Should Traditional Nuclear Deterrence Be Abandoned?

May 11, 2001

On May 11, 2001 the Carnegie Council launched the Spring 2001 issue of its journal, Ethics & International Affairs, with a public panel in Washington, D.C., cosponsored with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and The Century Foundation. The discussion, “U.S. Arms Control Policy in the Twenty-First Century,” was based on Nina Tannenwald’s journal essay calling for a reconsideration of the U.S. policy of nuclear deterrence, and J. Peter Scoblic’s defense of that policy.

Deterrence Is a Fact of Life

J. PETER SCOBLIC: In the past few years, as the debate over national missile defense has heated up again, it has become something of a mantra among conservatives that the traditional notion of nuclear deterrence died with the end of the Cold War. I think that is a problematic assertion, and one that could lead to contradictory, and even dangerous, policies.

In early May, President George W. Bush proposed what he called a new way of thinking about nuclear weapons, one that would base our security not only on offenses, as was done during the Cold War, but also on defenses. He argued that this is appropriate býcause the world we live in now is vastly different from the world of a few years ago. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and Russia is not our enemy. Furthermore, there are a number of small rogue states that are developing limited but potentially dangerous ballistic missile capabilities. The implication of the president’s remarks is that since we live in a new world, we need a new way of thinking about nuclear weapons.

Intuitively, the argument makes a great deal of sense. Obviously, the world is enormously different than it was ten or fifteen years ago. But, while deterrence may have been in part a function of the U.S.-Soviet rivalry, it was more a function of the superpowers’ possession of nuclear weapons than it was of any political or ideological struggle. In preparing to deal with the threat from so-called rogue states, President Bush has to be careful that he does not abandon the deterrence framework that has stabilized the relationship among the major nuclear powers for decades.

The Soviet Union and the United States codified this relationship in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prohibited defenses that could upset that strategic stability. This cap on defenses laid the foundation for the superpowers to stem their race in offensive arms and eventually to cut their nuclear forces, because of the confidence that defenses could not be erected to negate their deterrent and, therefore, make them vulnerable to a first strike. The point in all this history and theory is that mutual assured destruction (MAD)—or mutual assured deterrence, as some people prefer to call it—did not evolve because of the superpowers’ political differences; it did so because mutual assured destruction is the logical endpoint of a relationship for nations with large nuclear arsenals.

The problem now is that the United States is challenging this framework in an attempt to rationalize the building of missile defenses. The Bush administration has already said that Russia is not the target of the system it is planning, and Russia’s 6,000 deployed strategic warheads should in fact be enough to overwhelm any defense that the administration is considering. So, oddly, while claiming that MAD is a dead paradigm, the administration is simultaneously acknowledging that it is still in force. But the administration also needs to acknowledge how the perceptions of a missile defense could affect the Russian deterrent and how important that could be.

Russia is concerned about missile defense for two reasons. First, Russia fears that given the deteriorated state of its arsenal, a U.S. first strike could take out the vast majority of its weapons, and those that remained for a retaliatory strike could be mopped up by whatever defenses the United States erects. Second, a limited defense today could be rapidly expanded tomorrow to a far more robust and threatening defense.

Another challenging question that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is the potential Chinese reaction to missile defense. The administration has yet to decide—or, at least, has yet to make public—whether a missile defense will be intended to counter the Chinese nuclear force, which right now numbers about 20 ICBMs that are capable of reaching the United States. A recognition of the importance that Russia, and China in particular, place on deterrence is going to yield a more cooperative atmosphere and more productive results as we move forward in trying to reduce nuclear dangers.

Despite the Bush administration’s attempt at a new paradigm, deterrence will continue to be the way that the nuclear powers keep the peace among themselves. It is important to understand that deterrence is not a policy decision that can simply be rolled back by the administration. It’s a fact of life. In formulating its nuclear posture and in making its plans for a missile defense, the Bush administration needs to keep that in mind.

Deterrence Blocks Disarmament

NINA TANNENWALD: I agree with Peter Scoblic that deterrence, understood as MAD, is a fact of life: what I am focusing on here is what principle should serve as the organizing rationale for our arms control policy. It has up until now been deterrence. But there is a fundamental contradiction. The continued reliance on nuclear threats and large nuclear arsenals is a self-defeating posture for the United States, because it undermines our ability to stem proliferation.

Despite vast changes in the world, the United States continues to rely on a threat to use nuclear weapons first. It continues to preserve deterrence while denying it to the rest of the world. This is, over the long term, an unsustainable policy. We should, therefore, replace deterrence as an organizing principle for arms control with disarmament.

The notion of stable nuclear deterrence has been one of the major accomplishments of Cold War–era arms control, and this is certainly enshrined in the ABM treaty, the strategic arms control treaties, and a variety of other measures. This is a very important accomplishment. But disarmament is an idea whose time has come, and deterrence is an idea whose time has come and gone. Today, the costs of relying on deterrence outweigh the benefits of it for several reasons.

First, while MAD remains robust, nuclear weapons are unlikely to deter non-nuclear states—not because such states are irrational, as some people suggest, but because most people think it very unlikely that an American president would authorize the use of nuclear weapons.

Second, deterrence is increasingly going to be used against us. If countries like North Korea and Iraq are able to acquire a nuclear capability, it will vastly complicate our calculations about how to deal with crises in those regions.

Third, the continued reliance on nuclear weapons sends signals to the rest of the world about the utility and the legitimacy of these weapons. Sending these kinds of signals sustains the interest of other countries in acquiring these weapons. The statements and behavior of India and Pakistan over the years support this.

Finally, any global arms control scheme that continues to enshrine deterrence for some states but not for others is likely to be unstable over the long haul. The non-nuclear states supported the asymmetry built into the nonproliferation regime during the special circumstances of the Cold War. They are increasingly impatient with the foot dragging of the nuclear powers on disarmament.

This doesn’t mean that MAD will disappear. Although I support the Bush administration’s proposals to make deeper cuts in nuclear weapons, it is not sufficient simply to reduce the numbers. We need a cognitive and normative shift in how we think about these weapons. This means pursuing verifiable agreements to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons dramatically, with the elimination of nuclear weapons as the goal, and it means policies to reduce the utility and the legitimacy of these weapons for all states, including the nuclear powers.

I would like to make an additional point on the militarization of space. This is a very troubling development. There has been almost no public debate on this issue. And if weapons are stationed in space, this will be extremely disturbing. There are very few nonmilitarized areas of the globe. We should try to preserve those we have left. One problem with generating public support for an arms control agenda is that it’s hard to mobilize people against missile defense. There is no grassroots anti-nuclear movement these days, as there was in the 1950s or the 1980s. Missile defense doesn’t rally people in that way, because it sounds like Mom and apple pie: What’s to object to?

How do you generate that kind of public support? The militarization of space may just do that. The possibility of having weapons in space may frighten people. The environmental crowd might get very interested in this issue.

I have just read Frances FitzGerald’s wonderful book Way Out There in the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars, and the End of the Cold War, and one of the points she makes is that Star Wars was a vehicle for very different coalitions with different interests in promoting their own agendas. One of the groups that has been behind Star Wars all along sees missile defense as a vehicle for, as FitzGerald puts it, the domination of space. The fact that some people now say that missile defense doesn’t have to work perfectly makes me concerned that their real agenda is the militarization of space.

On national missile defense in general, it’s important to remember that it is not a defense. It will provide damage control. When the administration says this will protect the nation against nuclear attacks, it is misleading the nation. It may provide a kind of protection. It will create uncertainty for so-called rogue states, but wh§t it is most likely to do is make them decide not to launch an ICBM attack, but rather to attack in some other way. I don’t see this as a fundamental paradigm shift.

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