Think Again

Think Again: American Nuclear Disarmament

A smaller atomic arsenal isn't just wishful thinking -- it's bad strategy.

"Nuclear Weapons Are Cold War Relics."

Not so. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the era of nuclear competition seemed to be at an end, and the United States and Russia began to get rid of many weapons they had used to threaten each other for more than 40 years. In 1967, the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal peaked at 31,255 warheads, but by 2010, under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) signed with Russia, the United States had promised to deploy no more than 1,550.

In June of this year, U.S. President Barack Obama announced his intention to go even lower, to around 1,000 warheads -- a move that would leave the United States with fewer nuclear weapons than at any time since 1953. What's more, influential figures around the world, including erstwhile American hawks, have increasingly supported steps toward total disarmament. In his major 2009 address in Prague, Obama committed "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Nuclear reductions and the heady dreams of abolition are driven in part by a belief that nukes are Cold War anachronisms. But it would be incorrect -- dangerous, in fact -- to assume that the conditions that have allowed the United States to de-emphasize its atomic arsenal will persist. Nuclear weapons are still the most potent military tools on Earth, and they will remain central to geopolitical competition. They have been relatively unimportant in the recent past not because humanity has somehow become more enlightened, but because we have been blessed with a temporary respite from great-power rivalry.

The Soviet Union's collapse left the United States as the world's sole superpower, and America's unmatched conventional military overawed other countries. Nuclear weapons have not been central to America's national security for the past two decades because its primary foes -- Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and al Qaeda -- did not have them. Whatever America's problems in prosecuting its recent wars, a lack of firepower was not one of them.

But times are changing. Economists predict that China could overtake the United States as the world's largest economy in the coming years, and international relations theory tells us that transitions between reigning hegemons and rising challengers often produce conflict. Already, China has become more assertive in pursuing revisionist claims in East Asia, confronting America's allies, and building military capabilities -- including anti-ship ballistic missiles and submarines -- tailored for a fight with the United States. In September 2012, a dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands nearly caused a war that could have easily drawn in the United States. Beijing's contested claims to natural resources in the South China Sea and ever-present tensions with Taiwan could also lead to Sino-U.S. conflict. Even relations with Russia, America's partner in arms control, are becoming more competitive: The civil war in Syria bears every hallmark of a Cold War-style proxy battle. In short, great-power political competition is heating up once again, and as it does, nuclear weapons will once again take center stage.

The writing is already on the wall. Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and North Korea are modernizing or expanding their nuclear arsenals, and Iran is vigorously pursuing its own nuclear capability. As Yale University political scientist Paul Bracken notes, we are entering a "second nuclear age" in which "the whole complexion of global power politics is changing because of the reemergence of nuclear weapons as a vital element of statecraft and power politics." Nostalgia for simpler times can be seductive, but the United States needs a nuclear force that can protect it from the challenges that lie ahead.


"It Takes Only a Handful of Nukes to Deter an Enemy."

Wrong. Advocates of further cuts argue that a secure second-strike capability -- the ability to absorb an attack and retain enough nuclear warheads to launch a devastating response -- is sufficient for nuclear deterrence. Although "secure" and "devastating" are imprecise terms, many analysts would say that a few dozen submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each with multiple warheads, is plenty because at-sea subs are difficult to target in a first strike and the firepower provided by, say, 200 nuclear weapons is impressive. By their logic, anything more is "overkill" that can be cut with little loss to U.S. security.

Although it is possible that no sane leader would intentionally start a nuclear war with a state that possesses even a small deterrent force, nuclear-armed states still have conflicting interests that can lead to crises. And it turns out that, contrary to widely held assumptions, the nuclear balance of power is critically important to how such disputes are resolved.

Recently, I methodically reviewed the relationship between the size of a country's nuclear arsenal and its security. In a statistical analysis of all nuclear-armed countries from 1945 to 2001, I found that the state with more warheads was only one-third as likely to be challenged militarily by other countries and more than 10 times more likely to prevail in a crisis -- that is, to achieve its basic political goals -- when it was challenged. Moreover, I found that the size of this advantage increased along with the margin of superiority. States with vastly more nukes (95 percent of the two countries' total warheads) were more than 17 times more likely to win. These findings held even after accounting for disparities in conventional military power, political stakes, geographical proximity, type of political system, population, territorial size, history of past disputes, and other factors that could have influenced the outcomes.

When the United States operated from a position of nuclear strength during the Cold War, it stopped the Soviet Union from building a nuclear submarine base in Cuba in 1970 and deterred Moscow from increasing support to its Arab allies in the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. By contrast, when the nuclear balance was less favorable to Washington, it was unable to achieve clear victories in crises against the Soviet Union -- for example, failing to roll back Moscow's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

In addition, qualitative evidence from the past 70 years shows that leaders pay close attention to the nuclear balance of power, that they believe superiority enhances their position, and that a nuclear advantage often translates into a geopolitical advantage. During the Cuban missile crisis, American nuclear superiority helped compel Moscow to withdraw its missiles from the island. As Gen. Maxwell Taylor, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a memo to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, "We have the strategic advantage in our general war capabilities.… This is no time to run scared." Similarly, Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued, "One thing Mr. Khrushchev may have in mind is that he knows that we have a substantial nuclear superiority, but he also knows that we don't really live under fear of his nuclear weapons to the extent that he has to live under fear of ours."

We see similar patterns in South Asia. When asked years later why Pakistan ultimately withdrew its forces from Indian Kashmir during the 1999 Kargil crisis, former Indian Defense Minister George Fernandes cited his country's nuclear superiority. In the event of a nuclear exchange, he said, "We may have lost a part of our population … [but] Pakistan may have been completely wiped out."

This may sound crazy. To most people, "But you should see the other guy" would be scant consolation for losing perhaps millions of one's fellow citizens. But the truth is that nuclear war might well be more devastating for one country than for the other, even if both sides can inflict "unacceptable" damage. As Cold War nuclear strategist Herman Kahn wrote, "Few people differentiate between having 10 million dead, 50 million dead, or 100 million dead. It all seems too horrible. However, it does not take much imagination to see that there is a difference."

This is not to argue that leaders of countries with bigger arsenals believe they can fight and win nuclear wars. The logic is more subtle. Nuclear states coerce each other through brinkmanship. They heighten crises, raising the risk of nuclear war until one side backs down and the other gets its way. At each stage of the crisis, leaders make gut-wrenching calculations about whether to escalate, thereby risking a catastrophic nuclear war, or to submit, throwing an important geopolitical victory to their opponent. If the costs of nuclear war are higher for one state than another, then giving in will always look more attractive to leaders in the inferior position -- whatever payoff they might get from escalating would always be offset by a higher potential cost. So, on average, we should expect that leaders with fewer nukes at their disposal will be more likely to cave during a crisis. And this is exactly what the data show.

Competition between nuclear powers is like a game of chicken, and in a game of chicken, we should expect the smaller car to swerve first, even if a crash would be disastrous for both. The United States has always driven a Hummer, but it is trading it in for a Prius, even though games of chicken are likely for decades to come. Rather than cutting its forces, the United States should, as President John F. Kennedy promised, maintain a nuclear arsenal "second to none."


"But Doesn't Superiority Increase the Risk of War
in the First Place?"

Don't be so sure. It is true that many strategists have long argued that having a nuclear arsenal "second to none" could increase the risk of nuclear war. Their logic is simple: If a state has a "first-strike advantage" -- that is, the ability to launch a nuclear attack that disarms its opponent and leaves it relatively invulnerable to retaliation -- then, in a crisis, it might be tempted to start a nuclear war. Alternatively, the weaker state might be tempted to use its weapons first, lest it lose them altogether. By this reasoning, nuclear superiority is dangerous for everyone, and the most stable situation is one in which both sides have survivable arsenals of roughly the same size, leaving both vulnerable.

Today, it is still widely believed that it is a bad idea for the United States to possess a nuclear advantage over Russia, and the Obama administration's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review identified "strategic stability" as a primary goal. That is why New START and Obama's proposed follow-on agreement aim for equal limits on the United States and Russia. Some analysts also apply this logic to China, over which the United States has tremendous nuclear superiority. (China is thought to have a mere 50 or so warheads capable of reaching the United States.)

But an American first-strike advantage is just that, an advantage, and arguments that try to make a vice out of a virtue rest on tortured logic. After all, the United States possesses a first-strike advantage against the world's 184 non-nuclear states, and it doesn't wring its hands about that. Would Americans be better off if these countries could hold them hostage with nuclear threats? No. Would they feel better if North Korea's missile tests did not routinely fail, giving the Hermit Kingdom a more reliable ability to nuke Los Angeles? Of course not. Then why is the United States so fearful of pursuing superiority over Russia and China?

The answer often given is that, while the United States can trust itself not to start a nuclear war, it doesn't want to make a Russian or Chinese leader feel the need to "use 'em or lose 'em." But this fear is unfounded. A leader in a position of inferiority -- inferiority so extreme that his country could be vulnerable to a disarming first strike -- has a choice of launching a nuclear war he will surely lose or simply conceding the contested issue. Faced with that choice, there is every reason to believe he will back down. Indeed, this is exactly the dynamic that my research demonstrates. To make any other decision, a leader would have to be either crazy or at the end of his rope. But if either were the case, nuclear parity would, if anything, make him more likely to gamble on nuclear war.

In sum, a U.S. nuclear advantage is a major problem -- if you are one of Washington's adversaries.


"But a Smaller Arsenal Will Help the United States Discourage Nuclear Proliferation."

Keep dreaming. Proponents of deep cuts claim that a smaller arsenal will help the United States stop the spread of nuclear weapons to rogue states and terrorists because having so many nuclear weapons makes it difficult (if not hypocritical) to tell, say, Iran that it cannot have any or to convince non-nuclear countries (such as Brazil and Turkey) to help pressure Iran.

This argument makes sense at a superficial level, but on closer inspection it falls apart. As Iran's leaders decide whether to push forward with, or put limits on, their nuclear program, they likely consider whether nuclear weapons would improve their security, whether they have the technical capability to produce nuclear weapons, whether they could withstand economic sanctions or military strikes from the United States and its allies, and a host of other factors. The size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal would not affect any of these calculations.

Similarly, in considering whether to pressure Tehran, Turkey likely considers the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, whether it can actually affect Iranian policy, how curtailing trade with Iran would hurt its economy, and how its Iran policy will affect relations with other countries. But, again, it is implausible to think that if Washington possessed 1,000 warheads instead of 1,550, Turkey would suddenly get tougher with Iran.

In my research, I systematically searched for a correlation between the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and a variety of measurable nonproliferation outcomes: state decisions to explore, pursue, and acquire nuclear weapons; voting on nonproliferation issues in the United Nations Security Council; and the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to non-nuclear-weapon states. I couldn't find any evidence of a relationship. The United States has been cutting the size of its nuclear arsenal since the late 1960s, but there is no reason to believe that its cuts have slowed or reversed proliferation. In fact, the most important diplomatic breakthrough in stopping the spread of nukes -- the opening for signature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- occurred in 1968, at nearly the peak of the U.S. arsenal's size. And, remember, 177 countries have never pursued nuclear weapons at any point, including when the United States possessed more than 30,000 warheads.

Some advocates argue that many states signed the NPT only because it mandates cuts to existing nuclear arsenals, but in fact the NPT does not require cuts or disarmament. It simply requires all states to "pursue negotiations in good faith" on measures relating to disarmament. So though the United States can by all means pursue negotiations, it should not come to a deal that further reduces its nuclear stockpile until the world has been made safe for disarmament -- and that, unfortunately, will not happen anytime soon.


"The U.S. Can Save Money
by Shrinking Its Nuclear Arsenal."

Don't count on it. In the climate of budget austerity now afflicting Washington, some supporters of nuclear cuts turn to another, nonstrategic argument to advance their case, saying that reducing the size of the nuclear arsenal would save money. But it would not save much, and it might even cost more.

It is important to understand that warhead reductions alone will not result in savings. As any employee of the U.S. national nuclear laboratories can tell you, the cost of nuclear weapons is in the infrastructure; the warheads, in comparison, are virtually free. If the United States is going to retain even a handful of nuclear weapons, it will need national laboratories with scientists and technicians, delivery vehicles, military units trained to handle nuclear weapons, and many other capabilities. These are large, fixed costs regardless of the number of warheads in the arsenal.

Moreover, reducing the number of nuclear weapons the United States deploys can actually result in short-term budget increases. Reducing arsenal size means pulling missiles out of silos, dismantling retired warheads, and decommissioning and decontaminating nuclear facilities. All of this costs money.

It would only be by failing to fully modernize the systems that deliver the warheads -- intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and submarines -- that the United States could hope to save money. But unless it completely disarms or kills a leg of this triad, the country's aging missiles, bombers, and subs will need to be upgraded. Delaying the modernization of delivery vehicles, as some have suggested, would save only an estimated $3.9 billion annually over 10 years, an amount that is nothing short of trivial compared with the overall U.S. defense budget, which is roughly $600 billion per year.

Over the long term, the budget-savings argument becomes even less compelling. Nuclear weapons provide a lot of bang for the buck, literally and figuratively. President Dwight Eisenhower's "New Look" policy in the 1950s emphasized nuclear weapons -- as does current Russian military doctrine -- because they are less costly than comparable conventional capabilities. If the United States continues to cut its nuclear arsenal, it will need to develop new conventional capabilities to fill the roles and missions previously performed by nuclear weapons. At present, nuclear weapons provide a strategic deterrent at a cost of only about 4 percent of the defense budget. Do we really think equivalent conventional forces would be more cost-efficient?

Furthermore, only if we think the United States can maintain a diminished nuclear force indefinitely is it plausible to think that nuclear cuts will save money, but this would be an unwise bet given that other countries are moving in the opposite direction. In 1989, the Energy Department shut down its only plutonium-pit manufacturing plant at Rocky Flats, Colorado. Decommissioning and decontaminating the facility cost taxpayers $7 billion. In 2007, however, the department restored pit-manufacturing capability at a cost of billions of dollars, and it is seeking billions more for a new facility. This poor decision teaches a broader lesson: It would be much more costly to cut now and build back up later, rather than simply recapitalize current capabilities.

To justify kneecapping the U.S. arsenal as we enter a second nuclear age, the savings would have to be overwhelming. But they are not. As Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently said, "Nuclear weapons don't actually cost that much.… You don't save a lot of money by having arms control."

Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"If the United States Can't Go Lower, Who Can?"

Maybe no one. Fashionistas sometimes quip that Americans are always a couple of years behind the rest of the world in adopting new styles. Trends in nuclear weapons policy are apparently no different from the catwalk. While it is still fashionable in Washington to talk about nuclear reductions, for the rest of the world, nukes are the new black.

Russia needs nuclear weapons to offset the conventional superiority of the United States and NATO and affirm its great-power status. President Vladimir Putin has already poured cold water on Obama's proposal for additional nuclear reductions, and Russia's military doctrine emphasizes nuclear weapons, including their first use early in a crisis, to compensate for its weakened conventional military. Russia is subject to the same strategic-warhead limits that apply to the United States under New START, but it also maintains an arsenal of 3,800 tactical nukes -- smaller weapons intended for battlefield use. Moscow is building a rail-mobile missile, has commissioned new nuclear-capable submarines, and plans to construct a next generation of heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

China's nuclear weapons also serve as a deterrent against America's superior conventional power. During the Cold War, China appeared content with a minimum deterrent -- a result, experts speculated, of Mao Zedong's strategic thinking. But recent scholarship suggests that China's nuclear arsenal was stunted by organizational and political pathologies. The kinks are now out of the system and Beijing is going bigger. According to the Pentagon, China is expanding its arsenal of warheads, building new nuclear-armed submarines, and developing next-generation, road-mobile ICBMs with multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle warheads. If U.S.-China relations deteriorate, Beijing might eventually leverage its massive economy to match or surpass America's nuclear capabilities. Additional U.S. reductions would only make such a sprint to parity all the more tempting.

At this very moment, India and Pakistan are engaged in the most intense nuclear arms race the world has seen since the Cold War. India needs nukes to deter China's superior conventional and nuclear might to its northeast and to counter Pakistan's nuclear weapons to the northwest. New Delhi's nuclear arsenal has grown by more than 200 percent in the past decade and now includes an estimated 100 warheads. It is developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles and building longer-range ballistic missiles, and last year it ordered more than 100 nuclear-capable aircraft from France.

For Pakistan, the pursuit of nuclear superiority over India is seen as a matter of national survival given its recurring conflicts with its much larger neighbor. Pakistan's nuclear arsenal has also tripled in the past decade and is now estimated to include roughly 110 warheads. Moreover, it is rumored that Pakistani military officers openly talk about an arsenal that will eventually contain more than 1,000 warheads. Islamabad is testing longer-range ballistic missiles, developing new nuclear-capable aircraft, and working on a sea-based nuclear capability.

North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests in the past decade and is estimated to have an expanding arsenal of roughly a dozen warheads. It is also working on a ballistic missile designed to reach the U.S. West Coast. Iran is vigorously pursuing a nuclear capability, and experts assess that Iran could have enough weapons-grade uranium for its first bomb in months. Moreover, the Pentagon estimates that Iran could have a ballistic missile capable of reaching America's East Coast by 2015. These efforts are making countries in Asia and the Middle East nervous. Officials in Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Turkey have floated the idea (some more loudly than others) of building their own nukes in response to the new nuclear kids on the block.

World leaders don't need to read this article to know that large nuclear forces can make them safer. Some scholars might protest that building nuclear arsenals larger than required for retaliation is illogical, but when academic theories are consistently contradicted by evidence from the real world, it is not the real world that is mistaken.


"But So Many Important People Want to Go to Lower -- Even to Zero!"

Get real. In a 2007 op-ed, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, George Shultz, and Sam Nunn -- a bipartisan group of éminences grises -- endorsed "setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal." Their article reinvigorated the nuclear disarmament movement and helped spark an international "Global Zero" campaign that has drawn the support of former generals, ambassadors, and political officials from the United States and around the world. It is on the wave of this support that Obama announced his intention to reduce nuclear arsenals radically and move toward a world without nuclear weapons.

But it is not clear that a world without nuclear weapons would be desirable, and it certainly isn't feasible. Only if we could fundamentally transform international politics such that states no longer faced security threats might there be reason to think that the world could be made safe for global zero. And even proponents admit this day may never come. In his famous Prague speech, Obama confessed, "I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime."

After all, the United States can't rid the world of nuclear weapons on its own; other states, including its enemies, get a vote. Russia, China, Britain, France, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea possess nuclear weapons not because they blindly imitate the United States, but because they fear their neighbors and, in the case of Washington's enemies, America's awesome conventional military power. Even if the United States gave up its entire nuclear arsenal, other countries would not be compelled to follow its lead.

Instead of striving for the smallest possible arsenal in the erroneous belief that less is better, the United States should strive to maintain clear nuclear superiority over its adversaries. Ideally, this means the ability to wipe out an enemy's nuclear forces before they can be used and to annihilate its homeland -- because the more devastating that adversaries find the prospect of nuclear war, the less likely they will be to start trouble. Where this is not possible, the United States must aim for a posture that limits damage to the U.S. homeland to the greatest extent possible and that at least ensures destruction of an adversary.

That means the United States should refrain from additional nuclear reductions and should maintain the "hedge" force of weapons it keeps in reserve. The Obama administration must also follow through on its promise to fully modernize U.S. nuclear infrastructure. Finally, the country must prepare for the possibility that if China or other strategic competitors continue to expand their nuclear arsenals, the United States might once again have to build up its strategic forces. You don't bring a knife to a gunfight, and America shouldn't bring a crippled nuclear arsenal to the second nuclear age.


Think Again

Think Again: Working Women

Why American women are better off than the lean-inners and have-it-allers realize.

"You Should Be Able to Have a Family if You Want One … and Still Have the Career You Desire."

Should? Maybe. Will? No way. There are always tradeoffs between career and family. That goes double for women.

When Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote the words quoted above in the Atlantic, the former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, incoming president of the New America Foundation, and all-around overachiever ignited a furious global discussion among feminists, post-feminists, post-post feminists, and just about everyone else. Now, with the publication of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg's No. 1 bestselling book, Lean In, women's work-life balance is Topic A all over again.

Slaughter and Sandberg approach the problem from different angles; the former focuses on the barriers created by an inflexibly demanding workplace, while the latter emphasizes women's internal obstacles, like self-doubt and a speak-only-when-called-on approach to life. But Slaughter and Sandberg probably agree on the ultimate goal: a world where, as Sandberg puts it, women run "half our countries and companies" and men run "half our homes."

Neither answers a basic question, though: Is this vision even within the realm of possibility? Some Americans like to think so and tend to look longingly across the ocean for solutions to the work-family dilemma. It's easy to see why they imagine hope lies abroad, in the more liberal corners of Europe and among progressive innovators everywhere. Americans are famously reluctant to try federal solutions for social issues, and at any rate, the failure to create a gender Shangri-La appears to be pretty far down on their list of complaints. By contrast, the European Union has announced a procession of treaties, agreements, reports, monitoring data, and targets since its founding, all in the service of making Sandberg's vision a reality. And truth be told, when it comes to official efforts to advance women, even the most unlikely candidates -- Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Kyrgyzstan, to name just a few of the countries that now use quotas to empower women -- seem to have leapfrogged past the United States.

But here's what the lean-inners and have-it-allers need to ponder: Everywhere on Earth -- including in the Scandinavian countries that have tried almost everything short of obligatory hormone therapy aimed at equalizing power between the sexes -- mothers remain the default parent while men dominate the upper echelons of the business world. There are limits to what governments can do to create gender equality -- and it's time we acknowledge it.

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"Women in the United States Are Worse Off."

Wrong. In fact, American women are far more likely to work full time and rise to the top levels of business, academia, and professional fields like law and medicine -- though not politics -- than women in other developed countries. According to a recent study by Cornell University economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn, American women are about as likely as American men to be company managers, while women in the researchers' comparison group of 10 other developed countries were only half as likely as men to have made it that far. In fact, the United States has the highest proportion of women in senior management positions of any country in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of the world's most developed countries. At 43 percent, it is a percentage that comes close to women's 47 percent overall share of the U.S. labor force.

Indeed, the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks the United States eighth globally on gender equality in economic participation and opportunity, ahead of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Iceland. According to Blau and Kahn, 24 percent of working American women are in the professional fields, compared to only 16 percent of working American men; the gap in other countries also favors women, but by much less, 19 vs. 17 percent. If you exclude traditionally female occupations such as nursing and teaching, American women look even better relative to women in comparison countries. In general, the U.S. labor market is less segregated by sex than those of other economically advanced countries, with more women breaking into traditionally male fields. What's more, American women are more likely than European women to start and run their own businesses; some 46 percent of American firms are owned or co-owned by women, and the rate of female ownership is increasing at one and a half times the rate of overall business growth.

This story may seem counterintuitive. The success of Sandberg's book and Slaughter's article no doubt reflects a deep dissatisfaction among some American women with what is often described as a "stalled revolution" toward equality. The WEF's 2012 Global Gender Gap Report, for example, ranks the United States 22nd out of 135 countries for gender equality in education, health, political empowerment, and economic participation and opportunity -- barely in view of top-rated Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, and worse even than Latvia and Lesotho.

As for America's notorious glass ceiling? Despite women's success moving into senior management positions, they have barely breached the career penthouse. In the legal profession, although women make up 47 percent of American law students, they account for just 21 percent of law school deans, 20 percent of law firm partners, and 23 percent of federal judges, according to Catalyst, a research nonprofit. In the country's top 50 law firms, moreover, women make up only 19 percent of equity partners. For women in medicine, the prospects aren't any better: Although they make up 48 percent of medical school graduates, they only represent 13 percent of medical school deans and department chairs and 19 percent of full professors. In business, it's much the same: Women earn 37 percent of MBAs, but account for only 14 percent of executive officers, 18 percent of senior financial officers, and 4 percent of CEOs.

While these numbers represent progress, they also show that things are moving glacially. "If change continues at the same slow pace as it has done for the past fifty years," the Institute for Women's Policy Research warns, "it will take almost another fifty -- or until 2056 -- for women to finally reach pay parity." In fact, the organization found no change in the gender wage gap between full-time workers between 2009 and 2011. Meanwhile, an endless series of reports in every field -- academia, law, business, medicine, tech -- bemoans a career pipeline that continues to leak promising women at every stage.

As dispiriting as all this may seem, leaning in isn't any easier in other developed countries -- including in the Scandinavian equality havens that topped the World Economic Forum's list. In fact, it might even be harder. Women make up only 18 percent of leadership positions at top universities and research institutions in Scandinavia versus 22 percent in the United States. As for the business sector, Finland currently has only one female CEO of a publicly listed company. In Sweden, only 2.5 percent of chief executives at listed companies are female, and the wage gap at the top between women and men is significantly higher than that in the United States. Female CEOs are a rarity in Norway too, at just 2 percent.

Iceland does have a higher percentage of women in C-suite positions than the United States, though it still doesn't have much to brag about. Iceland's CEOs are only 10 percent women, a figure that has hardly budged over the past 10 years. And the pipeline is running very slowly. Icelandic women represent only 19 percent of managers overall; Norway does better, but women are still only 40 percent of managers in the public sector and 22 percent in the private sector. If you're a woman who wants to aim high, you're probably better off in the USA.

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"Discrimination Is to Blame
for America's Large Wage Gap."

No. Gender wage gaps are a global phenomenon. If you are a woman, or at least if you are a woman with children, chances are you are making less than your average countryman. This is true whether you live in Istanbul or Oslo, Tokyo or Stockholm. Although America's 18 percent wage gap is about 3 percentage points wider than the OECD average, it is almost identical to the gap in Britain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands and narrower than that in Finland and Germany. (It is, however, wider than the gaps in Sweden and Denmark and, perhaps more surprisingly, Hungary, Italy, and Spain.)

But as these rankings suggest, the wage gap is not a very good measure of discrimination. Discrimination certainly plays some role in generating wage disparities -- particularly in more traditional Asian societies like Japan, where the gap is close to 30 percent, or South Korea, where it approaches 40 percent -- but other factors are also at play. For example, high levels of unionization and strong minimum wage laws reduce the size of gender wage gaps -- just as they reduce overall inequality. Because women are more prevalent in lower-wage jobs, redistributive policies, like those in Sweden and Norway, mean smaller overall wage gaps. But there's a tradeoff here: Egalitarian countries also tend to have higher gender wage gaps among top earners than less-regulated economies like the United States.

Far from giving us an accurate picture of women's overall status, official wage-gap statistics actually muddy the water. Countries with a lower proportion of women in the labor force and poor records on gender equality, for example, often have relatively small wage gaps because only the most highly qualified women go to work at all. This explains why the average Italian working woman makes more relative to her male peers than the average Danish or Swedish woman. Small wage gaps don't necessarily mean you're progressive; they could mean just the opposite.

They could also very well reflect women's preferences, rather than discrimination. In the OECD countries, women are more likely than men to enter lower-paying fields -- say, teaching or social work, rather than computer programming or business. More importantly, women seem more willing than men to make the tradeoff between earnings and status and time with children. They work fewer hours than men across the board, even if you compare only full-time workers. They are also more likely to work in the less remunerative and less demanding public sector. Everywhere in the OECD, childless women in their 20s earn more like men than older women with children. And in the United States, those women actually earn more than childless men in their 20s.


"America's Maternity and Child-Care Policies Are Holding Women Back."

Which women? It's certainly true that many other countries have more generous parental leave and child-care provisions than the United States. And it's also very likely the case that those policies bring more women into the workforce. Among the countries that top the OECD's ranking for female labor-force participation -- including Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand, and Canada -- close to 80 percent of mothers work. Most offer between six months and a year of at least partially paid parental leave in addition to other benefits for parents. In Norway, to take one especially appealing example, couples get 47 weeks of parental leave and have the rights to demand part-time work and stay at home with sick children. Ninety percent of the country's 1- to 5-year-olds are in state-subsidized day care.

U.S. family policies, meanwhile, have more in common with Liberia and Swaziland than Scandinavia. Thanks to the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, American women now get 12 weeks of maternity leave, but it's unpaid and applies only to women working for companies with 50 or more employees. In practice, that means the law applies to somewhere around half of private-sector workers (though many states and companies have their own policies that can include longer and/or paid leave).

Being stingy toward mothers hasn't worked out well for the U.S. economy. While women have been pouring into the European workplace, American women haven't gone to work at appreciably higher rates since the mid-1990s, when the robust growth of the preceding decades petered out. In 1990, the United States ranked sixth out of 22 OECD countries in the proportion of women working. By 2010, it had dropped to 17th. That said, 71 percent of American mothers are working, which is lower but not dramatically so than the Nordics.

But high labor-force participation rates cut both ways. While family-friendly policies may make many women -- in particular those in lower- and mid-wage jobs -- happier and perhaps even more productive and their children healthier, there is a growing body of evidence that they also inadvertently create a "mommy track." In fact, more generous leave policies partly explain the glass ceilings, as well as stubbornly large wage gaps in more progressive countries. Such policies, Blau and Kahn have found, "may encourage women who would have otherwise had a stronger labor force commitment to take part-time jobs or lower-level positions." In practice that means that part-time work has ended up accounting for most of the increase in female labor-force participation, they found. Swedish and Norwegian mothers, for instance, are somewhat more likely to be working than American mothers. But they are also far more likely to be part-time workers than their counterparts in the United States, where in 40 percent of households with children, women are now the primary breadwinners. So if the goal is workforce equality, family-friendly policies as they are currently designed are not going to do the trick.

The reasons should be fairly obvious. A woman who takes six or eight or 12 months off -- not to mention a woman who does so two or three times during her career -- loses touch with her firm's culture and network and depletes her seniority. And as Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo! CEO who famously took only two weeks of (working) maternity leave, well understood, top executives, whether women or men, cannot disappear for very long for any reason. Extended periods of paid leave may also discourage women from starting their own businesses. In Denmark, for example, if a woman on maternity leave works, she has to give up some of her maternity allowance. And even where the government pays for parental leave, as it does in Sweden, and there are strenuous laws against discrimination, companies hiring women face indirect costs and considerable inconvenience. Given a choice between a woman of childbearing age, who might well take a year off in the near future, and an equally talented young man who would take maybe a month off, many executives -- male or female -- would probably hire the latter.

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"Getting Dads to Take Time Off
Will Help Women Reach Equality."

Wrong again. A number of activists have pinned their hopes on having dads lean in at home by taking more paternity leave. "How about this?" Slaughter proposed at a South by Southwest conference panel this spring. "Let's start with six months paid leave. Three for the woman, three for the man." As it happens, some other countries have tried something very similar. The best that can be said about the results -- and this is worth something to be sure -- is that paternity leave makes dads more hands-on when it comes to child care and household chores. But that's only when they're actually at home. Even in countries with the longest leave policies, fathers still work considerably longer hours than mothers. Unsurprisingly, they also earn more money and move higher up the career ladder.

Most places with paternity leave offer only a few days or a week, usually when a new mother has not yet returned to the office. That's probably not enough to change dynamics at home. But the problem isn't necessarily that paternity leave is too short. Sweden and Iceland, among others, have designed policies explicitly intended to equalize domestic responsibilities, and the results aren't that promising.

In Sweden, fathers have long been encouraged to take some parental leave, but in 1995, noting how few of them were actually doing so, the government followed Norway's lead and reserved one month of total parental leave as a use-it-or-lose-it month just for fathers. The reform was at least nominally successful: The average father took off 35 days, a little more than the month offered. In 2002, the government went further, making two full "daddy months" of parental leave nontransferable to moms. Men took off an average of 47 days, still considerably less than the total available. Then in 2008, dissatisfied with the remaining large gender gap in the leave taken by dads versus moms, the government introduced yet another reform: the "gender equality bonus." Under this law, the more couples shared leave time, the more money they would get. Amazingly, the reform had no impact. According to official statistics, women still took 76 percent of leave days in 2011. The long-term effects of Sweden's parental-leave policy, in other words, have been negligible, all the more so when you consider how many women gravitate toward part-time jobs.

Besides, paternity leave is relevant only when there are two active parents. As of 2010, 23 percent of Icelandic families with children were headed by a single parent. In Sweden it was around 20 percent; in Finland, 23 percent; and in Norway, 22 percent. (America's rate of lone parenthood, 28 percent, is the third-highest of OECD countries, surpassed only by Estonia and Latvia.) Single parents in every country are almost always women. That means that for close to a quarter of mothers in these countries, equality on the domestic front is a moot issue. If only for logistical reasons, it also means higher overall gender gaps across the board -- hours worked, earnings, CEOs, university deans, and so on. It makes for some pretty daunting math for anyone trying to get to Sandberg's 50-50 vision.

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"Quotas Work."

Up to a point. Quotas reserving for women, say, 30 or 40 percent of the seats in legislative bodies or boards of publicly traded companies are all the rage these days and are now in place in 116 countries. Political quotas at the local level are on the books in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. Even Afghanistan, among the most repressive places on Earth for women, requires that 68 out of 249 parliamentary seats be held by women. The practice is also widespread in Latin America, where Argentina led the way by instituting quotas in 1991. Advocates argue that quotas increase women's political representation in places where there is little and help move beyond mere tokenism in countries where progress is stalled. But the spillover effects from these policies are hard to find, and they may even undermine women in the long run by elevating poorly qualified candidates.

Take Norway. In 2003, it became the first country to require that 40 percent of board members of publicly traded companies be female. (The European Union has proposed a nonbinding version of this, which would be phased in by 2020.) But although the country has succeeded in stocking its boardrooms with women, little else has changed. Like other countries that have since instituted boardroom quotas, Norway still has a pitifully small number of female CEOs and managers and has seen little alteration in the gender makeup of executive suites.

Conventional wisdom has it that whether or not boardroom quotas are good for women, they are good for business. There is some research showing a correlation between boardroom composition and company performance. But other more focused studies are not so hopeful. A study published in 2011 by the Quarterly Journal of Economics, for instance, found that Norway's quotas produced inexperienced boards, as well as "increases in leverage and acquisitions, and deterioration in operating performance, consistent with less capable boards." One reason for this may be what has come to be known as the "golden skirt" phenomenon: Quotas make highly qualified women so sought after that they spread themselves too thin. In 2011, for example, 70 women held 300 board positions in Norway. Another unintended consequence was that a large number of companies delisted themselves from the stock exchange rather than comply with the law.

Quotas in the political arena have probably done more to put women in leadership positions than any other strategy. Political parties in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, for example, introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 1970s. Sweden now has the fourth-highest percentage of women in parliament in the world (45 percent), while the other Nordic countries are almost as high. They have a similarly strong record on the percentage of women ministers.

As political quotas have spread, however, their significance has become more ambiguous. Quotas may be indicative of women's overall status in Scandinavia and Rwanda, which has the highest proportion of women in parliament (56 percent) anywhere in the world and appears to be undergoing a major gender revolution. But are women -- or their countries -- better off in East Timor or Angola, both of which have parliaments that are more than a third female, than in similar countries without quotas? One study of quotas in Latin America found some correlation between women's representation in elected office and the country's position on the U.N. Gender Inequality Index in Central America, but none at all in South America. And, the authors observe, "In no case has women's presence exceeded the threshold of the quota. Political parties generally treat quota percentages as ceilings, not floors."

Interestingly, two OECD countries without any political -- or board -- quotas at all, the United States and New Zealand, have the highest proportion of women in senior management positions among the world's most developed countries. Women's presence -- and ambition -- in U.S. politics lags well behind men's, but by the late 1990s, researchers repeatedly found that they are able to raise the same amount of money and are as likely to win as men when they do run. At any rate, quotas are partially based on the presumption that women representatives have a distinctively female perspective, which takes us to our final myth.

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"A Woman Leader Means More Equality for Women."

Not really. Women presidents and prime ministers, like their male counterparts, run the gamut when it comes to political and social priorities. On the progressive end of the spectrum are female leaders like former Finnish President Tarja Halonen, who spoke forcefully throughout her career about women's rights and human rights (though even she wasn't able to do much to get rid of her country's gender gaps in the workplace). But on the traditional end of the spectrum are the Thatchers and Bhuttos, the Gandhis and Sheikh Hasinas, who pay little attention to what are generally considered women's issues. Following in this tradition is South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, whose sex is of such little interest to her country that she is sometimes called the "neuter president." (Park presides over a country that ranks a sorry 108th on the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index.) Somewhere in the middle are leaders like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who sometimes sees eye to eye with feminists in her government and sometimes does not. She expanded day care, for example, but opposed boardroom quotas, which led to a bitter struggle with women in her own party that she ultimately lost.

One of the few quantitative studies on women leaders and women's well-being actually finds a negative correlation between female heads of state or government and gender parity in education and income. That squares with the conclusion reached by reporters Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn in their book Half the Sky. There is "no correlation," as Kristof wrote on his New York Times blog, "between a female president or prime minister and any improvements in girls' education or maternal health or any other improvement in the status of women."

"Only when women wield power in sufficient numbers," Slaughter writes in her much-discussed article, "will we create a society that genuinely works for all women." Presumably Sandberg would agree, but that's not what experience has taught us. Policies that work for women who want to lean in and make it to the top don't necessarily work as well for women who don't, and vice versa. And just as there are tradeoffs for individual women between career and children, so too are there tradeoffs and tensions on the societal level -- between family leave policies and wage gaps, between the right to part-time work and equality in the executive suite, between mandatory quotas and merit-based achievement. We really can't have it all.

It's possible, of course, that we simply haven't found the right tools to end gender inequality. But it's also possible that, whether for biological or cultural reasons or both, many women are less interested in absolute parity with men than they are in work that gives them plenty of time with their kids. Is that such a bad thing?