Andrei Antonovich, are you sure this is just an exercise?
—Leonid Brezhnev to Marshal Andrei Grechko during a 1972 nuclear exercise1
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more
uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the conduct of a new order of
This book recommends a renewed intellectual effort on nuclear deterrence. The reasons, spelled out in Chapter Two, are many, but the core principle is straightforward: As long as nuclear weapons are around, even in small numbers, deterrence is the safest doctrine to deal with them.3 This principle is easier to embrace in theory than it is to put into practice. This was true during the Cold War, and it appears to be even truer today: The actors are more diverse, more opaque, and sometimes more reckless. Since deterrence is a dynamic relationship among specific entities, nations, and leaders, this diversity, opacity, and potential recklessness must be taken into account. In some cases this is a real challenge. For example, if Iran ever became a nuclear power, it is difficult even to guess who the interlocutor would be if a serious crisis were to erupt. Traditional nuclear concepts (i.e., first strike, escalation, and extended deterrence), presented in Chapter Three, are often still useful, but they need to be adapted. Finally, unlike all the leaders of the Cold War, today’s leaders have not had the experience of living through
1 John G. Hines, Ellis M. Mishulovich, and John F. Shull, Soviet Intentions 1965–1985, Volume II: Soviet PostCold War Testimonial Evidence, McLean, Va.: BDM Federal, Inc., September 22, 1995, p. 27.
2 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince.
3 Alternatives to deterrence—preemption, coercion, and use—are all less attractive. Deterrence matters most to nations willing to limit violence escalation. It follows, then, that deterrence matters most to risk-averse democracies, whether they be Western, Asian, or Middle Eastern. It took some time for Western nations to convince Moscow that deterrence was the best policy when nuclear weapons were involved. It remains unclear today whether that attempt was fully successful. In the case of China, deterrence long meant coercion and may still mean it behind closed doors. How Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea calculate prospective costs and benefits remains an enigma.