Date of Graduation

Fall 2022


Master of Science in Defense and Strategic Studies


Defense and Strategic Studies

Committee Chair

Kerry Kartchner


Strategic scholars have long understood the indispensable linkage between culture and security policymaking. By shaping the perceptions through which decision-makers formulate security policy, strategic culture analysis adds vital context to the perilously difficult science of understanding and predicting state security outputs. One area where this analytical framework fails to generate the expected result is American missile defense policy. Salient themes of US strategic culture, including an optimistic and problem-solving mindset, positive role of machines, and ahistorical exceptionalism, are reflected in the American way of war – a technologically driven, leadership casualty averse, moralistic, apolitical, and firepower focused enterprise. These factors would strongly indicate a preference for comprehensive deterrence by denial measures, most prominently homeland ballistic missile defense (BMD), to protect American lives in the case of deterrence failure or catastrophic accident. However, such preferences have failed to consistently materialize over three-quarters of a century of missile defense policymaking. Instead, the US has often settled for a strategy of mutual vulnerability synonymous with the theory of Thomas Schelling’s “balance of terror” and Robert McNamara’s mutually assured destruction (MAD) philosophy. While the US has slowly accepted more expansive attitudes regarding BMD, including decades of bipartisan consensus regarding its necessity vis-à-vis “rogue states,” MAD continues to dominate the approach to Russian and Chinese missile arsenals. Despite the disconnect between culture and security outputs, little scholarship exists to explain this incongruity. This thesis advances three possible theories to fill this research gap, including the requirement of compromise in forming policy in a pluralistic democracy, the lack of ballistic missile threat immediacy to the general American public, and the concerted effort of US adversaries to manipulate the international and domestic perceptions of US missile defense efforts. The enduring influence of MAD on BMD policy in spite of a dearth of cultural support indicates that progress of future missile defense efforts will likely depend upon the ability of policymakers to communicate the utility of damage limitation measures to deterrence and connect the benefits of expanded missile defense to deeply held American values.


strategic culture, missile defense, mutually assured destruction, deterrence, strategic stability

Subject Categories

Defense and Security Studies | International Relations | Policy History, Theory, and Methods


© Jacob T. Blank

Open Access