Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


pabilities are defined. Certainly, the latter part of the Cold War

is seen as an example of that alleged stability.

Here, I think it is useful to think about this question in terms

of a window of opportunity debate between what one might

term window optimists and window pessimists. Window optimists

argue both that (a) the transitional period between a time

of crisis instability and high-perceived incentives for preemption

and a subsequent period of relative stability is relatively

short and that (b) the window itself is relatively lacking in severity,

so the incentives for preemption are in practice relatively

low. Window optimists argue that the destructive power of nuclear

weapons is so great and most states so risk averse that

mutual deterrence between states can be quickly established

once any nuclear capability is obtained.

Window pessimists, by contrast, argue that the window can

be prolonged and that there may well be repeated particular

circumstances and points in time at which preemption could

be seriously contemplated or feared. Window pessimists are

sceptical that stability can be easily created and worry (for example)

about the impact of missile defences and conventional

strike capabilities in preventing, or indeed undermining, stable

nuclear relationships.

Where one stands on the relationship between optimists and

pessimists makes a real difference, for example, as to how relaxed

one is about the prospects of further proliferation to

countries like Iran. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough experience

to know who is right, and it could be too late once we

find out—a reality that certainly might incline us to work on

the assumption that the pessimists might be right.

Third is the role of conventional deterrence in the prevention

of the use of nuclear weapons. In circumstances where we have

states which are strong in conventional terms confronting

states which are weak, conventional forces can and indeed

should play a central role in making deterrence credible. As

long as nuclear weapons exist in the arsenal of an opponent,

the user of any WMD must take into account the possibility

that there will be a nuclear response. But the scale of damage

is so difficult to calibrate and likely to be so antithetical to the

values of our own states that where possible it will be much

better to focus on conventional responses to nuclear first use,


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