Deterrence in the Twenty-first Century

Deterrence in the twenty-first century - Air University Press


The cases of North Korea and Iran present two examples of a

strong correlation between capability and credibility—leading

to action. According to statements by North Korean and Iranian

officials, the nuclear programs of both states are (to a large degree)

predicated on the idea that a nuclear-armed North Korea/Iran

can deter the United States from attempting a future

invasion. In this case, US conventional capabilities are highly

capable and, because of American post–Cold War foreign policy,

highly credible. Thus, the North Koreans are willing to face international

sanctions to deter a US invasion through nuclearweapons


World War II provides an excellent example of capability and

credibility failing to correlate. After Neville Chamberlain and

Édouard Daladier signed the Munich Agreement (1938) granting

the Sudetenland to Germany, British and French threats to

declare war on Germany should Hitler invade Poland lacked

credibility when made in the months that followed Munich.

Thus, the answer to the question of whether capability or

credibility is more important is, it depends. Adversaries look to

a nation’s past and its current interests when attempting to

determine the credibility of deterrence and any threat that may

accompany it.

6. What are conditions under which actors would use nuclear


The United States

The United States currently has no stated nuclear-use policy.

During the Cold War, US national policy disavowed firststrike

use of nuclear weapons. However, NATO policy differed.

In the National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction

(2002), President Bush suggested that the United States

may respond with nuclear weapons to a WMD attack on the

homeland, but as with all previous administrations, strategic

ambiguity—the creation of purposeful grey areas—remains a

core aspect of American nuclear policy.

During the Cold War, it was widely understood that “Mutually

Assured Destruction” created a strategic balance in which

there was no rationale for either side to launch a first strike


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