Lessons from Conflicts Between Nuclear and Non-Nuclear States

August 19, 2020

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: Tempting Fate” from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

Paul Avey, Tempting Fate: Why Nonnuclear States Confront Nuclear Opponents (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019)


With Tempting Fate, Paul C. Avey makes an invaluable contribution to our understanding of nuclear politics. Written in clear and accessible prose, Avey explains why some non-nuclear weapons states have challenged and resisted nuclear weapons states despite the existential risks involved. Importantly, Avey never overstates his arguments — he is more willing than many writers to acknowledge the limitations of his scholarship. Moreover, his nuanced analysis helps correct potentially simplistic interpretations of key events. The result is a smart book that should interest academics and practitioners alike. The few questions I have concern the potential uniqueness of the Israeli-Egyptian case and the implications that Avey’s analysis has for our understandings of the so-called nuclear revolution.

Avey’s argument is straightforward: If the conventional military balance favors a nuclear-armed state to such an extent that it would not need to resort to nuclear weapons to defend itself and its vital interests, the non-nuclear state may challenge or resist it in a militarized dispute. A sort of “Goldilocks rule” is at play here. If the non-nuclear state is conventionally too strong vis-à-vis the nuclear state, then the latter may be tempted to use nuclear strikes to achieve favorable outcomes on the battlefield. The possibility of nuclear weapons use deters the non-nuclear state. If, however, the non-nuclear state is conventionally too weak vis-à-vis the nuclear state, then the former will not be able to initiate a military conflict in the first place. Avey claims that the non-nuclear state’s leaders do not abide by the nuclear taboo while challenging a nuclear-armed adversary. These leaders believe that amoral strategic reasons — and not moral misgivings — will constrain the adversary from launching nuclear weapons. To support his argument, Avey examines Iraq’s confrontational policies toward the United States in the 1990s, Israeli decision-making toward Egypt in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Beijing’s hostility toward the United States in the 1950s, and Soviet-American tensions in the early days of the Cold War.



Although Avey uses a wide array of primary sources, the case studies in his book do not necessarily break new historiographical ground. The basic contours of each case will be familiar to subject-matter experts. Nevertheless, he views them through an original lens by focusing on how non-nuclear states grapple with the nuclear monopolies of their adversaries. Particularly notable are the efforts taken by these leaders to mitigate the effects of potential nuclear strikes against their countries. Iraq, for example, invested in expensive civil defense options at the time of the Gulf War.

And yet Avey, in presenting his main case studies, does not convincingly refute the nuclear taboo counterargument. The Soviet and Chinese confrontations with the United States took place early in the Cold War when norms governing the use of nuclear weapons were still inchoate. Israel had only just developed nuclear weapons in 1969 to 1973, the period that Avey examines. Although Israel has never publicly acknowledged its nuclear arsenal, these weapons were acquired too recently for Israeli decision-makers to have fully internalized the nuclear taboo at the time of the October War. That leaves Iraq as the most recent case. One might not wish to make broad generalizations on the basis of a single case. Still, as I highlight further below, Avey is careful never to overstate his claims.

The Unique Case of Israel and Egypt

Israel’s confrontation with its non-nuclear adversary Egypt stands out as a peculiar case in the book. No other non-nuclear state that Avey examines in the substantive chapters of his book could have realistically attacked the homeland of its nuclear-armed opponent, with the possible exception of Egypt and Israel due to their geographic proximity. The geographic distance that separates the nuclear and non-nuclear states discussed in Tempting Fate could have created more opportunities for challenging or resisting nuclear monopolies, especially early in the Cold War when missile and bomber capabilities were more limited. The United States was able to strike Hiroshima and Nagasaki with nuclear weapons delivered by B-29 bombers in 1945. Yet the airfields that those aircraft used fell into neglect shortly after World War II. The B-52 did not enter service until 1955 and many of the early nuclear-tipped missiles would only be deployed in the years after. Even contemporary observers wondered whether the United States could hit targets in mainland China with much precision, at least in the early 1950s. To his credit, Avey does acknowledge that a favorable nuclear balance may not necessarily translate to operational effectiveness.

Hence, looking at geographically contiguous rivals like Israel and Egypt is important because such technical constraints might be less potent as an alternative explanation. Still, I had questions with regards to Avey’s case study on Israel’s confrontation with Egypt. Avey writes that Egyptian leaders “believed that so long as they executed only limited campaigns, the benefits to Israel of using its nuclear weapons would be low.” Thus, “[i]n 1973, Egypt launched a limited offensive that was more expansive than in 1969-1970.” Avey admits that “while Egypt never planned to advance deep into the Sinai [Peninsula], Israel could not be expected to know that at the start of the hostilities.” Egypt sought to use backchannels to convey its limited intentions, even though Egyptian President Anwar Sadat ultimately rejected Soviet appeals for a ceasefire. Avey’s theory hinges on non-nuclear states having clear limited aims in such a conflict. In light of the unique geographical proximity that this case features, one wonders whether Israel understood that Egypt had only limited objectives when the October War (also known as the Yom Kippur War) began, not least because of the highly conflictual nature of Arab-Israeli relations at that time.

Whether Israel understood Egypt’s limited aims is all the more important given that Israel had sought nuclear weapons in part because it believed its adversaries’ aims were not limited. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan reportedly claimed that the surprise attack in October 1973 constituted the “end of the third temple,” a reference to both the potential collapse of Israel and its nuclear weapons arsenal. In other words, if Dayan is to be taken seriously, Israeli decision-makers had trouble conceiving of a limited war that did not undermine Israel’s vital interests and create existential risks. A limited territorial grab could presage more threatening advances into Israeli territory, or so they feared. Fortunately for Israel, it recovered quickly and launched a successful counterattack using its formidable conventional military strength. However, one can imagine the 1973 war ending differently: The example of the Korean War indicates that success on the battlefield can push belligerents to expand beyond their initial war aims or to cross the red lines of other states inadvertently. I wonder if the strategic logic that Avey neatly lays out truly explains Sadat’s behavior.

The Nuclear Revolution

One question that looms large in Tempting Fate concerns the meaning of the nuclear revolution. Robert Jervis famously argued that nuclear-armed adversaries, once armed with second-strike capabilities, face powerful incentives to be cautious and to cooperate with one another. In recent years, the notion that nuclear weapons have revolutionized international politics has come under major criticism: As some scholars have pointed out, states armed with second-strike nuclear capabilities still seem to engage in traditional power politics by building up their alliances, acquiring potentially destabilizing armaments, and being conflictual rather than cooperative on issues of global concern. Although I am admittedly partial to these criticisms, I still have the nagging feeling that something must have changed when nuclear weapons appeared. After all, how could international political life really have stayed the same after Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Avey intimates a possible answer for this basic conundrum. As he writes, “a powerful NNWS [non-nuclear weapons state] must worry much more intently that nuclear weapons will be used in any war and thus is less likely to escalate a dispute.” For its part, the nuclear state may choose not to use nuclear weapons because of various concerns about their military efficacy and the likely political ramifications. One wonders, therefore, whether this constitutes a distinct change in state behavior brought on by nuclear weapons. According to Jervis, having a mutual second-strike capability should induce caution among adversaries. Avey’s analysis suggests that as states approach parity in the conventional military domain, they will likely exercise similar caution even if only one of them has nuclear weapons. Of course, power politics may still occur between these rivals — unequal though they may otherwise be — through other means. The implication of Avey’s theory is that war might be more likely to break out if it were not for that nuclear monopoly. The absence of nuclear weapons could, for example, cause greater disagreements about the military balance, as Geoffrey Blainey has argued. Although Avey does discuss the nuclear revolution in the book’s introductory chapter, there are more opportunities for deeper theorizing on the subject that are yet to be explored.

This is yet another sign that Avey has written a very good book. It gives inspiration for fresh theorizing and more empirical scholarship. Notwithstanding my questions about the nuclear revolution and the Israeli-Egyptian case study, Avey wisely hews close to the evidence and never overstates his arguments. Tempting Fate is a must-read for anyone interested in nuclear politics.



Alexander Lanoszka is assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Waterloo and the Balsillie School of International Affairs. His research addresses alliance politics and military strategy, with a regional focus on Europe. His book, Atomic Assurance: The Alliance Politics of Nuclear Proliferation, was published by Cornell University Press in 2018.

Image: Israel Defense Force