Deterrence in the 21st Century

In “Nuclear Strategy, 1950-1990: The Search for Meaning, Thomas Nichols discusses the evolution of U.S. nuclear strategy since the beginning of the nuclear age, through 1990. While initially he describes a country unsure of how to wield its new power that defaults to a “Massive Retaliation” strategy, this soon evolves into a much more complex “Flexible Response” strategy with a focus on making escalation a certain inevitability in response to certain aggressions by Russia. After the 1970s, however, both powers had accumulated an effectively equal arsenal, complete with quick response protocols, which led to a situation of “parity.” In such a situation, the key was actual a mutual understanding of each others arsenal and response protocols that allowed for global stability, with a strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as it’s lynchpin. This led to a search on both sides for a way out of such a situation, through research into both missile defense as well as continued build-up of nuclear arsenals. President Bush finally established a U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) that has left us in a more or less stable nuclear position in regards to Russia.

Was the build-up of nuclear weapons and evolvement of nuclear strategy a unique product of post-WWII history though? Nichols notes a number of times the ways in which U.S. leaders saw the Soviets as willing to risk their own people for military victories. How has the bipolar world in which nuclear strategy developed impacted the way we continue to conduct deterrence strategy? Now that nuclear weapons have become somewhat (if very limitedly) more widespread, what new challenges in deterrence do we face? Or does it always boil down to the two powers with overwhelmingly superior arsenals (which continues to be the U.S. and Russia)? I also found Nichols discussion of the protection of allies very interesting. Although an invasion of Europe today by any power is probably not particularly imminent, as a nuclear power what responsibility does the United States have in terms of retaliation against any country that launches nuclear weapons? The instability of many regions today makes a flexible response solution much more complex and difficult to accurately predict. But what role if any does the U.S. owe the world in terms of response and deterrence, in light of its status as both a nuclear power and global leader? — Michelle