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The Warhead Gap!


1024px-us_navy_101029-n-1325n-005_the_ohio-class_ballistic_submarine_uss_alabama_ssbn_731_returns_to_naval_base_kitsap_from_a_deterrent_patrolTrump’s call for more nuclear weapons, reported NBC News, “boggle[d] nuclear experts“:

While President Barack Obama has proposed a multibillion-dollar plan to modernize the aging U.S. nuclear triad, no mainstream voices are arguing to increase the numbers of nuclear weapons beyond the 4,500 active warheads the U.S. currently possesses, several experts told NBC News.

Indeed, over at the New York Times, Max Fisher attempted to interpret the Tweet. Was Trump referring to modernization—a policy supported, at least to some degree, by most but opposed by some on the left—or an expanded nuclear arsenal? In a subsequent piece, Fisher laid out the consensus case against the latter:

Mr. Reagan principally turned against the arms race because of its dangers, but others came to oppose it for the simple reason that, after decades and billions or perhaps trillions of dollars, it had failed to accomplish victory.

“Building nukes to get others to stop historically has had the same effect as telling everyone in an email storm to cease using ‘Reply All,’ ” Joshua H. Pollack, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, joked on Twitter.

Mr. Pollack added, “There is no last, winning move when it comes to arms racing.”

The first response came from Cheryl Rofer, a retired nuclear scientist at the Los Alamos National Research Laboratory: “But there is a last move.”

But, in fact, there is a small minority of scholars and analysts who do support building more nuclear weapons. One is my friend and colleague, Matt Kroenig. Here, he debates with Joe Cirincione on PBS Newshour. And here is his recent piece in Politico. What Matt thinks matters, both because he’s one of the strongest voices advocating for more nukes, and because, despite being vocally #NeverTrump, there’s a nonzero chance he’ll land in a policy position in the administration.

It should come as little surprise that I think he’s wrong.

First, as Joe points out, when Matt argues for the existance of a “gap” in US and Russian capability, he’s pointing to nuclear warheads rather than delivery capability—that is, the ability to strike your opponent with nuclear weapons. The gap is likely smaller when you include non-deployed nuclear weapons. None of this includes UK or French nuclear capabilities.

The differences at stake here simply aren’t, in my view, enough to worry about. But, more important, we still lack the kind of compelling evidence necessary to guide policy. Matt does have a few academic articles showing that relative number of nuclear weapons can affect crisis outcomes, but the handful of recent studies on how nuclear advantage shapes state interactions points in different directions. You can read a debate on this subject that we hosted at the Duck of Minerva, as well as Erik Voeten’s thoughts on the findings.

Second, as you’ve already guessed, the main argument for increasing the number of nuclear weapons involves Russia. This is, to say the least, a bit odd in the context of an administration that has promised to strike alliances with Moscow. But it also works through a conflation concerning Russian nuclear doctrine. Proponents consistently claim that Russia has adopted a ‘more aggressive’ posture when it comes to using nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict. Matt writes about Moscow’s ‘assertive’ nuclear strategy. What they’re talking about is Russia’s nuclear “de-escalation” doctrine:

De-escalation rests on a revised notion of the scale of nuclear use. During the Cold War, deterrence involved the threat of inflicting unacceptable damage on an enemy. Russia’s de-escalation strategy provides instead for infliction of “tailored damage,” defined as “damage [that is] subjectively unacceptable to the opponent [and] exceeds the benefits the aggressor expects to gain as a result of the use of military force.” The efficacy of threatening tailored damage assumes an asymmetry in a conflict’s stakes. Moscow reasoned when it adopted the policy that, for the United States, intervening on behalf of Chechen rebels (for example) might seem a desirable course of action for a variety of reasons. But it would not be worth the risk of a nuclear exchange. Russia, however, would perceive the stakes as much higher and would find the risk of a nuclear exchange more acceptable. Indeed, in the early 2000s, Russian military experts wrote that US interference in the war in Chechnya could have resulted in a threat to use nuclear weapons.

Matt describes the doctrine quite well in his policy paper:

In an effort to counter NATO’s aggregate conventional military superiority, Russia has placed an increased emphasis on nuclear weapons in its military strategy and doctrine over the past decade and a half. Russian strategy calls for limited nuclear “de-escalation” strikes on NATO targets in the event that it is on the losing end of a conventional war with NATO. The strikes would not primarily aim to destroy NATO military or civilian targets, but to signal Russian resolve and thereby shock NATO into suing for peace on terms favorable to Moscow.

Note what this is not. It is not a nuclear warfighting doctrine. Moscow is not signaling that it will, say, compensate for conventional weakness by targeting US conventional forces with tactical nuclear weapons. The idea here is not to be able to wage (and win) a limited nuclear war at lower rungs of the “ladder of escalation.” In warfighting doctrine, you care about having “escalation dominance”: the ability to ‘outgun’ your opponent at each level of nuclear escalation and therefore deter—or at least control—escalation.

Rather, Russian de-escalation doctrine is more like a nuclear tripwire. It signals that Moscow will:

  • Use nuclear weapons first;
  • Do so in the event of a threat to the existence of the Russian state—understood, in practice, as a regional conflict on Russia’s border that draws in the United States and in which Russia faces defeat; and
  • Engage in a limited number of nuclear strikes as a very dramatic way of showing that if the US pushes Russia any further then the result will be mutually assured destruction.

Why would more nuclear weapons, and more flexible nuclear options, be a useful response to nuclear de-escalation? Beats me. Matt’s own explanation only really makes sense if we’re talking about nuclear warfighting:

Deterrence, however, is in the eye of the beholder, and President Putin may not be deterred by the prospect of a conventional-only response, especially one that might take weeks or months to assemble and employ. Moreover, NATO could be quickly outgunned in such an approach if Russia continued to use nuclear weapons in repeated strikes. Furthermore, in the wake of a nuclear attack, the leaders of NATO countries, including the United States, would need to consider the precedent being set and broader Alliance commitments.

The whole point of nuclear de-escalation is that if the US continues to push Russia at all—whether conventionally or with nuclear attacks—Moscow will respond with a massive nuclear attack. In this context, responding by enhancing US nuclear warfighting capabilities isn’t simply  a category mistake—it’s actively dangerous if it encourages Washington to press on after Moscow launches its demonstration strikes.

Third, advocates for increasing the US nuclear arsenal argue that it will deter countries like China and North Korea. It will show them that building more nuclear weapons is fruitless. The answer to this is rather simple. China currently has about 260 warheads. North Korea possesses between six and eight. Neither country threatens to close the gap anytime soon. China remains uninterested in doing so, which means that the biggest risk comes from a shift to a more aggressive American policy.  Indeed, North Korea can never close the gap in any meaningful way, which suggests Pyongyang is not terribly sensitive to the relative nuclear balance with the United States.

Note that the country engaging in the most aggressive increase in its nuclear arsenal isn’t North Korea, China, Russia, or any of the other countries usually discussed in this context. It’s Pakistan.

In sum, there are good reasons to support some degree of US nuclear modernization. At the very least, we need to ensure that America retains the human capital and other infrastructure necessary to adapt to future changes in the nuclear-weapons environment. But there remains no good case for increasing the size of our nuclear arsenal.

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  • Warren Terra

    Theorists have proposed the idea of alternative realities, limitless versions of our own universe in which something, however small, is different. With the horrors of 2016, and especially the election of Trump, some of the world’s greatest minds have at least idly wondered about whether it might be possible to reach one of those other existences. Trump is a true visionary, and has realized the problem: if we do make contact with an infinite number of other Earths, our nation’s current arsenal would only suffice to utterly destroy human civilization on dozens of them. Maybe a couple hundred at a pinch – still leaving us with no adequate defense against an infinite number more!

    You may scoff, but can you come up with a more plausible reason to want to increase our nuclear arsenal?

    • muddy

      Probably he sees the nukes as the president’s penis.

      • SNF

        This probably really is it. Trump wants to be a big strong alpha male. And an alpha male president has a lot of nukes and is reckless with them.

    • N__B

      if we do make contact with an infinite number of other Earths, our nation’s current arsenal would only suffice to utterly destroy human civilization on dozens of them.

      Charlie Stross went this direction in the finale of the Merchant Princes series, only with Cheney calling the shots.

    • skapusniak

      Trump’s a big fan of Project Orion and nobody’s realised yet that when he talks about a ‘350 ship fleet’, he actually means ‘350 ship space fleet’?

      • Warren Terra

        Yeah, I was intrigued by Project Orion when I was mentally a twelve-year-old and I hadn’t thought it through for more than about twelve seconds.

        • Ahuitzotl

          hey, it’s a great spaceship, so long as you dont have any plans to come back to that planet for a while

          • Warren Terra

            If it actually worked at all, I’m skeptical about whether it could absorb the nuclear explosions and convert them to useful acceleration without shattering the ship.

            • Well, the Wikipedia article on Project Orion says as how Freeman Dyson spent 12 months thinking about the subject, and came up with various ways it could be done. So…maybe.

              • Warren Terra

                So, a massive, complicated object is essentially receiving discrete impacts each of which speeds it up by dozens or more of meters per second, imparted within a fraction of a second – and it’s supposed to survive the experience?

                • The secret ingredient was fingerprints. (Go on, read the wikiarticle, it’s charming in its demented way.)

  • rea

    WTF? I thought he wanted to buddy up with Russia? Now we’re restarting a nuclear arms race with them?

    Of course, chances are this is just him spouting whatever nonsense pops into his head . . .

    • efgoldman

      Of course, chances are this is just him spouting whatever nonsense pops into his head . . .

      Anyone who thinks president Hair Furor will make a rational, thoughtful decision based on advice from qualified experts in the military, defense and foreign affairs establishment, is delusional.
      He is a narcissist, pure and simple. He does not make rational decisions. He does not “think things through”. He does not understand that actions and words have consequences, except as the consequences expand his self-aggrandizement. Compared to Tangerine Torquemada, second-term Reagan is Einstein and FDR.

      • leftwingfox

        Right. Trump seems to view Nukes as a prestige measurement. Perhaps if we offer
        To gold-plate his name on the side of our existing arsenal…

        • SNF

          Why not cut out the middleman?

          Just make it so all our nukes look like giant penises.

          • ThrottleJockey

            I’ll do you one better. Just take off Trump’s penis and replace it with a nuclear device….we can give the trigger to EF Goldman.

    • Solar System Wolf

      I read an article yesterday suggesting that the idea is not to restart a nuclear arms race with Russia, but to buddy up with Russia to dominate the rest of the world. That makes more sense to me.

      Why does Trump want to destabilize NATO? Why does he want to annoy China? Because people in his administration want this to happen, and more to the point, Putin wants it to happen. Russia and the U.S., teaming up together with their nuclear arsenals and no compunction about using them, could hold the rest of the world hostage. Drop nukes on the Middle East, then get the oil. Take care of that Israeli/Palestinian problem permanently, without pesky diplomacy. Crush Iran. Cow China, India, North Korea and Pakistan before they develop their nuclear capabilities any further.

      • Derelict

        I will now play Slippin’ Into Darkness at levels that will cause my brain to liquify.

      • John Revolta

        Is the fact that Russia is over 90% White a bonus point, or the main point? Discuss.

        • Warren Terra

          I think this misunderstands the nature of being “White”. No place is ever completely “White”, because the whole purpose of “Whiteness” is to establish both an acceptable, privileged identity and a despised, oppressed, distrusted outgroup that lacks it. Thus, in this country a hundred years ago, Italians and Irish and Jews weren’t White; this gave the White folks a common identity, courtesy of a common enemy. Fifty years ago Italians and Irish were White, the better to focus on beating down the Black folks; Jews were a bit iffy.

          So: there are basically no people of recent African heritage in Russia, nor (in Moscow or St. Petersburg) a lot of people who could by their appearance be mistaken for Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Pakistani, etcetera – what we call “Asians”, though of course Russia is mostly in Asia. But that’s fine, because the definition of “White” is so flexible, so the non-White people in Russia are from the Caucuses, or from the Stans, or are Jewish – people who if we saw them we’d identify as White but who in a Russian context are easily identified, discriminated against, and beaten up.

          Although, coming back to your point, put slightly differently I’d agree with it: it’s not so much that “Russia is 90% White” given the fluid and locally differing definition of “White” – it’s that Russia is so openly abusive of those that don’t fit the local definition of “White”. That is what our Wingers are jealous of.

          • J. Otto Pohl

            The number of Russian Federation citizens of African heritage is disputed due to the fact that they are counted under various categories. But, they number at least 10,000 and are concentrated in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg. The number of Koryo Saram is quite large, over 175,000. Also Kazakhs and Kyrgyz don’t look “White” in a US context. They look Asian. The same with Kalmyks, Buriats, Yakuts, and a number of other nationalities numbering collectively in the millions in the Russian Federation including significant numbers in Moscow and St. Petersburg.


            • Warren Terra

              Per Google, Moscow has a population of something like 12 million. Even if all 10,000 Russian citizens of recent African descent were in Moscow, and joined by ten times as many non-citizens, that still wouldn’t be 1% of the local population. There aren’t enough of them to constitute a noticeable minority – more like a curiosity.

      • Russia and the U.S., teaming up together with their nuclear arsenals and no compunction about using them, could hold the rest of the world hostage.

        I’ve not read the article in question, but how does this actually make any rational sense?

        1) If the US and Russia were intent on an alliance based on nuclear blackmail, they would hardly need to increase their arsenals since combined their arsenals already account for well over 95% of the world’s nukes.

        2) Drop nukes on the Middle East, then get the oil. Presumably you’d want to not actually drop the nukes but merely threaten to. Or, if you really want to show them you mean business, drop one or two far enough from the oil fields. Actually obliterating oil-producing countries is not actually a good way to get your hands on their oil. Just sayin’.

        3) Take care of that Israeli/Palestinian problem permanently, without pesky diplomacy. I suppose you could do that if you didn’t mind wiping out both sides of the conflict.

        See, nukes are kind of a blunt instrument. I could imagine a regime gone James Bond villain extracting tribute from the rest of the world, but once you’re in that business the Great Power diplomacy required to even care about Iran, Israel or North Korea becomes utterly superfluous provided these countries pay the tribute demanded. And again, why would the US and Russia need more nukes than they already possess if that were the goal?

        • Solar System Wolf

          1. Spending more money on national defense is what Republicans do, in good times and bad. It has little or nothing to do with the needs of the country.

          2. You said it yourself: drop a few in strategic locations to show them we mean business. We dropped nukes on Japan and it still exists.

          3. The Palestinians have nothing that a Trump Administration could want, and I’m not certain they care that much about Israel anyway. We only need allies in the Middle East if we have enemies in the Middle East. If we subjugate the whole damn place and turn it over to the oilmen, who needs allies? The Bush Administration tried to do this with conventional warfare. I’m sure Trump thinks that’s a sucker’s game, when you could just drop a couple of nukes and teach everyone else a lesson at the same time.

          North Korea doesn’t need to pay us tribute if they’ve been blown to kingdom come. Same with Iran. And so on. I’m not saying anything like this is going to happen, but I do think it’s a mistake to assume that any of the traditional constraints (such as not committing mass murder) are going to apply.

          • I asked why they would need to do an “arms race” if the point was to blackmail other countries with nukes. In truth, there is no rational answer to that question.

            Basically, this then:

            Spending more money on national defense is what Republicans do, in good times and bad. It has little or nothing to do with the needs of the country.

            I see no evidence of there being any more in the way of “strategy” or “planning” behind it than that.

            But my other point also stands: once you get into the game of using the threat of nuclear annihilation as a means of extortion, why go to the trouble of “subjugating” the Middle East, when you can just force them to pay up? If, on the other hand, the point is to create a good global business environment for you and your cronies rather than just playing Attila the Hun with nukes, then building your business model on threatening to destroy major markets just because you can isn’t rational.

            Not when there are other ways to use U.S. power to further your business interests.

          • I do think it’s a mistake to assume that any of the traditional constraints (such as not committing mass murder) are going to apply.

            Since promised-and-likely-to-be-delivered gutting of social programs, most particularly including the ACA, will effectively include mass murder (of American citizens, at that!), I’d say you’re on the money, there.

            And a Merry Xmas to all! God save us, every one.

        • SNF

          2. I think you overestimate the amount of thinking Trump would put into it. Sure, if you want the oil nuking the entire place would be a bad idea. But Trump might not realize that, and he’s not going to let some pointy-headed expert tell him he’s wrong.

      • efgoldman

        I read an article yesterday suggesting that the idea is not to restart a nuclear arms race with Russia,

        Repeat after me:
        THERE IS NO “IDEA”
        THERE IS NO “PLAN”

        • Solar System Wolf

          I’m not saying Trump has a plan, but people behind him sure do.

      • SNF

        Aren’t Russia and Iran allies?

        • muddy


          • Warren Terra

            That seems like an awfully flat answer. Russia and Iran aren’t inseparable – the Obama administration’s Iran Deal wouldn’t have been possible without Russia going along with US and EU sanctions on Iran that pressured Iran into the deal, which was a significant concession given Russia had otherwise set itself up as a major seller of nuclear technology to Iran – but they share common interests and a common ally in Syria, and this has seemingly brought them together, most obviously when some Russian air force combat missions flew out of Iranian airfields. When you’re letting another country’s warplanes kill people from your bases, you’re fairly tight.

      • Procopius

        If only we and the Russians had nukes, that might be feasible. This article states China has 267. That’s enough to devastate the U.S., if not utterly destroy it, with a few left over for Russia. It sounds low to me, because I’ve read in many places that Israel had at least 400. I don’t think these guys are thinking about what’s going to happen when the first nuke goes off. Look at the hysteria from a (probably false) claim that Russia hacked the DNC email server to “interfere with” our election. A few years ago I would have bet that nobody is sitting in their hardened silo with the activation key in their hand ready to launch. I wouldn’t say that now. For several months I’ve been thinking about Nevil Shute’s novel, On The Beach. The premise was that a few hundred warheads will produce “fallout,” radioactive dust that will be kicked up into the stratosphere by the explosions and spread over the whole world, eventually dropping back to earth to kill everyone by radiation poisoning. That’s why nukes cannot be used in warfighting. The first one goes, it doesn’t matter if the user says, “Hey, don’t panic, it’s a tactical nuke, just a little one.” People are going to go full out lest they be too late to launch.

        • China’s nuclear policy has been to maintain the minimum required deterrent force.

          To date they have preferred to spend the bulk of their defense budget on conventional systems.

    • AMK

      There’s a non-trivial chance he doesn’t know Russia or anyone else has nuclear weapons.

  • petesh

    And Kissinger is looming.
    ETA: Meant as an addendum to efg at 1:25

  • Murc

    This seems, and has always seemed, utterly insane to me.

    The US has enough warheads to incinerate the whole planet many times over and the means to deliver them through any conceivable defensive umbrella any other nation-state could possibly put up.

    Under what circumstances does that mean we need more?

    I watched the discussion and read some of Mr. Kroenig’s stuff. First of all this:

    despite being vocally #NeverTrump, there’s a nonzero chance he’ll land in a policy position in the administration.

    means he’s an open supporter of fascism, racism, and misogyny, which means anything he says should be regarded as instantly suspect anyway. (And why the fuck are you friends with him? I’d be ashamed to admit that.)

    But even leaving that aside, he sort of… never addresses the fact that we have all the nukes we could ever possibly need. He tap-dances really hard to avoid doing so, in fact. Even if the geopolitical scenarios he lays out are correct and properly justified (very much in doubt) they don’t actually justify, in any way, building more weapons than you need, and we already have more weapons than we need; that is, enough to weather a first strike and still destroy the world, which is what MAD is all about.

    I’m gonna boil it down: those who talk about the need to increase our nuclear arsenal seem more interested in having big dicks than in effective defense policy.

    • Warren Terra

      The US has enough warheads to incinerate the whole planet many times over and the means to deliver them through any conceivable defensive umbrella any other nation-state could possibly put up

      Well, sure … for one planet Earth, this planet Earth. Thus my application of the Infinite Worlds hypothesis, above. The proposal only makes sense if we need to incinerate many planet Earths!

      … alternately: maybe he’s concerned about possible future breakthroughs in missile defense (this would be an absurd concern, but given the amount of pro-missile-defense boosterism and sheer propaganda maybe not a rare one), and so wants to make absolutely sure that we can completely destroy any hostile nation by having an arsenal large an powerful to ensure the destruction of all terrestrial life upon detonation without the warheads even needing to leave their silos.

    • John Revolta

      Well now, you’re kinda ignoring the obvious: people can make lots and lots of money manufacturing and selling weapons.

      • Brad Nailer

        Trump did say he was going to create so many jobs it would make us sick. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were at least part of this.

    • delazeur

      And why the fuck are you friends with him? I’d be ashamed to admit that.

      I think it’s common for academics to use the “friend and colleague” formulation (or variants thereof) when they are about to criticize someone without being overly antagonistic. If it’s someone who you are likely to see at conferences and so forth it’s reasonable to attempt to remain cordial, even if the person holds reprehensible views.

      • Procopius

        When I was in the Army I was sometimes assigned to the same unit as guys with racist white-supremacist attitudes. I had to learn to work with them. I was never friends with any of them.

    • SNF

      Yup. We need more because the incoming president wants everyone to know how tough and powerful he is. He needs everyone to know that he is the big alpha male.

    • LFC

      why the fuck are you friends with him

      D. Nexon and M. Kroenig are both pol scientists at the same institution (Georgetown).

      Think that might possibly have something to do w/ why they’re friends?

      Haven’t had time to read the OP properly.

      Re nuclear modernization: not an all-or-nothing thing. U.S. sure as hell shdn’t bother modernizing the approx 200 gravity nuclear bombs deployed in Europe (it shd scrap them), and that is not a “fringe” position btw.

      • D. Nexon and M. Kroenig are both pol scientists at the same institution (Georgetown).

        Think that might possibly have something to do w/ why they’re friends?

        Without intending any application to their case in particular, I think it’s worth noting—in case, somehow, you have never noticed it before—that some of the firmest non-friendships, and no few of the world’s great enmities, are held between pairs of colleagues working together at the same job in the same place (not limited to academic jobs but definitely true of them as well).

        • LFC

          @Lee Rudolph

          You’re right, and anyway my tone was unnecessarily snarky.

          ETA: Though I wonder whether the great enmities in the cheek-by-jowl academic context are now rarer than they once were; maybe people who don’t like each other in the same dept are more prone just to ignore each other rather than actively fight, unless there are concrete issues (e.g. whom to hire) that they feud over. Just guessing — I really don’t know.

  • BartletForGallifrey

    This is fun, if you want to see how likely you are to go poof.

  • drpuck

    It amazes me that the narcissism (and sociopathy,) is so extreme that Hair Duce can at once pat himself on the back for his genius outside-of-the-box approaches, and, be oblivious to what it will someday be documented.

    Sure, sprinkle some nukes on top of opponents which called your bluff. That tale of tens of millions of incinerated muslims will just take up a few paragraphs in the chapter about how a white nationalist came to power and rolled back: the modest policy achievements of the first black President and the New Deal of FDR.

    Is it possible someone can be the worst president before inauguration day?

    Bonus: the GOP is frothing at the opportunity to really show us what economic inequality can be; and, smugly, are fairly confident fake news will allow them to blame Obama, Vermie, and Warren.

    Again, the history books will tell it differently.

  • SNF

    North Korea has had nukes for a while now and hasn’t used them.

    I think Kim Jong-un may actually be more trustworthy with nukes than the incoming President of the United States.

  • dl

    It’s a bit rich that this post comes so quickly after the one criticizing Americanist political scientists. Say what you will about the relevance of mainstream US Politics, but there’s theory at least. This (Kroenig) reads like the half-assed rambling of a Fox News pundit.

    (And that was my take even before I realized that this was the “Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha” guy. http://www.thehoya.com/the-jet-set-life-of-professor-kroenig/ )

  • Although I would not credit Trump with much in the way of strategic thinking, it does seem that he and many around him think that there is a virtue in him being seen as unpredictable, even irrational. From this point of view, the fact that his words in favor of a new arms race don’t actually make any sense could be seen as a virtue. And of course, it is easier to just keep everyone guessing and fearful than it is to actually come up with a rational coherent strategic foreign policy vision.

    The most troubling implication, of course, is that we could be in for a bold new foreign affairs experiment: what if the world’s superpower were to model its diplomatic stance after that of the North Korean regime?

    • what if the world’s superpower were to model its diplomatic stance after that of the North Korean regime?

      How does Trump get along with Dennis Rodman, anyhow?

    • Warren Terra

      I’m not going to authoritatively say this is the case, I’ll leave that up to people who actually study this – but it seems like a reasonable proposition that Nixon’s “Madman Theory”, of which this is a redoubling, is wildly overrated.

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