Reading Stephen M. Younger’s The Bomb: A New History over the weekend, I had three strong reactions, the first of which I summarize below. This is an interesting and important book and my students can expect to read (at least) chapters 4 and 8 this fall.
I found the argument thin for his conclusion that a “moderate” future
My principal objection is a modified version of the standard “dangling antecedent” objection to arguments about deterrent sufficiency.
Despite leaving me desperate for references throughout the text (owing to security considerations), Dr. Younger provides an unusually clear definition of
“to make it impossible for
to eliminate our weapons and avoid devastating retaliation following a first strike.” Moscow
While he doesn’t treat with any detail how precisely this capability instrumentalizes fear to drive desired Russian behavior, this articulation is sound if we grant familiar assumptions often packaged as “rationality.” However, I find his appropriation of the time-proven budgeting technique of rounding up and doubling the required number of nuclear weapons (for potential system failures, refurbishment process, and – a little ominously – “special weapons for unique applications”) suggestive that he does not share my perspective that each nuclear weapon in the arsenal creates a marginal security risk and complicates negotiations on both disarmament and nonproliferation (that I argue offer security benefits).
My concern about a potential disconnect between ends and means in Dr. Younger’s argument becomes more problematic as he pivots to support his actual conclusion that we need new nuclear weapon designs for flexibility and reliability.
On flexibility, he argues that the absence of additional, lower-yield weapon designs – which he associates with the work of anti-nuclear groups (huge and maybe even excessive props to a very few smart and dedicated people) – force the
“to continue a policy of mutual assured destruction."I see three problems here.
First, the mutuality of assured destruction is not a matter of
Second, our efforts to relieve ourselves of excessively large-yield nuclear weapons by designing and building smaller-yield nuclear weapons may be misinterpreted. Such misinterpretations could undermine international confidence in the already stressed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime, and so, whatever we do in the service of global nuclear stability should be agreed to be in alignment with the NPT regime.
Finally, he far too easily dismisses the concern that lower-yield nuclear weapons would be destabilizing if misinterpreted by other governments as more usable, possibly lowering the perceived threshold of nuclear weapons use. On page 127 he asserts
“I believe that these arguments are seriously flawed and fail to appreciate the essential elements of strategic deterrence.”Here the apparent necessity of offering 220 pages without a single footnote becomes a vice as I do not share his confidence in the absolute logical rigor of all the political processes that the
On reliability, I find Dr. Younger’s argument more formidable. He argues that existing redundancy is eroding with underinvestment in
His explicit openness to international inspection of a prospective future nuclear weapons replacement capability (page 219) may suggest a confidence-building step around which agreement could be built among key states. However, even the best technical ideas require political and diplomatic spadework to avoid potentially destabilizing misinterpretation. Furthermore, I am convinced that such negotiations are more likely to succeed when the
Dr. Younger’s thoughtful observation that
“improved transparency and inspection treaties with other countries would reduce the need to maintain nuclear forces larger than required and could conceivably enable us to eliminate them altogether”(page 220) suggests a narrow point in the gulf between the technical and multilateral diplomatic communities focused on nonproliferation that might be bridged with the right sort of meetings and consultations. However, we are not starting from a blank slate but a position of deep suspicion and dissatisfaction among many non-nuclear weapons states parties to the NPT. I hesitate in criticizing Dr. Younger for focusing his important arguments on the future of nuclear weapons exclusively on Americans, but find I must do so remaining convinced that the bomb is everybody’s problem.