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Deterrence By Proxy

Lessons from history aid understanding of nuclear war scenarios -- and the outlook is grim.

6:25 PM, May 17, 2010 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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But there’s no reason to believe that any aid would necessarily end with diplomacy.  After all, the United States had lacked diplomatic relations with China for 20 years when we made the threat to defend China with our own nuclear weapons.  How much more likely, then, are states with close ties to the threatened country to rush to its aid?  In 1969, Moscow presumably assumed that United States would welcome a disarmed China.  As indeed—abstracting from all other factors—we would have.  In the mid-1960s American officials had considered a strike of our own against Chinese nuclear sites.  Not that Moscow knew that.  But our answer must nonetheless have come as a surprise.

More such surprises will be a hallmark of the Second Nuclear Age.  It is taken for granted that Iran won’t be able to use its bomb because of the certainty of swift and devastating retaliation.  But that presumes a binary relationship between deterrer and deterred.  How do we know that will be the case?  A whole host of factors suggest that it won’t be.

Once a conflict goes nuclear, or threatens to, suddenly all of the world’s nuclear powers—or at least those with interests in the region in question and the ability to strike targets there—will consider themselves central players.  Rather than a classic cinematic standoff, with only two shooters, the situation will look more like the final scene in Reservoir Dogs with three or four or more.

This is the future we are hurtling toward when we persuade ourselves that we can “contain” and “deter” Iran.  Maybe.  Can we contain and deter all of Iran’s powerful friends as well?

Michael Anton is policy director of Keep America Safe.

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