erratic spurts.” See, Robert E. Osgood, “American Grand Strategy: Patterns, Problems, and Prescriptions,” Naval War College Review 36, no. 5 (1983): 5–17. [223] For a recent sampling of such discussions as applied to the American context, see Michael Clarke and Anthony Ricketts, “U.S. Grand Strategy and National Security: The Dilemmas of Primacy, Decline and Denial,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 71, no. 5 (2017): 479–98,; Hal Brands and Eric Edelman, The Crisis of American Military Primacy and the Search for Strategic Solvency (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017),; and Michael J. Mazarr, “The World Has Passed the Old Grand Strategies By,” War on the Rocks, Oct. 5, 2016, [224] Roland Mousnier, “Histoire et Mythe,” in Richelieu, ed. Antoine Adam et al. (Paris: Hachette, 1972), 246. ) [contents] => Array ( [title] => [contents] => ) ) [2] => WP_Post Object ( [ID] => 1273 [post_author] => 262 [post_date] => 2019-02-28 06:00:51 [post_date_gmt] => 2019-02-28 11:00:51 [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] => 2019-07-23 06:24:52 [post_modified_gmt] => 2019-07-23 10:24:52 [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] => ) ) [3] => 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] => ) ) [4] => 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] => ) ) [5] => 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, Th