7.4.2  Military Deterrence and Threats

(This is an archived page, from Edition 2 of the Patterns of Power book.  The current versions is at https://www.patternsofpower.org/patterns/ungoverned/problems/deterrence/).

Military Deterrence has been a major feature in preventing large-scale conflict, particularly since the Second World War.  The Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 was intended to restrict nuclear weapons to the five nuclear powers which then had them; these nuclear powers undertook to negotiate to achieve complete disarmament; the non-nuclear signatories to the treaty would submit to inspections to prevent proliferation.[1]  This was very effective during the Cold War period but the treaty began to unravel towards the end of the century:

·     The nuclear powers didn't scale down their arsenals.

·     Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea all made nuclear weapons.

It has been argued that this happened at least partly because the nuclear powers made insufficient progress towards disarmament,[2] but for whatever reason the treaty now appears to have crumbled completely.  And a world in which many countries have nuclear weapons is vulnerable to mistakes being made and to weapons falling into the hands of people who would use them without qualms.  It is now debatable whether disarmament can ever be confidently achieved, but some new arrangements need to be negotiated to reduce what otherwise looks like an exponentially increasing risk.

A policy of deterrence is a response to specific threats.  North Korea's nuclear weapons programme can be directly traced to its response to George W Bush's State of the Union address in January 2002, in which he characterised Iraq, Iran and North Korea as constituting an "axis of evil" and pledged that "America will do what is necessary to ensure our nation's security”.[3]  North Korea’s Foreign Ministry reacted by saying "This is, in fact, little short of declaring war against the Democratic People's Republic of Korea”.[4]  Bush invaded Iraq the following year, so it can be seen that North Korea's acquisition of a nuclear deterrent was a logical response to the American threat; Iran's nuclear programme can be seen in the same light.

At first sight, the ability to threaten would appear to be an argument for having overwhelming defence forces at one's disposal, as some writers still urge,[5] but this thinking is outdated.  The psychology of deterrence depends upon “mutually assured destruction”:[6]  If one country attacks another with a nuclear weapon there will be a symmetrical retaliation and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people will be killed in both countries.  But a symmetrical retaliation would not be possible if a terrorist organisation were to obtain a nuclear weapon and use it – there would be no target to aim at.  Small numbers of terrorists might be dispersed over a wide area and be living anonymously among people who were unaware of their presence.  Nuclear weapons and overwhelming force are therefore not a credible threat against guerrillas and terrorists.  America's nuclear arsenal did not deter Al-Qaeda from bombing the twin towers.

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                             



[1] The American State Department published the rationale for having a Non-Proliferation Treaty, a brief background to explain which countries had signed and which ones had not, and the text itself, on a website which was available in May 2014 at http://www.state.gov/www/global/arms/treaties/npt1.html.

[2] In a meeting hosted on 17 September 2007 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, entitled After Iraq: U.S. Strategy in the Middle East after the Troops Come Home, Jessica Mathews argued that the Non-Proliferation Treaty was crumbling because of inadequate progress on nuclear disarmament.  A transcript of the proceedings was available in May 2014 at http://www.carnegieendowment.org/files/after_iraq_transcript.pdf.

[3] The text of George W Bush's State of the Union address in January 2002 was available in May 2014 at http://edition.cnn.com/2002/ALLPOLITICS/01/29/bush.speech.txt/.

[4] The BBC reported the North Korean reaction to Bush's "axis of evil" speech in an article entitled Bush's 'evil axis' comment stirs critics on 2 February 2002; the article was available in May 2014 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1796034.stm.

[5] Michael Ledeen, for example, is quoted as a writer who believes in the utility of military force:

““We can lead by the force of high moral example,” he writes, but “fear is much more reliable, and lasts longer. Once we show that we are capable of dealing out terrible punishment to our enemies, our power will be far greater.””

This quotation appeared in an article by Michael Signer, entitled A City on a Hill, which was published in Democracy Journal in Summer 2006 and which was available in May 2014 at http://www.democracyjournal.org/1/6470.php.

[6] Rupert Smith provided a summary description of the policies of nuclear deterrence and "mutually assured destruction" in his book The Utility of Force (pp. 189-190).