Preventive Attack and Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Comparative Analysis

By Wirtz, James J. | Naval War College Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Preventive Attack and Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Comparative Analysis


Wirtz, James J., Naval War College Review


Goldstein, Lyle J. Preventive Attack and Weapons of Mass Destruction: A Comparative Analysis. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 2006. 268pp. $50

Do nuclear weapons represent a source of stability in world politics, or does the acquisition of these weapons create incentives for established nuclear states or longtime rivals to destroy nascent nuclear weapons programs before they actually coalesce into significant strategic forces? The answer to both key questions, according to Lyle Goldstein, is yes. The acquisition of nuclear weapons creates the incentive to prevent war, exacerbate existing rivalries, and produce crises, but over time even asymmetric nuclear balances tend to moderate enduring rivalries and calm more acute conflicts.

Goldstein's primary purpose is to address the contemporary debate between "proliferation optimists" and "proliferation pessimists." Proliferation optimists suggest that nuclear weapons will have a moderating effect on international relations. Because nuclear arsenals provide mechanisms for states to protect their fundamental security concerns while increasing the potential costs of war, leaders tend to be moderate when dealing with not only their own nuclear weapons but their opponents' arsenals as well. Optimists also believe that governments everywhere tend to be good stewards of their nuclear capabilities, generally treating them as political instruments, not as an enhancement to their war-fighting capabilities. Proliferation pessimists, however, argue that a situation of mutual assured destruction (MAD), not nuclear weapons per se, is what induced caution between competing capitals during the Cold War. In the absence of MAD, they believe, states face mounting pressure to launch preventive war to destroy nascent nuclear weapons programs. New nuclear states, according to the pessimists, lack the resources, technical expertise, and stable governments that are needed to construct survivable nuclear arsenals, especially those that remain under negative control and in times of extreme stress.

Goldstein addresses this debate with a survey of the most significant international confrontations involving nuclear and nonnuclear states, exploring the incentives, perceptions, and judgments of nuclear-armed leaders as they contemplate the prospects and pitfalls of launching preventive war to disarm emerging nuclear powers. His comparative case studies span the entire nuclear age: from the U.S. reaction to the emergence of a Soviet nuclear weapons program, American and Soviet responses to the Chinese nuclear program, and the Israeli strike against Iraq's Osiraq reactor, to both U. …

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