The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Professor stirs nuclear discussion

Becky Hogan | Wednesday, May 3, 2006

With one sentence, a Notre Dame professor has made some very big waves.

“The United States is on the verge of escaping a MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction] world,” assistant professor of political science Keir Lieber said in a recent article, entitled “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy.”

From Web logs to statements from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the comment elicited huge responses from the international community – most notably from Russia.

Lieber, together with University of Pennsylvania professor Daryl Press, wrote the article, which appeared in the March/April 2006 edition of Foreign Affairs Magazine.

“We did anticipate controversy [from the article], but we did not anticipate the nature of the response,” Lieber said.

Lieber and Press’ chief claim was that the United States “stands on the verge of attaining nuclear primacy” and that it may be possible “for the United states to destroy long-range nuclear arsenals of Russia and China with a first strike.” In other words, the United States may have first-strike capabilities without the threat of a counter-attack.

Since the Cold War era, scholars have argued that the most powerful nations with nuclear capabilities were equally vulnerable to attack – something that kept the world relatively peaceful.

“Nuclear war was tantamount to suicide,” Lieber said. “Neither side dared to attack the other.”

From computer models, Lieber and Press determined that the United States has outpaced Russia and China in developing its nuclear technologies.

“We’ve taken traditional models of nuclear attacks using calculations similar to those used during the Cold War,” Lieber said.

Lieber said though he believes war with Russia is highly implausible – he and Press compared the United States nuclear arsenal to Russia’s because Russia is the next strongest nuclear state, providing the hardest case against their claim of U.S. nuclear primacy.

The responses from Russian citizens and officials indicate that there may indeed be weaknesses in the Russian nuclear arms program. According to several press accounts, the article had widespread influence in Russia and forced top political and military leaders to respond, including Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the former Russian Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

“No serious analyst of the Russian nuclear force would dispute how much Russia’s nuclear arsenal has decayed,” Lieber said.

The article said that while Russia’s nuclear program seems to have “decayed,” China’s nuclear program has continued to develop – albeit at an extremely slow pace.

In addition, some reactions in Russia question whether the article is a warning signal from the United States government. Foreign Affairs managing editor Gideon Rose told The Observer that it was ridiculous to assume that the article was a deliberate attempt to coerce Russia.

“The reason that it struck a cord in Russia was that it made public in a very provocative way something that many security experts understood, but that Russian citizens may not have [understood],” Rose said. “We thought it would provoke a response, but even we were surprised by just how strong the response was in Russia.”

Lieber and Press expected the American government would deny attempting to attain a nuclear advantage as the article proposes, however no such statements have been issued.

“The focus on Iran and Iraq, while justified, has allowed us to miss what could be an equally significant – and potentially very troubling – nuclear development,” Lieber said.

Although Lieber and Press said the United States has “nuclear primacy” for now, the issue could lead to a nuclear arms race if China and Russia choose to respond by building more nuclear weapons.

Lieber and Press began compiling data for the article about two years ago. Press said that he was motivated to study the issue because he felt it was important to open up debate about U.S. nuclear policy.