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Matt Yglesias points his readers in the direction of a truly frightening article in the July/August issue of the Atlantic. We would be remiss if we didn't do the same. The article, by Keir Leiber and Daryl Press, argues that the gap between Chinese and American nuclear capability has grown so much since the end of the Cold War that there would only be a very slim chance of China being able to respond to an American first strike. (The authors' original study, which they discussed extensively in Foreign Affairs over a year ago, argued that even the Russian nuclear arsenal would almost certainly be destroyed by an American first strike.)
If the authors are right, this means the end of "Mutually-Assured Destruction," or MAD. They remind us why that matters:
During the Cold War, MAD rendered the debate about the wisdom of nuclear primacy little more than a theoretical exercise. Now that MAD and the awkward equilibrium it maintained are about to be upset, the argument has become deadly serious. Hawks will undoubtedly see the advent of U.S. nuclear primacy as a positive development. For them, MAD was regrettable because it left the United States vulnerable to nuclear attack. With the passing of MAD, they argue, Washington will have what strategists refer to as "escalation dominance" — the ability to win a war at any level of violence — and will thus be better positioned to check the ambitions of dangerous states such as China, North Korea, and Iran.
We're still fighting a conventional "pre-emptive war" that began over four years ago. If the hawks want to turn their pre-emptive wars nuclear, they can do so without fear of retaliation.
— Nick Baumann