Skip to main content

Nuclear Superiority and the Balance of Resolve: Explaining Nuclear Crisis Outcomes

  • Matthew Kroenig (a1)

Scholars have long debated whether nuclear superiority or the balance of resolve shapes the probability of victory in nuclear crises, but they have not clearly articulated a mechanism linking superiority to victory, nor have they systematically analyzed the entire universe of empirical cases. Beginning from a nuclear brinkmanship theory framework, I develop a new theory of nuclear crisis outcomes, which links nuclear superiority to victory in nuclear crises precisely through its effect on the balance of resolve. Using a new data set on fifty-two nuclear crisis dyads, I show that states that enjoy nuclear superiority over their opponents are more likely to win nuclear crises. I also find some support for the idea that political stakes shape crisis outcomes. These findings hold even after controlling for conventional military capabilities and for selection into nuclear crises. This article presents a new theoretical explanation, and the first comprehensive empirical examination, of nuclear crisis outcomes.

Hide All
Adler Emanuel. 1992. The Emergence of Cooperation: National Epistemic Communities and the International Evolution of the Idea of Nuclear Arms Control. International Organization 46 (1):101–45.
Asal Victor, and Beardsley Kyle. 2007. Proliferation and International Crisis Behavior. Journal of Peace Research 44 (2):139–55.
Atkinson Carol. 2010. Using Nuclear Weapons. Review of International Studies 36 (4):839–51.
Beardsley Kyle, and Asal Victor. 2009. Winning with the Bomb. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (2):278301.
Bennett D. Scott, and Stam Allan C.. 2000. EUGene: A Conceptual Manual. International Interactions 26 (2):179204.
Betts Richard K. 1987. Nuclear Blackmail and Nuclear Balance. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.
Bohlen Charles E. 1973. Witness to History: 1929–1969. New York: Norton.
Brams Steven J. 1985. Superpower Games: Applying Game Theory to Superpower Conflict. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Brecher Michael, and Wilkenfeld Jonathan. 2000. A Study of Crisis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Brodie Bernard. 1946. The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order. New York: Harcourt.
Fearon James D. 1994. Domestic Political Audiences and the Escalation of International Disputes. American Political Science Review 88 (3):577–92.
Feaver Peter D. 1994. The Politics of Inadvertence. Security Studies 3 (3):501–8.
Freedman Lawrence. 2003. The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. 3d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Gaddis John Lewis. 1982. Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gaddis John Lewis. 1987. The Long Peace: Inquiries into the History of the Cold War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Garthoff Raymond L. 1966. Soviet Military Policy: A Historical Analysis. New York: Praeger.
Gartzke Erik, and Kroenig Matthew. 2009. A Strategic Approach to Nuclear Proliferation. Journal of Conflict Resolution 53 (2):151–60.
Gelpi Christopher F. 1997. Crime and Punishment: The Role of Norms in Crisis Bargaining. American Political Science Review 91 (2):339–60.
Gelpi Christopher F., and Griesdorf Michael. 2001. Winners or Losers? Democracies in International Crises, 1918–94. American Political Science Review 95 (3):633–47.
Glaser Charles L. 1990. Analyzing Strategic Nuclear Policy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Hassner Ron E. 2007. The Path to Intractability: Time and the Entrenchment of Territorial Disputes. Security Studies 31 (3):107–38.
Heckman James J. 1979. Sample Selection Bias as a Specification Error. Econometrica 47 (1):153–61.
Hewitt Joseph. 2003. Dyadic Processes and International Crises. Journal of Conflict Resolution 47 (5):669–92.
Hoffmann Stanley. 1965. The State of War: Essays on the Theory and Practice of International Politics. New York: Praeger.
Horelick Arnold L. 1964. The Cuban Missile Crisis: An Analysis of Soviet Calculations and Behavior. World Politics 16 (3):363–89.
Huntington Samuel P. 1982. The Renewal of Strategy. In The Strategic Imperative: New Policies for American Security, edited by Huntington Samuel P., 152. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger.
Huth Paul K. 1990. The Extended Deterrent Value of Nuclear Weapons. Journal of Conflict Resolution 34 (2):270–90.
Huth Paul K., and Russett Bruce. 1984. What Makes Deterrence Work? Cases from 1900 to 1980. World Politics 36 (4):496526.
Huth Paul K., Gelpi Christopher, and Bennett D. Scott. 1993. The Escalation of Great Power Militarized Disputes: Testing Rational Deterrence Theory and Structural Realism. American Political Science Review 87 (3):609–23.
International Security. 1985. Documentation: White House Tapes and Minutes of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 10 (1):164203.
Jaggers Keith, and Gurr Ted Robert. 1995. Tracking Democracy's Third Wave with the Polity III Data. Journal of Peace Research 32 (4):469–82.
Jervis Robert. 1979–80. Why Nuclear Superiority Doesn't Matter. Political Science Quarterly 94 (4):617–33.
Jervis Robert. 1984. The Illogic of American Nuclear Strategy. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Jervis Robert. 1989. The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Jervis Robert. 1994. What Do We Want to Deter and How Do We Deter It? In Turning Point: The Gulf War and U.S. Military Strategy, edited by Ederington L. Benjamin and Mazar Michael J., 117–36. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.
Kahn Herman. 1960. On Thermonuclear War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Kaplan Fred. 1991. The Wizards of Armageddon. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Kapur S. Paul. 2007. Dangerous Deterrent: Nuclear Weapons Proliferation and Conflict in South Asia. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
King Gary, Tomz Michael, and Wittenberg Jason. 2000. Making the Most of Statistical Analyses: Improving Interpretation and Presentation. American Journal of Political Science 44 (2):347–61.
King Gary, and Zeng Langche. 2001. Explaining Rare Events in International Relations. International Organization 55 (3):693715.
Kroenig Matthew. 2010. Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Kydd Andrew. 2000. Arms Races and Arms Control: Modeling the Hawk Perspective. American Journal of Political Science 44 (2):222–44.
Lieber Keir A., and Press Daryl G.. 2006. The End of MAD? The Nuclear Dimension of U.S. Primacy. International Security 30 (4):744.
Morgenthau Hans J. 1948. Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. New York: Knopf.
Nitze Paul H. 1956. Atoms, Strategy, and Policy. Foreign Affairs 34 (2):187–98.
Nitze Paul H. 1976–77. Deterring Our Deterrent. Foreign Policy 25:195210.
Paul T.V. 1994. Asymmetric Conflicts: War Initiation by Weaker Powers. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Posen Barry. 2006. A Nuclear Armed Iran: A Difficult but Not Intractable Policy Problem. Working Paper. New York: The Century Foundation. Available at ⟨⟩. Accessed 15 July 2012.
Powell Robert. 1987. Crisis Bargaining, Escalation, and MAD. American Political Science Review 81 (3):717–36.
Powell Robert. 1988. Nuclear Brinkmanship with Two-Sided Incomplete Information. American Political Science Review 82 (1):155–78.
Powell Robert. 1989. Nuclear Deterrence and the Strategy of Limited Retaliation. American Political Science Review 83 (2):503–19.
Powell Robert. 1990. Nuclear Deterrence Theory: The Search for Credibility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Powell Robert. 2003. Nuclear Deterrence Theory, Nuclear Proliferation, and National Missile Defense. International Security 27 (4):86118.
Press Daryl G. 2005. Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Puhani Patrick A. 2000. The Heckman Correction for Sample Selection and Its Critique. Journal of Economic Surveys 14 (1):5368.
Reiter Dan, and Stam Allan C.. 2002. Democracies at War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Russett Bruce M. 1993. Grasping the Democratic Peace: Principles for a Post-Cold War World. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Sagan Scott D. 1989. Moving Targets: Nuclear Strategy and National Security. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Sagan Scott D. 1993. The Limits of Safety: Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Sagan Scott D. 1995. More Will Be Worse. In The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, edited by Sagan Scott D. and Waltz Kenneth N.. New York: Norton.
Schelling Thomas C. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Schelling Thomas C. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Simmons Beth A., and Hopkins Daniel J.. 2005. The Constraining Power of International Treaties: Theory and Methods. American Political Science Review 99 (4):623–31.
Singer J. David, Bremer Stuart, and Stuckey John. 1972. Capability, Distribution, Uncertainty, and Major Power War, 1820–1965. In Peace, War, and Numbers, edited by Russett Bruce M., 1948. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage.
Slantchev Branislav L. 2005. Military Coercion in Interstate Crises. American Political Science Review 99 (4):533–47.
Snyder Glenn H. 1971. “Prisoner's Dilemma” and “Chicken” Models in International Politics. International Studies Quarterly 15 (1):66103.
Snyder Glenn H., and Diesing Paul. 1977. Conflict Among Nations: Bargaining, Decision Making, and System Structure in International Crises. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
Szulc Tad. 1986. Fidel: A Critical Portrait. New York: Morrow.
Tannenwald Nina. 2007. The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Thucydides. 1954. The History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Warner Rex. New York: Penguin.
Tomz Michael, Wittenberg Jason, and King Gary. 2003. Clarify: Software for Interpreting and Presenting Statistical Results. Journal of Statistical Software 8 (1):129.
Trachtenberg Marc. 1985. The Influence of Nuclear Weapons in the Cuban Missile Crisis. International Security 10 (1):137–63.
U.S. Department of Defense. 1980. Annual Report, FY 1981. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
U.S. Senate. 1968. Preparedness Investigation Subcommittee of the Committee on Armed Services. Status of U.S. Strategic Power. 90th Cong., 2d sess., 30 April.
Wagner R. Harrison. 1982. Deterrence and Bargaining. Journal of Conflict Resolution 26 (2):329–58.
Waltz Kenneth N. 1979. Theory of International Politics. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Waltz Kenneth N. 1995. More May Be Better. In The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, edited by Sagan Scott D. and Waltz Kenneth N.. 345. New York: Norton.
Wohlstetter Albert. 1958. The Delicate Balance of Terror. Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

International Organization
  • ISSN: 0020-8183
  • EISSN: 1531-5088
  • URL: /core/journals/international-organization
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Kroenig supplementary material
Kroenig supplementary material

 Unknown (123 KB)
123 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 37
Total number of PDF views: 372 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 1643 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 20th February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.