Monday, April 19, 2010
Ron Smith: Classical Deterrence and the Proportionate Response
On the other hand, many, including this author, saw nuclear deterrence as the prime explanation of the non-occurrence of ‘World War Three’. Or to put it differently, deterrence seemed to provide an absolute block to direct conflict between the major states, which, with the march of conventional war-technology, could have had devastating consequences. Arguably, it has continued to operate up to the present time and provides the major reason why India and Pakistan have not fought what would be their fourth war since independence on the sub-continent. Of course, deterrence did not by any means prevent all conflict. Especially it did not prevent non-state conflict. Indeed, it arguably provided a fertile environment for civil war, insurrection and terrorism to flourish, and it continues to do so.
Over time, the notion of deterrence was also extended to the possibility that smaller players might acquire and potentially use nuclear weapons, either themselves or through proxies that they might supply. In relation to direct use, it was assumed that even if the initial attack by the smaller player was not overwhelming (perhaps, only a few detonations), the response would certainly be so. There were also people who argued that the state of ‘nuclear forensics’ was such that even if the attack was carried out by a third party (say a terrorist group), the source of the fissile material would be quickly determined and the deterrent response could be directed there. The assumption in this case is that, although the terrorists themselves are not susceptible to being deterred (since they have no territory that could be attacked), those who supply them certainly are. Even this, though, is now in question, with an American academic (Louis Beres) suggesting in a recent article that ‘A Nuclear Iran Could Become the First “Suicide State”’, with the present Iranian leadership seeing the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population as a kind of transcendent triumph for Shiite Islam.
Over time, deterrence doctrine was also extended to attacks by other kinds of weapon in the general class of ‘weapons of mass-destruction’ (notably gases or biological agents), which would also bring in a full nuclear deterrent response. There was a certain vagueness about these latter entailments, since it was less clear just how devastating such attacks might be, but, equally, it was commonly hinted that such might be the case.
Particularly, for these latter scenarios, it might seem that the threatened response would be disproportionate and indiscriminate and, thus, not justified in law or morality. Indeed, some have thought that the MAD response would have been not only immoral but even imprudent, since it would have added further contamination to a shared environment, without any benefit to the party first struck.
There is, of course, force in all these objections. On the other hand, deterrence does seem to have worked to limit the consequences of the human propensity for violence. The possession of nuclear weapons by some states has not only led to the use of nuclear weapons by nobody but seems to have effectively prevented the most serious kind of conventional conflict: war between the major states.
If deterrence has worked we should be foolish to weaken it. Not only does this mean that the project to abolish all nuclear weapons is misconceived but it means that it is necessary to maintain the imperative force of deterrence pronouncements. The appearance of any doubt about the consequences for those who supplied the material for (say) a crude nuclear device detonated by terrorists, is only likely to make such an event more probable and a sequence of events involving such a scenario that is not followed by overwhelming action will merely ‘set the tariff’. It will produce precisely the opposite of the end that was ostensibly sought. Nuclear weapons will have become usable and proliferation more desirable. A similar line of argument suggests that legalistic distinctions between the various classes of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, might also have the effect of setting a tariff and making a gas or biological attack more likely. The situation of Iran is different again. If Professor Beres is right and Iran is, indeed, effectively non-deterrable, then prevention can be the only policy.
The recent Washington summit and the more or less coincident discussion of the recently released US Nuclear Posture Review has been characterised by a great deal of ‘loose talk’ on these matters. The enormous and indiscriminate destructive power of nuclear weapons is such that any use would raise serious moral questions. On the other hand, ‘abolishing’ nuclear weapons in any meaningful sense is probably quite impossible*. For the medium term, at least, we are stuck with nuclear deterrence. We need to make it work and, particularly, we need to be careful about the way we talk about it.
*Arguments in support of this assertion will be the subject of a subsequent blog.
at 8:41 AM