Alive and Kicking: The Greatly Exaggerated Death of Nuclear Deterrence: A Response to Nina Tannenwald

By Scoblic, J. Peter | Ethics & International Affairs, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Alive and Kicking: The Greatly Exaggerated Death of Nuclear Deterrence: A Response to Nina Tannenwald


Scoblic, J. Peter, Ethics & International Affairs


Despite the radical changes in the global political and military situation in the past ten years, U.S. nuclear forces retain the same mission and the same basic structure they had when Moscow was the seat of the "Evil Empire." As it has for decades, the United States maintains thousands of nuclear warheads on a variety of land-, sea- and air-based platforms. These forces are on a level of high alert, ready to launch within minutes of an attack warning. It is a distinctly Cold War footing in a world that has long since come in from the cold of U.S.-Soviet antagonism.

The United States has made some significant alterations in its nuclear stance, reducing the number of deployed strategic warheads by about 40 percent and withdrawing most tactical nuclear weapons. But much remains to be done, and the arms control process, which yielded such large returns in the early and mid-1990s, has stalled. Furthermore, from many perspectives the United States seems to be the one that has thrown a wrench in the works. Its October 1999 rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), its failure to ratify a protocol to the START II agreement that would enable strategic forces to be cut in half, and, most glaringly, its plans for a national missile defense threaten the cooperative spirit needed if arms control is to continue to reduce the danger posed by nuclear weapons.

In "U.S. Arms Control Policy in a Time Warp," Nina Tannenwald argues that, while the United States remains mired in Cold War thinking about nuclear weapons, the global arms control movement has grown to include many players beyond the nuclear-weapon states; progress is increasingly driven by the agenda of middle-power states and nongovernmental organizations; and achieving success in arms control ultimately hinges on changing the way we think about nuclear weapons. But these arguments rest on a more fundamental premise: The United States needs to trade its reliance on the tired concept of nuclear deterrence for the explicit goal of nuclear disarmament. Unless it does so, Tannenwald writes, the stalled arms control process will likely remain that way, and nuclear proliferation, the most serious threat to U.S. national security, will continue.

Tannenwald's desire for a stronger push toward disarmament is to be commended, but in her interest to stimulate U.S. arms control efforts, she goes after the wrong culprit. Nuclear deterrence, which Tannenwald brands a Cold War artifact, is not the obstacle to arms control progress, and it is not possible--or desirable--simply to abandon it as if it were an unpopular political program. Much progress can be made in reducing the centrality of nuclear weapons in U.S. foreign policy and in drawing closer to the ultimate goal of disarmament, but nuclear deterrence will be an essential part of U.S. security policy as long as nuclear weapons exist.

In an interesting case of politics making strange bedfellows, the argument that deterrence is dead has been advanced by both the most dovish advocates of disarmament and the most hawkish proponents of a national missile defense. Many on both the left and the right seem to agree that deterrence is an outdated concept and that continued adherence to it will weaken U.S. security. These self-styled security innovators maintain that the end of the Cold War means the United States no longer has a nuclear-armed enemy and therefore must no longer subject itself to the "balance of terror" that characterized U.S.-Soviet relations. They argue that nuclear deterrence was a policy designed to deal with a unique set of historical circumstances that have clearly shifted--the world has changed and so, too, must U.S. nuclear doctrine.

Of course, nuclear deterrence was, in some respects, a product of the Cold War. As the United States and the Soviet Union built up their nuclear forces in the years and decades following World War II, the possibility of disarmament faded and the impossibility of thorough and effective defenses against ballistic missiles became clear. …

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