Excerpt on limiting and managing new risks in the post-Cold War world and beyond from Wohlstetter book’s introduction

This week’s excerpt from “Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter on Nuclear-Age Strategy,” Robert Zarate’s introductory essay to Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (2009), looks at Albert and Roberta’s efforts to limit and manage new risks in the post-Cold War world and beyond. For more, see the earlier Wohlstetter book excerpts on:

Excerpts exclude the supporting endnotes, but you can get them — and much, much more — if you view or download the PDF version of the book at www.albertwohlstetter.com/book.

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By Robert Zarate

In the late 1980s, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dramatic Soviet decline was leading some to foresee a pacific post-Cold War world. However, Albert Wohlstetter, now a Medal of Freedom-winning strategist in his mid-70s, was already thinking about the next set of strategic challenges. “Does [the Cold War’s potential end] mean there are no latent long term dangers demanding prudence?” he wrote in the conclusion of a June 1989 outline for his memoir. “[T]he political and economic futures of the heavily armed Communist states and of the increasingly lethally armed Third World countries are, to say the least, rather cloudy,” he observed apprehensively, adding:

Even if, implausibly, the Second and Third Worlds change rapidly to the market economies of the First World, nice though this would be, we are likely to discover once again that, contrary to Cobden and the Manchester School, trade and investment–good things though they are–are not all that pacifying. Trading partners have found a good many reasons to go to war. We haven’t seen the end of fanaticism, mortal national and racial rivalries, and expansionist ambitions. It is conceivable that all the variously sized lions and lambs will lie down together, that there will be the kind of moral revolution that many hoped for at the end of World War II when they thought it, in any case, the only alternative to nuclear destruction. But, as Jacob Viner [a University of Chicago economist] wrote at the time, “It is a long, long time between moral revolutions.” We should not count on it.

In the years following, Wohlstetter’s apprehensions would prove well-founded as the end of the Cold War–a global competitive order that his work in strategy had helped in some ways to sustain and in other ways to end–gave way to growing international disorder.

Seventeen months before the U.S.S.R.’s December 1991 dissolution ended the Cold War, Saddam Hussein‘s Ba’athist Iraqi military invaded Kuwait–producing a Persian Gulf conflict contingency that Wohlstetter and his colleagues had presciently warned of as early as 1980. In the early 1990s, Slobodan Milosevic‘s pan-Serbian ambitions ignited long-suppressed ethnic rivalries, and then genocide, in the Balkans. In the mid-1990s, deep racial rivalries would also lead to genocide in Rwanda. And in the late 1990s, after Osama bin Laden had issued a fatwa urging attacks on American citizens, his Al Qaeda organization carried out deadly bombings against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania–in retrospect, harbingers of the violent extremism and suicidal fanaticism that were yet to come.

Moreover, the United States would discover just how lethally armed the former Third World and the Communist holdouts were becoming. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the American-led coalition uncovered a Ba’athist Iraqi nuclear program far closer to producing a nuclear weapon than either the Western intelligence services or the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had ever anticipated. And at mid-decade, after North Korea had refused to grant the IAEA access to suspected nuclear weapons-relevant facilities, Washington began long negotiations with Pyongyang for an “Agreed Framework,” a “grand bargain” that sought to prevent the North Koreans from acquiring fissile material for a nuclear explosive device.

Wohlstetter remained intellectually active during the post-Cold War period until his death in 1997. As a member of the Defense Policy Board, he supported U.S. efforts to liberate Kuwait from Ba’athist Iraq during the Gulf War. After the war, he lambasted Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton for what he saw as their failures to respond meaningfully to Ba’athist aggression against Iraqi Shi’a and Kurdish populations, as well as to Saddam’s other violations of the United Nations Security Council resolutions that had established the stringent conditions for the Gulf War’s cessation.

In the mid-1990s, Albert, now an octogenarian, focused much of his attention on the Balkans, publishing numerous op-eds (especially on the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, edited by his long-time friend and colleague, Robert Bartley) and articles that sharply rebuked Western leaders for their indifference and indecisiveness towards Slobodan Milosevic’s pan-Serbian expansionism, and agitated for greater Western involvement on behalf of Bosnian Muslims and other victims of Milosevic’s aggression. Of note, he and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher co-authored “What the West Must Do in Bosnia,” an open letter to President Clinton published in the Wall Street Journal in September 1993, and signed by more than 100 people from across the globe and the political spectrum–people like Morton Abramowitz, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Osama El Baz, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Zuhair Humadi, Marshal Freeman Harris, Pierre Hassner, Zalmay Khalilzad, Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, Teddy Kollek, Laith Kubba, Czeslaw Milosz, Paul Nitze, Richard Perle, Sir Karl Popper, Eugene Rostow, Henry Rowen, George Shultz, George Soros, Susan Sontag, Elie Wiesel, Leon Wieseltier, and Paul Wolfowitz. (The text of this letter is reprinted in this volume.)

And in response to what he considered to be the shortcomings of the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea, Wohlstetter called on Washington to admit that the global spread of nuclear fuel-making is significantly driving the problem of proliferation and to face “squarely the challenge of persuading our major allies, not to say our potential adversaries [such as Pyongyang], to abandon the sale or use of plutonium fuel” and other weapons-usable nuclear materials.


Although Albert Wohlstetter died in Los Angeles on January 13, 1997, and Roberta, in New York City on January 6, 2007, their work in strategy remains all too relevant and timely. In the early years of the 21st century, the United States and its allies are now struggling with many of the problems of nuclear-age policy that the Wohlstetters themselves had anticipated and grappled with throughout their long careers in strategy–problems like the dangers posed by the spread of nuclear bombs, fuel-making technologies, and fissile materials to new states and non-state actors; the difficulties of enforcing ambiguously interpreted international law and nuclear nonproliferation rules; the uncertain economics surrounding energy security and alternatives for power production; and the proper role of deterrence and military force in an increasingly lethally-armed and disorderly world. Their writings on nuclear-age strategy and policy thus can help decision-makers and policy analysts (as well as those who aspire to these positions) to clarify their thinking on these most urgent matters.

When Albert spoke of his approach to the analysis and design of strategic policy, he often liked to describe it as “coming down at right angles to an orthodoxy.” Indeed, Wohlstetter’s approach did not fit well the conventional dichotomy of hawk and dove. He was a strategist who had originally established his reputation for his path-breaking work on nuclear deterrence, a traditionally hawkish concept; yet he had added to that reputation not only by supporting nuclear nonproliferation, an often dovish concern, but also by consistently urging the U.S. Government to block the spread of nuclear weapons, weapons-relevant nuclear technologies, and weapons-usable nuclear material to America’s allies and adversaries alike. He was a strategist who, like the doves, was horrified by the brute destructiveness of nuclear weapons and nuclear war, yet hawkishly saw U.S. innovation in military technologies of precision, control, and information as a way of markedly limiting the potential of weapons for indiscriminate killing, thereby strengthening deterrence and making nuclear war less likely in the first place.

Indeed, when President Ronald Reagan awarded Medals of Freedom to the Wohlstetters in November 1985, he summarized their work in the following way:

Albert has always argued that in the nuclear age technological advances can, if properly understood and applied, make things better; but his point, and Roberta’s, has been a deeper one than that. He has shown us that we have to create choices and, then, exercise them. The Wohlstetters have created choices for our society where others saw none. They’ve taught us that there is an escape from fatalism.

In the 21st century, the writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter on strategy can challenge today’s and tomorrow’s decision-makers to “escape from fatalism,” and come “down at right angles” to stagnant orthodoxies; to move beyond the sort of partisan dichotomies that have come to dominate and even cloud thinking on limiting and managing nuclear risks and to search for, discover, and even invent new policy choices that help America to avoid the nuclear age’s worst dangers, and in Albert’s own words, “slowly and piecemeal, [to] build a more orderly and safer world.”

To these ends, this edited volume provides readers not only with the present essay on the Wohlstetters’ key historical contributions, but also with many of Albert and Roberta’s most enduring and relevant writings, some of which have never before been published. This volume’s six chapters correlate directly with the six themes set forth in the present introductory essay–namely, (1) Analysis and Design of Strategic Policy, (2) Nuclear Deterrence, (3) Nuclear Proliferation, (4) Arms Race Myths vs. Strategic Competition’s Reality, (5) Towards Discriminate Deterrence, and (6) Limiting and Managing New Risks. (However, the editors of this volume have remained mindful of James Digby and J. J. Martin‘s wise caveat that, given Albert and Roberta’s “continuity of concepts across many diverse types of military problems,” it therefore “may be inconsistent with the nature of [the Wohlstetters’] work to summarize their contributions in terms of discrete categories.”) Moreover, each chapter begins with a short commentary by a former colleague or student of Albert and Roberta–Henry S. Rowen, Alain Enthoven, Henry Sokolski, Richard Perle, Stephen J. Lukasik, and Andrew W. Marshall, respectively–before offering the selected Wohlstetter writings themselves.

To conclude, at least two larger themes emerge from a close reading and careful appreciation of the Wohlstetters’ work in strategy. First, as a palliative to the fatalism that sometimes besets the nuclear age and gives rise to the extreme responses of the Utopian or the Dystopian, we must learn to tolerate the fact of uncertainty. Indeed, in the conclusion to her magisterial 1962 study of one of America’s worst military disasters, Roberta soberly observed, “If the study of Pearl Harbor has anything to offer for the future, it is this: We have to accept the fact of uncertainty and learn to live with it. No magic, in code or otherwise, will provide certainty. Our plans must work without it.”

Second, as the United States struggles not only to limit and manage the nuclear risks and changing dangers it faces in this new century, but also to “slowly and piecemeal, build a more orderly and safer world,” we should weigh and consider carefully Albert’s sober words on the need for facing up to hard choices and sustaining intelligent effort as expressed in No Highway to High Purpose (1960):

The great issues of war and peace deserve to be treated candidly and objectively, without wishfulness or hysteria…. [They] are tall orders. They cannot be filled quickly, or finally, or by means of some semiautomatic gadget, or in one heroic burst of energy. Nor will the answer come to us in a dream…. Our problem is more like staying thin after thirty–and training for some long steep, rocky climbs. If, as we are told, America is no longer a youth, we may yet hope to exploit the advantages of maturity: strength, endurance, judgment, responsibility, freedom from the extremes of optimism and pessimism–and steadiness of purpose.

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To read more of Robert Zarate’s introduction to Nuclear Heuristics: Selected Writings of Albert and Roberta Wohlstetter (2009):

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