Monday, March 07, 2011

Deterrence in the Age of Nuclear Proliferation

As long as there has been war, there have been efforts to deter actions a nation considers threatening. Until fairly recently, this meant building a military establishment capable of intimidating the adversary, defeating him or making his victory more costly than the projected gains. This, with conventional weapons, took time. Deterrence and war strategy were identical.
That’s how the latest Wall Street Journal op-ed from George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn begins. (That link may or may not run into a paywall. Here's a link that will work.)

Deterrence took another turn into mutually assured destruction (MAD) with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the United States and the Soviet Union, which were locked in what could have been a duel-to-the-death under any circumstances. Nuclear deterrence became a major building block of strategic thinking during the Cold War, and it’s hard to give up. Confusing the picture is the use of the noun deterrence without its adjective nuclear, when today’s common meaning implies both.

The op-ed four (still no name that I like for the group*) seem to be trying to find a way from the Cold War to something useful for today, and I think they’ve got part of it, but it’s really, really hard to give up that deterrence thing.

So they end the piece with
Moving from mutual assured destruction toward a new and more stable form of deterrence with decreasing nuclear risks and an increasing measure of assured security for all nations could prevent our worst nightmare from becoming a reality, and it could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations.
There it is again, that word! I think they mean prevention of war.

There will be no general deterrence of the kind that we had during the Cold War, which, as the four note in this op-ed, deterred only a massive nuclear attack and allowed a great many other kinds of martial adventure. Also as they note, that massive nuclear attack is highly unlikely in today’s world, because it is clearly not in the interest of the United States or Russia even to threaten it.

We have gone back to where deterrence means a great many things. North Korea deters attack by being so heavily armed, being located so close to South Korea’s capital, and by the danger of its refugees moving into China. Whatever nuclear capability it has is frosting on the cake. Iran deters attack by being a large country with influence over a terrorist network that can do a great deal of damage. Again, nuclear capability is a small part of that. Psychologically, though, adding nuclear weapons seems to increase the barrier to attack.

If there is such a thing as general deterrence, it lies in the realization by many nations that war is not in their interest. It is expensive and destructive. For most nations, no longer can an autocrat order the masses to their death in war. There are getting to be fewer autocrats, too.

The four points put forward in the op-ed are reiterations of what the four writers have said before. If there was an age of nuclear proliferation, it was the 1960s and 1970s, when more countries were working on developing nuclear weapons than are now. We could see more in the future, but the future looked like that back then too.

What is important about this latest WSJ op-ed is, unfortunately, buried. More countries must be involved in the process of denuclearizing the world.
Can we devise and successfully implement with other nations, including other nuclear powers, careful, cooperative concepts to safely dismount the nuclear tiger while strengthening the capacity to assure our security and that of allies and other countries considered essential to our national security?
Conventional arms must be addressed.
All conventional deployments should be reviewed from the aspect of provocation.
That sentence is addressed to the United States and Russia, but it should be broadened to all countries. Seriously considering it would also imply considering conventional arms sales.

It’s significant, too, that this group of four keep reminding us of this issue. This latest in their continuing series reminds us how much work we have ahead of us.
* The classical Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Conquest, War, Famine, and Death. Seems inappropriate for these op-ed guys.


Al Mauroni said...

Four Wise Men ;)

"There it is again, that word! I think they mean prevention of war."

Sure they do. And by prevention of war, they mean "preparing for war" and holding onto US nukes. As long as we're the "good guys," then we can prevent war. As soon as others get nukes, it gets hard. Actually have to use diplomacy then.

Josh said...

Four Statesmen of the Apocalypse.