Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
What is the value of conventional military preponderance in a nuclear world? The possession of nuclear weapons by the world’s major power renders great power war obsolete, and fundamental theories of how nuclear weapons affect international politics claim that conventional capabilities matter less in a nuclear world. Yet, major powers are competing for conventional superiority and have done so throughout the nuclear age. In particular, the United States spends hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain aggregate conventional preponderance over its nearest great power rivals. Rather than label this behavior as irrational, I develop conventional options theory examine the security benefits of conventional superiority under the shadow of nuclear weapons. Due to the high costs of using nuclear weapons, which include the risks of retaliation as well as their larger moral and strategic downsides, there are instances where nuclear threats may not be credible. This may make nuclear deterrent threats ineffective, causing states to need conventional capabilities to defend their interests. The way in which conventional capabilities bolster bargaining power in nuclear disputes is by providing options for escalation. In each dispute, each state has their own ladder of escalation with different rungs on that ladder that represent military options to which it can escalate and credibly communicate to the adversary that it could win. More rungs on the ladder of escalation equals more conventional options. The number of options is shaped by the number of troops and equipment a state has in the area where a dispute takes place. States also have a point of resolve, or a level past which the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits of winning the dispute. If a state has few conventional options, it is more likely to be caught in a resolve-capability gap, or an area in which it has to decide between escalating past its point of resolve or backing down. States face heavy pressure to back down in this situation, especially over peripheral interests. Conventional options prevent a state from being in a resolve-capability gap and make it more likely that it will coerce its adversaries into one. Because the costs of backing down are higher in a dispute over a core interest, conventional options should have more of an effect in disputes over peripheral interests. This security benefit of conventional options in a nuclear dispute incentivizes states to possess a variety of capabilities at the global level. States know that having more conventional options in a dispute carries a benefit. However, they are uncertain of where the next dispute will take place. To increase their chances of having a greater number of conventional options in the next dispute, states maintain a military force that is large, contains a diverse array of platforms, is rapidly deployable, and is forward-deployed into multiple regions. Thus, conventional options theory provides a rationale for the type of military force and posture adopted by the United States since WWII. I test this argument with a quantitative overview of all crises between nuclear states from 1961-2018 along with four case studies of nuclear crises: the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Crisis of 1958-61, the Taiwan Straits Crises of 1954-55 and 1958, and the Gulf War. Taken together, these tests provide empirical support for the idea that conventional options bolster a state’s bargaining power in a nuclear dispute, that this benefit is larger in peripheral disputes, and that this means there is an incentive for states to have a wide variety of conventional capabilities in the aggregate. I end with a grand strategy recommendation derived from conventional options theory. The United States should focus on deploying forces into the Western Pacific, but it can retreat from areas where the costs of providing superior conventional options may outweigh their benefits, such as continental Europe.
Bowen, Tyler John, "The Logic of Escalation and the Benefits of Conventional Power Preponderance in the Nuclear Age" (2021). Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dissertations. 17.