Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


gressively more murderous, with ever-more sophisticated means

being found to slaughter people on a large scale.

Since then, we like to think that we have developed more

humanitarian strategies that reject the idea that it is reasonable,

fair, just, and even honourable to attack populations in

war. Even when there is some agreement with the cause, methods

that hurt civilians lead to strong objections. There have

been three events in recent months—Gaza, Swat Valley (Pakistan),

and Sri Lanka—where our side is putting civilian populations

at risk, leading to complaints that a better way ought to

be found, less careless of human life. Our doctrines stress attacking

combatants rather than noncombatants, but there is a

lingering question of whether we could switch, as we have

switched before, into a position where we are prepared to put

civilian populations at risk. You can always say your main target

was elsewhere: Truman described Hiroshima as an important

military base. The issue is not so much whether nuclear

attacks would be illegal under international law but whether it

would even be possible to get ourselves into the mind-set where

we could make threats with any conviction in circumstances

other than the destruction of our countries.

Protecting Friends

Another question of credibility, which was very important

during the Cold War and is still present, is that of extended

deterrence, which is the readiness to deter attacks on friends

and partners as well as oneself. We may need better language

to describe the issue now, but the idea is simple. It raises the

problem of credibility in its most pure form. Would you unleash

nuclear weapons in any circumstances other than an existential

threat against your own state? During the Cold War, in part

because of the superiority that the United States initially enjoyed,

it got itself into the position—through such doctrines as

massive retaliation in the mid-1950s—of threatening colossal

nuclear war in response to a conventional attack against allies.

As the Soviet Union acquired effective means of retaliation, the

United States did not abandon that initial commitment. Indeed,

theorising about deterrence developed precisely because of the

problem about maintaining security guarantees to allies in


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