The 2012 Kenneth N. Waltz Lecture in International Relations “Nuclear Brinkmanship and Military Power”
A lecture from Dr. Robert Powell
Robson Professor of Political Science
University of California, Berkeley
Moderated by Dr. Robert Jervis
Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Politics; Professor of International and Public Affairs
Nuclear crises frequently confront states with a fundamental trade-off between military power and the risk of escalation. Bringing more power to bear increases the probability of prevailing if events do not go out of control. But bringing more power to bear also raises the risk that the crisis will end in a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Although states often face this trade-off in actual crises, this trade-off plays virtually no role in our theories of nuclear brinkmanship and at most a very limited role in nuclear deterrence theory. This paper incorporates this trade-off in a model of nuclear brinkmanship. The analysis yields three main results. First, there are no brinkmanship crises when the balance of resolve is certain. If it favors the challenger, the challenger decides how much power to bring to bear by equating the marginal gain of a higher probability of success with the marginal cost of a larger existential risk. If the balance favors the defender, the challenger limits the power it brings to bear so that the crisis remains sufficiently stable that the challenger cannot be outbid in a contest of resolve. Second, uncertainty about the balance of resolve can lead to brinkmanship crises in which the challenger brings a great deal of military power to bear and the states run a high risk that the crisis will go out of control. Finally, the analysis provides a framework which helps clarify important issues in nuclear deterrence theory and policy including coupling, escalation dominance, self-deterrence, and, more generally, the relationship between contests of military strength and contests of resolve.
Robert Powell is the Robson Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley and previously taught at the University of Michigan and Harvard. He specializes in the use of game theory to study international conflict and political conflict more generally. He is the author of Nuclear Deterrence Theory: The Search for Credibility (Cambridge University Press, 1990); In the Shadow of Power: States and Strategies in International Politics (Princeton University Press, 1999); “Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense” (International Security, 2003); and, most recently, “Persistent Fighting and Shifting Power” (American Journal of Political Science, 2012). He holds a B.S. in mathematics from Harvey Mudd College; an M.Phil in international relations from Cambridge University; and a PhD in economics from Berkeley. He has been a Fulbright Scholar to the United Kingdom and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2012, he won the National Academy of Science’s prize for behavior research relevant to the prevention of nuclear war.