Whether the United States should be willing to accept a position of parity in military power with the Soviet Union over the longer run can (and should) be debated.

-- Secretary of Defense Weinberger

Foreign Affairs, Spring 1986

Sometime soon, a conservative journal like Commentary or Policy Review is going to publish an article titled something like, "What's Wrong With Nuclear Superiority?" As the official explanations for this nation's nuclear policy get more and more implausible, and as conservative intellectual machismo continues to ferment, someone is going to break down and say it outright.

The basic argument will be that the Soviet Union is entering a period of economic and technological stagnation. This gives us a chance to lead the arms race in a direction that will leave them hopelessly behind. "Behind" doesn't mean in numbers of weapons, an unimportant measure in the nuclear age. "Behind" means that with a new generation of accurate and invulnerable submarine-based missiles, along with Star Wars defenses, we alone will have the ability to devastate the other side's arsenal in a first strike and then survive a crippled counterattack.

At least this argument will bring some intellectual honesty and coherence to the administration's nuclear policy. Take Star Wars. President Reagan still insists that the purpose is to "make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete" and that the Soviets are ahead of us in developing strate- gic defense. In fact, no one seri- ously doubts that we have the edge. That's why the Soviets are so eager to stop it. And no one but Reagan thinks a strategic defense can be perfect, thus making nuclear weapons worthless.

Reagan's sophisticated apologists make fancier arguments that strategic defense will shore up deterrence by protecting our missiles from attack. But the mobile, single-warhead Midgetman missile would be a far cheaper way to make sure our arsenal could survive and respond to a first strike. Yet the administration continues to slight Midgetman in favor of Star Wars and the nonmobile, multi-warhead MX -- a classic first-strike (use- it-or-lose-it) weapon. This raises the suspicion that the actual purpose of Star Wars is to protect us against a crippled Soviet retaliatory strike, thus making the threat of our own first strike more convincing. (Isn't nuclear strategy wonderful?)

Or is Star Wars just a "bargaining chip" for arms control? The administration insists it is not. I believe this, since the lack of enthusiasm for arms control among Reaganites is manifest. The administration's ostensible reasons for rejecting the Soviet offer of a comprehensive nuclear test ban, for example, are transparently insincere. Reagan is the first president of the nuclear age to oppose such a treaty. Apart from the tedious question of whether verification is possible, does anyone really believe that the problem of verification (or concern that untested bombs could go off by accident, and so on) is why the Reagan administration opposes a test ban?

There are complicated explanations of how the pieces of our nuclear strategy fit together. But the principle of Occam's razor recommends the simple explanation. So what is wrong with nuclear superiority, if we can get it? Liberal critics must be prepared to explain why superiority -- a concept they ridiculed as meaningless when the question was whether the Russians had it -- becomes alarming when the question is whether we should have it.

The first answer is that if the Soviets come to believe we may soon achieve nuclear superiority, they will be under pressure to make their moves before we get there. In the interim, the world will become a vastly more dangerous place.

Second, superiority is not permanent. We had it until the early 1960s, and then lost it. Conservatives allege that the Soviets had it a decade ago and are losing it. At vast expense, we might get it again for a few years, but there's no guarantee we could keep it. The Soviets would do everything they could to prevent that. They tried before, and succeeded.

Third, what would we do with superiority? Not, I presume, start a nuclear war. Any nuclear exchange would be disastrous for us, even if we "won" it in the sense of destroying the Soviet Union while emerging with our society somewhat intact. The Soviet goal in seeking nuclear superiority, according to the conservative analysis, is not conquest but "Finlandization" of the West. That is, knowledge that the Soviets could "win" a nuclear exchange might make our side more hesitant to push matters to the brink. The practical result would be a weakening of Western resistance to lesser acts of Soviet aggression.

The dream of American nuclear superiority is reverse Finlandization. Without lifting a finger, we could prevent the suppression of Solidarity, reverse the invasion of Afghanistan, etc. But Finlandization depends, ultimately, on a fear that one side might "go nuclear" in pursuit of political ends. And -- much to our credit -- the fear of such ruthlessness is inherently less believable about the United States than about the Soviet Union. The fact is, nuclear superiority is simply not as useful for us as it is for the Soviets.

Fourth and most important, the quest for nuclear superiority undermines the quest for nuclear security, whether through arms construction or arms control. If your goal is safety from nuclear attack, you want an arrangement of weapons that maximizes your ability to retaliate if your enemy strikes first, while minimizing your enemy's fear that you can destroy his ability to retaliate if you strike first. His confidence of retaliating af- ter a first strike is central to your security, because otherwise he has a powerful incentive to strike before you do.

But if your goal is superiority, making the enemy fear a successful first strike from you is the whole idea. Even if you get "superiority," you also get a bigger chance of trying it out. I can't believe even conservative intellectuals want that.