In 2015, I wrote a short piece for The Diplomat suggesting that it was time for the United States to revive its nuclear strategy. After reviewing China’s decision to deploy nuclear missiles with multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs), I wrote that “it may be time for American statesmen and strategists to once again start thinking about the unthinkable” and “to blow the dust off of some old books and articles written by the nuclear strategists of the Cold War.” At least one prominent American statesman has done that.
Former Trump administration CIA Director and later Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, currently a scholar at the Hudson Institute, in an article featured on The National Interest website, sets forth a comprehensive nuclear strategy designed to meet the growing nuclear challenge of China. And he does so in the context of an emerging Sino-Russian alliance and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s goal, in Pompeo’s words, “to mold the existing world order into a system of global governance controlled by Communist China through its prophesied future supremacy in all forms of national power.” China, Pompeo writes, “represents the greatest threat that America has faced in the modern era, for no other nation that has contested the United States has possessed China’s relative economic power or population.”
Pompeo, here, manifests an understanding of the geopolitical challenge the United States faces in the 21st century. The elements of Chinese national power include relative population size, economic strength and reach, geography, political influence, and military power. And if China succeeds in forming a Sino-Russian strategic alliance, it will present the United States and the world with an autocratic alliance that controls a huge swath of the Eurasian landmass. The greatest merit to Pompeo’s article is that he views the new nuclear arms race within the context of China’s broader geopolitical challenge.
One of the old books by nuclear strategists that Pompeo has dusted off is Herman Kahn’s Thinking About the Unthinkable, which was published in 1962. (Kahn in 1960 also wrote On Thermonuclear War). He also invokes early nuclear strategist Bernard Brodie who, according to Pompeo, “framed our conception of nuclear weapons in terms of deterrence.” Brodie authored two seminal works on nuclear strategy, The Absolute Weapon (1946) and Strategy in the Missile Age (1959). Pompeo could have mentioned a few more worthwhile books and articles, including Henry Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (1956); French strategist Raymond Aron’s On War (1958) and The Great Debate (1963); Colin Gray’s “Nuclear Strategy: The Case for a Theory of Victory” (1979), Nuclear Strategy and Strategic Planning (1984), Nuclear Strategy and National Style (1986), and The Second Nuclear Age (1999); Edward Luttwak’s “How to Think About Nuclear War” (1982), Robert Jastrow’s “Why Strategic Superiority Matters” (1983), and Albert Wohlstetter’s seminal article “The Delicate Balance of Terror” (1959).
The importance of these books and articles is that they envision nuclear strategy and nuclear weapons not as a separate field of inquiry, but as one component in the broader geopolitical landscape. And they all “think about the unthinkable” in strategic terms, instead of expounding moral platitudes so they can feel good about themselves. In many cases, the type, size, power, and delivery methods of nuclear weapons have changed since those works were written, but the approach of viewing the nuclear arms competition as part of the overall competition between great powers is still valid. That is what Pompeo does in his recent article.
Pompeo notes that China is testing and deploying more nuclear weapons, including an orbital hypersonic missile that has “the potential to limit strategic warning,” which could in turn “escalate the risk of global nuclear war, due to miscalculation.” He further notes that China is “arming itself at an unparalleled pace” with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), possesses “a formidable ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) force,” and is developing a stealth bomber capable of carrying and delivering nuclear weapons.
In the midst of China’s nuclear build-up, Pompeo notes, the Biden administration is engaging in a Nuclear Posture Review, which he fears will substitute arms control for a needed upgrade in U.S. nuclear capabilities, take the first steps in eliminating the U.S. strategic triad, and possibly declare “no-first-use” of nuclear weapons as American policy. He bases these fears on previous statements made by then-Vice President Biden in which he all but recommended a “no-first-use” policy. Pompeo prudently warns against substituting “facile dreams for hard realities.”
Pompeo notes that in the 1970s when the Soviet Union attained strategic parity and, in some areas, superiority, emboldened Soviet leaders went on the geopolitical offensive. The Soviet strategic build-up, Pompeo writes, “constituted a crucial substrate for that communist state’s use of intimidation in other international domains.” President Ronald Reagan took note and competed with the USSR in the nuclear arena and elsewhere around the globe. And Reagan’s more confrontational approach, which critics claimed would heighten the risk of nuclear war, led to real arms control and victory in the Cold War. “Had it not been for Reagan’s grit, clear-sightedness, and determination,” he writes, “the outcome of the Cold War would have been vastly different.”
Importantly, Pompeo also recognizes the value of strategic defenses, and proposes a “new Strategic Defense Initiative: the SDI II.” Pompeo’s SDI II suggests the deployment of space-based anti-missile systems similar to those proposed by Reagan’s SDI. The technology is more advanced than it was in the 1980s so the feasibility of such a system has increased. He also calls for the deployment of anti-satellite weapons as part of the new Space Force established by President Trump. Pompeo understands that geopolitics now embraces outer space.
And Pompeo also understands that the greatest geopolitical threat we face is the emerging Sino-Russian bloc, which he fears could develop into a world-leading colossus combining China’s wealth, population, and growing political influence in Eurasia-Africa with Russia’s natural resources and military traditions. The combined weight of such an alliance would upset the global balance of power that emerged in the wake of the Cold War. Long ago, in 1904, the great British geopolitical theorist Sir Halford Mackinder warned the Western democracies about the potential threat of a Eurasian-based sea power that could overwhelm the insular powers of Britain and the United States. It is imperative that U.S. foreign policy prevent the emergence of such a hostile strategic alliance — and under current circumstances, that means the U.S. must improve relations with Russia. “To separate Russia from China,” Pompeo writes, “we must offer an alternative. Reincorporation of Russia into the Group of Eight and greater American and West European economic investment in Russia, in exchange for its curtailing aspects of its relationship with China and Iran, can offer a way forward.” We must use the “full spectrum of soft power,” he writes, “to … rupture Russia’s relations with China.”
Pompeo concludes this important article by referencing Herman Kahn and George Washington in support of the idea that preparedness for war — including nuclear war — is the most effective means of deterring enemies and preserving peace.