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The New Nuclear Disorder

The New Nuclear Disorder: Challenges to Deterrence and Strategy by Stephen J. Cimbala. Ashgate Publishing Company, 2015, 254 pp.



In this collection of essays, Prof. Stephen J. Cimbala presents a thoughtful analysis that juxtaposes the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union with the twenty-first century reality of nuclear proliferation in a multipolar world. Cimbala is a professor of political science at Pennsylvania State–Brandywine where he teaches courses in international relations, politics, national security, and intelligence. Professor Cimbala argues that while the threat of global nuclear war between major power states may be diminished, the potential of a nuclear weapon being employed in anger has increased.

Central to Cimbala’s comparative analysis is geography. Physical distances play a significant role in nuclear stability. Cimbala points out the United States and Russia are separated by the world’s oceans and landmasses. They built force structures that enabled them to reach over great distances. This geographical barrier offers precious time in a crisis that new nuclear powers will not have. During a crisis, the United States and Russia have escalatory and de-escalatory strategies that signal resolve or willingness to compromise. Bombers can be launched and sent to holding orbits that will take hours to reach, submarines will be flushed and put to sea. Such actions are overt and unmistakable, allowing policy makers, diplomats, and military professionals to analyze the situation and find peaceful resolutions to confrontations.

Cimbala argues this luxury of time and distance is not available to emerging nuclear states. Take, for example, India and Pakistan. If the Indian integrated air defense system detects incoming strike aircraft, how can the government be certain whether or not those aircraft are carrying nuclear weapons? Leadership will have only a few minutes to evaluate adversary resolve, intent, and perceptions before making a decision. There is little room for the diplomatic signaling available to the traditional nuclear powers. A similar dynamic exists with the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force. However, if an ICBM launch is detected in Russia or the United States, leaders in those states can be certain that they are under nuclear attack, and the response is clear. In India, Pakistan, nuclear-armed Iran, Saudi Arabia, or Israel, such certainty doesn’t exist. For Cimbala, this is tremendously destabilizing.

Cimbala artfully weaves geopolitics throughout the book. He offers the possibility that the United States and the USSR did not fight a war because they had no compelling reason to do so. This is an important point when we examine nascent nuclear-armed countries. Historically, major power rivals have almost inevitably come upon a fault line that led to war. This historical reality paused in 1945. Nuclear weapons made the cost of choosing war always much higher than any possible gain. Moreover, the United States and the USSR remained comfortably stocked with plentiful land and natural resources, issues normally at the root cause of war. Ideological differences drove tension between Americans and Soviets, but this never rose to the level of direct armed confrontation. Finally, Americans and Soviets developed their nuclear forces out of genuine fear and existential security concerns. Cimbala suggests these factors are not in place with the new additions to the global nuclear family.

Cimbala makes a convincing argument that restraints that existed between the United States and the USSR are not in place with the new nuclear powers. Thus the environment is destabilized to favor eventual use of a nuclear device. For example, he points out that while Americans and Soviets were ideological rivals, many nascent nuclear powers are religious rivals. Religion and politics are intertwined in many states, and this adds an emotional component that the pragmatic statesmen-bureaucrats of the United States and the Soviet Union did not contend with. Wars with a religious element tend to be longer and more brutal as each side believes their God is with them; with that mind-set, destruction on a biblical scale wrought through nuclear weapons becomes an acceptable alternative. The deterrence strategy employed by the major powers is of little value when we consider this element. Cimbala further ups the ante by raising the specter of a nonstate entity acquiring a nuclear device. The US nuclear force did not deter Al-Qaeda from pulling off the attacks of 11 September 2001. If such a group gained control of a nuclear device, there would be no deterrent force that would stop them from using it. Last, according to Cimbala, many nations pursuing nuclear forces now are doing so for prestige. Maintaining their security and protecting strategic interests don’t tangibly require a nuclear force.

Interestingly, Cimbala devotes significant time to the 1983 war scare brought on by the NATO exercise Able Archer. This exercise was primarily a command-and-control exercise that was misinterpreted by the Soviets as a prelude to a preemptive nuclear attack. Able Archer meshed with the Soviet’s expectation of what a NATO-initiated war would look like. The Soviet military went on high alert while it tried to discern if the threat was real. Cool heads on both sides of the iron curtain prevailed. NATO leaders realized what was happening in Moscow and halted the exercise, easing the crisis. Cimbala’s point is that this near war through misperception occurred in 1983 between two states who had studied each other for decades. The United States and the USSR had stable force levels and relations and little reason to go to war. Yet still, they nearly went to war. The implied warning from Cimbala is clear. If such an event can occur between adversaries who know each other very well and are in a state of relative stability, what could result from a miscalculation between closed societies with little understanding of each other and even less experience in nuclear strategy?

Cimbala’s discussion on technology and cyberspace is perhaps the most thought-provoking of this book. The amount, speed, and diversity of information that will flow to policy makers will be overwhelming. Cyberspace will impact emerging nuclear states as well as established powers such as the United States and Russia. The ubiquitous news cycle already feeds conflicting, biased reports. Commercial news media during a crisis can be counted on to immediately report news stories without analysis or regard for the political ramifications. All this will be augmented by social media. Social media feeds are the new community gathering points, with even the most absurd opinions quickly reaching the national stage. The information flow during a crisis dwarfs what was available to policy makers 20 years ago and will obfuscate adversary intents and perceptions. Cimbala further factors in that in cyberspace, actions may be taken with the specific intent of deceiving and misleading populations and their political and military leaders. Escalatory and de-escalatory actions could be clouded in uncertainty in ways not dreamed of in previous generations.

Cimbala closes the book with a contemporary essay on Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine. The message here is that while Russia may be down, it is not out. The threat of a destabilizing event between major nuclear-armed powers still exists. Developed global-power nations are not immune to human nature, and geopolitics can quickly destabilize.

The strengths of this book are clear, but it is not without shortcomings. Too frequently, Cimbala bogs his readers down with mathematical reckonings of force levels that offer effective deterrent value; that is, how many missiles, bombers, and submarines must there be to ensure stability and deter an adversary. To an old cold warrior, numbers of missiles, bombers, and submarines offer a comfortable refuge in a complex, multipolar, fast-moving world. Though adequately documented, force levels are not the only determinant for deterrence capability. It’s this numbers game that brought on the arms races of the last half of the twentieth century, and it has only marginal value to the twenty-first century.

The analysis and thoughtful prose offered by Cimbala outweigh the shortcomings of this book. The New Nuclear Disorder: Challenges to Deterrence and Strategy should be required reading for intelligence analysts, political strategists, and policy makers. There remains the possibility that nuclear weapons will contribute to greater stability globally as they did with the United States and the USSR. New nuclear nations may follow the example set by the super powers and find they have more to gain through peace than through war. However, they may also fall prey to human passions as populations change and resources become scarce. Suspicion, envy, and honor are part of the human condition and unlikely to be bred out of us any time soon. Cimbala avers that it’s not predetermined that a nuclear device will be used in the twenty-first century. However, the very fact he states this betrays the belief that such an event will occur. This book is a must read.

David J. Maniccia


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"The views expressed in this book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."