Deterrence and the Superpower

The effects of Cold War nuclear deterrence that are relevant to Iran’s situation today are usually misunderstood. From Iran’s perspective, what mattered was that the Soviet Union’s nuclear capacity had a deterrent effect on America’s willingness to intervene where the Soviets and their clients sought, through Marxist insurrection, to establish power. Iran can use this pattern to squeeze the US out of the Middle East, and would have more success if nuclear-armed.

New blog correspondent Dan Simon poses an excellent question in response to the “Hit ‘em Hard” entry on sanctions/embargo enforcement against Iran.  My intention has been to address the substance of his question in the post after I deal with the Reverse and Prevent options against Iran’s nuclear programs.  However, with technical difficulties slowing me down on that post, I will take this opportunity to discuss Mr. Simon’s specific point, outlined in his comments below:

I’m new to this blog, so forgive me if this has already been covered here–but could you perhaps give a short explanation as to why Iran’s nuclear weapons program is such an earth-shattering concern in the first place? It seems to me that one of the lessons of the Cold War–currently being recapitulated in the Indian subcontinent–is that nuclear deterrence works just fine. In fact, it arguably works too well: global conflicts seem to blossom effortlessly into hot wars, proxy wars, terrorism campaigns, civilian massacres and the rest in the presence of a nuclear standoff, almost as if the latter didn’t exist. (I elaborate here.)

The Iranian regime is currently going full-tilt at expanding its global influence, cultivating anti-Western allies of all kinds, and developing offensive capabilities of every conceivable variety. It also deploys these capabilities against its nuclear-armed adversaries, quite confident that just about the only thing that would provoke a nuclear response would be a (direct or proxy) nuclear attack. Apart, then, from deterring a full-blown invasion aimed at regime change–an extremely unlikely prospect in any event–how, exactly, would possession of nuclear weapons significantly alter for the worse either Iran’s aggressive posture or its plausibly deployable offensive capabilities?

Mr. Simon has expressed a common assessment here – and I believe it is, basically, 180 out from reality.  It is understandable that, from the American perspective, nuclear deterrence seems to have “worked” during the Cold War.  The Soviet Union never attacked us, nor did local conflicts escalate to global war.  But the lesson of the Cold War for nations like Iran and North Korea is that nuclear deterrence worked against the United States.

This is not because of a perspective that America was an aggressor during the Cold War years.  It is because when the Soviet Union sponsored local and proxy insurgencies in various parts of the globe, America chose in every case to accept either compromise, or outright loss of the nations in question to the Soviet orbit.  This was not always a matter of American leaders and planners consciously drawing a direct line from confrontation to nuclear war; in fact, most of the time it was not.  Rather, it was a matter of a priori self-constraint in the selection of our own objectives, on the general premise that any confrontation with the Soviets over the superpowers’ “periphery” had to remain “limited.”  There existed a cottage industry in the United States that never arose in the Soviet Union:  one devoted to defining “limited war” and “limited objectives,” on the theory that many of our national interests were not worth, in the common formulation of the time, the “incineration of Chicago.”

The concrete outcomes of this posture were visible in Korea, where we retreated from military success in the field to affirm the limited nature of our objectives, and where we are now – and have been for more than 55 years – the guarantors of an armistice that keeps Korea divided, with one half of it abjectly subjugated to a vicious Marxist regime; a situation, notably, that is more to China’s advantage than to ours, South Korea’s, or Japan’s.

Vietnam presented an even clearer outcome for “limited objectives,” since we lost there absolutely.  I will discuss that further in a moment.  After South Vietnam fell to the North, Laos and Cambodia (where a horrific genocide ensued) fell very quickly to Communist takeovers.  Soviet support for local Marxists – arms, “advisors” – and affiliation by their thuggish regimes with Moscow, were features of Soviet activism in Africa, Latin America, and parts of the Middle East – from Somalia and Ethiopia to Angola and former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Yemen (once divided into “North” and “South,” with South Yemen the Soviet client), Libya, Syria, and Iraq.  The Soviets themselves had intermittent – not uninterrupted — success with their Third World policies, but in none of these cases did the US choose to seriously confront the Soviets, until, in a few places, the very last years of the Cold War.

In Europe, the Soviets maintained their hold on Eastern Europe, and kept Germany divided, and West Berlin isolated, for decades.  It escaped the notice only of Americans, out of all the world’s onlookers, that before the USSR had a nuclear weapon, in the late 1940s, America mounted the Berlin Airlift to keep West Berlin supplied, and insisted on the city’s free access across Soviet-occupied East Germany.  By August 1961, after the USSR had acquired nuclear weapons and beaten the United States to key milestones in space rocketry, America would do nothing as the Berlin Wall was built, to cut West Berlin off from a surface route to the outside world.

Berlin, of course, figured large in White House calculations during the Cuban Missile Crisis 14 months later, with the concern being that if the US invaded Cuba, the Soviets might – directly or through an East German proxy force – invade West Berlin.  There were a number of factors in our decisionmaking, but I don’t think Americans realize, today, how different the outcome of that crisis looks from the perspective of others than ourselves.  We remember the crisis as one that ended with America unmolested, and the Soviets agreeing to remove their missiles from Cuba.  Marxists and other radicals remember this event as one in which the USSR was able to get us to agree not to deploy our new-generation Jupiter ballistic missiles in Turkey.  Since this planned deployment was in support of NATO collective security objectives, and was abandoned unilaterally by the US under the threat of Soviet missiles in Cuba, our choice here was a key factor in France’s decision, in 1965, to withdraw from the NATO combined military command structure, and to cease coordinating the posture of her national nuclear force with the US and Great Britain.

We focus too often, however, on the Cuban Missile Crisis, as an example of direct nuclear brinkmanship during the Cold War.  Direct brinkmanship was almost never the governing dynamic.  Historians have also considered some elliptically threatening comments by Khrushchev during the Suez Crisis in 1956, and concluded that his comments almost certainly were not a serious factor in Eisenhower’s decision not to support the UK in military action at the time.

It is probable that, other than the Cuban Missile Crisis, only one other incident qualifies as a case of directly-implied strategic threat between the superpowers — one that could, by imputation (although not outright assertion) have included a nuclear component.  That incident was Nixon’s alertment of US military forces during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when Soviet airborne intervention on behalf of the Arab nations appeared imminent.  In this unique case, we might say a US threat, which may have included a nuclear component (implied, not explicit), deterred an intended action of the USSR.  We must also note about this situation, however, that the US had considerable conventional force on high alert, including our large Air Force footprint in Europe and our Navy in the Mediterranean.  Our conventional forces were a very credible deterrent given the geography of the problem, and the exposure of the implied Soviet lines of approach and logistics to our conventional interdiction.  In this case, therefore, I am not persuaded that it was nuclear deterrence that was effective.

I mention these incidents because when people think of nuclear deterrence, such pitched-confrontation events are what they often have in mind.  And again, at a more general level, Americans tend to think of nuclear weapons as having acted as a shield and stabilizer throughout most of the Cold War, primarily because we were never attacked, and because the Soviet Union never used them elsewhere.

What these analyses miss, however, is the effect of the nuclear threat on our posture for what was then called “extended deterrence.”  The history of extended deterrence is what matters to nuclearizing states like North Korea and Iran, because what it is about is US interest in third parties, and guarantees to them regarding their security.  And the lesson they take from the Cold War is that, if you can get nuclear weapons, you can hobble America before she even emerges from the chute to face off with you, over a third party.

Extended deterrence was the concept of deterring the Soviet Union from predation against third parties – our NATO allies, Japan, regions where the US had important national interests – with the implicit threat of direct superpower confrontation.  I note that, almost  from the outset of the nuclear era, our presidents all deemed any thought of “rollback” – pushing the Soviets back from gains they had already made against their periphery – to be too likely to provoke a nuclear confrontation.  At the very basic level of whether we would choose an offensive or defensive posture, the awful potential of nuclear weapons dictated a defensive one, in the minds of American leaders.

This choice had material consequences for the nations of Eastern Europe, of course.  And for those who identified the origin of the Cold War in the 1917 revolution, the non-Russian Soviet Socialist Republics might consider themselves affected as well.  Almost all the nations in these two categories had been dragooned into the Soviet “sphere” before America used the nuclear weapons on Japan in September 1945.  Nuclear deterrence was not a factor in their being subjugated by the Soviet Union.  But after the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons, the potential for nuclear confrontation was very much a factor in the US strategic decision to favor the defensive posture of “containment” – to be achieved by deterrence – over the alternative, offensive posture of “rollback.”

An interesting contrast is observed in the posture of the Truman administration – author of the Truman Doctrine – before the USSR detonated an atomic bomb, in 1949, and after.  In the years immediately after WWII, Truman reacted forcefully to Soviet attempts – through local proxies and actual Soviet troop deployments – on Iran, Greece, and Turkey.  Indeed, the Truman Doctrine was delineated by his policies during these incidents.  Stalin pulled back when thus confronted, as the Soviets did in Germany when the Western allies mounted the Berlin Airlift.

After Soviet possession of a nuclear weapon capability became clear, however, with the first Soviet detonation in August of 1949, the US began to temporize more.  We should not simplistically attribute our cessation of support to the Nationalist Chinese – also in August 1949 (but before the first Soviet atomic detonation was announced) – to Soviet progress in the nuclear field.  But our determination to prosecute the war in Korea as a UN action, and to limit our objectives there to restoring the status quo ante, was very much related to Soviet acquisition of “the bomb.”  Our essential passivity at other major crisis points in the 1950s – the Berlin Uprising, Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Suez, Poland, and Hungary in 1956 – was the result of a fundamental decision, made in the wake of Soviet acquisition of a nuclear capability, to avoid being pulled into tactical-level confrontations that could escalate into something uncontrollable – or at least could distract or derail us from what we envisioned as a very long-term, two-party engagement with the Soviet Union, which could not be allowed to “go nuclear.”

That this posture looked different to foreigners, as opposed to how it looked to Americans, is extremely likely.  That it was real, and deliberately adopted, is absolutely certain.  Its underlying philosophy was outlined in the celebrated “NSC-68” document, from April 1950, in which the national security apparatus of the United States, newly reorganized the previous year, set the course of our Cold War policy for the next three decades.  From the perspective of later years, this 1950 document looks surprisingly clear-eyed about the nature and intentions of the Soviet Union.  Indeed, the document’s declassification in 1975 (it was originally Top Secret) was a factor in the contemporary, positive revision of Harry Truman’s reputation as a Cold War president.  Its thrust, however, is unmistakable:  in the face of the USSR’s emergence as a nuclear power, the task of the United States was to build up the political, economic, and military strength of herself and her allies, and be ready to deter – “if possible” – the aggressive actions of the Soviet Union abroad, as well as defend the territory of the United States, and our way of life.

The concrete result of pursuing a policy of building up and deterring worked itself out, under both Truman and Eisenhower, as favoring cheaper strategic nuclear weapons over more expensive and inconvenient conventional forces.  Eisenhower put his stamp on this process with his “New Look” for the national security policy, which entailed building up nuclear forces and relying on “massive retaliation” to deter Soviet adventurism.  (A consummate military staff officer, he made the decision on this after having a series of elaborate courses of action gamed, and selecting the most moderate, lowest-risk among them:  the one that envisioned a decades-long tension between the nuclear superpowers, and a defensive stance for the United States.  Eisenhower specifically considered an offensive “rollback” policy, versus defensive “containment,” and chose the latter.  He considered the risks of “rollback,” for provoking the Soviets into escalation, too great.)

“Massive retaliation” was officially repudiated after a relatively short period; but the underlying defensiveness of the American posture remained.   In neither our military resource planning nor our strategic security thinking did we envision doing something very particular – and very significant:  prevailing over Soviet-supplied forces in third-party conflicts.  On the one hand, attempting to do so might cause “escalation” to a superpower confrontation.  On the other, our policy held in disfavor the idea of manning, training, and equipping for such conflicts.  If the Soviets were not “deterred” by our basic posture, and acted by means of such conflicts anyway, we were not organized to switch quickly or effectively to a Plan B.

Exerting a strong influence over our posture, in this context, was the cottage industry cited earlier in theorizing about limited war and limited objectives.  The key names in this “industry” are well-known:  Thomas Schelling (a game-theorist), Bernard Brodie, and of course, Henry Kissinger, among others.  Kissinger’s Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy (published in 1958 and, revised, in 1969) synthesized well the sense of the “limitations” advocates that the US in the nuclear age could not seek “decision,” through military operations, in the terms traditional to pre-nuclear policies.  A frequent comparison to illuminate this point was of the “unlimited aims” of the WWII Allies – unconditional surrender by the Axis powers – with the limited aims of the UN-chartered forces in Korea, which were consciously confined to restoring the status quo ante.  The former type of aim was cited as an example of what is not feasible in the nuclear age; the latter, of what is.

Significantly, Kissinger referred to the United States (and, by extension, her allies) as a “satisfied power,” one that, in the sense popularized by Morgenthauian analysis, seeks to preserve the international status quo, and is thus essentially on defense as a basic posture.  These perceptions by the US combined, under Johnson and McNamara, to produce the Vietnam policy of the mid-1960s, in which America carefully confined herself to reacting to the initiatives of North Vietnam, and sought the limited – and wonderfully ill-defined — objective of “convincing the adversary to alter his behavior.”  It is important for today’s Americans to understand that there was no time, during our entire involvement in Indochina, at which it was our objective to achieve the decisive defeat of North Vietnam. And we certainly never had the objective of reunifying Vietnam under a democratic, Western-oriented government.  From first to last, we operated on the assumption that North Vietnam would remain a viable, integrated state, and client of the Soviet Union; and our objective was only to alter her behavior.

Thus, unless we were prepared to guarantee a perpetual standoff between North and South, as we do in Korea, we were destined to lose the Vietnam conflict from the very beginning.  We were self-constrained to not pursue the only objective — the defeat of North Vietnam as a viable state — that could have created a situation different from the one in which Saigon fell, in 1975.  H.R. McMaster’s painful Dereliction of Duty recounts how this self-constraint played out in the strategic and operational deliberations of Johnson, McNamara, and the Joint Chiefs, as they implemented the policy of “gradualism” to which McNamara’s name will be affixed by history.

“Gradualism,” as summarized by Robert Osgood of Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, was “rationalized by the theory of limited war, which called for the restricted, flexible, controlled, proportionate use of force in order to persuade the adversary to terminate the war.”*  Our dedication to keeping the war limited is explained by Osgood as follows:  “… probably the greatest constraint – and the basic reason for gradualism – was simply the tacit assumption that U.S. interests in the war did not warrant even a small risk of widening the war politically or, indeed, of enlarging it in any way beyond the minimum measures that seemed to be necessary to avoid defeat.”*

These are, indeed, the features of a “satisfied,” or status quo, power.  The lessons of Vietnam are very pointed.  In a mutual nuclear deterrence situation, the “satisfied” power will operate on the basis of the existing status quo, when it comes to the disposition of third parties, and not seek to dismantle or upend it.  He may, for a time, resist the efforts of the dissatisfied power to achieve new objectives.  But he will not disrupt the status quo, even if that is the only way to achieve a decisive outcome.  Even if he is well capable of summary, disruptive action – e.g. (in Vietnam), destroying the NVA in the field, destroying Hanoi’s material ability to wage war, even forcing Hanoi to surrender by means of comprehensive conventional attack, and quarantine from outside supply – the satisfied power will consider that course too big a risk.  He will not, as Clausewitz prescribed for achieving decisive objectives, eventually shift from defense to offense.  He is not really looking for a decision that upsets the status quo; and hence the price of any such decision is too high for him.

A signal lesson from the Soviets’ Cold War career is this one:  if they could turn at least some “revolutionary,” power-grabbing achievements in a third-party state into the “status quo,” before the United States began planning intervention, the US would accept at least some part of that as the status quo.  This happened in all the major divided nations:  Germany, Korea, Vietnam.  It was the basis on which all of Eastern Europe was ceded to Moscow’s effective control for forty years.  Fidel Castro had reason to see his tenure in Havana in that light, as did Marxist dictators in Africa.  The lessons of Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, and Germany – particularly the disposition of Berlin – are the most concentrated, however.  If you are Iran – or China or North Korea, or indeed, modern Russia – you can draw from those conflicts this lesson:  arm yourself with nuclear weapons; present the US with a fait accompli as the status quo; and you will retain at least what you started with – and in the end, you may prevail.

I do not believe Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons so that she can promptly attack Israel with them.  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may imagine himself, or someone on his speed-dial, to be a magic-numbered imam, but the ruling clerical council is more pragmatic in its views.  Certainly the clerics are radical Shi’a Muslims, but they are also Persians, with a long, historical view of the role of Persia in Asia and the Middle East.  What they seek is hegemony of Iran’s region:  to be the gateway of the Asian powers to the resources of the Middle East, and the go-to regional contact for European commercial interests.  I don’t doubt that this is for eschatological religious reasons as well as old-fashioned international politics.  Iran’s religious leaders do see her as the seat of Shi’a Islam and eventually of a world caliphate.  But they are not confused about the respective roles of the miraculous and the practical:  they know that to be regional hegemons, even the scions of the true line of the Prophet must be nuclear-armed.

I don’t by any means discount Iranian threats against Israel, overt or implied.  But it is a grave mistake to see “deterrence” in this case as operating to prevent Iran from launching nuclear warheads at Israel.  The real deterrence will be what Iran is hoping to do, drawing on the lessons of Korea, Vietnam, Germany, and Cuba:  deter the United States from intervening as Iran ramps up activism in the Middle East.  Iran’s goal is to squeeze America out of the Middle East – and not solely so that she can have a free hand against Israel, although I believe that is one of her goals.  The main obstacle to Iran achieving hegemony of the region is that there is already a hegemon of the Middle East, and it is us.

The things the whole world takes for granted today – free access to the chokepoint-infested waterways of the Middle East, local nationals’ control of their natural resources, and global access to those resources through a relatively free market – are all a product of American hegemony of the region.  No other likely hegemon would produce this result.  If the former Soviets had ever gained enough of a foothold there to become the hegemon, none of these conditions would prevail in the Middle East.  We can deduce quite accurately that if today’s Russia, or China, or Iran achieved hegemony of the region, the same would be true.  (The former colonial powers of Europe are no longer a serious factor.  India has tremendous potential, but little taste, so far, for the kind of power projection and regional jockeying that would put her in contention.  That said, she cannot be complacent about a change of hegemon in the Middle East, and would be likely to increase her involvement in the region at all levels, if such a change appeared to be in view.  We must say the same of Japan.)

Iran is not just opposed to the American presence, and our power as the hegemon.  She also has to consider what she knows very well:  that both Russia and China have designs on her region.  She does not have the choice to ignore their activities.  She can function as a pawn – or she can seek to assume the persona of another, more autonomous and powerful chess piece.  Iran is happy to use Russia and China, but has no interest in being beholden to them.  She would prefer to chart her own course to regional hegemony.  With a nuclear arsenal, it is likely to proceed on something like the following outline.

Iran’s first problem is that the US Navy and Air Force keep her hemmed in to the south (and now US ground forces occupy the territory to her west – and east).  The objective she needs to achieve is to make the Persian Gulf so inhospitable that America finds the price of keeping forces stationed there too high.  Iran need not make any direct threats with nuclear weapons to do this.  Her approach is likely to be fomenting radical unrest in the Persian Gulf nations.  The US has major bases in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, and uses facilities in the UAE and Oman that are important for our military operations.  Our force posture in the Persian Gulf would be dramatically transformed – for the worse — if we lost access to those bases, and faced hostile shores where now we have cooperative partners.

Iran could, with a nuclear arsenal, induce us to self-constrain against intervening in the Persian Gulf nations where Iran might sponsor insurgencies.  Americans would almost certainly clamor for abandonment of bases, in small nations many of them have never heard of, rather than intervening on behalf of what are admittedly a collection of often politically-incorrect emirs – unpresentable, to say the least, from the standpoint of democracy and liberalization.  The small peninsular nation of Bahrain, where a Shi’a minority is increasingly disgruntled over its treatment by the Sunni ruling family, might present fertile ground for an initial Iranian effort at promoting insurgency.  Bahraini Shi’as are Arabs, not Persians – but so are the members of Hizballah, Iran’s major insurgent client in Lebanon.  Iran has long experience with supporting insurgency and terrorism; it would be little, if any, stretch to apply it in the Persian Gulf.

Iran does not have to defeat the US in a direct confrontation to squeeze us out of the region.  She has to make us calculate that the price of staying is too high, in the face of unrest (and probably regime-changes) in our partner nations, and the possibility that intervention could draw us into conflict with…a nuclear-armed Iran.

A similar pattern could be repeated farther afield, once the Persian Gulf was secured against US resurgence.  I have not mentioned Iraq yet, mainly because Iran’s wisest course is to close in on the Strait of Hormuz first, and wrest de facto control of it from the US Navy.  But Iran will have reason to consider it useful to sponsor persistent, low-level terrorism inside Iraq, until the day comes when a more concerted effort looks profitable.  If America’s relationship with Iraq remains strong, Iran’s partnership with Syria will yield particular benefit, in enabling her to approach Iraq from two directions.  Beyond her immediate neighbors, and her partnership with Syria and Hizballah, Iran has also already cultivated ties with Yemen, Sudan, and Eritrea, on the Red Sea, including arms sales and the facilitation of terrorist activity.  Her political initiatives outside the region have continued to spread in the last fifteen years, and include North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba.

Tehran is not likely to try to achieve everything by her own efforts.  She is likely to seek, determinedly, to be in the driver’s seat, when collaborating with Russia or China.  The opportunities for collaboration in some projects are obvious:  e.g., gaining control of the Strait of Hormuz, a natural fit for Russia, or acquiring basing options on the Red Sea, where China would be a useful partner.  In all such potential moves, however, the lesson of Cold War deterrence, for a nation like Iran, is that being a nuclear power induces America to self-constrain, which produces benefits for the plans of rivals.

The one category of Cold War actors we have not discussed is the millions who constituted the “collateral damage,” when deterrence did not work on the dissatisfied power, but did work on the satisfied power.  East Europeans, Koreans, Cubans, Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, Angolans, Somalis, Ethiopians – in a long list of nations, America’s essentially deterrable posture was a key factor in the decision of the Soviet Union to seek power abroad, support proxies in doing so, and consolidate it – brutally – against local resistance.  I have been careful not to attribute the defeat of Chiang Kai Shek’s forces in China to “deterrability” on the part of the United States, and I will specifically disavow that analysis here.  However, in calculating the human cost of the spread of predatory Marxism around the globe, it would also be breathtakingly incomplete to fail to mention the minimum 50 million Chinese who are thought to have perished in the civil war and Mao’s consolidation of power.  Nor, of course, can we forget the millions who died in the forging of the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin.  The character of political Marxism was well-established when the Soviets and their clients sought, after WWII, to divide and conquer additional nations with it; and the people who were ultimately its victims were justified in seeking to avert that fate.

The relevance of this reminder is exemplified by Israel, which, in a nuclear Iran scenario, is analogous not to the superpowers in the Cold War, but to the victims of Marxist politics as civil war.  Israel does have nuclear weapons.  But they don’t give her any good options for dealing proactively with a scenario in which Iran is slowly squeezing Israel’s great-power patron out of the Middle East.  If Russia is also challenging US power in Europe and the Mediterranean, Israel’s situation could become very grim.

Of course, Israelis are not the only people we care about in the Middle East.  It would be as bad for Bahrainis, Kuwaitis, Iraqis, and Emiratis to fall under Tehran-oriented radical theocracies – or to spend years in a torturous, bullet-ridden limbo, like the much-tried Lebanese – as for the Israelis’ position to deteriorate.  Israel is unique, however, in operating from a Western perspective.  Out of all the nations in the Middle East, it is Israel we can expect to see the outlines of regional politics, and current predicaments, in much the same light we do.  We can, in fact, be quite sure Israel has already recognized the utility of nuclear weapons to Iran for deterring the United States, and gradually rendering us impotent in the region.  Israelis will, of course, as Americans did throughout the Cold War, focus in public debate on the existential threat to their own existence represented by an Iranian nuclear arsenal.  But Israelis are among the most clear-sighted analysts of the actual dynamics of the Cold War; and it is no trick for them to recognize that an incremental approach by Iran, one that relies on America’s well-demonstrated deterrability, is more insidious, more likely, and ultimately more alarming than the prospect of precipitate nuclear attack.

There is, of course, no guarantee that Iranian plans, executed along these lines, would succeed, in whole or in part.  What is certain is that, with nuclear armament, Iran would have a much better opportunity than she has now to try.  We cannot say what other events will intervene to shift influences and probabilities.  We do know that neither Russia nor China will leave Iran, or the Middle East, alone to develop, uninfluenced by themselves.  We can be fairly certain that, in the absence of a transformative regime change in Iran, its current leaders will seek to achieve a hegemonic power in the region, and to exclude the US from it.  Israel has reasons to regard this as an existentially threatening prospect.  America, for our own reasons, should see it as a threat to our national, as well as economic, security.


* Robert E. Osgood, Limited War Revisited (Westview Press, Boulder, CO. 1979).  Quotations from pp. 43-44

35 thoughts on “Deterrence and the Superpower”

  1. Wow–thanks very much for the reply. I’m pretty sure I’ve never before gotten so thorough a response to a blog comment…

    I agree with a great deal of what you say about Cold War history, but I differ slightly on the interpretation. Certainly, the “containment”/”status quo” posture adopted by the US during much of it was a mistake that gratuitously ceded the initiative to the Soviets, placing the US in a defensive crouch and allowing the USSR to pick its targets at will. But I’m far from convinced that it was induced to any significant degree by the Soviet nuclear stockpile.

    In Europe, for instance, there was the Warsaw Pact’s overwhelming conventional advantage that made Western intervention in, say, Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968 pretty much unthinkable. In the post-Vietnam era, political dissension at home impeded Western efforts to resist Soviet expansion, let alone roll it back. And it may be that throughout, confused strategic thinking about America’s role as preserver of the status quo injected unnecessary timidity into its posture as the world’s bulwark against Soviet ambitions.

    But all of that went out the window during the 1980s, when the adoption of the Reagan Doctrine led to successful reversals of previous Soviet gains in Grenada, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and elsewhere. While it would be a serious exaggeration to claim that these reversals provoked the collapse of the Soviet Union, I find it hard to believe that they played less of a role than concurrent developments on the nuclear front, such as, say, the placement of theater nuclear weapons in Europe, or the collapse of the Reykjavik talks. In fact, once the Soviet empire was forced to play defense, it repeatedly folded like a cheap suit–nukes and all–and that realization must have contributed at least somewhat to the internal crisis of confidence within the Gorbachev-era Kremlin that ultimately led to its collapse.

    Similarly, the West’s timid response so far to Iran’s various global moves–its massive support for various insurgents killing Western troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, its alliances with anti-Western regimes in Latin America and elsewhere, its worldwide network of terrorist proxies, its efforts to radicalize Muslim populations abroad–can hardly be blamed on nuclear weapons that don’t exist yet. The fact is that Iran came very close to chasing the US out of Iraq altogether–and therefore, in practice, out of pretty much the entire Middle East–a couple of years ago. The major turnaround there, like the turnaround of the Cold War, was simply a matter of the US resolving to confront the Iranian threat head-on, with large-scale, skilfully-deployed military force. And like the Soviet Union’s, the Iranian proxies proved much less adept on defense than on offense. Note that all of this recapitulation in miniature of Cold War-era American failure and recapture of nerve took place before the birth of the first Iranian nuclear weapon.

    Now, you might be saying–I’m not sure if I’ve interpreted you correctly–that Soviet nuclear weapons (and by implication, future Iranian ones) are significantly to blame for the West’s aforementioned confused strategy and weak-kneed internal politics, and thus indirectly for pre-Reagan Western timidity in responding to Soviet (or future Iranian) aggression. That’s an interesting empirical claim with respect to the Cold War, and I’d be very curious to know if it holds up to scrutiny.

    But–turning back to the Iranian analogy–I tend to doubt that a similar claim would apply to America’s response to a nuclear Iran. For one thing, Iran’s nuclear weaponry would be unaccompanied by the scale of conventional force projection that made confronting Soviet expansion so daunting. For another, Iranian Twelver Shi’ism will never have quite the pull on the Western intellectual heart that Communism could always muster. And finally, Iranian ambitions would collide with vital American interests–particularly in the Persian Gulf–much more quickly and conspicuously than Soviet encroachments on various third-world backwaters. It seems likely to me that US fear of Iranian nukes would ultimately be counterbalanced by fear of a cutoff of oil supplies from the Middle East.

    I suppose time will tell, though, since an Iranian nuclear weapon is by now a near-term near-certainty.

  2. One more thought, since you gave so much attention to Korea and Vietnam: My vague recollection is that UN forces had in fact rolled back Communist rule in North Korea, and were debating marching on to China itself, when a massive Chinese invasion threw UN forces back to the vicinity of the original North-South border, around which the subsequent stalemate centered. And as I understand it, it was fear of a repetition of this scenario that inhibited the US from carrying the Vietnam War fully into the North. In other words, it was conventional military deterrence, not the nuclear variety, that intimidated the Americans from achieving rollback in East Asia. (During the Korean War, China didn’t even have nuclear weapons.)

    Similarly, I suspect that it’s been (in my view, mostly unjustified) fear of (military and political) overstretch that has hamstrung US forces in Iraq from responding directly and militarily to Syrian-Iranian meddling there, and will continue to hamper American effectivenes in countering aggressive Iranian moves–until, at least, some combination of regained political courage and recognition of the need to protect oil supplies changes the picture. At that point, Iran’s nuclear weapons will provide protection only against all-out regime-change–not against rollback in general. And Iranian power will at that point be discovered to be every bit as brittle as that of its Soviet predecessor, nukes notwithstanding.

  3. “At that point, Iran’s nuclear weapons will provide protection only against all-out regime-change–not against rollback in general”

    First protection against regime change is a significant protecttion and second it will not be limited to that.

    It will provide protection or significant deterrence to any direct military action against Iran( regardless of the scope of that action) because of the inherent risk of escalation.

    And that deterrence will add to the confidence with which Iran can carry out it’s strategic anti western and anti israeli activities.

    So yes having nuclear weapons does add to Iran’s capability to advance it’s hegemonic /anti western agenda.

  4. And if, BTW, you want an example of how nuclear weapons add to the strategic options consider Pakistan’s jihad against India.

    Pakistan has been carrying out a full scale jihadi terror against India , both in Kashmir as well as mainland India (mumbai attacks were the latest example), with one of the calculations being that India will not retaliate with war because of the nuclear factor( and this calculation is partially correct).

    Even in 1999 Kargil war , which was a daring incursion into Indian terroritory, one of the major factors in Pakistan’s calcuation was that India would not escalate or widen the conflict because of the nuke factor( which also turned out to be true)

  5. Dan Simon — since I was planning to address this issue anyway, your timely question caused me to move the post forward. I appreciate the good dialogue here too. I agree with much of what you say (disagree with some), and in will provide this response to your discussion of Warsaw Pact conventional superiority in 1956.

    Your later question about whether that “correlation of forces” (great Soviet-era term) was a consequence of US policy decisions taken because of Soviet nuclear capability is the right one. My study of our progress to the nuclear deterrence policy has led me to conclude that it was: not wholly, but in part.

    There were two major factors operating on our decisionmaking about national posture, in the period 1947-57 (Sputnik). One was the concern of Truman, Eisenhower, and all their Congresses about the expense — and impact on our national character — of maintaining a big military force capable of confronting the Soviet Union in regional campaigns. We had not then spent the decades we look back on today, of maintaining huge ground formations abroad, and being the Sheriff of the Seas. It was a wrenching national debate for us then, to decide to remain on a forward-deployed and implicitly interventionist path.

    We explicitly hoped, in this context, that nuclear deterrence would save us money. The DOD budgets of the 1950s look antique and funny today, but they represented a substantially bigger percentage of our GDP than they have since the end of the Vietnam War. It was unquestionably a conscious choice for the US to demobilize in 1946-48 because of the sheer expense of maintaining our forces overseas — even though the Soviets were being aggressive and uncooperative in Europe, and the British and French were by no means convinced that it was a good idea to signal so clearly that we had no intention of conventional confrontation there.

    There was a sense, after the Berlin Airlift, that a standoff had been achieved with the Soviets — and the opportunity for further negotiation on the basis of (you guessed it) the status quo — with the ingenious use of airpower, and the implied threat of the embryonic US nuclear arsenal. This analysis combined with a similar sense that Stalin’s threats against Turkey, Iran, and Greece had been averted with the pointed deployment of naval and air force assets — and the implicit nuclear threat — to put our security thinking on a path that rejected pitched, ground force confrontation as unnecessary for deterrence.

    It was in this context of our own national thinking that the Soviet nuclear threat became clear. We were already disposed to avoid conventional force confrontation because of the expense and political inconvenience. Our own nuclear capability, and intelligent use of naval and air forces for intimidation and influence, seemed to give us an alternative anyway. And then, in 1949, the Soviets detonated their atomic device, and if you watch the progress of US national security deliberations, conventional confrontation over peripheral nations and regions goes from “expensive and inconvenient” to “unthinkable.”

    A key reason why Truman was so concerned to have action in Korea be by UN coalition was to diffuse the confrontational aspect of it with the Soviet Union. (In terms of the UN force moving through North Korea, it was not so much being thrown back by the Chinese invasion force as choosing not to confront it, and retreating. China’s initial gains were limited and tactical; the decision not to make China fight for a return to the status quo ante was strategic. Truman did not want escalation with either the USSR or China. The specter of escalation with China — primarily self-induced — haunted us throughout our involvement in Vietnam as well, until Nixon took over in 1969.)

    Eisenhower was thoroughly convinced that regional confrontation with the Soviets carried a high risk of escalation. The US public and press thought in terms of “escalation” meaning the Soviets might attack us with nuclear weapons, but planners and senior leaders were also, and more often, looking at the possibility of the Soviets using nukes locally, in the confrontation itself. Either case was a grave risk.

    Our posture was not one of sitting around with our teeth chattering, in terror of the Soviets’ nuclear threat. That is a silly caricature. Rather, our national security apparatus went through a period of intensive debate, from about the time of the Soviets’ first nuclear detonation in 1949, to Ike’s introduction of the “New Look” policy in 1954, in which it was decided that our posture would not be one of courting the potential for escalation, by relying on conventional confrontation in regional disputes. In the context of our desire to save the taxpayer (a very real and honest concern for both Truman and Ike, one they expressed often to their staffs and cabinets), and our belief in nuclear deterrence — which still had not been effectively shaken — you can see how the course we chose seemed prudent.

    The bottom line, however, was that we did, in fact, deliberately choose NOT to seek conventional superiority over the Warsaw Pact (which did not form until after NATO did, in 1949). After the Soviets obtained a nuclear capability, everything we thought and did about our regional policies abroad paid homage to the deliberations of 1949-54, in which we settled on a defensive nuclear deterrence posture.

    (And again, it’s worth checking out the extent to which this was an explicit choice. The background to NSC-68 is instructive, and Eisenhower’s decision process is almost humorously pointed, especially if you’ve ever been a military officer and participated in campaign analysis. Ike literally commissioned a series of tabletop war games to consider three courses of action, and in those war games, the COA in which we confronted the Soviets conventionally, in regional disputes, caused escalation and uncontrollable eruptions. There was a strong sense that conventional confrontation had been given a fair test, and had proven itself too risky. We deterred ourselves very well, during the Cold War — and in a way the Soviets never did THEMselves. Other nations, like Iran, see that very clearly.)

  6. Publius — thanks for your excellent points, especially on the dynamics between India and Pakistan. I think you have very good analysis, that Pakistan’s nuclear threat has been a key deterrent against India dealing more decisively with the border dispute.

    It’s important to note that this is, basically, self-deterrence on India’s part, as America’s was during the Cold War. It’s not a matter of Pakistan explicitly making specific threats at a time when India is making decisions or adopting policy. It’s the existence of the threat, and India’s perception that Pakistan can’t be relied on not to escalate. This is not a matter of “India being afraid of Pakistan,” but of India preferring, as each instance arises, NOT to take the higher-risk course — and of Pakistan relying on that preference.

    It will be interesting to see if things play out any differently after the recent bombings. But your point is very applicable to the situation with Iran. Iran will not have to make constant public threats with her nukes — nor will the main US concern be that Iran might try to strike our homeland with them. It will be that Iran is just crazy and determined enough to use them in the region, if “pushed into a corner.” (A phrase repeated at tiresome length during the Cold War.)

    It will also be that other nations in the region will fear Iran’s intentions and determination, and themselves stay our hand, or undercut our policies. If the Saudis conclude separate agreements advantageous to Iran, and disadvantageous to us, because they think the wind is at Iran’s back, we certainly aren’t going to do anything decisive about that. We will accept it. I don’t think Iran would have to sponsor a single explosion in Saudi Arabia to subvert the Kingdom. It will do whatever looks to it like the lowest-risk course. Iran can achieve a lot, in terms of squeezing out the US, by alarming not us but her neighbors. She knows we have no intention of assuming the role of occupier or enforcer in the Arab Gulf nations.

    Anything is possible, and maybe the US will NOT self-deter versus a nuclear Iran that is pursuing an activist course of insurgency-sponsoring in her region. But Iran has no reason to believe that today. From the perspective of history, what Iran sees is that the Soviet Union improved its position in relation to the United States by acquiring nuclear weapons — that China improved hers against the Soviet Union by doing so — that India improved hers against China by doing so — and that Pakistan improved hers against India by doing so.

  7. I wish I had more time to participate fully in this fascinating discussion. I’ll confine myself to some stray thoughts – points of possible dissent from JED’s presentation – and apologize in advance for not being able to develop them.

    I’d also been planning on arguing somewhat along the same lines as Dan regarding the question of whether Russia’s nukes were as responsible for Soviet 3rd World advances during the early and middle Cold War as Soviet conventional preponderance. Given Soviet historical bloody-mindedness and its geographical advantages, without a US nuclear commitment it’s easy to imagine that sooner or later Western Europe and Japan would both have fallen to the East Bloc. In this and other respects, I think it’s quite arguable that extended deterrence, eventually in the context of Flexible Response, worked quite well in the areas where the US convincingly established its intentions, concretizing them with forward deployments.

    Elsewhere, as in Cuba, it was arguably the Soviets who were “self-deterred”: They knew better than we did how close the two superpowers came to giving the concept of “limited nuclear war” a real world test, potentially a multi-parter. They knew that their own forces were much more heavily invested in Cuba than we initially estimated, that Guantanamo Bay was under immediate threat from tactical nuclear attack, that our invasion fleet had been targeted by nuclear torpedos, that the intended landing beaches were likewise a nuclear free fire zone, and that Fidel was clamoring for first use, apparently preferring a Cuban nuclear holocaust to the sacrifice of his revolutionary dignidad. The plot of DR STRANGELOVE – a Soviet doomsday weapon that the Soviet’s had unaccountably neglected to reveal, thus nullifying its utility and making it more likely to be used – was closer to the truth of that situation than many realized. Khruschchev did back down – but as much to himself as to Kennedy, who sensed all along that the confrontation was subject to unintended escalation, but remained unaware of the implications of his own military deployments and options. In an importance sense it was Khruschchev’s nuclear advantage (actually a collection of local nuclear advantages), his opportunity to achieve surprise, and the greater danger to the enemy‘s forces that paradoxically put his forces, his allies, his nation, and maybe the world at risk.

    It’s possible that a nuclear Iran might find itself in a parallel position the first time someone called its bluff, if not sooner, and that there wouldn’t be a second time – either because Iran escalated and was wiped out, or, much more likely, because Iran learned that no one believed it was as nuts as it would have to be go to the nuclear mattresses as soon as some Emirate refused to pay tribute.

    This discussion all gets very speculative very quickly – and may not matter if, e.g., Michael Ledeen happens to be right and Israel is going to act, or if covert efforts have greater effect than anyone chooses to acknowledge – but there is much else that Israel, the US, and allies and third parties could do to restrain and contain Iran, and there are potentially numerous other negatives for Iran and its proxies in continuing to pursue its nuclear program and an adventurist foreign policy at the same time.

  8. Okay, let’s summarize what (I think) we all agree on:

    1) In confrontations between countries, one country sometimes “self-inhibits” more than the other, with the result that the less inhibited country increases its power relative to the other.

    2) Examples of such “self-inhibiting” countries include the US during much (though not all) of the Cold War, and India in recent years with respect to Pakistan. (I would add numerous Western countries with respect to post-1979 Iran, and post-Oslo Israel, with brief exceptions, with respect to its various implacable adversaries.)

    3) One aspect of this “self-inhibiting” dynamic is fear of a conflict “spiraling out of control”–that is, in poker terms, susceptibility to bluffing.

    Our disagreement centers on one question: to what extent does the other country’s possession of nuclear weapons affect this dynamic?

    My argument is basically that the correlation between successful bluffing and possession of nuclear weapons simply isn’t very good. Nuclear-armed Pakistan seems to have been able to deter India–but for some reason, India’s nukes don’t deter Pakistan. Numerous nuclear powers, including Britain, the US and Israel, appear to have been repeatedly cowed by non-nuclear Iran. And during the Cold War, the initiative seems to have shifted from decade to decade, with the US periodically switching from intimidator to intimidated, and back again.

    Against this, our hostess tells a compelling tale of American strategists actually “doing the math” in the early 1950s, and concluding that it was generally safer to back down in the face of threats from a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Obviously, it’s hard to counter such a concrete example in support of her thesis. (I could speculate that the results of such exercises probably reflect hidden preconceptions more than dispassionate analysis–but that would simply be my speculation.)

    On the other hand, as I pointed out, America in the 1980s–at a time when the Soviet nuclear arsenal had grown to dwarf America’s–suddenly became quite bold in confronting the Soviet Empire, and met with considerable success in doing so. What happened? Why did American “self-inhibition” suddenly switch off?

    One of my fantasies is to write the founding treatise on a school of international relations, which I dub “anti-realism”. Its fundamental thesis is that all foreign policy is determined not by rational calculations of “national interest”, as realists would have it, but rather by the domestic political interests of the current ruler or rulers. Even totalitarian dictators, after all, have an interest in further consolidating their domestic power and undermining real or potential domestic rivals, and will happily subordinate the “national interest” to that goal when formulating foreign policy.

    I would argue that understanding such questions as why one nation backs down in a confrontation with another is simply impossible merely by examining such objective factors as which nation possesses the more powerful weaponry. Instead, one must first examine the domestic political pressures that propel their governments towards greater belligerence or timidity. And in the particular case of a nuclear-armed Iran, I believe that the obscure, nth-order effects of hypothetical nuclear escalation scenarios will have much less effect on its adversaries’ reactions than will those adversaries’ own domestic political dynamics.

  9. Sure, CKM, just come in and stink the place up and leave.


    You may remember that I did address the Cuban Missile Crisis, which you’ve characterized in the way Americans routinely have, as Khrushchev self-deterring. BUT, this situation was the key one involving overt nuclear brinkmanship, and is not the one to judge overall nuclear deterrence by.

    Here is the basic proposition. The US national security apparatus, under Truman and Ike, conceived of nuclear deterrence as capable of deterring the Soviet Union from breaking its “containment” (the Long Telegram discussion). There was some basis for supposing this after Truman’s success in making Stalin back off from Greece, Turkey, and Iran.

    Once the Soviets had The Bomb, the deterrence dynamic was — had to be — different. Nevertheless, as late as 1954, Ike officially predicated our deterrent posture, for the periphery of the putative “containment” boundary around the USSR, on the threat of nuclear retaliation.

    The Soviets, during this period, were actively fomenting and supporting Marxist insurgencies in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. They were not deterred by our nuclear threat from these activities. In Korea and Vietnam, our nuclear threat did not induce them to rein in their clients, or repudiate their associations. Our nuclear threat did not stop Moscow from taking a position avowedly WITH Nasser and his Arabist cause, and in opposition to the Western allies, in the Suez crisis (or the Arab war with Israel). Our nuclear threat did not discourage the Soviets from consolidating their hold on the obviously unwilling Poland and Hungary, using military force.

    As you note, it was the presence of our conventional forces in Europe, and our clearly-signalled determination to fight a conventional war to the utmost if necessary, that protected West Germany and the rest of our NATO allies. This was also the case in the Far East, at least in Japan and South Korea.

    (As an aside, Americans never really “got” the governing energumen of Soviet security thinking through most of the Cold War. The Soviets were extremely focused on the “correlation of forces” in the theaters they divided their own sphere into, and basically spent the entire Cold War refighting the Battle of Kursk. In their military and strategic writing, the focus was entirely at the operational level — what made them feel more menaced, or less, was the conventional posture of the allies at the boundary with their “near abroad.” They saw nuclear weapons as a form of particularly devastating artillery, to be used as required in campaigns. Strategic nuclear weapons functioned, for them, as a means of changing America’s mindset — and establishing a superpower equivalency — through the arms negotiation process.)

    The sum total of observations from the Cold War shows that America’s nuclear deterrent did not function as envisioned in the late ’40s and early ’50s, to deter the Soviets from their brand of activism — the incitement of insurgencies and civil war — on our periphery. Nevertheless, we made that anticipated deterrence the cornerstone of our global policy, and it was — I would say — the key reason why, even though we had announced ourselves dedicated to opposing the spread of Communism, we were ill-prepared for both Korea and Vietnam.

    One of the main threads of the book I hope to write about the Cold War relates to how this developed. What we didn’t have, and didn’t usefully envision the need for, was an expeditionary capability for decisive conventional operations. That finally began to come into focus for us during Vietnam, which is when all the weapons that were so celebrated in Desert Storm were conceived. We learned lessons very expensively in Vietnam, but in the long run we may consider them worthwhile ones. Our abstract nuclear idea served to blind us to the need for an agile expeditionary fighting concept, in the period 1945-65.

    One more thing before a quick comment on Dan Simon’s last. The reason the US WAS deterred — at the outset, in the stage of formulating our basic concepts — by the Soviet bomb is that for us, it was a moral gimme: you don’t bet on your opponent’s unwillingness to use a nuke. That was NOT a moral gimme for the Soviets. And “the” big reason for that was NOT that Russians are just predisposed to be nihilistic monsters. It’s not even so much that Marxism has utterly amoral aspects. Marxism isn’t nearly as nihilistic as many people think: it has to have live people being ruled to have any meaning. It’s a very materialistic ideology.

    No, a big reason why the Soviets were willing to operate routinely on the theory that we weren’t actually going to deter them with nukes is that we said that — in public dialogue, over and over again. Our presidents were, mostly, wise enough not to be explicit on this matter. But the parade of vice presidents, Senators, Congressmen, agency officials, academics, pundits, and foreign policy experts writing in the professional journals, who all averred that it was unthinkable to go nuclear over little countries in distant places — it’s truly remarkable when you look back into the time through its media, and see America speaking, just as the Soviets did.

    On Dan Simon’s question regarding why things changed in the 1980s — ah, indeed. That’s the book I am working on. A big part of it was just two words: Ronald Reagan. But that’s not all there was to it. He broke with the defensive mindset of ALL his predecessors largely based on his own moral confidence — but he had things to work with that none of them had had (or, in the case of Carter, that they had had, but had not used). Those things were operational-level military systems — AND WARFIGHTING IDEAS; very important aspect — that effectively shifted what the Soviets called the “correlation of forces” in the theater nexuses (nexi? 🙂 ) of the global superpower confrontation.

    People don’t remember that Reagan made his first dramatic nuclear arms reduction proposal in February 1981. He saw clearly that the nuclear arms dynamic we were in was bad for the US and advantageous for the USSR. (Gorbachev essentially puked his Feb ’81 proposal back at him in 1985 — why not? He knew Reagan would like it — and got all the credit for it in the Western media.)

    Instead of focusing on the global nuclear equation, Reagan wanted to make it a non-factor, and focus instead on the operationally “thinkable” at the theater level. His defense build-up wasn’t just a set of big numbers; it was designed to give us a theater operational advantage over the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact.

    The Soviets recognized it as exactly that. In their own military writing, in the Carter years, they had written with some confidence of winning a “Central Front” war — the ground war in Central Europed that transfixed the military planners of both sides during the Cold War years. Western writers, for their part, were at their lowest ebb in operational confidence for that same war, during the Carter presidency.

    By the end of Reagan’s tenure, Soviet military writing had undergone a remarkable sea change from its focused and confident tone of a decade before. The thinking had shifted from winning a theater war to positing the Red Army’s main role as being the PREVENTION of that war. The interim had seen article after article devoted — with little dynamic ingenuity; mainly blank recounting of technical facts and a disorganized retreat into socialist-military doctrine — to America’s new weaponry and new warfighting concepts: the long-range cruise missile, the Pershing-II IRBM in Europe, the 600-ship Navy and the “Maritime Strategy,” the Army and Air Force’s deep-penetrating “AirLand Battle” concept.

    Buy the book, when I get it published! Meanwhile, one more thought about nuclear deterrence against the US. The Soviets, and then the Russians, have been absolutely adamant that the US give up the Strategic Defense Initiative, at least in terms of a national missile defense. We have shown our willingness to cut our nuclear forces drastically, and even to proceed with our drawdown when the Russians won’t proceed with theirs (which they decided not to do early in the Bush II presidency, when we wouldn’t give up an NMD as they requested). We have repeatedly offered to share our own billions of dollars in missile defense research with Moscow, so they can have an effective NMD too. They have rejected these offers.

    The Russians remain determined for our homeland to have no strategic missile defense. This is a powerful indicator that they think it’s important to their own policies to be able to hold our population at risk with nuclear weapons. Maybe they only THINK it’s been working, over the years, to wield that threat. But they want to keep it in their toolbox very, very badly.

  10. “Nuclear-armed Pakistan seems to have been able to deter India–but for some reason, India’s nukes don’t deter Pakistan.”

    They do deter Pakistan. But not in the use of non state proxies, that’s all. They deter Pakistan from carrying out an open public attack on India.

    Even the Kargil war was which was actually carried by Pak army regulars was never admitted by Pakistan to be so( they claimed and still claim that those were also non state actors, mujaheeidin).

    The same deterrence inhibits India from carrying out an open retaliatory attack against Pakistan.

    Therefore it clearly adds to a rogue nation’s capabilities of using militant proxies to further strategic goals, which is what Iran does too.

    Here is another way in which Pakistan has clearly benefited. In order to deal with the risk of Nuclear escalation India has had to change her military doctrine of war fighting w.r.t Pakistan to what it calls limited war.

    Earlier the idea was for India to bisect Pakistan in case of war using her great conventional power advantage. Now in order to avoid the nuclear threshold the plan is quick punitive strikes that are not aimed at holding territory but for a short and limited war followed by withdrawal.

    This remarkable change in doctrine was evolved precisely so that a war could be fought without reaching the point of nuclear trigger.

    In other words Pakistan has already benefited by forcing India to modify her war doctrine to cut down on the threat that it would pose to it.( Cut in half vs punitive strikes)

    Such is the power of deterrence and risk of escalation that India is unwilling even to exercise this option even after so brazen and outrageous an attack such as in mumbai.

    Of course the internal politics of any country will play a strong part in the response but to argue from there(and from other points) that possession of nuclear arms bestows no significant advantage to the country involved is ridiculous, dangerous and ostrich like.

    I can only hope Dan is not representative of western thinking on this subject.

  11. It’s always great to disagree with you, OC/JED – very educational. Real quick though on the CMC – perhaps a niggling disagreement – I believe that most historically knowledgeable Americans (i.e., only a bit more knowledgeable than our President) think the Cuban Missile Crisis as was resolved by Kennedy’s eyeball. If they know much more, they probably believe that said eyeball was supplemented by a brilliant exercise in back-channel diplomacy involving a message to a news reporter. Probably very few realize that the latter story is false and that Kennedy didn’t know what he was looking at.

    Otherwise, if we disagree, it may be on the basis of my greater willingness to accept as unavoidable the implicit trade-offs of our Cold War strategy, both on the basis of what I believe we and our allies would ever have been willing to do, and on the basis of how it all eventually turned out.

    It was tragic for the Koreans, Ethiopians, Poles, Vietnamese, and others who either found themselves either in the middle of what was for us a brushfire war and for them a cataclysm, who were consigned to Communist tyranny for generation or two, or who for that matter suffered under a dictatorship supported by us for power-political reasons, but they were peripheral as far we were concerned. We didn’t consider Poland or Hungary worth fighting for, given what fighting for them would have meant, and that decision goes back to World War II strategy and beyond, and at some point intersects inextricably with our national identity in more ways than one. We only just barely accepted that Korea or South Korea as it turned out was worth fighting for, and just barely accepted that South Vietnam was worth fighting for – in neither case to the point that of a fundamental, self-altering national commitment.

    If we are or were imperialists in a sense, we’re imperialists of a different type than the Soviets were. With Eastern Europe already in the Soviet grip and historically within the Russian sphere of influence, with the Soviet model being readymade for export and easy installation in backwards 3rd world countries, I think we were bound to be writing off a lot of the world, even without reference to fear of nuclear complications.

    Note to Dan: I think Publius’ comments are a bit unfair. Your “anti-realism” overlaps with Van Creveld’s explicitly post-Clausewitzian view of strategy in the post-nuclear era. The greater vulnerability of nation-states to sub- or non-state actors is one of his major themes. History has not always followed his prognostications, but I don’t think he would be surprised at all by what’s going on between India and Pakistan.

    It’s worth noting in this context, further, that Pakistan’s encouragement of unconventional warfare against India has done nothing to advance Pakistan’s interests as a nation-state. Indeed, Pakistan has done more harm to itself and its prospects over time: All those deranged genies that it’s let out of their bottles are turning on Pakistan itself, and putting its own future in grave doubt.

  12. “encouragement of unconventional warfare against India has done nothing to advance Pakistan’s interests as a nation-state”

    I agree broadly with that.

    But my point was simply that pakistan and Iran’s ability to hurt it’s ‘enemies’ increases with the possession of nuclear weapons.

    And their enemies would be unwise not to recognize that.

  13. Ms. Dyer: interesting point about the role of Reagan’s conventional buildup. I should point out, though, that it fits well with my theory that conventional competition proceeds pretty much unaffected by the presence of a strategic nuclear stalemate.

    Your point about the Soviets’ diehard opposition to BMD is also interesting, and it certainly supports your model of nuclear weaponry having an intimidating effect, at least in the Soviets’ eyes. But there are other explanations: we know that the Soviets were contemplating at least the possibility of a first-strike victory one day, and may have believed BMD to interfere with that ambition. Or they may have feared the possibility of an American first-strike victory, should BMD turn out to work well enough for the Americans but not the Soviets. (As I’ve pointed out, dictators love nuclear deterrence precisely because it deters existential threats to their rule–and thus serves their principal domestic priority of clinging to power.)

    Of course, that’s all just speculation on my part. Is any actual archival information available regarding Soviet thinking about BMD?

    And as for the book, will you be selling signed copies?

    Publius: Regarding the India-Pakistan standoff, small-scale raids and attacks by proxies are a very old and very common tactic for adversaries unwilling to risk all-out war (and under the impression that their enemies feel similarly). They predate nuclear weapons on the subcontinent, and it’s hardly surprising that they continue even now when both sides are nuclear-armed. I don’t see how they prove anything, one way or the other, about the effect of nuclear weapons on conflicts.

    CK McLeod: Thanks for backing me up. I should say, though, that I have none of van Creveld’s skepticism of the future of the nation-state. As I explain above, I consider the use of proxies and small-scale raids of various kinds to be a venerable tactic, not a modern innovation. The real revolutionary change has been the reluctance of modern democracies to dip into this somewhat unsavory arsenal (among many others). That’s a handicap, to be sure, and one to be resisted where necessary to achieve essential victories. But it’s probably inevitable, and is fortunately counterbalanced by other advantages afforded democracies in times of war (low-intensity or otherwise).

  14. “I don’t see how they prove anything, one way or the other, about the effect of nuclear weapons on conflicts”

    In case of India Pak they illustrate how the relative impunity with which and the scope of such actions is affected by nuclear weapons.

    Before the nuke Pakistan’s proxy war was mainly in Kashmir, afterwards it expanded to include outright border incursions and capture of border territory, as well as attacks on mainland.

    In both expansions the idea that India would be inhibited in replying through a conventional war(because of the nuke factor among other things) was an imortant ( and correct) calculation.

    Anyway I am more or less repeating myself, so last post on this thread.

  15. Dan, you say that you “have none of van Creveld’s skepticism of the future of the nation-state,” but I think you do (I also suspect that there are more than a few Pakistanis who wish they shared your confidence!). I believe your formulation of what you call an anti-realist view borders up van Creveld, leading to numerous cross-border incursions:

    “Its fundamental thesis is that all foreign policy is determined not by rational calculations of ‘national interest,’ as realists would have it, but rather by the domestic political interests of the current ruler or rulers.”

    In THE TRANSFORMATION OF WAR, van Creveld’s overriding theme is that the idea of a rational calculation of national interest is effectively an artifact of a transitory period in human history, the rise of the nation-state – essentially a 300-year interlude in human history from 1648 to around 1948. If for “domestic political interests” we accept a broad definition encompassing the emotions, attitudes, and attachments of the populace that will be called upon to fight, then you’ve arrived at a rather Creveldian calculation.

    As for the complex and still-evolving response of modern states to low-intensity warfare, that’s a big issue. Van Creveld seems to believe that it’s virtually the issue, and, whether or not his pessimism regarding the eventual outcome is fully warranted, the course of the US-led War on Terror up to the present day under whatever name, bears him out in striking ways.

  16. Well, we’ve had a good run here and haven’t convinced each other. That’s OK. I do want to say a few words about the idea that war is no longer a categorical nation-state project in the sense that it “used to be” (in the context of the argument that the post-Westphalia European nation-state is a historical anomaly, and on the way out).

    I don’t actually agree that the modern nation-state is as historically anomalous as some like van Creveld might argue. It’s been about a decade since I read his Transformation of War, and I didn’t ultimately agree with it then — either that the nation-state is a solely modern political phenomenon, or that war is losing the social and political meaning it has had to that narrowly-defined “nation-state.”

    I think the impetus for national distinction and cultural organization arises naturally in most humans, and that we too often mistake the technological phenomena that made the modern nation-state possible — as well as obvious — for the more intrinsic human mechanism that provokes us to want such a political entity.

    Modern commentators usually focus — following Marx — on the development of ascending levels of societal organization. But from a survey of history, it appears that the real trick was not the generation of empires under the rule of central autocrats and their tributary satellites. The real trick was SMALLER chunks of human-dom attaining political and economic independence.

    The origin of the modern nation-state lies in the increasing ability of local peoples, through technology-enabled commercial strength and military might, to break off from empires, and maintain their independence from them. The long history of rebellions and plots within empires is evidence that the inertia on which empires have heavily depended is less the natural tendency of humans than a technological condition.

    I don’t argue that we see proto-nation-states back to our earliest recorded histories. From what I can tell, we first see their glimmering in the nationalist sentiments of ancient Israel, and the self-conscious idea of themselves harbored by the Greeks and the Romans; on the Greek part as far back at least as Homer was writing, and for the Romans, certainly by the time of the Peloponnesian War to the east.

    The sentiments of these peoples about their culture and political order resonate powerfully with Westerners today, in a way that what we know about the empire of Persia, or of Babylon before it (or, for that matter, ancient Egypt or China), do not. Without going off on a whole time-eating tangent, the bottom line here is that I think the human urge to establish nation-states long predated the Thirty Years’ War, and was increasingly enabled by technology until it produced the nation-state as we know it today.

    Looking around the world, I don’t see an end to the desire of peoples to distinguish themselves from others, politically and culturally. Indians and Japanese have ZERO interest in becoming part of an Asian empire ruled from Moscow or Beijing. India and Japan are very different cases — one very ethnically heterogeneous, the other unusually homogenous — but that only makes the point stronger. They both have a very real, tangible national pride, and sense of themselves as nations. For all that analysts like van Creveld might point to ethnic strife inside India, it is a fact that the vast majority of India’s people live in greater security because there is an “India,” organized as a modern nation-state — and that fact is a very powerful one. If there were no central government in Delhi to set a guard on troublemakers, much more of the subcontinent would be in near-perpetual turmoil. An outside, supranational power ruling from, say, Moscow would be overstretched, and often brutal, if it tried to do what the national government of “India” does less disruptively, because it is big enough to wield temperate force, but close enough to the people to have their generic trust and cooperation.

    The benefits of nation-state organization are so fundamental, we have difficulty even imagining what it would be like without them. The nation-state has been a right-sized intermediary between unwieldy empires and their discontented peoples. They don’t make war more than other forms of human organization do, although they war more destructively than the tribally organized. Empires do as well.

    Until there is little political or cultural difference between an American, a Brazilian, a Russian, a Kenyan, and an Indonesian, the nation-state is going to continue its run. Indonesians do not want to be a tributary of a Chinese empire, nor Kenyans of a Persian one. Americans will not tolerate a political merging with — well, probably anyone; and Brazilians have no interest in being beholden to Washington for their political direction and commercial fate. The nation-state is still the right size for sub-imperial polities that make sense to people with geography, culture, economic activities, and history or ethnicity in common.

    There WILL be power relations; there always have been, and they have changed little over time. The nation-state has turned out to give regularity and organization to them that they don’t have when empires are composed of subject tributaries and surrounded by ungovernable tribes. In the absence of the nation-state, power will be wielded more centrally, not less; more arbitrarily, not less; and more brutally and cynically, not less. We should not wish for this consummation, or assume it to be imminent. Fortunately, the impending death of the nation-state is greatly exaggerated.

  17. At the risk of appearing desperate for the last word, but in the interests of peace (lest these border incursions spin out of control), I’d like to suggest that you don’t have to be a hardcore Creveldian (assuming there is such a thing) to acknowledge that particular nation-states, the strongest as well as the weakest, have faced severe challenges from sub-state, non-state, and transnational actors – and that non-state, non-deterrable military/militant groups have taken on greater and greater significance in all of our political and military calculations, to the point of forcing traditional nation-states to try to meet and defeat them on their level, and in some ways to mimic them – when not trying to exploit or work through them.

    As far as anyone has been able to figure out, snuffing them out definitively strictly by conventional military and police methods would require any liberal and democratic state to adopt measures that would put its character and identity as a liberal and democratic state in question. Thus the significance or potential significance of the Petraeus approach, which, incidentally, Van Creveld himself completely failed to anticipate (he predicted Vietnam-like humiliation for the US in Iraq). It’s too much to get into here, but, though tactics of course can’t be immediately transferred to completely different circumstance, the insights underlying the Iraqi counterinsurgency effort may also point to the potential vulnerabilities of “non-deterrable” revolutionary states and movements, especially if and when they seek to export their revolutions, or of if they should seek to have their nuclear nation-state cake and eat it, too.

  18. CKM — not to worry, we know you’re desperate. We’re there for you, shipmate.

    While I of course agree that non-state actors pose a threat to liberality and democratic ideals, it doesn’t automatically follow that they pose a threat to the nation-state as an organization. In fact, I think that the nation-state is better organized to combat them than either empire or “world government.” Empires actually do quite poorly against non-state actors. They tend, rather than confronting them, to make deals with them: to buy them off with peripheral lands and peoples, who can be left “SOL” because the nation-state mechanisms and conditions don’t exist to hold the imperial ruler accountable for that shabby treatment.

    There is no question that non-state/transnational actors pose a problem to governments today, and particularly to liberal, democratic polities. But what I would predict is that liberal, democratic polities will adapt, rather than simply give up nation-state government. So, I think, will the less liberal and democratic. Central Asian Islamic radicals may be able to make Russia lash out — and they may be able to get Russia to make deals with them (which seems to be a growing trend since Beslan). But they will not be able to get Russia to relinquish her self-concept as a nation-state.

    With different details, we can say similar things about China, India, and other nations with disgruntled ethnic minorities, and unstable border lands.

    Continuing your last thought, as we’ve discussed before, I do think we learned a most interesting lesson about countering insurgency in Iraq. Settling the hash of an insurgency took the form, there, of occupying more and more territory, and pushing the influence of the “revolutionaries” out of it: defeating them in their attempt to turn our occupation against us.

    The importance of occupying territory cannot be overstated, though, and it’s one reason I don’t see the demise of the nation-state on the horizon. Announcing abstract opposition to terrorists has little effect on them. Occupying the territory of a coherent nation-state, and defeating the terrorists in their attempt to turn that strategy against you, DOES affect them: you deny them territory, you deny them victory, and you deny them the political achievement of undermining a nation — a message that is amplified and clarified above the noise by the very fact that it is a NATION you have saved, and not just “a bunch of people.”

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