The Nuclear Bubble: Rethinking Deterrence

Review of The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in the Atomic Age by Keir Lieber and Daryl Press (Cornell University Press, 2020)

The defining characteristics of the nuclear age are terror and peace.” [1] For Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, international relations scholars at Georgetown and Dartmouth, respectively, this is the defining paradox of the atomic era. An attempt to explain that paradox and trace its origins is the subject of their 2020 book, The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in the Atomic Age. On one hand, the nuclear age is one of relative peace; because of their capacity for “mutual kill,” nuclear weapons have made war “unwinnable.” [2] On the other, it seems as though this tremendous deterrent should make traditional security competition – relative wealth concerns, arms races, alliances, territorial rivalry – obsolete. [3] If nuclear deterrence creates stalemate conditions in which even hypothetical victors suffer terrible losses, then states should “feel fundamentally secure” regardless of their conventional capabilities.  [4] Yet as contemporary security competition attests, they do not. Nuclear-based rivalries – India-Pakistan, U.S.-China, and NATO-Russia – do not conform to that theory of the case.

The Dynamic Nuclear Economy

The explanation the scholars offer is that stalemate breeds a kind of underlying fluidity. Nuclear stalemate is tricky business; states acquiring nuclear weapons have a destabilizing effect on security relations. Specifically, states face challenges in reaching and maintaining stalemate. Even under stalemate, deterring conventional conflict is rife with difficulties, which can be grouped under three thematic headings: the initial demands of a nuclear arms race, the precarity of stalemate, and maintaining credibility under disparate conditions. [5]  

Nuclear Deterrence: Bursting the Bubble

First, obtaining stalemate is demanding. When a country initially acquires nuclear weapons, it may initially be more vulnerable because “it causes an adversary to ramp up its targeting and attack plans.” [6] Such analysis is consistent with the historical record. When the Soviet Union first acquired a fledging nuclear force, U.S. war plans relied upon deliberate nuclear attack because the nation knew it could likely strike Soviet weapons with its superior arsenal. [7] It was only after the Soviet Union acquired a capacity for assured nuclear retaliation – the ability to strike back irrespective of American attack – that U.S. war plans no longer exclusively relied on nuclear strikes. [8] 

Secondly, stalemate is precarious. Nuclear forces can be protected from attack in three ways: hardening, or storing weapons in resilient physical structures, concealment, or hiding weapons, and redundancy, where a state possesses so many weapons it is impossible to destroy them all. [9] But as “counterforce” capabilities to destroy hardened targets improve and technological advancements make concealment difficult, it seems as if stalemate can be broken unless states possess large nuclear arsenals impervious to total destruction. [10]

Next, deterring conventional war is taxing because states must possess “resilient survivability,” that is, nuclear forces must be able to “absorb several rounds of conventional, nuclear, and other attacks and still inflict more pain.” [11] If conventionally inferior states cannot demonstrate desire and capacity to retaliate under perilous wartime conditions, then their deterrent will not be credible. [12] Surveying the evidence, Lieber and Press demonstrate that weak states tend to pursue resilient survivability with escalatory nuclear doctrines, demonstrating that they understand deterring conventional war requires more than the mere possession of weapons. [13]   

But finally, readers of a Hamiltonian cast may reach further than Lieber and Press in their assessment of deterring conventional conflicts. For the conventional rivalries the authors analyze, where the nation attempting deterrence is “conventionally inferior” and the “consequences of conventional military defeat are dire,” resilient survivability may be sufficient and appealing to deter war. [14] But Hamilton also envisioned a role for a more activist American foreign policy, where the nation may support the cause of liberty and justice in other countries, given the proper circumstances. [15] Such a foreign policy is distinct from the one Lieber and Press analyze, and unfortunately, nuclear capability may be the wrong toolkit. For instance, a major weakness of the Eisenhower administration’s “New Look” strategy, which relied on defense cutbacks coupled with the threat of nuclear retaliation, was its inability to deter low-level conflicts the United States had a national interest in preventing. [16]

Because the United States could not credibly threaten nuclear war against Soviet influence on revolutionary movements in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America, the administration failed in its attempts to contain Communist expansion. As Eisenhower himself was forced to admit during his presidency, “So long as [the enemy] abstains from doing anything that he believes would provoke the free world to an open declaration of major war, he need not fear the ‘deterrent.'” [17] Hamiltonians, then, may see nuclear weapons as insufficient to navigate the full spectrum of conflicts within a state’s national interest. For the Hamiltonian national interest includes more than just peace; it includes preservation of the global economic order, an end nuclear arsenals are ill-suited to pursue. [18] Resiliently survivable arsenals cannot substitute for a policy that blends financial assistance, alliances, and conventional might for great powers engaged in proxy wars. 

Inflating Economics, Deflating Nukes

Lieber and Press’s narrative offers powerful ammunition to a Hamiltonian foreign policy vision. If we live in a nuclear revolution where the old rules no longer apply, then “Hamilton’s commitment to mutually reinforcing systems of national power” is an anachronism. [19] Alliances, territorial integrity, economic strength, and arms races are out of style, as states must no longer jostle for power and influence. On the other hand, if the compelling position Lieber and Press offer is correct, then strategic competition remains on the agenda. Because the world remains in a state of “international anarchy” with no nuclear police to rescue us, prudent, self-interested states will “expand their power relative to rivals, engage in expensive arms races, encircle each other with alliances, and seek to control strategic territory and scarce natural resources.” [20] Mutually reinforcing systems of national power, indeed. 

In more practical terms, puncturing the nuclear revolution myth lends Hamilton’s admonition that “Power without revenue is a bubble” renewed urgency. [21] Outlining a vision for American economic strength, Hamilton “apprehended how the interconnections of economic capacities, finance, military power and political institutions created national security and international influence.” [22] If states are unable to build economic power, then Lieber and Press’s analysis suggests that they will be unable to project international strength. Because reaching nuclear stalemate necessitates a serious arsenal with the capacity to resist attack, states must be able to invest greatly in initial nuclear capabilities. 

As technological trends and counterforce improvements make maintaining stalemate hazardous, states must maintain an economic edge, or else “a rich and powerful adversary will have more resources to invest in technology and military forces.” [23] Finally, because deterring conventional war requires resilient survivability, states must possess the economic resources to safeguard their nuclear deterrent under treacherous wartime conditions. 

Such analysis lends renewed urgency to claims the United States must shore up its economic base and rely upon it in foreign affairs. Since power projection in the nuclear age still necessitates extensive national resources, America faces a perilous choice: overstretch, and lend credence to “America First” retrenchment advocates, or withdraw, and risk leaving a geopolitical power vacuum. This dilemma can be remediated via investment in economic renewal, which can create jobs at home and shore up power projection abroad. Towards that end, the federal government ought to pass the Endless Frontier Act, which invests in the basic research and critical sectors that will shape the economic and strategic future. [24] With inflation-adjusted federal R&D spending now lower than 2003 levels and Chinese R&D capability rapidly growing, MIT’s president has noted that no more than the “future of the US economy and security” hangs in the balance. [25] The United States must invest in innovation to facilitate the economic base and technology essential to confront a rising China.

But the United States needs more than a mere economic base, it needs to use it. While military power continues to remain “essential,” America must remember it is not the only tool; Washington has tended to “instinctively [reach] for the military instrument when often it is entirely irrelevant or inappropriate to the external challenge at hand.” [26] Just as the Eisenhower administration mistook nuclear weapons as the preponderant strategic tool, American foreign policy experts have perhaps overrelied upon military power as a lone instrument. The United States must be willing to employ geoeconomics, defined as “the use of economic interests to promote and defend national interests.” [27] Policies America ought to consider include fresh trade agreements, investments in India as a Pacific power, using the energy revolution towards geopolitical ends, enacting coordinated measures to check cyberattacks, and enhancing development aid towards the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. Such policies have costs, but oftentimes, the cost is less than doing nothing or military alternatives. Because nuclear weapons are insufficient, Washington needs to expand its arsenal to include economic ammunition.  

Lieber and Press’s insightful work illuminates the fantasy of the so-called nuclear revolution. While nuclear weapons are an instrument of peace, creating stalemate is no small feat. Achieving stalemate requires vulnerability to attack and an assured capacity for retaliation. Maintaining stalemate requires a large arsenal, as counterforce threatens hardening and technology imperils concealment. And deterring conventional war requires resiliently survivable arsenals, as well as a credible threat of escalation. So nuclear weapons, while important, have left a Hamilton-sized void that can only be filled by first attending to American economic strength. 

Nuclear deterrence is not a substitute for traditional economic power, and furthermore, economic prosperity is itself a prerequisite to constructing a stable deterrent. In fact, Hamiltonians may go further in pointing out any nuclear deterrent’s inability to prevent low-level conventional conflicts, an issue that Lieber and Press neglect to treat. Such a problem is conveniently illustrated by the Eisenhower administration, which possessed a powerful deterrent and yet found itself unsuccessful in its attempts to resist the emergence of additional pro-Soviet states. Overall, though, Lieber and Press offer clear evidence, sharp analysis, and a sensible explanation of a baffling puzzle. This is an excellent work that offers much for Hamiltonians to absorb and build upon in the practice of foreign affairs.

Ty Rossow is the Secretary of the AHS Chapter at Baylor University, where he’s majoring in economics, political science, and philosophy through the Baylor Business Fellows honors program.



[1] Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in the Atomic Age (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2020), 1.

[2] Lieber and Press, 14-15.

[3] Lieber and Press, 16-24.

[4] Lieber and Press, 10-11.

[5] Lieber and Press, 4.

[6] Lieber and Press, 128.

[7] Lieber and Press, 59-60.

[8] Lieber and Press. 59-60.

[9] Lieber and Press, 67-70.

[10] Lieber and Press, 91-92.

[11] Lieber and Press, 105.

[12] Lieber and Press, 124.

[13] Lieber and Press, 106-118.

[14] Lieber and Press, 107. 

[15] Carson Holloway, “Alexander Hamilton and American Foreign Policy,” (Washington, DC: The Heritage Foundation, 2015). 

[16] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 174-181. 

[17] Gaddis, 176. 

[18] Walter Russell Mead and Grady Nixon, “The Roots of US Foreign Policy Today: The Historical Origins of Present Debates,” Providence, 18 August 2020,

[19] Robert B. Zoellick, America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2020), 22. 

[20] Lieber and Press, 2.

[21] Robert B. Zoellick, America in the World: A History of U.S. Diplomacy and Foreign Policy (New York: Hachette Book Group, 2020), 17.

[22] Zoellick, 25.

[23] Lieber and Press, 67. 

[24] L. Rafael Reif, “To Compete with China, America Needs the Endless Frontier Act,” Issues in Science and Technology, 8 September, 2020,

[25] Reif, “To Compete with China, America Needs the Endless Frontier Act”. 

[26] Robert D. Blackwill and Jennifer M. Harris, War by Other Means: Geoeconomics and Statecraft (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016): 255. 

[27] Blackwill and Harris, 20. 

Image: “Gustave Doré, Bibel mit Luther-Text (1867-1870), Leviathan” by Reiner David-Druck-graphik, retrieved from, used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 1.0 Generic license ( Image is in the public domain.

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