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Deterrence: Its Past and Future
Papers Presented at Hoover Institution, November 2010
By George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, James E. Goodby
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
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How History and the Geopolitical Context Shape Deterrence
Patrick Morgan and George Quester
Deterrence was a well-known practice in international politics long before the twentieth century. It began to take on elements of what was to become cold war deterrence long before the cold war appeared, and thus before the appearance of nuclear weapons. Efforts to develop a robust theory of deterrence early in the cold war led to treating it as an abstract phenomenon, basically the same everywhere. In this paper we highlight ways deterrence has been shaped by surrounding conditions and circumstances. We also note how a way of practicing deterrence can become deeply rooted, making it difficult to change or eliminate.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1945 nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed quickly by the Japanese surrender ending World War II, it was hardly surprising that many analysts saw nuclear weapons as setting up something qualitatively new and different in the role of weapons: deterrence. Bernard Brodie's book, The Absolute Weapon, written directly after Hiroshima and published early in 1946, has been quoted many times since on his prediction: "Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose."
The basis of deterrence was of course the painful punishment that faced the launcher of a war. Glenn Snyder later offered a more elaborate distinction, in his 1961 book Deterrence and Defense, between "deterrence by denial" (the military manner in which aggressions had been deterred in the past, by the prospect that an aggressive attack would be rebuffed so that it would be foolish to initiate one) and "deterrence by punishment" (the new mechanism by which, even if an aggressive attack could succeed militarily, the loser could inflict retaliatory punishment as a last gasp on the cities of the winner).
But most observers, when referring to "deterrence" after 1945, had indeed been focusing on what Snyder outlined as "deterrence by punishment." The invention of nuclear weapons, which could deliver tremendous destruction in a very small package slipped past enemy forces by airplane, missile, or submarine, presumably made all the difference. Deterrence was thus a concept discussed much more often after 1945, especially after 1949 when the Soviets detonated their own atomic bomb and Americans had now to be concerned about mutual deterrence.
Yet it is important to note that the word and the concept had existed before 1945, amid experiences that seem like a dress rehearsal for what we lived with in the cold war and which might offer important lessons on future "deterrence." And for the non-nuclear world which existed before 1945 (and for any non-nuclear world we may have in the future) such deterrence also depended heavily on anticipations of pain and punishment. Even today, when North Korea threatens Seoul with conventional attack, or Hezbollah similarly threatens Israeli cities, the deterrent impact is what the targeting jargon labels "counter-value," the punishment of civilians.
Important earlier examples can be found in the thinking about conventional aerial bombardment that emerged during (and even before) World War I, then in the years between the world wars, and during the escalation of aerial bombing in World War II when the great majority of strategic planners knew nothing about nuclear weapons.
The actual experience of aerial bombing in World War I, as shown in photographs, seems very minor and quaint to a world that has experienced the destruction of Coventry, Hamburg, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. The photos sometimes show "the horrible destruction inflicted by a Zeppelin attack" as one or two flattened units in a row of London townhouses, looking like the missing teeth in a young child.
But the public reaction to the World War I bombings often verged on panic, and future air war was expected to be waged with bigger bombs, incendiaries, and poison gas. The predictions — in the plans of British air marshals like Hugh Trenchard, in the derivative publications of Giulio Douhet in Italy, and from a host of other writers in the 1920s and 1930s — presumed the existence of the destructive equivalent of 1945 atomic bombs, causing populations perhaps to be ready to surrender after such attacks, or causing governments to hold back some of such attacks for fear of matching retaliation.
Actually, the public in London bore up much better under the massive 1940 "Blitz" than it had under the German Zeppelin and winged bomber attacks of 1914–1918, as the British government had over-estimated how many hospital beds it would need for an air assault by an order of magnitude. But, if the reality before Hiroshima did not support what Brodie and others projected for the deterrent impact of nuclear weapons, the important point is that the assumptions guiding planners before 1941 often came close.
Immediately after World War I, planners in the Royal Air Force had also speculated extensively about using "air control" retaliatory bombings on insurgent native villages as a means of asserting political control over colonial territories, ideas tested in British Somaliland and in the Northwest Frontier regions of today's Pakistan. The practice of deterrence here was thus not limited to symmetrical confrontations where each side possessed an air force, but could be especially plausible where the weaker side had no means of parallel retaliation.
To see how the somewhat premature assumptions about air-delivered mass destruction were circulated, and not only among nongovernment theorists, one must look closely at the initial phases of World War II, or of World War I, to find the German and British governments avoiding aerial bombing campaigns for fear of responses in kind.
The outbreak of World War II saw the Royal Air Force stringently restricted on the targets it could attack, with one target-set ruled off limits simply because it entailed "private property." Even after the fall of France and the initiation of the Luftwaffe attack on Britain, Hitler initially imposed a strict ban on bombing British cities in favor of RAF air bases as the major target. This German emphasis on a "counterforce" attack could be explained as seizing the apparent opportunity to defeat the RAF and open Britain up for an amphibious invasion. But Hitler's orders also stemmed from a great aversion to seeing German cities bombed, based on the pessimistic assumptions of the 1930s as to what such bombings would do to civilian life and morale.
The eventual escalations to the all-out bombings of cities we remember are typically blamed on the Nazi dictator, but a close reading of the escalation sequence suggests that Winston Churchill made more of the key decisions. The mutual deterrence that makes limited war possible "failed" in World War II, but it is easy to forget that it "held" for almost a year because of each side's somewhat exaggerated view of how bad unlimited air war would be.
Even earlier, at the outset of World War I, the German Navy saw some opportunities to hurt Britain if Zeppelin airships were allowed to attack British cities. The Kaiser held back permission for a lengthy period, in part because Buckingham Palace, former home of his grandmother Queen Victoria, might be damaged and in part because similar attacks might be directed against the western cities of Germany. To repeat, we may think of the damage that might be inflicted by World War I airships or airplanes as quaint and trivial, but it was not seen this way by civilians under attack at the time. The air attacks of World War II dwarfed by orders of magnitude those of World War I, and were in turn dwarfed by the nuclear and thermonuclear weapons which set the stage for interesting developments in deterrence theory.
Pre-World War I theories
Even before World War I, we find examples of futuristic speculation about weapons of mass destruction. H.G. Wells is often credited with predicting nuclear weapons in 1914 in his book The World Set Free, predicting bombs based on nuclear reactions and claiming that their massive destructiveness would drive the world to maintain peace. While physicists could dismiss this book as one of Wells's science-fiction products offering just a very general hunch about what real science had in store, it is interesting to explore what Wells saw as the deterring strategic implications of huge bombs delivered by air.
Even earlier Alfred Nobel, when moving to endow the Nobel Peace Prize in 1890, foresaw that the explosive power in dynamite would soon be dwarfed by huge expansions of destructive power and predicted that this growing capability for mass destruction would make war impossible by deterring it: "Let the sword of Damocles hang over every head and you will witness a miracle. War will instantly stop."
Leaving aside destruction delivered by air, a parallel discussion of deterrence occurred in the British debates about the uses of naval power. All Britishers agreed it was essential that the British fleet be able to repulse any foreign navy, and even to be able to destroy any hostile fleet. Amid the tremendous growth in international trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, British analysts were more than a little divided on how much British naval power should target commercial ships in a future war. Some British liberals felt that trade should never be attacked, as this would needlessly increase civilian suffering and the general pain of war. Foreign governments, including importantly the United States, pressed continually for protection for neutral shipping in a war.
But the analysts planning future applications of naval power were much on guard against any such restrictions on what could be attacked, because the navy was not just for preventing invasions across the English Channel (in what would in the cold war be called "defense" or "deterrence by denial") but was also for forcing concessions from other states by interfering with their trade (what we would today call "deterrence by punishment" or simply "deterrence").
The growth of and consequent dependence on trade to maintain prosperity had thus made the world's seaports and their hinterlands as vulnerable to sudden inflictions of suffering as by the bombers of the next century. And inflicting suffering had been identified as a crucial focus of military power.
This is illustrated quite well in the argument against restraints on British naval options put forward in 1911 by Sir Julian Corbett, who argued that exempting foreign trade from attack would eliminate the "great deterrent" to adversary behavior. To appease British moral feelings, Corbett chose to approvingly quote at length writings by a Prussian General, Von der Goltz, about land warfare. Von der Goltz had noted, "After shattering the hostile main army, we will still have the forcing of a peace as a separate, and in certain circumstances, a more difficult task ... to make the enemy's country feel the burdens of war with such weight that the desire for peace will prevail;" (i.e., even if you defeat an opposing army, opposing civilians might insolently refuse to obey your orders unless you are free to punish these civilians). Corbett's lessons are that it is crucial for the British Navy to be able to defeat its naval opponents, but it must then be free to do more, to harass enemy commerce and coastal cities.
Deterrence in law enforcement
Thus concepts of deterrence emerged without nuclear weapons. But what is shared with the cold war pattern of discussions about nuclear deterrence is the necessity of painful punishment. An analogy to domestic law enforcement emerges in explanations as to why criminals have to be imprisoned. In a case of murder, one simply defends ordinary people by locking up the criminal. But why imprison an embezzler? Once he has been convicted, surely no one will trust him with their funds. The purpose of imprisonment here is not simple defense, but punishment, warning other potential embezzlers that they face a drastic worsening of their quality of life if caught committing a similar crime.
Continuing geopolitical problems
In discussions of the geopolitical nature of strategic problems, one encounters a wide range of meanings attached to "geopolitics." At times, this simply refers to a general need to know something about geography when developing a military strategy in pursuit of national interests. More narrowly and precisely, as developed by Halford Mackinder and others, it is an emphasis on how the continents are shaped in relation to the oceans.
By this narrower definition, throughout the nineteenth century Britain faced the problems of what its diplomats and military planners had styled "the great game," as Imperial Russia was seen as having an inherent advantage in conventional military power because of its central location on the Eurasian continent. From this central position, once railroads or other transportation routes were enhanced, the Tsar's forces could strike in any direction, toward Korea and Japan, or into China, or toward India or Turkey, or toward Scandinavia, etc., with the seaborne forces of the British Empire hard-pressed to race around to counter the thrusts. The military advantage of holding the central position on this very valuable continent might, in the worrisome view of Mackinder and British government planners, allow Russia to dominate all the resources of the Eurasian continent and then to threaten Britain itself.
While Alfred T. Mahan (also a "geopolitician" because of his emphasis on the global geography of where salt water and the continents meet) had seen naval power as offering Britain inherent advantages, Mackinder rebutted this by seeing the inherent advantage in conventional warfare as going to whomever, from St. Petersburg, or later from Moscow, controlled the central position on the world's largest continent.
By this interpretation, in the cold war the United States inherited the burdens of the "great game" from Britain. Given the Soviets' (and their satellites') central position, the opposing alliance might need even larger armies to hold back those unpredictable thrusts, a task that might impoverish the West. The alternative adopted after 1945 was thus "extended nuclear deterrence," deterring conventional aggressions not by expensive defenses ("denial") but by the prospect of escalation to "punishment."
In the long British contemplation of the uses of sea power, there is a fascinating parallel to this Eurasian problem in British concerns about another potential adversary in the central position in another continent. The United States was — at least until 1900 — intent on "liberating" Canada and pushing British influence out of Central America and the Caribbean.
The favorite British solution for the security of Canada would have been that the Canadians reinforce their local defenses, just as the favorite American solution for Western European security in the cold war was sometimes that NATO enhance its conventional defenses. But the Canadians often defaulted on whatever they had promised London, just as NATO later often defaulted on its promises to Washington.
For the protection of NATO members during the cold war, the fallback was repeatedly the reliance on "flexible response" threats of nuclear escalation. For British concerns about Canada's security, the fallback was the British Navy's capability for harassing American commerce and attacking American coastal cities.
Just as nuclear attacks on Moscow and Leningrad would not have stopped Soviet tanks from occupying all of continental Western Europe, British naval attacks along the lines of the 1814 burning of Washington, D.C., would not have stopped American forces from occupying all of Canada. But the threat of such punishment could work to stop the American ground forces' potential from being exploited.
Thus if Corbett and others were ready to speculate about the deterrent impact of British naval power, given how much the world relied on oceanic trade and how many of the world's cities were on the oceans, there were real enemies, from the British point of view, that needed to be deterred.
If the United States inherited the "great game" after 1945, two grand factors came together to strongly shape our cold war thinking. One was the new availability of an extremely potent form of mass destruction. The other was the geopolitical problem that, except for the atomic bomb, would have given Moscow enormous advantages in conventional military capabilities.
Confusions in problems of morality
All discussions of alternative uses of military force or alternative versions of deterrence have therefore had to confront some fundamental concepts of Western morality, by which targeting civilians directly is immoral and collateral damage is to be minimized, not maximized. In today's jargon, "counterforce" targeting has been legitimate and appropriate while "counter-value" targeting contradicts our morality. One result, as with the Corbett example, is that such a counter-value emphasis on imposing suffering is typically imputed first to others. Another result, confusing much strategic analysis, is that target planners are called upon to pretend to be seeking military targets, i.e. counterforce targets. (Any pain that is inflicted — any counter-value impact, that is — will be labeled inadvertent collateral damage.)
Excerpted from Deterrence: Its Past and Future by George P. Shultz, Sidney D. Drell, James E. Goodby. Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents
Foreword by George P. Shultz,
Introduction by James E. Goodby,
1 How History and the Geopolitical Context Shape Deterrence by Patrick Morgan and George Quester,
2 Redefining the Role of Deterrence by Michael Mazarr and James E. Goodby,
3 Nuclear Deterrence in a World Without Nuclear Weapons by Sidney D. Drell and Raymond Jeanloz,
4 Nuclear Weapons Reconstitution and its Discontents: Challenges of "Weaponless Deterrence" by Christopher A. Ford,
5 Playing for Time on the Edge of the Apocalypse: Maximizing Decision Time for Nuclear Leaders by Christopher A. Ford,
6 Arms Control and Deterrence by James M. Acton, Edward Ifft, and John McLaughlin,
7 Practical Considerations Related to Verification and Compliance by Edward Ifft,
8 Deterrence and Enforcement in a World Free of Nuclear Weapons by David Holloway,
Appendix A: Enforcing Zero: Forget Deterrence! by Harald Müller,
Appendix B: Nuclear Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century: An Ethical Analysis by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson,
Appendix C: Conference Agenda,
Appendix D: Conference Participants,
About the Authors,