Political Cohesion and Nuclear Strategy: Methodological Analysis of Nuclear Option in the 1969 Sino-Soviet Border War

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By Erik Nolan

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Nuclear strategy is a topic in strategic studies that does not lend itself well to the modern public’s understanding of foreign policy or military strategy. Even more troubling is the everyday politician’s often sophomoric approach to the daunting task of overseeing the use, proliferation, development, and protection of capital weapons by their own states or others. It seems that with the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons have taken a back seat to the policy considerations of leaders and their constituents while smaller conflicts between states and/or insurgent groups have been brought to the forefront of military and political strategy. This apparent lack of concern for the kind of weapons policy which ostensibly defined the post-World War II era has arguably allowed the proliferation and evolution of nuclear weapons to become normalized; while the various arms limitation treaties and agreements of the past have faded from political relevancy—as they are taken for granted—new technologies and doctrines to nuclear strategy have made the possibility of nuclear weapons in modern warfare startlingly more likely. Coupled with the dismissive attitude of policy makers, the need for understanding the relationship between how states dictate policy and nuclear weapons is more vital than it has been in decades. This paper will explore the conventional model used to explain a state’s philosophy towards the use of nuclear weapons as well as offer an alternative hypothesis challenging the orthodox policy approach by testing both explanations against a historical case. Additionally, policy implications from the conventional approach will be critiqued and synthesized to formulate new recommendations for policy and decision makers about the use of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 age.