The Magazine

The Obsolescence of Deterrence

Cold War nostalgia grips the antiwar movement. Apparently they've forgotten about the balance of terror.

Dec 9, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 13 • By CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Similarly on the secular left, the same people who for decades did everything they could to undermine deterrence have now all of a sudden discovered its virtues. In contrast, the honest position on the dilemmas of deterrence was best exemplified by Ronald Reagan. As president, Reagan did everything he could to bolster deterrence--his military buildup so outstripped the Soviets as to convince them ultimately to sue for peace in the Cold War--but only as a temporary measure in the absence of any substitute. He was a provisional supporter of deterrence, but was never satisfied with it because ultimately he felt it was immoral. He kept looking for an alternative different from that offered by the left, which was unilateral disarmament and surrender.

Which explains Reagan's extraordinary enthusiasm for strategic defense, which he proposed with utter sincerity as a means of escaping the moral dilemmas of mutual assured destruction. His idea of ballistic missile defenses was greeted with the same skepticism that has greeted the Bush doctrine of preemption. Twenty years later, the idea of nuclear defenses is not only widely accepted but is the official policy of the United States. The reason is simple. No people want to live in a hair-trigger situation in which their safety depends on the threat of the annihilation of millions.

IS THIS THE POSTURE we wish to adopt toward Iraq and other rogue states? At least during the Cold War one could justify deterrence on the grounds that there was simply no other choice. The balance of terror was imposed on us by necessity. The Soviets developed nuclear capability at a time when they were a great conventional superpower. They could not be disarmed (preemption would have required a surprise American nuclear attack). Saddam can be.

We would be choosing to live in deterrence with Saddam. Why? Had we had the choice of disarming the Soviets by more palatable means, say, a limited military operation like Israel's destruction of Saddam's Osirak reactor, it might have been a reasonable option. We have that choice today with Iraq. The deterrence nostalgics reject it, preferring to live voluntarily under a new balance of terror.

The current deterrence school starts with the assumption that there is no stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, but there is no great need to worry because deterrence can deal with the problem. It takes the model of the bipolar late 20th century--two superpowers deterring each other and keeping the peace--and applies it to the 21st century. But the 21st century is not bipolar. WMD technology is spreading and coming within the reach of dozens of countries. Under such circumstances, the logic of deterrence argues perversely for increased proliferation--if everyone has nukes, everyone is deterred, and no one will use them. Safety through deterrence; universal safety through universal deterrence.

There's no escaping this logic. Yet it is plainly a huge bet against everything we know about human nature. It is also a terrible tempting of statistics. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction will certainly include increasingly unstable and unbalanced characters. It will mean that even such inherently undeterrable substate groups as al Qaeda will in time get these weapons. The result will inevitably be a deeply unstable international structure that promises to break down at myriad points in the future, even the near future.

The case for deterrence, drawing on the bipolar Cold War, leads inexorably to a world of hyperproliferation. This is madness. As the era of weapons of mass destruction dawns, the better approach is to deny them--forcibly if necessary--to very bad actors. Starting with Saddam. Indeed, making an example of Saddam.

Ironically, the preemption option, if adopted, will serve as a higher form of deterrence. The idea of preemption is to deter states not from using weapons of mass destruction but from acquiring them in the first place. If you are merely deterring WMD use in war, it is already too late. You become open to precisely the kind of nuclear blackmail to which North Korea is today subjecting the United States (and Japan and South Korea). Preemption is a kind of pre-deterrence that stops the threat at an earlier, safer stage.

Overthrowing Saddam because of his refusal to relinquish these weapons would be a clear demonstration to other tyrants that attempting to acquire WMD is a losing proposition: Not only do they not purchase you immunity (as in classical deterrence), they purchase you extinction. You will be not only disarmed but dethroned. A death penalty (political or literal) for the attempted acquisition of these weapons should concentrate the mind of those contemplating acquiring them. Taken together with other nonproliferation measures, such as export controls, preemption can be the most potent deterrent to proliferation.

There are good reasons to oppose war on Iraq. Nostalgia for deterrence is not one of them. War with Iraq might indeed be costly; the risks need to be carefully weighed. But the case for preemptive war cannot be dismissed with the easy and unexamined invocation of deterrence. Yes, deterrence worked in the past. But in the past it was a play with very few actors. And even under those circumstances, the best of circumstances, deterrence was psychologically debilitating, inherently unstable, and highly dangerous. To voluntarily choose it as the principle on which to rest our safety in this age of weapons of mass destruction is sheer folly.

Charles Krauthammer is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.