Sunday, August 12, 2007

"It shall be the policy of this Nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union."

- John F. Kennedy, President of the United States

"Acquiring weapons for the defense of Muslims is a religious duty. If I have indeed acquired these weapons, then I thank God for enabling me to do so. And if I seek to acquire these weapons, I am carrying out a duty. It would be a sin for Muslims not to try to possess the weapons that would prevent the infidels from inflicting harm on Muslims."

-Osama bin Laden, "amir" of al Qaida

Both the Soviet Union and the United States amassed immense nuclear arsenals during the Cold War of approximately 50,000 warheads of various sizes and a range of systems with which to deliver these terrifying weapons. A number of other second and third tier states later joined "the nuclear club", seeking a hedge against regional enemies or desiring the totemic status in international relations brought by possession of nuclear arms.

None of these states, not even Israel which is reputed to have up to 200 nuclear bombs, ever developed a nuclear weapons capability that remotely matched that of the superpowers. A number of nuclear-capable states have either eschewed building nuclear weapons (Germany, Japan, Taiwan) or have been persuaded to disarm those that they had inherited or assembled ( Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and South Africa).

So lopsided are the throw-weight ratios between countries with small yield or primitive atomic weapons and the stockpiles retained by the U.S. and Russia that most of the nuclear club have arsenals that are useful only for deterring a military attack from their immediate non-nuclear neighbors or a nuclear peer. Pakistan's nuclear status was of no help in warding off American demands after 9/11; had Islamabad attempted to brandish, much less use, nuclear weapons in defense of their Taliban clients, it would have surely invited Pakistan's immediate destruction.

Cheryl Rofer of Whirledview, had a post "The Necessity of the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent: A White Paper" that analyzed a recent quasi-official document “White Paper on the Necessity of the U. S. Nuclear Deterrent” authored by a cluster of national security VIPs, including several past CIA directors and current advisers to the US Strategic Command. The paper summarizes many obvious points about American nuclear deterrence and calls for a " debate". Cheryl found the paper to be lacking:

"No real threat assessment is offered, just vaguely threatening words about Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. For a group of folks trying to move out of the Cold War mindset, that’s an interesting ordering of countries.

....Is the white paper saying that US nuclear policy is only about deterrence? Nothing about the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and its obligations? Nothing about the uselessness of deterrence against mobile subnational groups with no territory to defend? The only thing that is important to our allies is US security assurances, backed up by the threat of nuclear warfare?

....This white paper is stuck in the the Cold War, circa 1969. "

I think the white paper authors are correct that the perceived credibility of American nuclear guarantees dampen down potential nuclear arms races among third parties, notably in Northern Asia. Cheryl however, is correct on the larger point that the analytical assumptions of the paper are shot through with Cold War legacy mentalities.

Arguably, the white paper does not even match the Cold War era in terms of nuanced thinking. In 1958, in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, Henry Kissinger wrote:

"It is the task of strategic doctrine to strike a balance between the physical and the psychological aspects of deterrence, between the desire to pose a maximum threat and the reality that no threat is stronger than the belief of the opponent that it will in fact be used. A strategy which poses alternatives that policy-makers are unwilling to confront will induce either inaction or improvisation. A strategy which establishes a superior balance between power and will may then gain a crucial advantage, because it permits initiative and shifts to the other side the risks inherent in making countermoves" (Kissinger, 175)

CKR aptly pointed out the obvious alternative of non-state and subnational actors with nuclear weapons that the white paper's authors were " unwilling to confront" in their state-centric focus.
Here are a few others that would relate to the state of American deterrence, enhancing or undermining it:

* Potential, novel, weaponization of of aspects of nuclear particle research outside classic uranium 235 and plutonium bombs.

* The need for more effective controls and tracking of trade in esoteric, dual-use, technologies of weaponization that make nuclear devices useful militarily. Increasing transparency level of same.

*Identifying non-nuclear technologies that could result in weapons of a comparable order of magnitude of destruction or loss of life as with low-level nuclear weapons.

* Strengthening and expanding the inspections regime under which NPT signatories are permitted access to nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Addition of automatic penalties if NPT signatories are caught cheating, subject to removal or waiver by the UNSC ( putting the burden on the accused proliferator to come clean instead of on the IAEA or UNSC states to get any meaningful sanctions applied).

* De-escalating the potential for future conflict between nuclear and nuclear capable states by instituting new regional diplomatic and security structures.

* International nuclear convention regarding the security of nuclear materials and command and control by the nuclear weapons states.

* Moral-political-legal campaigns that degrade the credibility of American deterrence by ratcheting upward the "unthinkability" of nuclear weapons use, thus tempting potential adversaries to risk the very brinksmanship scenarios ( war, apocalyptic terrorism) that would make the use of nuclear weapons possible or likely.

* Avoiding "nuclear weapons deflation" as an unintended consequence of arms control. Striking a balance between reducing large American and Russian arsenals and unduly increasing the military value of small ones and the temptation to increase them in order to reach "parity" with America and Russia ( "linkage" for all nuclear club arsenals). Or worse, the temptation to sell or use them.

* Removal of strategic nuclear materials from the global black market by vastly accelerating certified destruction or reprocessing of obsolete national stocks.

* Developing new models of deterrence that would be concurrently perceived as credible by states, non-state actors and subnational/ transnational networks who may all be within an interdependent nexus of responsibility for a catastrophic WMD attack.

* Identifying and categorizing non-state network threats to American security with potential WMD capacity.

* Understanding the parameters of the possible in terms of private networks and WMD capabilities, through intellectually honest red team exercises.

* Examining the balance of utility between emphasizing clarity and uncertainty in American nuclear response and deterrence policy in a multi-polar and non-state actor era.

Many of my variables are not new but they are of at least more recent vintage and of a broader horizon than what the white paper has considered. I'm interested in hearing your thoughts as well.

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A couple of thoughts. On the one hand, I agree with CKR's critique of the "60s-esque" tone of the white paper. Do the authors seriously believe that one can deter a suicide bomber?

The logic of state-v.-state polities does not scale to "Super-Empowered Individuals" (SEIs, a topic well described in John Robb's _BRAVE NEW WAR_ as well as current dialogue on Dreaming 5GW). That's why, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President Bush's threat was not so much to the terror organizations themselves as to the *states* that harbor them and provide sanctuary: "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." He was simply acknowledging that our arsenal is most effective in compelling states to behave in certain ways, not SEIs.

"Deterrence", I believe, is invalid in an era of radical theoterrorism. Even the threat of attacking Mecca with nuclear weapons (h/t to tdaxp) would not dissuade Osama bin Laden from using any kind of WMD. In fact, it might be an incentive to his brand of nihilism.

Lastly, you close this post by expanding well beyond the "nuclear" question by posing a number of alternative futures. Would you classify the recent Polonium-210 assassination in the U.K. as a nuclear attack? Or a chem-bio attack? Either would fall under the rubric of WMD, but would specific retaliatory strikes be forthcoming based on the "nuclear deterrent" policies in the white paper?
As long as a tool still performs the function it was intended to perform and the function it was intended to perform still needs doing, the tool is not obsolete. We still need to deter state actors and state actors will be around for the foreseeable future, consequently deterrence isn't obsolete. Note, in particular, that Russia will continue to have nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. Without nuclear weapons Russia is at best a regional power; with nuclear weapons Russia is a world power.

Deterrence, however, as presently considered is insufficient to handle some of the new challenges and your Kennedy quote above leads the way to its amendment: an attack with nuclear weapons anywhere in the world on U. S. interests needs to be treated as an attack on the U. S. by the country the signature of whose nuclear weapons the attack bears. Unknown signatures should be treated as an attack by Pakistan and North Korea (and Iran when and if Iran demonstrates nuclear capability).

I have a somewhat different view of Islamist terrorism than deichmans above. I think that it's largely a distraction and we should be focusing our attention on the states that support Islamist terrorism rather than merely on the terrorists themselves. There will always be guys with grievances. Turning guys with grievances into terrorist organizations of global reach takes states.
Hi Shane,

I agree that state-centric deterrence logic does not scale down to SEI or very small groups. Groups like al Qaida, which while extreme takfirist, may be deterrable to some degree. Apocalyptic Mahdists won't be and that's where radical Islam is fractionating toward.

Regarding the assassination - I'd say that was state terrorism with environmental spillover. The Russians have been using radioactive poisons ( notably irradiated thallium) in " wet affairs" for decades.

Hi Dave,

I agree that state deterrence still has a significant role as states are the keepers of most nuclear materials and all nuclear warheads. I also am in favor of wide-scope eventualities deterrence like you have suggested.

I'm not in agreement that states are required any more to make a global impact, at least if the attackers intend a one-shot event rather than a sustained campaign.

I differ
I'm not in agreement that states are required any more to make a global impact, at least if the attackers intend a one-shot event rather than a sustained campaign.

Is is possible to disambiguate the role of states in the process as long as states are, in fact, supporting terrorists? Would there have been a 9/11 without an Afghanistan or, indeed, a KSA providing support for terrorists?

I think that the available evidence suggests that the difference between retail terrorism and wholesale terrorism is state participation. So I say that states should engage with states to eliminate state support for terrorism.
"Is is possible to disambiguate the role of states in the process as long as states are, in fact, supporting terrorists?"

Great question. I think we could reasonably extrapolate at what might be likely to emerge by a small group with above-average motivation by looking at something like the Oklahoma City bombing. I don't think that attack even pushes the envelope of the possible given a handful of really bright people who might be inspired by al Qaida but are entirely homegrown.

Of organized foreign terrorist groups today, clearly they benefit from active aid ranging from tolerance/benign neglect to training, funds, weapons, passports etc. At the same time, many groups like FARC have developed criminal financial flows that make them less dependent on a particular patron than were 1970's groups like Baader-Meinhoff or PLO factions.

In a reversal of roles, al Qaida dominated Taliban-ruled Afghanistan - the terrorist group in effect, hijacked the state.
I rather have to agree with Mark, here. I see no particular need for states for most al-Qaeda events. Indeed, none at all.

The events in Europe of late were financed by self-help.

If you are merely referring to nuclear threat, well then there yes....

But then I believe the pants wetting about nuclear terror is just that.

an attack with nuclear weapons anywhere in the world on U. S. interests needs to be treated as an attack on the U. S. by the country the signature of whose nuclear weapons the attack bears.

Let's be clear about this. The single most likely scenario is one where the nuclear material signature is one for a weapon or material stolen or bought on the black market from some former Soviet republic who will have committed the "crime" of not having the money or resources to secure or destroy said material. The material will have most likely been produced in a reactor in Kiev of Kalinnagrad.

You seriously advocate nuclear retaliation against Russia in such circumstances? Or is it just the (most likely Muslim) empoverished keeper of Russia's material you would nuke?

And what do you think Russia's reaction will be in either case?

As for the line "Unknown signatures should be treated as an attack by Pakistan and North Korea (and Iran when and if Iran demonstrates nuclear capability)."

What, all of them at once? Nuke three nations on what will be admittedly no evidence of involvement? If it will be just one of them, how do you intend to choose which one?

Adoption of such a policy would undeniably make the U.S. a hegemonic, exceptionalist tyrant. Do you really think the rest of the world would accept it without blowback?

Regards, C
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