Does Deterrence Have a Future?

By Freedman, Lawrence | Arms Control Today, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Does Deterrence Have a Future?

Freedman, Lawrence, Arms Control Today

For some four decades, deterrence was at the center of U.S. defense policy. Every move was made with reference to its requirements-a centrality that was due to three important presentational features. First, it sounded robust without being reckless. Forces were not being used to compel a change in the status quo, only to contain an enemy. Second, it was hard to think of a better way to make sense of a nuclear inventory. Preparing to use nuclear weapons as if they were conventional seemed criminal, yet the prospect of nuclear war appeared to encourage a welcome caution all around. If, as it seemed, there was no way of getting out of the nuclear age, then deterrence made the best of a bad job. Third, it seemed to work. Exactly how it worked was often difficult to explain, and historians can point to some terrifying moments when catastrophe was just around the corner. But World War III did not happen, and the fact that the superpowers were scared of this war surely had something to do with its failure to materialize.

In the 1960s, the role of nuclear weapons in securing superpower restraint came to be recognized in an almost formulaic way as "mutual assured destruction." So long as each side was confident that it could inflict utter hell on the other and it was understood that both would need to buy new weapons in a precautionary way to sustain such confidence, then a wider political equilibrium was possible. There was, however, an awkward thought at the heart of this concept, which is why its critics seized on the acronym "MAD": if a nuclear war meant an inevitable slide into the ultimate catastrophe, then who would be irrational enough to set it in motion? If the argument was that circumstances could produce irrationality, carrying the risk of the ultimate madness, then how could we be confident that these dangerous circumstances would not arise over incidents that were comparatively trivial in their origins, conflicts marked by confusion rather than unremitting belligerence?

In practice, the political circumstances never quite arose for nuclear employment, although there were times when it seemed close, such as during the early 1960s and early 1980s. One conclusion that might be drawn from the Cold War experience is that deterrence worked because it was not asked to do too much. The East-West conflict became institutionalized and relatively stable over time.

In the post-Cold War world, the demands might have seemed to be even less severe, perhaps even to the point of insignificance. Certainly if deterrence was about nuclear weapons, then it was hard to see any conflicts around which any interests, or at least any Western interests, would be sufficiently at stake to warrant issuing nuclear threats. Even if deterrence was about trying to maintain a sort of stability, then the fluidity and uncertainty of recent international affairs argues against attempts to control matters through threats. Policy has had to be much more reactive and interventionist. Even with potential nuclear threats from relatively weak states that have yet to demonstrate the requisite technological capability, there is a marked lack of confidence in dealing with them through deterrence-hence the proposals for a national missile defense system. So, deterrence has moved from the center of American security policy to its margins.

The possibilities of deterrence should not be ignored. As an approach to security policy, deterrence still has a role to play, although not the role it was granted during the Cold War. Deterrence still helps explain why states, and even non-state actors, fail to act against the interests of others. Actors may be deterred because they have constructed a possible future in which they are worse off. These caution-- inducing constructions are often developed without any external help, but occasionally they can be encouraged by various combinations of statements and military deployments, put together as deliberate acts of deterrence. …

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