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Past Event

The Uncertain Future of Nuclear Deterrence

Nuclear deterrence has been a cornerstone of U.S. defense since the end of World War II, seeking to protect the country’s security and that of its allies by threatening unacceptable damage to any country that might attack with nuclear weapons or by other means. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has been able to focus on reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons and strengthening nonproliferation. But now big changes are again afoot in the global context . . . will Russia’s current modernization of its nuclear arsenal and China’s buildup of strategic nuclear forces threaten the viability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, including the extended deterrence the United States provides to its allies? Is arms control still possible? 

China has historically maintained a “minimum” strategic nuclear deterrent but is now engaged in an unprecedented build up and diversification of its nuclear arsenal; a decade from now, it will match if not surpass the United States in deployed weapons. Russia is also upgrading its nuclear weapons, and in February “suspended” its adherence to the New START arms control treaty, which limits U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 deployed warheads each.

What are China’s and Russia’s objectives in accelerating their nuclear weapons programs? How do their nuclear policies relate to their grand strategies and other military activities, such as the war in Ukraine for Russia, and the Chinese buildup of naval forces in the Pacific, and to their perceptions or misperceptions of United States activities?  What are the implications for U.S. and world security? To maintain deterrence, will the United States be compelled to match the nuclear arsenals of both Russia and China? What do U.S. allies want and need from the United States and what can they contribute to deterrence? 

What are the prospects for arms control, or other strategies to place limits on this potential new nuclear arms race? Do new technologies, such as those for homeland missile defense, offer some escape from the dilemmas of nuclear deterrence?

About the Speakers

Brad Roberts is the director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where he recently chaired a study group on China’s emergence as a second nuclear peer of the United States. Prior to this position, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy. Dr. Roberts was also a consulting professor at Stanford University and William Perry Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Thomas Fingar is a Shorenstein APARC Fellow in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. From 2005 through 2008, he served as the first deputy director of national intelligence for analysis and, concurrently, as chairman of the National Intelligence Council. Dr. Fingar served previously as assistant secretary of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.


Photos courtesy the speakers.

May 15, 2023

The Commonwealth Club of California
United States

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Thomas Fingar

Shorenstein APARC Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University.

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Brad Roberts

Director, Center for Global Security Research, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Image - Gloria Duffy

Dr. Gloria Duffy

Ph.D., President and CEO, The Commonwealth Club of California—Moderator