Why Is This Subject Important?
Where are we headed? Who knows? We hardly recall where we come from.
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe1
Decades ago, Thomas Schelling spoke about “the retarded science of international security.”2 For all his faith in reason and rationality, he knew all too well that the development of such a science was not only retarded, it would never exist. Since both the constant influx of new empirical data and the play of human freedom define history, any science on the subject would amount to a dangerous fiction. But lucid and articulate thinking has a crucial role to play in international relations.
One of its most important tasks is to keep humanity within the boundaries of acceptable historical experiences.3 Sixty- seven years after 1945, most would consider a nuclear attack to be beyond those boundaries. The variety of nuclear actors, the proliferation of cruise and ballistic missiles, thermonuclear weapons, and radical ideologies have transformed the nuclear scene to a considerable extent since the end of World War II. Whether thinking on nuclear weapons has followed a similarly impressive path, particularly since the dissolution of the USSR, is questionable. There are numerous analyses and studies, but they do not match the quality and pertinence of those of the Cold War vintage.
While nuclear deterrence attracted an abundance of intellectual attention during the Cold War, since the 1950s there has been a decline in thinking on this subject even as the risk of nuclear use has been rising. The absolute necessity of preventing extreme violence among states (as opposed to nonstate actors) has receded in our minds, even though it is prominent in our speeches. Humanity does not learn much from events that do not happen. In a way, the very success of the deterrence enterprise during the
1 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit.
2 Thomas Schelling, “The Retarded Science of International Strategy,” Midwest Journal of Political Science, Vol. 4, No. 2, May 1960.
3 This is particularly true since, as Paul Fussell wrote in 1975, “The drift of modern history domesticates the fantastic and normalizes the unspeakable.” Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975, p. 74.