The Interpreter misinterprets nuclear deterrence

“Donald Trump, Perhaps Unwittingly, Exposes Paradox of Nuclear Arms.” So reads the headline of the latest offering from The Interpreter in The New York Times. Unfortunately, The Interpreter (Max Fisher), perhaps unwittingly, exposes his misinterpretation of nuclear deterrence.

Fisher writes:

Yet the United States and other nuclear powers have maintained and expanded their arsenals, enhancing their ability to launch nuclear strikes even as they have concluded that the logic of such a conflict makes using the weapons unthinkable.

This idea became known as mutually assured destruction, in which countries wield nuclear weapons primarily to deter other nuclear powers. But this deterrent works only if it is credible.

In this passage, Fisher confuses deterrence with “mutually assured destruction,” two concepts that are quite different. When Herman Kahn characterized “mutually assured destruction” as MAD, he did so as a reductio ad absurdum. For what would be the point of attempting to destroy a country if there were (even barely) enough time to for that country to launch an equally lethal counterstrike before it was destroyed?

The point of deterrence is to seek to prevent an enemy from launching a strike in the first place — not by threatening mutual destruction or by targeting an enemy in general, or its population. One country’s “first strike” capability is offset by another country’s “second strike” capability, in which both countries’ primary targets are weapons (or the means to make weapons), not populations.

Focusing a strategy of deterrence on an enemy’s ability to make war, rather than on its population or even its armies, is not a new concept. It long predates nuclear weapons. It stretches at least as far back as Sun Tzu. In modern times, Kahn’s colleague at RAND, Albert Wohlstetter, pointed out that the strategic vulnerability of the United States in the 1950s was not its citizenry (trying to hide in fallout shelters or ducking under their desks) but the forward air force bases from which (in those days) nuclear bombs were “launched” (on B-52s, before missile technology was reliable). Wohlstetter noted that a “first strike” capability — which the concept of MAD depends upon, in the form of the threat of ever-more destructive weapons — is not a deterrent at all. Rather, it is the power to retaliate that deters:

A protected retaliatory capability has a stabilizing influence not only in deterring rational attack, but also in offering every inducement to both powers to reduce the chance of accidental detonation of war. Our own interest in “fail-safe” responses for our retaliatory forces illustrates this. A protected power to strike back does not come automatically, but it can hardly be stressed too much that it is worth the effort.

Understanding deterrence in this way, rather than as MAD, explains why the focus of the “arms race” has been as much on “defensive” measures (that is, “protected retaliatory capability” in the form of “hardened” missile silos, radar, and the much-misunderstood “Star Wars”) as on offensive measures (such as “bunker busters” and MIRVs). It also explains why countries like Iran have gone to such lengths to disperse nuclear technology throughout civilian populations, thus creating a “human shield.” This is not because of MAD (Iran does not yet have the capability of launching a missile strike against the United States) but because Iran recognizes that any strategic attack against it would target its war-making abilities and thus (by its own design) its citizenry. In other words, it is not mutual assured destruction that deters the U.S., it is U.S. restraint, which Iran counts on, by holding its own citizens hostage.

For better or worse, that’s one difference between responsible nation states and terrorists (or states that sponsor terrorism, such as Iran). The latter deliberately target civilians (even making their own citizens targets, as the Palestinians also do), the former do not. Hence the also much-maligned notion of “collateral damage.” Though it may be small consolation to the dead, there is a world of difference between intentional killing and unintended deaths. This is also the difference between MAD and deterrence, which is both a moral and a strategic distinction.

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