Deterrence as the MacGuffin: The Case for Arms Control in Outer Space

By Koplow, David A. | Journal of National Security Law & Policy, May 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Deterrence as the MacGuffin: The Case for Arms Control in Outer Space


Koplow, David A., Journal of National Security Law & Policy


INTRODUCTION

Legendary Hollywood directors Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston perfected the literary device of the "MacGuffin" in classic film noir thrillers such as "The 39 Steps" and "The Maltese Falcon." A MacGuffin is an object, goal, or other motivator, not always fully explained or justified, that drives the plot's action, by inspiring the protagonists to pursue it with ceaseless zeal, determination, and sacrifice. It doesn't matter all that much just what the MacGuffin really consists of - some pilfered secret government plans for a silent aircraft engine, an elusive ancient jewel-encrusted statuette of a bird, or in later incarnations, the Lost Ark of the Covenant or the rebels' vulnerability analysis for the Death Star - as long as the actors value it and devote themselves to seeking, acquiring, protecting, and exploiting it. They may voyage all over the world in suspenseful hot pursuit of the MacGuffin, never being sure just where the adventure will take them, how much it may cost, or what bodily harm they may have to endure in the quest.1

In like fashion, the concept of deterrence has long been the MacGuffin of modern U.S. defense strategy and doctrine. For decades, deterrence has been portrayed as the Holy Grail of strategic thought and action, to be stalked and husbanded relentlessly. Key actors and commentators perpetually extoll its virtues and underscore its importance, while the intricate plot lines of international relations bubble around it. Fervent writings parse the arcane sources and the diverse meanings of deterrence, scrutinize its many applications, and expound upon its extension to all manner of additional targets and sectors. we worry breathlessly about whether we have it, or does someone else have it, or have we suddenly lost it (deterrence is frequently said to be sacrificed when we are "lulled to sleep" by erstwhile favorable security developments that can nonetheless be exploited by cunning rogues). We certainly devote limitless time and treasure to the pursuit of deterrence, and we indefatigably inject military and diplomatic personnel into danger zones all around the globe to support and promote it.

This Article argues that deterrence is not enough; sound national security policy requires a more complicated, multi-pronged approach, pairing the leitmotif of deterrence with additional methods. in one regard, this contention is not at all surprising. Indeed, within the realm of nuclear weapons, the trophy of deterrence has always been tightly paired with the art and science of another distinct strategic concept: arms control and disarmament. Generations of SALT, START, test ban, and other nuclear agreements have long recognized that judicious diplomatic and legal measures can accomplish what the craft of deterrence alone cannot: arms control treaties can emplace direct reductions in the numbers, types, and capabilities of the deadly weapons that adversaries can field against us, and can help shape their deployment and use.

But, oddly, that insight from the nuclear realm of mating deterrence with arms control has not been applied to outer space. Regarding space, when the United States confronts, as it does today, a growing perception of a rising international threat, it is deterrence - and deterrence alone - that has been summoned. Concepts for arms control - even relatively modest initial and partial steps - are categorically ruled off the table, as U.S. security professionals confine their analyses, rhetoric, and deployment programs to a reinvigorated quest for heavily weaponized pure deterrence in all its manifestations. This singleminded vision of arms racing is particularly problematic today because, as this Article seeks to demonstrate, the prospects for effective deterrence are considerably weaker, and the opportunities for meaningful arms control are appreciably stronger, in space than in the nuclear sector. A return to a more balanced approach, drawing upon both concepts in pursuit of security in space, is therefore overdue and imperative. …

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