The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in the Atomic Age

Thursday, December 2, 2021
2:00 - 3:00pm Webinar

Statecraft Series
Thursday, December 2, 2021

Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press discuss their new book, "The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution," which tackles the central puzzle of the nuclear age: the persistence of intense geopolitical competition in the shadow of nuclear weapons. They explain why the Cold War superpowers raced so feverishly against each other; why the creation of “mutual assured destruction” does not ensure peace; and why the rapid technological changes of the 21st century will weaken deterrence in hotspots around the world. Ultimately, Lieber and Press discover answers to critical questions: how much capability is required for a reliable nuclear deterrent, how conventional conflicts may become nuclear wars, and how to prevent new technology from ushering in an age of nuclear instability.

This event is co-sponsored by the Miller Center.


Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution: Power Politics in the Atomic Age

Our book, The Myth of the Nuclear Revolution, explains a central puzzle of international relations: the persistence of intense geopolitical competition in the nuclear age.  This is a puzzle because nuclear weapons appear to make any country that possesses them impervious to the most serious security threats, such as invasion.  Nuclear weapons have not only dramatically raised the potential costs of war, they appear to make victory in war impossible.  Both aggressors and victims of attack face the same fate – devastation – if nuclear weapons are used in substantial numbers.  Simply put, if attacking a nuclear-armed adversary would be futile and likely suicidal, then such wars should be obsolete.  And if nuclear-armed countries cannot fight each other, then they can abandon all sorts of other competitive behaviors that have long marred world history: they can freeze their arms races, scale back their alliances, stop competing over strategic territory, and end their constant preoccupation with the rising power du jour.  Or so we are told by the theory of the nuclear revolution.

Yet, any observer of the Cold War or the decades since the end of that conflict can see that nuclear weapons have not pacified international relations.  Full-fledged great power war has not occurred since 1945, but intense political competition, vigorous preparations for war, and military conflicts continue to exist among all of the nuclear powers: the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.  Why do these countries continue to jockey for power, security, and advantage when nuclear weapons make them fundamentally safe?  Why do they strive for better military capabilities, allies, and strategic territory?  Why can’t the nuclear powers just relax? 

The reason that actual international politics is so at odds with the theory of the nuclear revolution is because of the difficult challenges that countries face creating nuclear stalemate, maintaining stalemate, and practicing deterrence under stalemate.  Stalemate exists when neither side in a war can escape destruction and emerge victorious.  Although many analysts think that stalemate (and thus deterrence) is almost automatically assured once countries build nuclear arsenals – since any attack could lead to mutual destruction – the reality is far different.

Building nuclear weapons is relatively easy (if one can acquire the necessary materials), but creating stalemate – that is, building an arsenal that can reliably survive an enemy disarming attack and be used in retaliation – is difficult, especially if one’s potential adversaries are motivated, powerful, and technologically sophisticated.  Moreover, nuclear stalemate does not lie at the end of a one-way street.  Even countries that deploy survivable arsenals need to keep working, since they will be afraid that an enemy might develop new weapons and strategies to neutralize their deterrent.  They may also be tempted to try to escape stalemate themselves, by building their own war-winning options.  Finally, nuclear stalemate does not necessarily solve a country’s deterrence problems.  If countries are relying on nuclear threats to deter conventional attacks, then merely building a survivable nuclear arsenal may not be sufficient.  Those countries will feel compelled to build flexible and resilient nuclear forces to make the threat of escalation credible.  In turn, the conventionally stronger side in such cases will face powerful incentives to build forces capable of neutralizing their adversary’s nuclear escalatory arsenal.

Our book therefore solves a key puzzle about why nuclear weapons have been successful at preventing major wars, but have fallen so far short of transforming international politics.  Our analysis also sheds light on pressing questions about deterrence in the coming decades:

  • Nuclear deterrence is a serious business; there is nothing automatic about strategic stalemate now or in the future.  Acquiring nuclear weapons is a first step down the path toward a robust nuclear deterrent, but that path is long and potentially dangerous.  Even the Soviet Union, with its sophisticated scientific and technical base, took more than a decade of arms racing before it had deployed a secure retaliatory capability against the United States.
  • We should expect to see new nuclear proliferators (for example, North Korea and possibly Iran) drawn into long, extended arms races.  They will struggle to build survivable forces, and their adversaries will race to build conventional and nuclear counterforce capabilities to keep those fledgling arsenals vulnerable.  Even after the emergence of stalemate, intense competition will endure because stalemate is reversible and because some countries will rely upon nuclear threats to deter conventional attacks.
  • Nuclear arms cuts or numerical limits on smaller arsenals are highly unlikely.  In a long-distant era – in a world of limited surveillance and reconnaissance, and poor weapons accuracy – stable deterrence at low numbers was a sensible goal for arms control agreements.  In an era of revolutionary sensing and pinpoint accuracy, small numbers create large vulnerabilities.  It is unlikely that the major nuclear-armed states will agree to such arms control measures.
  • The findings of our book offer one lesson – and a difficult choice – as the United States modernizes its nuclear arsenal.  The lesson is clear: do not take force survivability for granted.  The weapons we procure today have projected lifespans of decades, but it is unlikely that the sensing environment or the lethality of counterforce weapons decades in the future will look anything like they do today.  Calls for a smaller arsenal, deployed on a narrower set of delivery systems, are unwise. 
  • The United States faces a difficult choice about the extent to which it should improve its conventional and nuclear counterforce systems.  Trends in technology mean that creating significant counterforce capabilities is now possible, and such capabilities might be invaluable in deterring or limiting damage against medium-sized nuclear powers.  But building those capabilities will be expensive, and may trigger unwanted arms races with powerful competitors.


Nuclear weapons are the most effective instruments of deterrence ever invented.  They are a boon to the strongest powers, which for centuries routinely fought large and costly wars against each other.  They are also a boon to weaker countries, which for most of history were forced to bend the knee to stronger adversaries.  Although the “nuclear revolution” is a myth – international politics have not been transformed by these weapons – careful analysis and smart policies will allow us to maximize the prospects for an enduring nuclear peace.