Aspiring wonks: your homework assignment this week is to read Robert Jervis. In my view, his best writing is about the impact of nuclear weapons on world politics and the psychology of nuclear deterrence. As the salience of nuclear weapons has been reduced for the United States, the security dilemmas Jervis writes about have become more applicable to conventional conflict.

Try The Meaning of the Nuclear Revolution: Statecraft and the Prospect of Armageddon (1989). The timing of this book was off because Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan jumped ahead of Jervis (and everybody else), but its content is well worth another look.

Here’s a sampler:

The fact that nuclear weapons could destroy the world has changed the way people think and the way nations behave. [long break] It is the prospect of fighting the war rather than the possibility of losing it that induces restraint.

On escalation control:

If violence stayed at the same level rather than increasing, the result would still be a form of escalation because the damage would be cumulative. Indeed, states could destroy each other piecemeal in a process that has no upper limit. Each side could believe that with the infliction of a bit more pain and the running of a bit more risk, the other side would back down… Thus, even a purely rational decision maker could participate in a cycle of destruction and counter-destruction….

The pressures for such escalation would be increased by two factors relating to losses the states have already suffered. First, people often try to recoup sunk costs even if rationality dictates ignoring them. Suffering in vain is not easily accepted. Second, sunk costs have important political effects: to lose after entering the fray usually harms the state’s reputation more than not having contested the issue at all.

Does Afghanistan come to mind? And here is a forewarning about Iran:

If war can come by a self-fulfilling prophecy, then the danger of war can build on itself; the reality is created by the participants’ beliefs… The background mood can thus be crucial.