American Nuclear Exceptionalism

A report by Dr. Dan Post

ISF’s Ph.D. Research Fellowship winner, Dr. Dan Post, published his dissertation with Brown University wherein he investigates the concept of American Nuclear Exceptionalism, the Elite U.S. perspectives on limited nuclear war, and the concept of “Escalate to De-Escalate.”


Nuclear war is horrific to contemplate and yet nuclear-armed states routinely plan, train, and equip themselves to do just that in the name of deterrence and preventing war. But how likely is it that a nuclear war could be kept meaningfully limited if deterrence fails? Is it possible that escalating to the nuclear level could actually have a de-escalatory impact on a conflict? Why might we believe this is so? This essay engages with these questions by analyzing the results of elite-level interviews with members of the U.S. Strategic Community. Specifically, this essay attempts to answer two key research questions: First, what do U.S. leaders, experts, and members of the U.S. Strategic Community, including decision-makers and operators in the nuclear command and control enterprise, think about the feasibility of conducting limited nuclear war? Second, what do these experts think about the strategy of “escalate to de-escalate” among nuclear powers? The interviews demonstrate some important contradictions in nuclear strategic thinking which suggest that American exceptionalism may be directly informing the preferences of important leaders and decision-makers. Specifically, my interviews identify a belief that limited nuclear war strategies, including escalate to de-escalate strategies, may be effective or desirable for the U.S. while at the same time suggesting that limited nuclear war, and particularly escalate to de-escalate strategies, will not be successful for others. Additionally, the data here demonstrate that many members of this community are not
confident in the ability to control or limit escalation in a nuclear conflict but nevertheless believe the U.S. should prepare for and plan for such a strategy. These combine to suggest that nuclear strategic thinking may be subject to exceptional-type thinking, in which strategies deemed foolish or dangerous for others are deemed potentially successful for the United States, but without adequate understanding about why this should or would be the case.

If you’d like to get in touch with Dr. Post regarding his work, please contact the ISF team.