Deterrence is one means of influencing another nation’s behavior. It is, by its nature a passive activity, relying as it does on persuading another nation not to do something by threatening a response so powerful that any gain from the undesired behavior is overwhelmed by the loss from the threatened response. One nation might deter another from initiating a nuclear attack, for instance, by threatening a nuclear response of devastating effect.
But deterrence, to be successful, relies on a number of factors, only some of which are under the control of the deterring nation. One of those factors is actually having the ability to deliver the threatened response and the ability to defeat the other nation’s initiating action. This is generally within the control of the deterring nation. Either the United States, for instance, has the ability to deliver a devastating response and to defeat sufficiently the initial action, or we do not, and within limits, only we make the determination acquire/maintain those abilities. Another factor in deterrence is the will to use that strength, should the nation we’re trying to deter act anyway. This is a shared factor, though, depending not just on our actual will, but on the other nation’s perception of our will. We can manage that perception only by acting meaningfully and decisively with lesser consequences in response to lesser actions. If we do not deliver those lesser consequences, the nation we wish to deter will have no reason to believe we’ll respond with our described deterrence actions. A third factor on which deterrence depends is the clarity of our position. The consequences of the other nation’s action must be well understood by that nation. This also is a shared factor: communication is a two-way street, and we must ensure that the other nation does get the message. A fourth factor in deterrence is the other nation’s tolerance for the damage we’ll inflict should they strike and we respond as our deterrence position says we will. The moment the other nation decides the cost is worth the gain, our deterrence ceases to exist, and we must adjust our deterrence—and defensive—posture. And we must recognize the other nation’s tolerance for pain in order to make the adjustments. This factor, other than our understanding, is entirely under the control of that other nation.
With these thoughts in mind, let’s look at our ability to deter today.
We say we do not want Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, going so far as insisting that such a thing is unacceptable. How have we gone about pursuing that goal? This administration began by extending an open hand to Iran, if only they would unclench their fist: we would negotiate with them, offer them incentives, including help with enriching uranium to the level that an Iranian nuclear power plant needs in order to function effectively. In truth, the negotiation attempts did not originate with the Obama administration; prior administrations had been pursuing this path all along. When it became clear that the open hand, the negotiations, were failing, then this administration began a parallel course of threatening ever stronger sanctions, and repeated attempts to apply them.
Indeed, President Obama insists that “this administration has systemically imposed the toughest sanctions on…Iran ever. When we came into office, the world was divided. Iran was unified and moving aggressively on its own agenda. Today, Iran is isolated and the world is unified in applying the toughest sanctions that Iran has ever experienced and it’s having an impact inside Iran.”
The Iranian response, though, has been continued effort, and progress, toward nuclear weapons acquisition. The “toughest sanctions” were ineffective, and part of their ineffectiveness was the active interference with global sanctions by Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Indeed, Iran has taken to openly attacking diplomatic missions in Teheran, and they’re dispersing their medium range missile systems, making them harder to target should Iran take overt military action.
Our deterrence effort vis-à-vis Iran has failed on a number of fronts. We did not demonstrate any particular will to apply serious consequences at any stage of our interactions with Iran. We have not demonstrated even the capability to apply serious consequences. Even our message is muddled: we’ve never really spelled out the consequences of their continued efforts or of their actually getting nuclear weapons: we’ve only made fatuous remarks about sanctions and vague threats of “no option is off the table.” Finally, Iran has determined that it’s willing to bear the costs we might inflict.
With Russia, it’s a slightly different story. The question here is who is actually deterring whom. The Russians object to our having a missile shield to protect against Iranian missiles (against northern Korea’s missiles, too, but Russia’s public objections have centered on a defensive deployment in Europe). Shortly after President Obama took office, Russian objections became quite vociferous as we concluded agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic to install components of the shield in each nation. The Russians said that if we persisted, they would move nuclear weapons into western Russia from where they could strike Europe. They also made direct threats to destroy Poland with nuclear strikes. We canceled those agreements and agreed not to deploy a missile shield there. (As an aside, keep in mind that this missile shield would have been part of that larger deterrence against Iranian use of their nuclear weapons—an ability to defeat a strike by them.
Now The Weekly Standard reports that
The Obama administration is…undertak[ing] what amounts to an off-schedule Nuclear Posture Review—one that ices out Defense and State Department experts usually consulted on nuclear issues. It is also beginning a new round of talks with Moscow here in Washington next week that many observers believe will result in the United States offering to trade U.S. strategic weapons in exchange for reductions in Russian tactical weapons.
[T]he Obama administration is looking to make unilateral cuts…. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has suggested that to save money the administration might have to eliminate America’s land-based 450 single-warhead Minuteman III ICBMs (though ICBM sustainment is but a rounding error in the DoD budget)….”
It may be that Panetta’s threats are mere polemics in an attempt to protect the Defense budget from the cuts mandated by the Super Committee’s failure. However, against the backdrop of Russia’s just concluded success at deterring us from deploying a defensive system—the flip side of which is our appeasement of them (which itself comes against the backdrop of our acquiescence in the Russian partition of an American ally, Georgia), it’s reasonable to ask whether we’re being further deterred, this time from having sufficient offensive weapons with which to respond to an attack against which we no longer can defend ourselves. Understand: whether we’re conning the Russians (or conning ourselves) into accepting the decommissioning of supposedly obsolete ICBMs in return for their decommissioning of (obsolete) tactical missile systems or we’re being deterred from maintaining an offensive leg of our triad makes no difference. We’ll lose a major fraction of our offensive capability. Further, the tactical systems will be faster and cheaper to replace in the event of a breakout and arms race than will be the strategic systems. And they will be more immediately decisive in a fight, especially one in which we have no defenses.
With no missile defense capability and with such reductions in our offensive capability, where is our ability to satisfy either the first factor in deterrence: the capability to respond? And with the reduced capability to respond at all, the pain threshold is much harder to cross, also, giving Russia much less pause as they consider an offensive move. Russia seems to be moving our behavior in directions satisfactory to it, however.
It’s different yet with the PRC, but not optimistically so. We have a legal obligation to keep the Republic of China well enough armed with modern weapons that they can defeat an attack by the PRC. Yet when we began the latest round of talks with Taiwan, the PRC objected so vociferously that we walked away from an initial sale of 66 modern F-16s, and agreed only to sell our ally a couple dozen of outmoded F-16s.
Further, the PRC is increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea, threatening American allies (vis., the Philippines) and potential allies (vis., Vietnam) and seizing key islands—including those that belong to the Philippines and Vietnam—and claiming them for itself. The American response to this has been…silence.
Finally, DoD is on record as saying that the PRC is developing their own road-mobile ICBM (a capability which the Soviet Union had developed in the early days of mobile ICBMs), and they’ve dug a 3,000 mile tunnel system in which to hide their ICBM force. They’ve also dismissed out of hand an offer of a joint weapons verification facility proposed by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Here, it’s clear that the PRC does not consider that we have the will to act, and so any ability to act does not concern them. Nor have we said anything at all about consequences for their continued aggressiveness. Finally, as they demonstrated with their human wave attacks in the Korean War, they’re perfectly willing, literally, simply to throw bodies into a fight until we run out of ammunition. The degree of damage they’re willing to absorb is quite high.
So here we are with our deterrent capability. Iran is about to acquire nuclear bombs, and it already has the missile systems with which to deliver them.
Russia has convinced us not to deploy a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia threatens our allies and any new, potential defensive systems we might deploy with nuclear attack, and it does so with impunity. Indeed, the imbalance has reached the point where we can’t even determine for ourselves whether we will acquire/maintain the strength necessary for us to deter Russia. We’re negotiating our arms levels with them.
The PRC threatens our allies and potential allies over sea resources and key islands in South China Sea and over our erstwhile willingness to provide the Republic of China the resources with which to resist a PRC invasion.
Given all of this, what happens when Iran gets its nuclear weapons? Which of us will be deterred then? From what else will we be deterred by Russia and the PRC? What will we deter these three from doing?
Finally, a closely related aside on the question of appeasement: President Obama insists “Ask Osama bin Laden and the 22 out of 30 top al-Qaida leaders who have been taken off the field whether I engage in appeasement. Or whoever is left out there, ask them about that.”
Let’s also ask Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Vladimir Putin, Hu Jintao, and Kim Jong-il, how American strength and steadfastness is working out. Oh, and congratulations to President Obama on his success in carrying out President Bush the Younger’s drone and bin Laden policies.