Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


Korea, the question of the value of US nuclear weapons is not

an academic or theoretical debate about preferred utopian futures.

It is a most serious concern among these Asian leaders

who undoubtedly understand North Korea at least as well as

US commentators. They believe that US nuclear weapons are

critical to the deterrence of North Korea and thus their own assurance.

These are only perceptions; their perceptions, however,

may be particularly well-informed, and both deterrence

and assurance fundamentally are about perceptions.

The apparent importance of US nuclear weapons for extended

deterrence, assurance, and thus nonproliferation may distress

US commentators who would prefer US deterrence threats to

be largely or exclusively nonnuclear. Just as deterrent effect

ultimately is determined by opponents, however, what does or

does not assure allies is not decided by the preferences of US

commentators, but by the allies themselves. The United States

can decide what priority it places on the assurance of allies and

how it will proceed to support that goal, but only the allies can

decide whether they are assured. In the contemporary environment,

available evidence suggests strongly that assurance is

an important goal and that US nuclear weapons are critical to

the assurance of key allies to a level they deem adequate.

The United States could decide to withdraw the nuclear umbrella

and provide only a nonnuclear commitment. As discussed

above, however, it is likely that the US withdrawal of its nuclear

extended deterrent coverage would create new and powerful incentives

for nuclear proliferation among its friends and allies

who, to date, have felt sufficiently secure under the US extended

nuclear deterrent to remain nonnuclear. 53 This linkage is not

speculative; it is voiced by allies who feel increasingly at risk.

Extreme care should be exercised before moving in a direction

that carries the risk of unleashing a nuclear proliferation “cascade”—such

as moving prematurely in the direction of a wholly

nonnuclear force structure. As a 2007 report by the Department

of State’s International Security Advisory Board concludes,

There is clear evidence in diplomatic channels that US assurances to

include the nuclear umbrella have been, and continue to be, the single

most important reason many allies have foresworn nuclear weapons.

This umbrella is too important to sacrifice on the basis of an unproven

ideal that nuclear disarmament in the US would lead to a more secure


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