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How important were the nuclear strategists to the evolution of strategic thought?

Updated: Apr 6, 2021

King's College London (2021) -


For centuries, strategic thought has illustrated the uncertainty of human affairs and war’s unstable nature. Despite the ubiquity of strategy in history, predominant world conflicts have influenced the logic behind strategic thought and policymaking. The case of the Nuclear Era in international affairs is important as it inherently changed warfare and geopolitical relations forever. Due to the paradoxical changes of 21st century warfare, it is paramount to assess how nuclear strategists influenced the evolution of strategic thought. Although there is a lack of consensus on how to define and theorise strategy, the purpose of this assessment is to evaluate the contribution of nuclear strategy on strategic thought, and ultimately, to demonstrate that nuclear strategy’s contribution was predominantly theoretical. In order to do this, we will first explain how nuclear strategy is different from classical strategy. This will demonstrate that the Nuclear Era represented an unprecedented perspective on warfare. Second, we will examine the theory of deterrence and how it has modified the way we perceive stability and victory. This will explain why deterrence was an important addition to the evolution of strategy and policymaking. Finally, we will explore the theory of rational decision-making and how it has shaped the link between strategy and policy. Together, these variables will portray three of the most important theoretical contributions of nuclear strategists.


Strategy has been subject to several definitions and interpretations, but none ‘describes the fields and limits its boundaries’1. There are many factors that can explain this complexity: its instrumentality, its sequence of decisions, its adversarial and polymorphous form, and more importantly, its human factor. As Colin Gray noted, ‘it is in the nature of strategy for its historical, specific, character to be ever changing’2. This change of character is undeniably present when it comes to understanding the differences between classical and nuclear strategic thought. Strategy, as observed by some classical authors is highly centered on a dialectical approach and is inherently based on the complexities of policy, war and victory3. When analysing classical strategy, we can identify three important attributes. First, classical strategy is battle-focused, which supposes that strategic thought is directly used against an opponent or to control the environment in which warfare takes place. Sun Tzu illustrates this by stating ‘the highest realization of warfare is to attack the enemy’s plans; next is to attack their alliances; next to attack their army; and the lowest is to attack their fortified cities.’4Second, classical strategic thought contemplates the idea that “absolute war” is possible. This is clearly shown by Clausewitz’s logic, when he manifests that ‘absolute war would be waged until it ends with the complete victory of one side over the other.’5 Finally, classical strategic thought is focused on the idea that victory is an objective that should be pursued and achieved after war. While the concept of victory is analysed by most classical strategists, Liddell Hart pushes the boundaries of its definition when he states, 'it is wiser to run risks of war for the sake of preserving peace than to run the risks in war for the sake of finishing with victory’6.


The advent of the Nuclear Era not only modified the international theatre, but also generated a need to re-evaluate the probability of war in a world with atomic weapons. One can then deduce that ‘strategic issues posed by the atomic bomb transcends all tactical issues’7and that ‘the atomic age represents a major discontinuity in the history of warfare that necessitates a break from classical strategic theory8’.’ Under these circumstances, the need for new strategic thinking was imminently linked to a new ‘nuclear reality’ and new political complexities. The first transformation is centered on the idea that ‘absolute war’ should not be pursued. Instead, all strategies should concentrate on averting and deterring war at all costs. This idea highlights the fact that nuclear weapons have more of a strategic nature and less of a tactical approach. Indeed, Brodie notes; “thus far, the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on, its chief purpose must be to avert them.9” Second, due to the lethality of nuclear weapons and the predominance of military strategy, there was a sense that strategy at the highest level should be led by civilians. Since military strategy was naturally directed towards ‘pre-atomic thinking10’, civilians could provide a balanced empirical environment in favour of deterrence. This represented an important shift in the institutionalisation of strategic thought which resulted in the development of organisations such as RAND and other think tanks. Finally, the concept of victory was an important condition in this new paradoxical nature of war. Brodie duly noted that ‘no victory, even if guaranteed in advance — which it never is — would be worth the price’11. This new approach highlighted a new question: could one achieve one’s political objectives whilst also avoiding war? The presented attributes of classical and nuclear strategic thought are not exclusive nor do determine the nature of strategy, but they do share important similarities. Indeed, both strategists understood that strategic thought is dependent on policy and subject to different levels of uncertainty. This relationship not only supports Clausewitz’s idea that ‘war is a function of variables some of which in turn are interconnected’12, but it also strengthens Schelling’s idea that uncertainty is intrinsic to all Strategy. Overall, the advent of nuclear strategy and its authors did not exclude the didactical attributes of classical strategy, nor the undeniable uncertainty of conflict, but it certainly modified the universe in which warfare exists.


One of the main theoretical contributions made by nuclear strategists was based on how nuclear war should be dealt with. The rapid advent of Trinity, Little Boy and Fat Man in 1945 demonstrated the escalating nature of nuclear war and proved that atomic bombing was different from older forms of warfare. This unprecedented threat has been a central notion argued by nuclear strategists due to a real need for deterrence. Deterrence theory stipulates ‘the ways in which an actor manipulates threats to harm others in order to coerce them into doing what he desires.’13 This concept is a crucial contribution to the evolution of strategic thought because contrary to classical strategists (where strategy is solely an instrument of policy), nuclear strategists stipulate that policy could be shaped according to the type of deterrence needed for each potential conflict. This was seen throughout the Cold War; different strategies and policies were implemented during the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945), the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and Vietnam War (1964). In fact, ‘after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, American tankers struggled to understand if, and how, the nature of war had changed, and how nuclear weapons might contribute to foreign policy objectives’14. This view prompted a new question: was it possible to achieve geopolitical stability through deterrence? Nuclear strategic stability is considered to be ‘a condition in which neither superpower could achieve a useful nuclear advantage over the other’15. This concept, also known as “stable mutual deterrence” or “mutually assured destruction (MAD)” was a state in which ‘each side would believe that launching a nuclear or large-scale conventional attack could result in its own ‘assured destruction’, then mutual deterrence would be ‘stable’16. According to Schelling, there are two main aspects to stability; the ability to strike a mutually accepted bargain and the ability to maintain a strategic bargain over the long term17. The causality between deterrence and stability is relevant to the evolution of strategic thought, not only because it advanced a different perception about ‘means’ and ‘ends’, but it also made victory a problematic objective. Defining victory in a nuclear context was not only subject to ‘successful deterrence,’ but also to political objectives. As Gray noted, the real controversy is there is no universal theory of victory in war, which becomes problematic when a strategic nuclear policy or a strategic posture needs to be devised18. Overall, deterrence theory represents a crucial development in strategic thought as it breaks with the classical idea that war is ‘absolute’ and should be waged with ‘absolute force’.


Rationality has also been an important character of the evolution of strategic thought. Clausewitz was the first to recognize the important role of rationality in warfare as he asserted that ‘war should never be waged for its own sake, but always with the rational objective of protecting the state and its interests’19. During the Cold-War, nuclear strategists dedicated a lot of time analysing the human factor in strategy and recognized that the tension to launch a nuclear attack was directly linked to human behaviour and the idea of ‘rational’ decision-making. By definition, ‘rationality is a mode of decision-making that logically links desired goals with decisions about how to realize those goals’20. However,for deterrence to function under rationality, ‘an entire set of necessary political and psychological conditions must dominate the decision-making process on all sides’21. This observation suggests not only that strategy is purposive, but also confirms that strategic thought can be determined according to the context and the challenges it faces. Classical strategists affirmed the importance of ‘rationale’ which stipulated a logic behind the course of action, whereas nuclear strategists sustained that ‘rationality’ was linked to a particular course of action based on the available information and calculated objectives. This realization was an important contribution to strategic thought, not only because it linked friction to human cognition, but because there was a theoretical perspective that could condition policy. In fact, ‘perceptions of threat […], the prerogatives and obligations of the leadership, the state, and the citizen, notions of national honor and sovereignty, and the leadership's view of its own place in history shaped national policy’22. More importantly, the focus on rationality’s instrumentality brought forward important theories. Prominent attempts to resolve the paradox of deterrence include the case of Game Theory, Cost-Benefit Analysis, the game of Chicken, the Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Rational Actor Model23. As a result, strategic thought focused on the concepts of irrationality and its effect on policymaking.


The classical strategic thought discussed in this essay illustrates ‘the complex and reciprocal nature of war; its moral and non-rational dimensions; of friction, uncertainty, chance, and luck; and, of course, of its political character’24. These core strategic thoughts have permeated strategy and will always be perceived as permanent elements. However, the advent of nuclear strategists has proven that the unstable nature of war and its numerous complexities can change the way we strategize and theorize about conflict. While it is difficult to assess the extent of nuclear strategists’ contribution, it remains extremely theoretical (and empirically questionable), which explains its lasting popularity in strategic studies. As we move forward toward 21st century warfare, nuclear strategists remain crucial in several ways. First, they have proven that technology progresses faster than intellectual cognizance. Just like the creation of nuclear weapons and the paradigm change it generated on strategic thought, the technological universe of cyber and space warfare has yet to be grasped and fully understood. Second, the influence of information warfare on nuclear deterrence is important. In fact, there is a ‘growing construct for military-strategic thinking, especially in countries with high-technology militaries’25. This means policymakers are more sensible to information and this will inherently shape how deterrence will be pursued. Finally, the core idea of nuclear strategic thought — averting nuclear war — is still relevant, but the limits of deterrence theories are substantial as ‘the presence of nuclear weapons did not stop all wars’26.Many important non-state actors are currently pursuing nuclear weapons, and this will prove to be a challenge for both strategic thinkers and policymakers. While there is much to understand about future geopolitical complexities, strategic thought will have to maintain a balance between theory and the variations of the character and nature of conflict.


1Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), xi.

2 Colin S. Gray, The Strategic Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University press, 2010), 44.

3Hew Strachan, “Clausewitz and the Dialectic of War’, in Clausewitz in the Twenty-First Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1-31.

4 Derek M. C. Yuen, “Deciphering Sun Tzu”, Comparative Strategy, 27-2 (2008): 187, https://doi.org/10.1080/01495930801944727.

5 Carl von Clausewitz. On War. (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2013), 18.

6 Alex Danchev, “Liddell Hart’s Big Idea”, Review of International Studies 25-1 (1999): 34.

7 Bernard Brodie, The absolute weapon: atomic weapon and world order. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), 454, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20097574.

8Thomas G. Mahnken and Joseph A. Maiolo, Strategic studies: A reader (Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis Group, 2014), 436.

9 Idem, 437.

10Pre-atomic thinking supposes that the military establishment is expected to fight even after its nation has undergone an attack by an atomic bomb.

11Bernard Brodie, The absolute weapon: atomic weapon and world order. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), 445.

12 Beatrice Heuser, Evolution of Strategy (Cambridge: Cambrige University Press, 2010),18.

13Robert Jervis, “Deterrence Theory Revisited” World Politics 31-2 (1979), 292, https://doi.org/10.2307/2009945

14 Keith B. Payne & C. Dale Walton, “Deterrence in the Post-Cold War” in Strategy in the contemporary world: an introduction to strategic studies. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),165.

15 Keith B. Payne & C. Dale Walton, “Deterrence in the Post-Cold War” in Strategy in the contemporary world: an introduction to strategic studies. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),168.

16 Ibid.

17 Robert Ayson, “Bargaining with nuclear weapons: Thomas Schelling's ‘general’ concept of stability” The Journal of Strategic Studies, 23:2 (2000): 48, https://doi.org/10.1080/01402390008437790

18 Gray, Colin S. "Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Theory of Victory", International Security 4-1 (1979): 54, https://doi.org/10.2307/2626784.

19Carl von Clausewitz. On War. (Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 2013), 18.

20Keith B. Payne & C. Dale Walton, “Deterrence in the Post-Cold War” in Strategy in the contemporary world: an introduction to strategic studies. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),171.

21Idem, 173.

22Keith B. Payne & C. Dale Walton, “Deterrence in the Post-Cold War” in Strategy in the contemporary world: an introduction to strategic studies. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002),176.

23Frank C. Zagare, “Rationality and Deterrence.” World Politics 42, no. 2 (1990): 238–260, doi:10.2307/2010465

24Michael I. Handel. Masters of war: Classical strategic thought (Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis Group, 2000), xix.

25 Stephen J., Cimbala, Nuclear Weapons and “Third Wave” Warfare (Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), 130.

26 Lawrence Freedman, “Stephen Pinker and the long peace: alliance, deterrence and decline” Cold War History, 14: 4 (2014): 66, https://doi.org/10.1080/ 14682745.2014.950243


Bibliography


Books


Baylis, J. Strategy in the contemporary world: An introduction to strategic studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Cimbala, Stephen J., Nuclear Strategy in the Twenty-First Century. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.


Freedman, Lawrence. Strategy: A history. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.


Gray, Colin, S. The strategy bridge: Theory for practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.


Handel, M. I. Masters of war: Classical strategic thought. Oxfordshire: Taylor & Francis Group, 2000.


Heuser, Beatrice. The evolution of strategy: thinking war from antiquity to the present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.


Mahnken, T. G., & Maiolo, J. A. (Eds.). Strategic studies: A reader. Oxfordshire: Taylor and Francis Group, 2014.


Strachan, H., & Andreas Herberg-Rothe. Clausewitz in the twenty-first century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.


Von Clausewitz, Carl. On War. Hertfortshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 2013.


Journal Articles


Ayson, Robert. “Bargaining with nuclear weapons: Thomas Schelling's ‘general’ concept of stability, 48-71) The Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 23, Issue 2 (Jun, 2000).


Gray, Colin, S. “Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Theory of Victory, 54-87” International Security, Volume 4 no.1(1979).


Danchev, Alex. “Liddel Hart’s Big Idea, 29-48”, Review of International Studies, Volume 25, No. 1 (Jan 1999).


Freedman, Lawrence. “Stephen Pinker and the long peace: alliance, deterrence and decline, 657-672”, Cold War History, Volume 14, Issue 4 (Sep 2014).


Jervis, Robert. “Deterrence Theory Revisited, 289-324”, World Politics Volume 31, No. 2 (Jan 1979).


Yuen, Derek M. C. “Deciphering Sun Tzu, 183-200”, Comparative Strategy, Volume 27, Issue 2 (Apr 2008).


Zagare, Frank,C.. “Rationality and Deterrence, 238-260”. World Politics, Volume 42, No. 2 (Jan 1990).

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