US military dominance is fraying, as challengers develop means to counter to US material advantages.
In response, the military seems to be leaning toward more closely integrating nuclear weapons into its overall defense structure.
Such a shift would increase the risk of nuclear "brinkmanship" — and mutual destruction.
Erik Gartzke is professor and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
For as long as most of us can remember, the United States has been the most powerful country in the world. It still is, though America's dominance is beginning to fray, as nations like China, Russia, and others develop countermeasures to US material advantages or just plain ramp up their spending on arms and international influence.
What is to be done? Washington is increasingly concerned about this apparent decline. One possible solution is for America to ramp up its defense spending. In part this is happening. The United States is also encouraging its allies to pitch in. But Americans seem unenthusiastic about major tax increases and Allies in Europe and Asia have resisted spending more on defense.
A seemingly attractive alternative has been put forward recently by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. Rather than simply doubling down on its conventional military capabilities, America can move to more closely integrate its mighty nuclear weapons within its overall defense structure.
Austin's grand strategy, referred to as "integrated deterrence," sounds like a magic bullet. All America has to do is threaten an adversary with nuclear annihilation and it will fold. Yet, like so many things in life, there is a catch, one that the veteran military commander seems to have discounted or even ignored.
Nuclear weapons are different from other tools of war. These "bullets" are not supposed to be fired. With the exceptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the existence of nuclear weapons in the US arsenal has been based on deterrence, an approach to war that Austin seems to embrace.
Deterrence involves a different kind of game than conventional, or even asymmetric, warfare. In ordinary war, the winner is usually the side that is stronger. Victory tends to favor the side with the "bigger battalions," as the proverb goes. This does not always happen — as America's recent adventures in the Middle East attest. But it is the modal (most often) outcome.
Nuclear deterrence is instead won by resolve, by the side that wants victory more, rather than by the side that is more capable. This reality is illustrated by the game of chicken.
Imagine two teenagers who are about to hurtle toward one another in souped up hot-rods. As the vehicles are about to collide, the winner is the driver who stands firm, more willing to risk destruction to have his or her way. The loser, in contrast — the proverbial "chicken" — is the driver that cares more about survival and less about the stakes in the contest.
This proposed shift in grand strategy from tests of capability to tests of will is consequential. Indeed, broadening the nuclear "brinkmanship" game of chicken to more issues and contexts plays to inherent American weakness. Rather than stemming the tide of decline, "integrated deterrence" seems destined to increase it.
Chicken is generally not as favorable to the more capable country. Instead, it rewards those who are more willing to risk mutual destruction. These tend not to be status quo actors, those with the biggest stake in keeping things as they are.
Taking disputes to the brink of nuclear destruction naturally favors revisionist challengers, emboldening aggression on the margins of the US security cordon, where American resolve appears to be, and is, most tenuous.
As one might imagine, having nice things is a liability in the game of chicken. Those with old, dented, rusty, or otherwise tarnished jalopies can act with increased assertiveness. The very platforms that would pose a liability in other kinds of contests thus become more potent. Put in the simplest terms, chicken favors the reckless.
Countries like Russia, with its aging nuclear deterrent, and North Korea, with much less to lose in a major confrontation, are suddenly more potent. This is why, in 2014, when Putin faced NATO sanctions for Russian activities in Ukraine, he reminded the world that Russia retained a significant low-yield "tactical" nuclear capability.
Very little of this is speculative. America was schooled by its adversaries on the limits of chicken previously, in the 1950s.
Early in the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower relied on the concept of "massive retaliation" to deter Soviet aggression in Europe and Chinese advances in Asia. In all but a few cases, our nuclear threats failed. Subsequent presidents reverted to a hybrid model of deterrence, where much of the deterrent was implemented by US conventional forces abroad.
Today Austin and the US military face an even more challenging dilemma. US resolve is marginal in most of the places where the status quo is challenged and America seeks to hold the line.
Where America cares enough to risk everything to prevail, nuclear deterrence is likely to work just fine. But in the many situations where America is more capable, but less resolved than its adversary, integrated deterrence will backfire.
Because deterrence relies on values — on how much Americans are willing to risk in pursuit of a particular outcome — the nation will be better off to find its defense priorities now, rather than later, in the midst of a nuclear crisis.
In places where there remain question marks about America's resolve, such as Taiwan, there is the decided risk of instability and war. US defense planners may best equip the nation for the future by confronting tough decisions about what conventional capabilities America can afford — and where it is willing to deploy them. The current leader of the free world said as much in 2007, when on the campaign trail: "Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value."
Those advising President Joe Biden today should take note; there are no cheap or easy tricks to preempt this logic, no magic bullets, not even nuclear ones. While painful, reconciling America's commitments with its willingness to pay is the most straightforward path in confronting relative military decline, one that best ensures stability.
Erik Gartzke is professor of political science and director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies (cPASS) at the University of California, San Diego.
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