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Getting Nuclear Weapons Right

Getting Nuclear Weapons Right: Managing Danger and Avoiding Disaster by Stephen J. Cimbala. Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2017, 269 pp.

Recent Russian pronouncements about nuclear weapons, Chinese nuclear force modernization, and the release of the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review have reignited a debate on the role of nuclear weapons in national security and the state of nuclear deterrence today. Stephen Cimbala wades into the discourse of the day with his latest offering on nuclear strategy and policy. Getting Nuclear Weapons Right is a timely work that analyzes the concerns of today as well as examining the validity of various positions within the nuclear deterrence landscape. The author is a distinguished professor of political science at Penn State–Brandywine and has an impressive list of previous publications, to include multiple books on nuclear and national security issues as well as numerous articles and op-eds related to this topic. This work draws upon previous work on nuclear deterrence but updates those theoretical approaches by looking at how technology, cyber, and nuclear proliferation might upset the stability nuclear deterrence has maintained for decades. While some of this is plowed ground, the author fertilizes it with new analyses and original thoughts on the future of nuclear policy.

Cimbala’s book addresses two issues that he sees as threats in the post–Cold War nuclear age, what some have termed the second nuclear age, that could threaten the “stabilizing condition of nuclear deterrence that has prevailed until now” (p. 1). The first threat the author sees as possibly disturbing this stability is the risk associated with additional nonnuclear states acquiring nuclear arsenals. His second threat is that “developments in technology and in politics” also can act to upset the strategic stability nuclear deterrence has provided since the early days of the Cold War. To make his argument, Cimbala organizes his book in a topical format to address more specific issues under these two overarching threats that, as the title suggests, can lead to danger and/or disaster.      

Cimbala begins his analysis of how nations can avoid nuclear disaster by outlining the various types of nuclear regimes that can, and have, emerged among nuclear powers. According to the author, a regime “is a collection of rules or behavioral expectations that provide a framework for the interactions among states or actors” (p. 9). He identifies five nuclear regimes that can come to fruition: deterrence/assured retaliation, nuclear primacy, defense dominance, nuclear abolition, and nuclear plentitude. He seems to suggest that the regime with the most validity is the assured retaliation model not simply because of the stability it brings but because this is the one that was “road-tested” in the Cold War (p. 37). Interestingly enough, Matthew Kroenig’s latest work, The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy, makes the argument that nuclear primacy is the best strategic choice for the United States. Cimbala’s logic and argument stem from his position that a stable relationship between the two nuclear superpowers brings greater stability to the world order.

Since President Obama’s 2009 Prague speech, nuclear abolition has gained some traction as interest groups have lobbied for nations to follow their Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations and craft a path to a nuclear-free world. Cimbala explores all sides of the nuclear abolition issue and concludes that it is unlikely to come to fruition. The most convincing of his arguments is the fact that “nuclear weapons are symbols of national sovereignty and international power” (p. 63). Following that logic, and the theme of the book, the author posits that those nations that have them will want to keep them and those that do not will want to acquire them. If nuclear weapons are here to stay, then Cimbala offers an alternative nuclear strategy: minimum deterrence. Minimum deterrence would rely on smaller stockpiles but retain enough weapons for a secured second strike, thus bringing crisis stability. The trouble with any discussion of minimum deterrence is that most gravitate to the Thomas Schelling model of limited nuclear weapons and a secured second-strike capability. Lost in the minimum deterrence debate is how Bernard Brodie defined minimum deterrence in his book Strategy in the Missile Age, which was “enough to win the war.”

As Cimbala examines more contemporary issues from nuclear proliferation to missile defense to the expanding cyber capability among nations, a common theme runs throughout his analysis. The author seems to indicate that politics at the grand strategic level can maintain and manage the potential for danger and or disaster. While NATO and Europe dominated in the Cold War, Cimbala sees the Pacific as the place where increased emphasis is needed. Although China will not reach parity with the United States or Russia, the author concludes, “Chinese nuclear modernization is not necessarily incompatible with their engagement with Russia and the United States on strategic nuclear arms control” (p. 165). To bring stability to this complex technological and political environment, he suggests, the United States seek a realist approach to relations with Russia, “cooperate on security matters where cooperation is possible and mutually beneficial, and where disagreements exist, state clearly US vital interests and US willingness to support those interests” (p. 222). Cimbala would seem to indicate that a return to the Cold War order of the US and Russia maintaining an assured destruction force structure would bring stability to the modern ear and get nuclear weapons right.

Getting Nuclear Weapons Right provides vital insight into the debates of the day and must find wide readership among those interested in nuclear policy, strategy, and force structure options. Cimbala’s analysis of varying alternative regimes, nuclear arsenals, and nuclear exchange scenarios serves as starting point for discussions that must take place in light of the president’s Nuclear Posture Review and the argument by some for a return to nuclear primacy. While some hailed the end of the Cold War, recent events suggest it has returned, and Cimbala would seem to indicate that maintaining a balance between the United States and Russia is the solution to avoiding danger and disaster in today’s world. Readers will have to judge for themselves the validity of the argument, but the research, discussion, and analysis presented in this work are vital to framing discussions about the future of nuclear weapons and policy.

Mel Deaile

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."
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