avatar
“Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence”


A friend writes to remind me that, as far as he knows, "NATO (and the U.S.) never abandoned the first-strike option, even when the Russians did for several years in the early 90s — until Clinton reneged on the pledge not to move NATO to the East." 

 

He was alluding to the internal NATO review first disclosed by the January 22 London Guardian ("Pre-emptive nuclear strike a key option, Nato told"), which, in the words of this truly frightening "blueprint," advocates that "first use of nuclear weapons must remain in the quiver of escalation as the ultimate instrument to prevent the use of weapons of mass destruction."

 

Bad indeed.  Worse, however, is the fact that there is nothing new about it.

 

Thus in Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence  (1995), drafted during the Clintons’ first term to address how best to "deter nations, other than the Former Soviet Union, from using Weapons of Mass Destruction," but expressing an enduring point of view relevant over many decades, we read:

 

Deterrence [is] a process that goes beyond the rational….It must affect the emotions, as well as the rational mind, of an adversary….[I]t must be clear that our actions would have terrible consequences for them….We should have available the full range of responses — conventional weapons, special operations forces, and nuclear weapons, so that we can decide which to use based on the circumstances….The very framework of a concept that depends on instilling fear and uncertainty in the minds of opponents was never, nor can it be, strictly rational….

 

And later on, in a section (B) devoted to how important it is for the United States to know what it values the most and to communicate this fact to other states, we find this lovely paragraph:

 

While it is crucial to explicitly define and communicate the acts or damages that we would find unacceptable and, hence, what it is that we are specifically seeking to deter, we should not be very specific about our response. It is. however, crucial that the level of our commitment to the things we value be unfaltering, and that the adversary have little doubt of this. Without saying exactly what the consequences will be if the US has to respond, whether the reaction would either be responsive or preemptive, we must communicate in the strongest ways possible the unbreakable link between our vital interests and the potential harm that will be directly attributable to anyone who damages (or even credibly threatens to damage) that which we hold of value.  Thus, it is undesirable to adopt declaratory policies such as "no first use" which serve to specifically limit U.S. nuclear deterrence goals without providing equitable returns.

 

(On the side: It’s worth noting that this document talks about the "U.S. homeland," and stresses that "deterrent statements tied to direct defense of a homeland carry an inherently stronger credibility that deterrent threats extended in behalf of others." — Remember: This is vintage 1995.  When, presumably, there were no "Neoconservatives" in sight.  Not that there had to be.  Either.)

 

Finally, in Section C, "Keeping our options open and our determination clear":

 

We must be ambiguous about details of our response (or preemption) if what we value is threatened, but it must be clear that our actions would have terrible consequences…. Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the U.S. may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially "out of control" can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts thin the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence.  That the US may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.





(Another aside: You will have noticed in the preceding paragraph the use of the term ‘preemption‘ in conjunction with the term ‘response‘.  This beats the Bush regime’s September 2002 National Security Strategy by a good seven years.  (See esp. Ch. V, "Prevent Our Enemies from Threatening Us, Our Allies, and Our Friends with Weapons of Mass Destruction.") And, indeed, this kind of mentality has informed so-called U.S. "deterrence" — that is, that the United States will respond pre-emptively, before it is ever attacked, if you can get you mind around this Alice-in-Wonderland madness — since the months prior to the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so many moons ago.)

 

The closing five paragraphs of this 1995 document are priceless.  Let us therefore reproduce them in full:

 

Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the U.S. may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out, it hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational and cool-headed. The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially "out of control" can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts thin the minds of an adversary’s decision makers. This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence. That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries.

 

Just as nuclear weapons are our most potent tool of deterrence, nevertheless they are blunt weapons of destruction and thus are likely always to be our weapons of last resort. Although we are not likely to use them in less than matters of the greatest national importance, or in less than extreme circumstances, nuclear weapons always cast a shadow over any crisis or conflict in which the US is engaged. Thus, deterrence through the threat of use of nuclear weapons will continue to be our top military strategy.

 

Unlike [chemical weapons] or [biological weapons], the extreme destruction from a nuclear explosion is immediate, with few if any palliatives available to reduce its effects. It is no wonder then that the use of nuclear weapons has become elevated to the highest level of threat that is possible. The U.S. has now eschewed the use of either chemical or biological weapons and is seeking the complete elimination of such weapons by all nations through the [chemical and biological weapons conventions], but we would consider the complete elimination of our nuclear weapons only in the context of complete and general disarmament. Thus, since we believe it is impossible to "uninvent" nuclear weapons or to prevent the clandestine manufacture of some number of them, nuclear weapons seem destined to be the centerpiece of U.S. strategic deterrence for the forseeable [sic] future.

 

In the context of non-Russian states, the penalty for using Weapons of Mass Destruction should not be just military defeat, but the threat of even worse consequences. President Clinton’s statement of July 11, 1994, about North Korea gave some of the flavor of these "other consequences" when he said: "…it is pointless for them to develop nuclear weapons. Because if they ever use them it would be the end of their country." Similarly, President Bush’s statement to Saddam Hussein on January 13, 1991, also telegraphed greater consequences: "You and your country will pay a terrible price if you order unconscionable acts of this sort [the use of chemical or biological weapons or terrorist acts against the coalition nations]."  Should we ever fail to deter such an aggressor, we must make good on our deterrent statement in such a convincing way that the message to others immediately discernible as to bolster deterrence thereafter.

 

We should always attempt to respond to any such breaches of deterrence in ways that minimize the numbers of civilian casualties.  Particularly when dealing with the less than nation-threatening aggression which is likely to characterize WMD conflicts with other than Russia, the U.S. does not require the "ultimate deterrent" — that a nation’s citizens must pay with their lives for failure to stop their national leaders from undertaking aggression. A capability to create a fear of "national extinction" (as discussed above) by denying their leaders the ability to project power thereafter, but without having to inflict massive civilian casualties, will not only galvanize the deterrence convictions of the U.S. leadership, but will simultaneously help to prevent misinterpretation on the part of the enemy as to whether the U.S. would be willing to act. [#####]

 

Of course it is my belief that all of this is madness. — But it is a coldly calculated and even highly cultivated kind of madness.  And among the mighty, it illustrates exactly why violence carries so high a premium in the human world. And if you think about it, NATO’s "new" first-strike policy really does take us all the way back to the logic used by an earlier regime before it nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In terms of the resort to the threat or use of violence, there is very little — and perhaps nothing — new under the American sun.

 

Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence, U.S. Strategic Command, 1995 (as posted to the website of the Nautilus Institute).  (For the PDF version of the same document.)
"A Criminal Idea," James K. Galbraith, The Guardian, January  25, 2008
 
"A Dangerous Nuclear Proposal," Pascal Boniface, Gulf News, January  25, 2008
Visible Intent: NATO’s Responsibility to Nuclear Disarmament, John Burroughs, Middle Powers Initiative Briefing Paper, January, 2008

"Pre-emptive nuclear strike a key option," ZNet, January 22, 2008

 

 

 

Leave a comment