How to Think About Nuclear Crises

April 2019 No Comments

“How to Think About Nuclear Crises”

Speaker: Macdonald, J. (University of Denver)

Date: 3 April 2019

Speaker Session Preview

SMA hosted a speaker session presented by Dr. Julia Macdonald (University of Denver) as a part of its SMA STRATCOM Academic Alliance Speaker Series. Dr. Macdonald began by discussing the increased media coverage of the potential for nuclear crisis, especially amidst rising tensions between North Korea and the US, the suspension of the nuclear arms control treaty between the US and Russia, and great power competition. She then outlined five factors to consider when thinking about nuclear crises: 1) risk of nuclear use, 2) whether the nuclear or conventional military balance is more important in determining outcomes, 3) nuclear superiority value, 4) feasibility of communication or “signaling” within nuclear crises, and 5) level of threat. She stated that nuclear crises can vary on at least two dimensions: incentives for nuclear first use and the degree to which escalation is controlled by participants in the crisis. Dr. Macdonald then revealed a 2×2 matrix in which nuclear crises can be placed and identified the four models, each of which was represented by a quadrant in the matrix. The models included: 1) the “Staircase” model, 2) the “Stability-Instability” model, 3) the “Brinkmanship” model, and 4) the “Firestorm” model. For each model, she provided an in-depth explanation of its characteristics and identified an empirical example. To conclude, Dr. Macdonald stated that there is not a single logic of nuclear crises, since different crises have different underlying dynamics. She stressed that approaching nuclear crises with these models in mind can help make sense of contradictory findings and views among analysts. She also warned that drawing conclusions without taking this variation in views into account could lead to misleading inferences.

Speaker Session Audio File

Download Dr. Macdonald’s Biography and Slides


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