Can America Still Protect Its Allies? How to Make Deterrence Work

By O'Hanlon, Michael | Foreign Affairs, September/October 2019 | Go to article overview

Can America Still Protect Its Allies? How to Make Deterrence Work


O'Hanlon, Michael, Foreign Affairs


Since the end of World War II, U.S. strategic thinking has been dominated by the doctrine of deterrence. At its most simple, deterrence refers to one state's ability to use threats to convince another that the costs of some action-say, invading one of its neighbors-will outweigh the benefits. Such was the logic behind the Cold War concept of mutual assured destruction: if either the United States or the Soviet Union used nuclear weapons, the other would respond with nuclear strikes of its own, resulting in the total devastation of both. By making the costs of war intolerably high, both sides hoped to keep the peace.

Yet for Washington, deterrence was never merely about protecting the U.S. homeland. As it built the postwar system of alliances that today forms an essential part of the global order, the United States developed a strategy of "extended deterrence." According to this strategy, the United States would use its military power, including its nuclear arsenal, to defend its treaty allies-among them Japan, South Korea, and the states of nato. The point was not only to discourage Soviet adventurism in Asia and Europe but also to reassure U.S. allies. If Germany and Japan (to take just two examples) knew that Washington would guarantee their security, they would not need to take actions-such as building a nuclear bomb-that might destabilize the international system.

Today, the Soviet threat is gone, but the strategy of extended deterrence remains central to the United States' global power. Washington is still, on paper at least, committed to using military (and, if necessary, even nuclear) force to protect its allies from aggression by rivals. The stationing of U.S. military forces abroad gives additional credence to this commitment, as any attack on a major ally would likely cause U.S. casualties, all but guaranteeing a U.S. military response. Today, Washington's two principal geopolitical rivals are China and Russia. China is a rising power that is beginning to challenge the United States' economic and technological supremacy, and Russia under President Vladimir Putin has grown more and more dedicated to undermining the U.S.-led order. Recognizing the threat posed by Beijing and Moscow, top defense officials in both the Obama and the Trump administrations have emphasized the need for Washington to maintain and even strengthen its traditional deterrence strategies.

The question, however, is whether these strategies can credibly deter the sorts of aggression that the United States is likely to face in the twenty-first century. China and Russia are not Soviet-style superpowers with dreams of world domination; they are revisionist powers that want to challenge and change aspects of the U.S.-led global order. There is little chance that China, for instance, would help North Korea try to invade and conquer South Korea, as it did in the Korean War. It is more likely to engage in smaller tests of U.S. resolve, such as seizing from Japan one of the disputed (and unoccupied) islands in the East China Sea that are known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. Although the United States has formally pledged to defend these islands, China might suspect that it is unwilling to risk a great-power war over what are effectively worthless rocks. Yet if Washington cannot credibly promise to retaliate, extended deterrence has already failed-and much greater consequences than the loss of one of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands could follow.

Doubts about U.S. credibility have been heightened since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016. Trump has openly questioned the value of U.S. alliances and disparaged key U.S. allies. At times, he has challenged the logic of extended deterrence directly: in July 2018, he expressed bewilderment that the United States' obligation to defend Montenegro, a nato member, could lead to World War III. In addition to emboldening U.S. adversaries, such rhetoric runs the risk of undermining Washington's ability to reassure its allies. …

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