6-2: On Deterrence

George and Smoke (Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, Chapter 1, on Blackboard) observe that balance of power and the deterrence of conventional warfare in the 1700s and 1800s depended on shifting diplomatic alliances rather than technological parity, implying that nuclear deterrence was more dependent on different great powers’ technological capabilities. But to what extent was nuclear deterrence dependent on subtle differences in technological capability, especially in comparison to the effects of credible commitment and demonstrations of resolve? A lot of our materials this week challenge the idea that nuclear deterrence was more “scientifically” based than any other historical parallels to the deterrence of the Cold War.

Even physicists, who by virtue of their career would tend to focus more on the technology rather than the politics, arguing against a proposal to build a light ABM system in 1968 emphasized the human uncertainties inherent in such a defense system. Area defense systems would be vulnerable to decoys and other tricks thought up by the opposing country’s policy makers. Terminal defense systems would fail due to choices made by the enemy to hit, for example, the twenty-first city if only the top twenty cities were protected. Despite the advancing capabilities of American physicists to create such defense systems, such systems seemed unlikely to hold up in the face of human decisions to target less-protected areas or try to outwit the other side. Indeed, policy makers in 1979 speaking in the documentary “First Strike” highlighted that despite the “awesome destructive power of its strategic nuclear forces,” such power was nowhere near sufficient to deter on its own; the effects of the science were predicated on human reactions.

Major shifts in US nuclear policy also seemed to reflect changes in the assumptions leaders had about other leaders’ attitude toward nuclear weapons, whether it was massive retaliation as part of Eisenhower’s New Look in the early 1950s, Kennedy’s flexible response after 1961, or if we jump to today, the US’ apparent unwillingness to use nuclear weapons even in response to direct threats. While also likely related to the end of the “acute bipolar conflict” that characterized the Cold War, it is interesting how the US did not respond to North Korea’s most recent threats with firm resolve to retaliate or improve the quality or quantity of its nuclear stockpiles. Following a nuclear test on February 12, North Korean generals announced the scrapping of the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War on March 5 and then threatened a preemptive nuclear strike on the United States on March 7. North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman stated that “Since the United States is about to ignite a nuclear war, we will be exercising our right to preemptive nuclear attack against the headquarters of the aggressor in order to protect our supreme interest.” Not only did the US only respond by instigating sanctions through the UN, but media throughout the US also destroyed the credibility of North Korea’s threat by reporting and making public the fact that North Korea’s missile technology simply does not have the range to reach the US.

So despite anachronisms in our nuclear policy, like the nuclear missileers living underground and the non-transparent nuclear strategy as reported by the NRDC, there certainly has been some shift in US policy toward the use and the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons. I would wonder about the extent to which technological parity does, perhaps, inform US policy now since the technology of the nuclear states most likely to attack the US is rather shabby, and why current nuclear policy has changed so much from policy during the Cold War. — Stephanie

2 thoughts on “6-2: On Deterrence

  1. While I think George and Smoke make an extremely important point that the strategic conditions of nuclear
    conflict differ crucially in the reconfiguration of the relationship
    between “hurting” and “winning,” I agree that the assumption that
    nuclear deterrence is any more “scientifically-based” than previous
    foreign policy paradigms misleading and unproductive. The changing technological capabilities have essentially shifted the axes along which conflicting nations are able to influence each other’s behavior, and arguably the most difficult problem facing US nuclear policymakers is how to deal with a distributed nuclear capability rather than the bipolar US/USSR configuration which dominated during the Cold War. There seem to be several strategies at play in the US response to North Korea’s threats, invoking an image of the hypercalculated, pre-nuclear “deterrence” games discussed by George and Smoke.

    The North Korean response to the US’s dismissal of its threat — as the article you posted puts it, “North Korea can’t hit America, but South Korea and Japan in range” — is particularly interesting in the context of credibility, given that they have the technological means to inflict some serious damage on these nations. In my opinion, what this article indicated is that the key thing that North Korea has on its side is unpredictability, which they can arguably use to bolster their credibility in the context of a nuclear threat — if no one knows what North Korea will do, they will most likely choose the worst-case scenario. The possibility that North Korea will make good on its nuclear threats being unknown is difficult to deal with from the US’ perspective, positioning deterrence at the forefront of policy approaches the US can use to deal with the threat.

  2. To some extent, I agree that nuclear deterrence is more “scientifically-based” than previous foreign policy paradigms, but it is still very much entangled in strategic alliances, in a very physical as well as strategic way. Japan and the United States are strong allies for example, compounded by the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security of 1960, which also happens to outline the boundaries of physical US military presence in Japan. The United States has many bases in Japan, and all North Korea would have to do to attack the United States would be to aim a missile at one of these bases. In this situation, missile range is perhaps less important than accuracy.

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