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How Did the Advent of Nuclear Weapons Change Security Thinking and Strategy?
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By Torgeir Pande Braathen

The advent of nuclear weapons marked a significant qualitative change in weapons technology which was followed by an equally significant change in strategy and security thinking. Up until the beginning of the Cold War strategy had for more than a century been understood in “Clausewitzian” terms, that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means.”[1] Strategy was about how to use force for political ends. But since the US lost its monopoly of nuclear weapons in the summer of ‘49 such a conception of strategy produced a vexing conundrum: when the destructiveness of nuclear weapons are so great that a nuclear exchange simply cannot justify any political ends, how, then, can the vast power that resides in nuclear weapons be transferred to political power? That was the puzzle that Henry Kissinger and Thomas Schelling sought out to solve, in which they proposed quite different solutions. What they have in common is the assumption of conflict and that USSR must be deterred, however, it will be argued from a spiral model perspective that the deterrence logic may in certain contexts create inadvertent and self-fulfilling spirals of mutual hostility and higher risks of war. But before the spiral model critique of deterrence Kissinger and Schelling will be discussed in greater details.

Kissinger, Schelling, and Deterrence Theory

Kissinger, in his article Force and Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age (1956), argued that the solution was to be found in tactical nuclear weapons which could be used in combat without escalating to an all-out nuclear war.[2] The logic behind this was that the one who could present a challenge short of an all-out nuclear war could potentially turn the “nuclear stalemate” into its own advantage ,which was based on the assumption that any war (between the US and USSR) was likely to be a nuclear war.[3] Because, according to Kissinger, a war between the US and the USSR would inevitably include nuclear weapons, tactical nuclear weapons would provide a viable means for avoiding the choice between two extremes: Armageddon or defeat without war.[4] By using tactical and low-yield nuclear weapons in limited wars, and by adhering to the doctrine of graduated employment of force, Kissinger sought to re-establish the “commensurability between the forces employed and the goal to be attained.”[5] As such, Kissinger’s recommended solution to the puzzle was to not only produce high-yield megaton bombs which employment would almost certainly guarantee all-out nuclear war and mutual assured destruction, but also tactical low-yield nuclear weapons that could be used in limited wars. “Power”, Kissinger writes, “is meaningless in the absence of a doctrine for employing it.”[6] Although Kissinger’s proposal was one way of potentially using nuclear weapons for political ends other than just maintaining the nuclear stalemate, the doctrine was luckily never used in practice. Schelling proposed a more viable solution to the puzzle, but what they have in common is the assumption that the USSR must be deterred. How that may create a self-fulfilling prophecy will be discussed in the last section.

Schelling sought not to change the operational use of nuclear weapons, as Kissinger did, but rather to change the meaning of strategy to something more applicable to the nuclear era. In doing so, he moved away from the traditional “Clauswitzian” definition of strategy which implies that force must be used. Schelling was interested in the “skilful non-use of military forces”, and consequently defined strategy as “the exploitation of potential force.”[7] To illustrate his point, he wrote: “A successful strike is not one that destroys the employer financially, it may even be one that never takes place (the threat of strike), and something similar can be true of war.”[8] Schelling was not interested in how to use nuclear weapons physically, but how their mere presence could be used in political conflicts or limited wars, which he understood as bargaining situations. In bargaining situations there is a mixture of conflicting and convergent interests which makes it possible to apply game theory to explain rational bargain strategies.[9] Schelling thus sought out to formalise strategic behaviour between the US and USSR through game theoretical models. This way of thinking marked a significant shift in the study of strategy, from being a more practical field to become a far more theoretical and academic field. The lack of an academic counterpart to the military profession was a concern for Schelling: “There has not been enough academic research on deterrence, which is more of an academic field than a military field.”[10] That notion of strategy, which took root in the US government in the early 1960s, came to dominate US strategy thinking for the entire Cold War period. This is most vividly reflected in the situation in which Alain Enthoven, one of the whiz kids Robert McNamara brought into Pentagon from the RAND Corporation, told the Air Force Chief who tried to lecture him on nuclear war plans, “General, I have fought just as many nuclear wars as you have.”[11]

An important element of Schelling’s deterrence theory is the distinction he makes between threats that deter action and threats that compel action.[12] If a state’s nuclear deterrence is simply aimed at deterring another state from doing something it otherwise might have done (i.e. attacking), and both states posses an approximate equal amount of nuclear weapons, then both parties are situated in a nuclear stalemate. Schelling was therefore interested in how to use deterrence to compel action. Nuclear deterrence was therefore not only “the art of producing, in the mind of your enemy, the fear to attack” as Dr Strangelove famously said, but it was also about forcing your opponent to make concessions, without having to use the nuclear weapons. This brings us back to limited wars, but Schelling, unlike Kissinger, argued that such wars must be fought with conventional forces.[13] Limited wars could resemble tacit bargaining, or bargaining with limited means of communication. Considering the mutual interest of the US and the USSR in avoiding nuclear war, Schelling argued that by using means short of nuclear weapons one can potentially force the enemy to make concessions if you succeed in giving credible threats and by giving the impression that you are the most resolute party.[14] Such situations resemble the game of chicken, or brinkmanship. In limited wars, where communication is perhaps difficult or impossible, the way to communicate is through behaviour, or the use of force, in which a gradual but controlled escalation of force will test each belligerent’s resoluteness, until the risk of uncontrolled escalation becomes unacceptable for one party which then has to make concessions.[15] In this way, Schelling found a way of potentially turning a nuclear stalemate into one’s own advantage by not using nuclear weapons, and to compel action by relying on the mutual interest of avoiding nuclear war. However, the problem of the chicken game is that it may be difficult to escape, as yielding, or to refuse playing, is considered a sign of weakness, which may increase the opponent’s appetite for demanding further concessions in the future.

The Spiral Model: A Critique of Deterrence Theory

One of the key problems with deterrence theory is that conflict is taken for granted, a threat is objectively identified and it is assumed that the threat must be contained and deterred, but no question is asked about whether the deterrence strategy may be the source of the behaviour of the state that is perceived as threatening. In this sense, Robert Jervis provides an interesting critique of deterrence theory in his book Perception and Misperception in International Politics (1976).

Jervis explores, among other things, the potential for a deterrence strategy to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If a deterrence strategy is mistakenly applied in a situation where the one being deterred is in fact not an aggressor it may lead to a spiral situation.[16] Such a mistaken application of deterrence may occur due to two factors. Firstly, those who have defensive motives and intentions may fail to understand how others might regard them as a threat, which is the psychological factor. Secondly is the material factor, which maintains that weapons are inherently ambiguous symbols, meaning that most defensive weapons may have some offensive capability as well, which makes it difficult to signal intentions to others.[17] For instance, outsiders may regard a missile defence system as threatening, as it may reduce the deterrence capability of others and because such a weapons system may even be regarded as a component of an offensive strategy in which one is preparing for a retaliatory attack after initiating a first strike. According to Jervis, it is the uncertainty produced by these two factors that may lead states to use the deterrence strategy in wrong situations, which can lead to spiral situations. A spiral situation is an action-reaction phenomena in which state A’s defensive actions are interpreted by state B as being offensive, which makes state B react in kind while justifying its actions in terms of A’s actions, which makes state A feel threatened and therefore reacts in kind to B’s actions, and so it goes on, creating a spiral of mutual hostility which was originally intended by none of them. Although the conflict is initiated by one state’s misperception, the conflict is far from illusionary.[18] Caspar Weinberger, Secretary of State for Defence, reflected this logic of reasoning when he said, “they (the Soviets) know perfectly well that we will never launch a first strike on the Soviet Union.”[19] The implication of such reasoning was that because Moscow “knew” that the US was not an aggressor, Moscow’s military plans and moves must therefore reflect their hostile intentions. Kremlin was as such assumed to be driven by inherent aggressiveness rather than by what Kremlin considered to be the threatening behaviour of Washington.[20]

Of course, this is not to say that the USSR was at all times a status quo state, and responding to aggressors with deterrence and containment are often better than appeasement, as the Munich Agreement of 1938 reminds us, but cooperation and arms control could arguably have been achieved with greater ease had both Washington and Kremlin understood more precisely how their own actions were causing the other’s fear and counter-actions. McCarthyism and the “red scare” did most likely not contribute positively to the ability of US’ leaders to put themselves in the shoes of Kremlin and to see themselves as a potential threat. And a “blue scare” may have caused a similar inability in Kremlin. Although such self-fulfilling dynamics may be easier to spot for the neutral historian who has the luxury of hindsight, it is nevertheless interesting that today so little is written in Western media about NATO enlargement as a potential source of Russian behaviour in Eastern Ukraine.


The advent of nuclear weapons changed security and strategy thinking in important ways. It has been demonstrated that Kissinger and Schelling had very different ideas about the strategic conundrum: how to use nuclear weapons for political ends, but that they are also comparable in some respects, such as their underlying assumption that deterrence and limited wars are the right way to deal with the Soviets. Schelling contributed to the academic transformation of strategy, and strategy became concerned not about the application of physical force but the exploitation of potential force, or deterrence. Although this shift led to the possibility of formalising the US-Soviet relationship in rational game theoretical models, such theorising also had several shortcomings. It has been argued that deterrence theory fails to account for the possibility that oneself may unintentionally be the source of another state’s hostile behaviour. This has been illustrated through Jervis’ spiral model which illuminates certain aspects of the limitations of deterrence theory. The security thinking of McCarthyism and the “red scare” may also have contributed to amplify the spiral model.

International Affairs Forum Writing Competition Semi-Finalist Torgeir Pande Braathen holds a M.A. in International Relations/Political Science from The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland and a B.A. in International Politics from Aberystwyth University, Wales, UK.  He has also worked at UNICEF Geneva HQ.  His research interests are International Relations Theory, International Security, Humanitarian Action, and Economic Sanctions. 



Academia.edu, available online from: http://www.academia.edu/2635303/General_I_Have_Fought_As_Many_Nuclear_Wars_As_You_Have Accessed 11 November, 2014

Booth, Ken and Wheeler, Nicholas, Security dilemma – Fear, Cooperation, and Trust in World Politics, 2008, Palgrave MacMillan

Clausewitz, Carl von, On War, Oxford University Press, 2007

Jervis, Robert, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, 1976, Princeton University Press, Princeton, US,

Kissinger, Henry, Force and Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age, Foreign Affairs, 34 :3, 1956, pp. 349-366

Schelling, Thomas, The Strategy of Conflict, 1960, Oxford University Press, UK,


[1] Clausewitz, Carl von, On War, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 28

[2] Kissinger, Henry, Force and Diplomacy in the Nuclear Age, Foreign Affairs, 34 :3, 1956, p. 353

[3] Ibid. p. 357

[4] Ibid. p. 366

[5] Ibid. p. 357

[6] Ibid. p. 366

[7] Schelling, Thomas, The Strategy of Conflict, 1960, Oxford University Press, UK, p. 5

[8] Ibid. p. 6

[9] Ibid. 5

[10] Ibid. pp. 8-9

[11] Academia.edu, available online from: http://www.academia.edu/2635303/General_I_Have_Fought_As_Many_Nuclear_Wars_As_You_Have Accessed 11 November, 2014

[12] Schelling (1960), pp. 16-17

[13] Ibid. p. 75

[14] ibid. pp. 16-17

[15] Ibid. pp. 77-78

[16] Jervis, Robert, Perception and Misperception in International Politics, 1976, Princeton University Press, Princeton, US, p. 66

[17] Ibid. pp. 68-69

[18] Ibid. pp.66-67

[19] Booth, Ken and Wheeler, Nicholas, Security dilemma – Fear, Cooperation, and Trust in World Politics, 2008, Palgrave MacMillan p. 51

[20] Ibid. p 51


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Wed, July 22, 2015 11:17 AM (about 28455 hours ago)
A good read once again!
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