Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


tools for the prevention of war and indeed for the management

of war, as well as one of only several tools for the prevention

and management of proliferation.

What are the major risks of war and nuclear war in particular

in relation to which deterrence might play a role? First, the

problem of preventing war, nuclear war, and indeed the problem

of proliferation, should not be confined to those states that

have not yet acquired nuclear weapons—like Iran or Syria.

There are also very real concerns with states which have already

acquired nuclear weapons. In 2009 Pakistan is probably

at the top of that list, and North Korea is probably not very far

behind. In a discussion of deterrence, the distinction between

states which have nuclear weapons and those which don’t is

perhaps artificial. Even in discussing international law (e.g.,

arms control or the NPT), deterrence is of critical importance

whether or not countries are signatories of international instruments

and in particular the NPT.

Second, and perhaps my most substantive point, is that students

of history and of conflict often suggest that war may be

especially likely at times when the leaders of one state believe

there is a window of opportunity to launch a strike against another

state before that state closes a perceived gap and gains

superiority (or loses inferiority) in military capability, particularly

when there is a perception that the window may be closing.

Scholars have argued that this may have played a role in German

motivations for going to war with Russia in 1914. There

was a live debate in the late 1940s and early 1950s about

whether a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union before the

Soviets acquired a substantial nuclear capability was an option.

There was certainly a discussion about preemptive strikes

against China by the United States and/or the Soviet Union in

the 1960s. There was of course the Israeli attack on Osirak in

Iraq, and today there is a discussion about Israel and Iran.

But at the same time, in parallel to that discussion about

whether these windows of opportunity might exist, there is also

an argument that, at least in principle, the incentives for

preemption decline as the forces of different nuclear weapons

states come into more of a balance, particularly when states

acquire assured second-strike capabilities, however those ca-


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