America's Nuclear Deterrence in the Age of Terrorism

By Kampmark, Binoy | Contemporary Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview

America's Nuclear Deterrence in the Age of Terrorism


Kampmark, Binoy, Contemporary Review


FOR the last twenty years it has been the cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy to desist in using nuclear weapons unless the United States and, in some instances, its allies were attacked. The war in Iraq and the developing nuclear threat from North Korea make this a particularly timely occasion to see if that is still the case. The assumption underpinning the U.S. policy of non-use placed nuclear weapons into diplomatic rather than military roles. Such weapons are best left unused in military combat while giving the United States a sufficient deterrent power against any prospective attacker. The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 leave reason to doubt these orthodox assumptions of nuclear policy. The leaked Nuclear Posture Report (NPR) authored by the U.S. Defense Department for Congress demands a more belligerent attitude towards non-state actors and non-nuclear states 'hostile' to the United States. As William M. Arkin noted in the Los Angeles Times (March 10, 2002), the Bush Admini stration has reversed 'an almost two-decade-long trend of relegating nuclear weapons to the category of weapons of last resort'. Reaction from the international community has been sharp despite the assurances given by President Bush's press secretary (March 2002) that the findings of the Nuclear Posture Review are not different from the policy of previous administrations.

To understand the significance of the NPR in the context of nuclear policy change under the present Bush Administration, the content of deterrence itself has changed. The present prominence of terrorist organizations and the impact of September 11 has seen a revaluation of traditional deterrence theory, which is implied in the NPR. While suggestions in the NPR increase the technological deterrent of the United States, the deterrent comes at a strategic price. The tactical shift from strategic weapons (such as Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles) to more tactically deployable weapons against state and non-state actors undermines nuclear non-proliferation by creating new lethal technologies. Arms reduction becomes futile, since new technologies are proliferated in place of strategic nuclear arms. Battlefield ethics is further eroded by lowering the threshold of tolerance for weapons of mass destruction.

The Collapse of Nuclear Deterrence: the Rationale of NPR

Deterrence, as the White House Press Secretary An Fleischer discussed in the early March conference, is a mechanism in flux. But the new deterrence cannot be reasoned as a simple re-orientation of weapons that do not mandate use. The American strategist, Thomas Schelling, defined deterrence as 'the skilful non-use of force', yet the NPR contemplates a direct use of nuclear weapons, the very use of weapons that are avoided under deterrence theory. Schelling made it clear that the destruction of the enemy was secondary to injuring him. The utility of nuclear weapons was not in their military use but in their diplomatic role: the 'diplomacy of violence'.

Understanding Schelling's rationale requires a brief survey of atomic deterrence. The origins of atomic deterrence began with the discovery of nuclear power in 1939 when the Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard considered a German bomb a theoretical possibility. The scientists Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, working in Britain in 1940, suggested the creation of an atomic weapon as a means of deterring Nazi Germany from using it. Such a device 'could probably not be used without killing large numbers of civilians, and this may make it unsuitable as a weapon for use by this country [Britain]'. The most effective reply would be a counter-threat with a similar bomb. It was never intended to be used according to scientists such as Polish emigre Joseph Rotblatt, who worked on the Manhattan bomb project for the United States to deter the prospect of German atomic weapons being used. With the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, the failure of Rotblatt's 'deterrence' theory was superseded by a desire by the American adm inistration to limit the proliferation of atomic technology through the Baruch Plan (1946). …

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