Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


world . . . a lessening of the US nuclear umbrella could very well trigger

a cascade [of nuclear proliferation] in East Asia and the Middle East. 54

The Credibility of US Nuclear Threats:

Implications for the Arsenal

If we hope to apply the logic of punitive deterrence to an opponent

in an acute contingency, then that opponent must attribute

some credibility to our threats. Whether the intensity of

that belief corresponds to Kahn’s favored threat that leaves little

to chance or to Schelling’s threat that leaves something to

chance, the opponent must anticipate that there is some probability

that the US threat would be executed.

In the past, militarists and dictators have seen in America’s

Western and democratic scruples license to provoke the United

States. These leaders have included Adolf Hitler, Hideki Tojo,

Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, and Slobodan Milosevic. 55 Adolf

Hitler frequently boasted that he was not limited by “bourgeois

scruples” in the manner of liberal democracies and that this

would help ensure his success. Or, as Slobodan Milosevic

proudly declared, “I am ready to walk on corpses, and the West

is not. That is why I shall win.” 56 Obviously, both Hitler and Milosevic

misjudged their situations. However, their expectations

that Western democratic norms would provide the basis for

their victory likely contributed to their willingness to provoke.

This point has implications for the US nuclear arsenal’s value

for deterrence. In some instances, low-yield, accurate nuclear

weapons may contribute to a US deterrent threat that is more

believable than otherwise would be the case. The US “legacy”

nuclear arsenal’s generally high yields and limited precision

could threaten to inflict so many innocent casualties that some

opponents eager to find a rationale for action may seize on the

possibility that a US president would not execute an expressed

nuclear deterrent threat. Uncertainty regarding the US threat

in such cases could work against the desired deterrent effect.

America’s aversion to causing “collateral damage” is well

known. Some opponents clearly see proper US concerns about

civilian casualties, “nation-building,” and winning “hearts and

minds” as US vulnerabilities to be exploited. They may view as


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