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Nuclear Brinkmanship, Limited War, and Military Power

  • Robert Powell
Abstract

An open question in nuclear deterrence theory is whether and how the balance of military power affects the dynamics of escalation. The balance of military strength plays virtually no role in standard accounts of brinkmanship. But this is largely by assumption and seems incompatible with an apparent trade-off between power and risk that decision makers have faced in some actual crises. This paper incorporates this trade-off in a modified model of nuclear brinkmanship. A main result is that the more likely the balance of resolve is to favor a defender, the less military power a challenger brings to bear. The model also formalizes the stability-instability paradox, showing that a less stable strategic balance, that is, a sharper trade-off between power and risk, makes conflict at high levels of violence less likely but conflict at lower levels more likely. The analysis also helps explain the incentives different states have to adopt different nuclear doctrines and force postures.

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International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
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