Strategic Stability in the Third Nuclear Age

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

Debs, Alexandre


The arrival of a third nuclear age—characterized by emerging technologies and multipolarity—threatens to upend global order. For decades, scholars have taken comfort in the perceived effectiveness of extended deterrence and taboo talk by nuclear elites. But how might new vulnerabilities and incentives for use affect nuclear prospects? Using survey experiments based on realistic conflict scenarios, I investigate the effect of these changes on public opinion concerning nuclear use. Contrary to decades of scholarship, I find that prior claims matter little and support for nuclear use is highly contextual. Despite extended deterrent commitments, the U.S. public is broadly unwilling to support nuclear use in response to attacks on close allies when retaliation is a possibility. This remains the case even when a tripwire mechanism is primed with the reported death of American soldiers. Conversely, when told that splendid counterforce is likely to succeed, more than two-thirds of self-identified believers in a nuclear taboo back the nuclear option. Finally, though nuclear attitudes may be harder to manipulate than previous scholars have argued, even committed adherents to the taboo are susceptible to tailored messaging from elites. Taken together, my dissertation reveals that nuclear stability may soon no longer depend on self-reported beliefs about nuclear protection and restraint.

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