Forgetting the Success of Deterrence

A decade ago, President George W. Bush and his neocon aides were convinced that hi-tech American weapons in a “uni-polar world” meant the U.S. could remake the Middle East through violence. It was a moment of hubris that ignored the lessons of history and the Cold War, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Richard Betts offers a characteristically perspicuous essay in the newest Foreign Affairs about what has happened to the U.S. use, or nonuse, or misuse, of deterrence in the years since the Cold War. His overall observation is that the United States appears to have unlearned some of the lessons that it successfully applied during the Cold War.

It has used the mechanisms of deterrence in situations where this use has needlessly worsened relations with the apparent target of the deterrence; confronting Russia with an expanded NATO is the leading example that Betts analyzes.

U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan who is credited with devising the strategy of deterrence against the Soviet Union after World War II.

Conversely, the United States has failed to use deterrence in situations where it should have done so. Here the glaring example is the George W. Bush administration’s launching of a war against Iraq, rather than relying on deterrence to keep Saddam Hussein where Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was as of May 2001: “in a box.”

In addition to the issues of NATO and relations with Russia, Betts draws policy implications regarding the handling of Iran. He reviews the reasons, which ought to be easy to understand, but seemingly to many people aren’t, why deterrence of even a nuclear-armed Iran is far preferable to launching a war against Iran.

He also criticizes as sometimes muddled and inconsistent the way deterrence figures into the U.S. approach toward China and the Far East, scene of a Cold War failure to use deterrence properly, in Korea in 1950. Betts appears to prefer a clear either/or approach to deterrence, in which we make unmistakable the places where we are willing to respond forcefully while not leading others to believe that we are making deterrent threats in other places.

This preference leads to one point on which Betts’s analysis can be challenged, as it relates to Cold War deterrence of the USSR. Insofar as U.S. nuclear weapons figured into deterrence of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, there necessarily was some ambiguity.

The West never did come up with a good answer to the question of whether, and why, the United States would risk incineration of New York for the sake of saving Hamburg. But that involves an unresolvable point of historical debate. On matters of current policy relevance, Betts’s observations are astute.

Betts does not really address why lessons were unlearned and the same nation’s use of a strategic concept as basic as deterrence has been so much less skillful in the past couple of decades than it was for most of the four decades before that. Let me offer two explanations.

One is that this is another indication of the tendency, which Americans in particular exhibit, to overestimate the newness of things, especially when moving from one identifiable era to another. A drastically changed world was the common way of looking at the end of the Cold War.

The nature of threats was seen as having become thoroughly different from before, and thus altogether different strategies had to be used. Such views were significant exaggerations of actual change. But it nevertheless meant that many Cold War lessons were discarded not only because one generation succeeded another but also because the lessons were mistakenly seen as obsolete.

The other explanation involves the post-Cold-War-victory hubris of the unipolar moment. Some, including some who got into positions to shape policy, thought we didn’t have to think as much about deterrence anymore because the United States now had the freedom and the power to accomplish much more directly through the application of military force, and to do so by taking the initiative rather than waiting to respond to someone else’s transgression.

The Iraq War demonstrated some of what was wrong with that line of thinking. But some lessons not only get forgotten; in some quarters they never seem to get learned in the first place.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

8 comments for “Forgetting the Success of Deterrence

  1. gregorylkruse
    February 28, 2013 at 09:34

    Russia still exists, and it is a very big and powerful nation. Russia, China, and India all pose a serious threat to US/NATO hegemony, and the monopolar fantasy will only last a few more years. I agree that it could have lasted longer if not for the under-educated cabal of neocons making foreign policy over the last two decades.

  2. iam he
    February 27, 2013 at 12:38

    not true

  3. iam he
    February 27, 2013 at 09:59

    Mutual Nuclear Deterrence -MND- is Civil Deterrence, Civilized Deterrence, Civilizing Deterrence.

    MND civilizes enemy governments toward each other.

    No nation wants or needs nuclear weapons except to deter sociopathic belligerent governments from attacking.

    A few nukes can Deter many nukes.

    MND leads to voluntary arms reductions, and voluntary disarmament.

    Trying to force other nations to give up their right to have deterrent weapons, forces them to seek the civilized safety and security that Mutual Nuclear Deterrence provides.

    If a nation is be to nuclear weapons free, there must be no foreign belligerent governments vilifying, threatening violence, sanctions, isolation, exclusion or anything! A nation that does not need deterrent weapons will voluntarily disarm their nukes because it is safer. But that nation and every nation have the right to produce nuclear deterrent weapons anytime they are threatened by sociopathic belligerent governments.

    Civil Deterrence is a good thing.

  4. pgathome
    February 25, 2013 at 11:05

    i do not think “deterrence” as we know it is the explanation. i think our policy was not to attack, “detterrence” those countries that had nuclear arms. as an example we attack Iraq but use diplomicy with North Korea. IRan has figured this out and to stop the western powers from attacking them they have decided to produce a nucler bomb. seems resonable when looking around the world. those with nuclear weapons are not attacked, those without , Iraq an exmple, are attacked.

  5. Terry Washington
    February 25, 2013 at 04:36

    My view is that if deterrence was good enough for the Soviet Union then it should have been good enough for Saddam’s Iraq- neocons and their fantasies of “gunboat diplomacy” bedamned!

  6. rosemerry
    February 25, 2013 at 04:09

    Deterrence, and MAD, were succsessful as long as the USA did not threaten to use nukes AGAIN. When all the “official” nuclear powers agreed not to be the first users of nukes or to nuke a non-nuke power, the world was safer despite the huge waste of resources. George W Bush added greatly to instability by going against international treaties. “9/11” was just a pretext for all his other draconian “reactions”.
    If Iran actually did get one nuclear weapon, only a complete fool or dishonest politician (and the USA is full of them) would consider that a threat to the USA or even to dear little innocent peaceful Israel.

    • iam he
      February 27, 2013 at 12:44

      It was not MAD -Mutual Assured Destruction- that created deterrence, it was MND -Mutual Nuclear Deterrence- that created deterrence.

      MAD was an is an overkill and a lie, that “justified” spending way more money than was/is necessary.

      A few nukes can deter many nukes.

      A few nukes can deter the entire US military.

      MND is Civil Deterrence

  7. F. G. Sanford
    February 24, 2013 at 15:20

    Deterrence works because it is essentially a quid pro quo proposition. It doesn’t work when you know you’re going to get screwed regardless of what you do. Saddam and Muammar both learned the hard way. Sooner or later, if our “bull in a china shop” diplomacy continues, we’ll relearn all about it on the receiving end. Our debt and our petrodollars make us receptive to reason as soon as a block of nations takes the initiative to make it an issue.

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