Nuclear strategy is clearly distinct from other types of military strategy due to the awesome power of nuclear weapons. Most notably, mutually assured destruction (MAD) makes a traditional military victory impossible for policymakers.

Thus, if one defines strategy as the connection between military means and political ends, it is difficult to devise or envision operational uses of nuclear weapons that could meet any worthwhile political objectives. Therefore, it appears that the pursuit of a nuclear strategy may be somewhat contradictory.

Especially when one considers the limitations of strategy in a conventional sense, it appears as if nuclear strategy is a pipe dream.

Can it be argued that there is any method to the nuclear MADness?

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    Like previous Q, it is unclear what you are asking about. Suppose you are a nuclear armed country and you are getting overrun by conventional forces. So you lob a bomb on one of the opponent country's minor cities. Or threaten to. The intent is to force your invader to back off. Is this not strategy? (note that the question is not whether it is ethical or not, merely whether it is a though-out use of your nukes). Ditto your opponent is nuclear and has nuked one of your brigades. So you nuke something back. Going by your Q there is no thought or logic here. Yet they can dissuade attack Feb 25 at 1:46
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    Much better too to be nuclear capable when facing another nuclear capable potential opponent (ask Ukraine if they'd redo giving up their share of USSR nukes). Basically, I wonder why your opinion on this subject matters. Nukes, with their own perverse logic are here to stay and inventing complicated definitions to claim that they are militarily useless will not make them go away. Not until the underlying reasons why nations dont trust each other go away first. Now, if you want to ask something more interesting and nuanced than "they suck, am I right?", you're welcome to do so. Feb 25 at 1:49
  • Voted to close as your question doesn't make sense. It is clear that countries with nuclear weapons do have strategies in place. MAD is just one of them. The more powerful weapon you have, the more your chances of a military victory. That is why the nuclear powers in fact prevent others from acquiring nuclear weapon capabilities.
    – sfxedit
    Feb 25 at 12:09
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Those familiar with the study of nuclear strategy would recognise that nuclear strategy as a 'contradiction in terms" is a common stance popularised by Lawrence Freedman in his seminal text The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy. It is not a banal or uninteresting question. In a situation whereby only one actor possesses nuclear weapons, strategy does exist. However, in the case of MAD, there is no possible use of nuclear weapons that can result in a desirable political outcome. Mere possession of nuclear weapons is not strategy.
    – aengel
    Feb 25 at 12:22
  • @sfxedit So, what exactly is the specific strategy? If strategy is the utilisation of means for a desirable political end, then what possible political end can MAD achieve?
    – aengel
    Feb 25 at 12:24

2 Answers 2


Like with the previous question, albeit this being from a different source, Betts defines "strategy" narrowly to mean

a plan for using military means to achieve political ends.

Thus mere MAD deterrence is not a strategy in this sense because you never intend to fire those nukes offensively (as first strike) to achieve some political goal.

You get bewildered comments though because this (Betts') is hardly the common sense of the word "strategy". To quote a relevant bit from the other author you mentioned in the other Q, L. Freedman:

The origins of the word ‘strategy’ lie in the Greek strategos, meaning the art of the general. The word returned to the European vernacular in the late eighteenth century, just in time for the Napoleonic Wars, but it was defined largely in military terms, as military thought was fixated on battle. Strategy was about getting into the best position for a battle; tactics was about how it should be fought. By the twentieth century it was becoming harder to avoid questions of policy, covering peacetime preparations for future wars, including alliance formation, the purposes for which they might be fought, and the mobilisation of all national resources, economic and political as well as military, to win them. The relationship between military means and political ends was captured during the interwar years by Basil Liddell Hart—‘the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfil the ends of policy’. It was non-committal about how military means were to be distributed while stressing the role of the political sphere as the source of strategic objectives. It also maintained the connection with military means. This is why Liddell Hart’s definition still works, even in the nuclear age. The difference that nuclear weapons made to the concept of strategy was to turn the focus away from war-fighting to war prevention, and to forms of coercion and intimidation, including deterrence, as well as crisis management and arms control. [...]

Eventually, nuclear weapons became more powerful, more numerous and, crucially, possessed by more than one nation. New concepts and approaches developed in an attempt to come to terms with the possibility of a war in which the use of the most formidable weapons available would mean, in all probability, that it would be catastrophic for all concerned. Could any useful purpose be served by employment of devices which invited discussion using words such as ‘holocaust’, ‘doomsday’ and ‘Armageddon’? And could any employment of nuclear weapons be sufficiently deliberate and controlled to ensure that political objectives were met. At issue has been whether a ‘nuclear strategy’ is a contradiction in terms. To the extent that there has been an effective nuclear strategy thus far it has depended on non-use, by deterring major war and helping to hold together alliances. The most intense debates over nuclear strategy took place during the Cold War but though that ended many years ago the weapons remain, ready for use. Behind the question of whether strategies based on non-use still have a role to play is the even larger question of whether it is possible for the habit of non-use to be sustained. There has been no use of nuclear weapons since August 1945. It is an impressive record, but is it one that can be sustained indefinitely?

As you can see, he is mainly talking about the situation where both sides in a conflict have nukes, but he also mentions one when that was not the case, and ponders whether that might be repeatable.

Outside of a peer adversary situation, this assumption that nukes are not a strategy (even in this narrow sense of Betts') is clearly false as the US did fire nukes on Japan, and forced them to surrender, ending WW2, thus achieving a political goal.

  • I am not sure I agree with the comment that "Betts' [definition] is hardly the common sense of the word "strategy." In your quotation from Freedman, he supports Hart's definition of "the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfil the ends of policy." How is this any different from Bett's definition? Moreover, while I agree that under nuclear monopoly, nuclear strategy can exist, what about under a system of MAD?
    – aengel
    Feb 25 at 12:28
  • @aengel: as the Cambridge dictionary would tell you, strategy is commonly defined without reference to the means being military or the goal political, i.e. "a long-range plan for achieving something or reaching a goal". Or Merriam Webster: "the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war" or more briefly "a careful plan or method".
    – Fizz
    Feb 25 at 12:46
  • Dictionary definitions of strategy are not widely accepted in the context of international relations or security studies. Hart's definition is most commonly used (as highlighted in your answer). Given that, I struggle to find strategy in the use of nuclear weapons.
    – aengel
    Feb 25 at 13:21

A worthwhile political strategy would be reduce the stockpiles of such weapons and this means engaging in dipolomacy to reduce the possibility of such weapons being ever used.

Whilst nuclear weapons are immensely destructive, the most destructive two wars were mostly fought with conventional weapons - world war I & II. It was the destructiveness of these two wars that led to the setting up the UN and more regionally, the EU. The hope was that these political institutions would prove bulwarks against the kimd of destructive nationalisms and imperialisms we saw in these two wars.

The major opportunity that was missed for nuclear disarmament in the last few decades was a rapprochement between Russia and the US. A security framework that included both would have reduced the possibility of nuclear warfare between these two heavily armed nuclear states to a minimum. This would have meant abandoning NATO, given its history of containing the Soviet Union which was headed by Russia, and building a new security architecture. Important work on this was done as reported by the last but one ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock but this option was not taken up by the US who instead pressed its advantage by bringing nations of the former eastern bloc into its fold. This has led to the current crisis we see in the Ukraine and which was forecast by Matlock way back in the early nineties when he testified in Congress. The insanity of the US who wishes to remain as global hegemon is deluded, arrogant and dangerous. If democracy is good enough within a nation then it is good enough between nations.

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    Implicitly accepting Putin's argument that the US is to blame for his invasion of Ukraine (rather like blaming Putin for the US invasion of Iraq), while not addressing the question of whether nuclear strategy is meaningful in general? I think you can guess that I did not upvote this answer.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 25 at 2:08
  • Actually, a better analogy might be blaming Osama bin Laden for the invasion of Iraq, something that George W. Bush actually did. Now, if it were me, I wouldn't want to be taking the equivalent of the side of Bush circa 2003, but perhaps (presumably?) you feel differently....
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 25 at 2:16
  • @Obie 2.0: I never mentioned Putin. The US and NATO did not honour their promises basically. Feb 25 at 4:08
  • @Obie 2 0: Get it right. Osama bin Laden was responsible for the attack on the twin towers. Whilst the USA was responsible for the wars in Iraq & Afghanistan. You should at least know this basic bit of politics especially if you are posting on this site ;-). Feb 25 at 4:09
  • The closest the world had gotten to a nuclear confrontation since the Cuban missile crisis was a dispute between Pakistan and India. No number of talks between the US and the USSR would have affected that situation.
    – doneal24
    Feb 25 at 4:41

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