Following the Cold War, many scholars of international relations argued that major interstate war was to be relegated to the dustbin of history with the advent of nuclear weapons. The stakes at play in war were simply too high with nuclear Armageddon lurking around the corner. The world would be one miscalculation away from the end of civilization, leaving us in a state of simply bouncing rubble back and forth. War was fundamentally changed, or so the line of thinking went.
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, IR scholars are now scrambling to see what this means for theories of world politics. Although classical realists are not (should not be?) fazed by Putin’s actions, there will undoubtedly by a plethora of scholarship in the next few decades dedicated to addressing the assumptions that were proven wrong by the invasion of Ukraine. I write here to begin that conversation with the following claim: the collective fear that the world has about nuclear weapons has gone too far. The fear of nuclear war, even limited nuclear war, has been taking too far by scholars and strategists, paralyzing them from recognizing that war can and ought to exist beneath the nuclear threshold. By extension, war can also be stopped and/or prevented beneath the nuclear threshold. If strategies of war beneath the nuclear threshold are not embraced, we are setting up the world where aggression can forever go unchecked and evil can spread like cancer. It is to demonstrating this fear as it is actively playing out in Ukraine that I now turn.
Nuclear weapons changed the stakes of war; they didn’t remove the institution of war. Yet, our fear of atomic fission has caused us to become callous to aggression in the international sphere. To be sure, the road to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has many on-ramps but the intellectual road was arguably paved during the height of Cold War nuclear thinking. The general sentiment felt during this formative period was expressed by the “dean” of civilian strategists, Bernard Brodie, who famously quipped that “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.” This nuanced idea has been hijacked and its original meaning completely obliterated. We seem to have wrongly learned from Brodie that with nuclear weapons, there is nothing we can do about war. If we can’t avert war, we must fall prey to it. This is a complete mischaracterization of the message Brodie hoped to impart on strategists and policymakers. Brodie recognized the destruction war could bring if it escalated out of control yet acknowledged that this didn’t exonerate strategists from employing military means to stop aggression. Writing in Escalation and Nuclear Option, Brodie notes:
It should not now be necessary to add that a deliberate massive attack by one great power against the forces of another has always in modern times been an extraordinarily serious and deeply shocking event, and that it is bound to be even more so in a world that knows nuclear weapons. However, the debate on nuclear versus conventional strategies or “options” has so sharply focused men’s minds on the dread consequences of using nuclear weapons that the very act of aggression that might invoke these possibilities has been excessively deflated by comparison. In many discussions of the issue, the fact of aggression is given about the emotional loading of an enemy prank. It is supposed to be contained in a manner that is effective but at the same time tolerant and wise. The argument above that we should be unambiguous at least about opposing with nuclear arms any deliberate and massive Soviet attack in Europe is in one sense only a plea to resume treating such aggression with the seriousness it deserves (emphasis added).
This passage from Brodie serves as the corollary to his famous dictum about war aversion. War must be averted but it can only be averted when we properly deal with aggression. The West avoided dealing with Russian aggression in the buildup to the ground invasion, not least because we simply haven’t been theorizing about what war and deterrence looks like beneath the nuclear threshold.
It seems as if the bulk of recent scholarship dedicated to issues of strategy have been almost exclusively works of grand strategy, calling our collective attention to one potential conflict theater over another, be it China, Russia, Iran, terrorism, cyber etc. But works of genuine strategic thought in the style of Clausewitz, Wylie, Mahan or Kahn? Not much. Elbridge Colby is correct when he proclaims that “few lay out a single, coherent framework that provides clear guidance on what the nation’s defense strategy should be as an outgrowth of its grand strategy.” We are witnessing what Colin S. Gray referred to as the “death of strategy.” Writing in 1999, Gray described the phenomenon:
The ‘death of strategy,’ which is to say the demise of the political demand for strategy, has been anticipated from the mid-nineteenth century until today. In the aftermath of great conflicts, many among the best and the brightest in the scribbling class discern no obvious need for rude soldiery, or strategic reasoning, in a world that appears to present no strategic problems.
I will not speculate as to why we haven’t had any more strategists or “wizards of Armageddon” since the Cold War. But the stability of the world order is crumbling under the void of strategic thought. So to the question posed a few years ago of “does the US military really need more strategists?” the answer is an emphatic yes, shouted above the sound of gunfire.
As the war wages in Ukraine, one cannot help but feel as if those whom we turn to for foreign policy advice and guidance are, to be crass, making it up as the conflict progresses. At least the members of ExComm had reason to improvise- the nuclear era had only begun. But we have had well over fifty years to think about war in the modern era. If Williamson Murray and co were writing, today, Successful Strategies or The Making of Strategy, could they include a chapter on the West’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine? Is there a coherent strategy that is being pursued right now? Or are we making it up as the bombs land? As the Russo-Ukraine war rages, we debate the merits of sanctions and no fly zones as if this is the first time we have bothered to consider what a military response to overt aggression should look like in the 21st century. How could it be, for instance, that the Journal of Strategic Studies has only one essay on no fly zones? For all the works of grand strategy that have been published, had we not given a minute’s thought about how those wars might progress?
This failure to think strategically in response to aggression in the 21st century has left us in an untenable moral position. Our fear of nuclear weapons is of course warranted and while proper emphasis should be given to tread lightly, we should still tread. Currently the West has yet to meaningfully engage Russia in the current conflict; sanctioning Russia and supplying arms to Ukraine are not enough to stop the onslaught. The war, and in this case war crimes, continue. Are we comfortable with this moral position of inaction? What did Never Again mean if we stand idly by as evil aggression goes unchecked? If it meant nothing, those in charge should have the courage to admit it.
Offering prescriptions is a dangerous endeavor, especially if they go against the dominant orthodoxy. If the current crisis, however, doesn’t make one challenge the cognoscenti, what will? I have no doubt some of my points will generate controversy. But something needs to happen to rectify our current state of affairs. In the style of Gray, I offer the following list of 5 points, some of which are restatements of the obvious.
1. Embrace classical realism. This might be the most controversial point suggested. Students of international relations are reared on the debates of Waltz and Wendt and liberalism vs constructivism (I should know- I’m a current student). If they are lucky, they might even dust off Hobbes, only to read his nasty and brutish line. What students are unlikely to study are the works of Thucydides, Sun Tzu, Kautilya, Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Carr, Niebuhr, Morgenthau, Aron, and Kissinger. Perhaps in our postmodern age, “power” is a concept we would hope to wish away, and we do so by ignoring the thinkers of power politics. But when we do so, we sacrifice our own safety and stability. Here again, Gray offers words as biting as they are brilliant:
The difficulty is that our students are not to know, unless we tell them, that Carr, Morgenthau, and especially Aron, wrote better—yes, better—books than have the theorists of the 1990s. The texts of classical realism offer superior explanatory reach and grasp, because they are better grounded empirically. Similarly those students are not to know that (classical and neoclassical) realism is not simply one among a potentially infinite number of ‘approaches’ to international relations. It may be academically sound and ecumenical for teachers to treat all theories as if they were created equal, with each capable of delivering salvation. The fact is, however, that for a practical subject like international relations, poor—which is to say impractical—theories are at best an irrelevance, and at worst can help get people killed.
2. Qualitative thinking, not quantitative, is needed. It is currently fashionable in political science departments and strategic studies programs to pursue quantitative methods of study. As someone actively looking into Ph.D programs, this is a feature of the current educational climate that one cannot miss. To be sure, the quantitative work is scholarly and often enlightening. But if our business is the use of violence for political purpose, how far can numbers get us? The obsession with quantitative analysis in the study of war, a problem that is by no means recent, is contributing to our dearth of strategic thought. We are in desperate need of warfighting theories, not another book chock full of regressions. (Interestingly, our British friends and colleagues inhabit an educational system where quantitative methods has not captured the masses and they arguably produce [or at least, have produced] more strategic theorists than the United States).
3. Remember! Nuclear weapons are still weapons. As argued above, we have become a bit too mystified by nuclear weapons and their relationship to war. We would be wise to remember, however, that they are still weapons; their employment still needs to be in line with the political object of the war. Even leaders as brash as Putin recognize this salient point. We seem to have forgotten it. Whatever you think of the specific points on his famed “escalation ladder,” Kahn was right to note that there are steps before all out nuclear war. Strategists would do well to remember as such and understand that there is and must be room for war and military engagement beneath the nuclear threshold.
4. Deterrence needs implementation, not rethinking. Here too, I wear my love and reverence to past theories and theorists on my sleeve. It is my argument that the Cold War theorists of nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence gave the world ideas that have not been surpassed for in either brilliance or practicality; they truly did the work of thinking about the unthinkable. They gave us ways to implement deterrence and secure a however delicate balance of terror. In short, they were successful theorists. We would be wise to dust off On Thermonuclear War and The Absolute Weapon, among others to be sure, and implement their ideas. They need no rethinking.
5. Move past the Cold War. This might seem counterintuitive, given my previous point, so clarification is in order. While I believe that the strategists of the Cold War provided wisdom that has to date been unmatched, many of the ideas and institutions that were promulgated during the Cold War need to finally have their cords pulled. If Russia heading the UN Security Council as their troops invade Ukraine doesn’t demonstrate the folly of global governance in general and the UN in particular, I doubt a heavenly voice would convince us. The UN and NATO are products of an era that doesn’t exist, why do they? Will we finally never hear IR scholars discuss the lie that was the demise of great power war? One should hope. The future of strategic thought and statecraft needs to be informed by the past; it must not be tied to it.
No amount of future learning and correction will clean the blood stained streets of Ukraine. But if we recognize that the past so often serves as prologue, let us hope that we can correct the issue so that at least unprovoked aggression on the world stage of the kind we are currently living through remains never to be seen again.