The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction

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The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction by Keith B. Payne. University Press of Kentucky (, 663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4008, 2001, 172 pages, $19.95 (softcover), $35.00 (hardcover).

Since 11 September 2001, discussions about the applications of nuclear deterrence have been relegated to the back burner while our national security focuses more on the threat of nonstate actors and "axis of evil" rogue states than it has on possible peer competitors. Nevertheless, Keith Payne's book, although written before 11 September, is relevant to the national security needs of the moment. The passing of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the increasing likelihood that rogue actors may obtain nuclear weapons, and the recent episode of brinkmanship between India and Pakistan all combine to thrust to center stage any questions about the importance and utility of nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century.

Payne is no newcomer to this subject. The chief executive officer and president of the National Institute for Public Policy and the editor in chief of the journal Comparative Strategy, he has published numerous books and articles on nuclear deterrence, missile defense, and other strategic issues. In this most recent and relatively short work, his opening salvo sets the tone: because the logical structure of deterrence rests on a tautology, it is flawed. The tautology is as follows: "Rational leaders would be deterred via mutual nuclear threats because, by definition, they would be irrational if they were not so deterred." Payne then proceeds to tick off numerous examples of adversaries in recent history-including Hitler, Castro, and North Vietnam's leadership-who did not behave according to Washington's definition of "rational and reasonable." We have no reason, he continues, to expect that future adversaries will behave and respond in ways we would anticipate or could predict. Payne is so persuasive that readers will cringe, ever after, when they encounter categorical statements such as "the exact same kinds of nuclear deterrence that have always worked will continue to work" (Jan Lodal) or "if we could deter the 'evil' empire for four decades, we can almost certainly deter today's rogue states" (Harvard professor Steve Walt). If ever a clear message existed in the aftermath of the events of 11 September, it is that the threats to our nation have changed drastically from those in the Cold War and that the enemy mind-set is not necessarily one that shares our values or matches our description of "rational and reasonable."

From his basic rejection of all-encompassing deterrence, Payne begins to hint at the implications for missile defense: "In fact, in the post-Cold War era, missile defense in concert with other defensive capabilities may be necessary for the U.S. freedom of action long taken for granted in Washington." Although he fails to elaborate, his point is well taken-the failure of deterrence leaves the United States rather naked and vulnerable to the coercive power and threat of any nation or actor who might develop and field nuclear weapons. …