Nuclear Deterrence, Country Music, and John Dillinger

Posted: July 19, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
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Maybe the Cold War was Nuclear Deterrence One Point Oh.  And maybe following the demise of the Soviet Union, we had Nuclear Deterrence Two Point Oh (based on diminished nuclear forces, if nothing else).  Bob Butterworth writes at AOL Defense on nuclear deterrence and suggests our leaders need to come to closure on Nuclear Deterrence Three Point Oh. 

The title of Bob’s article is Is Nuclear Deterrence Out of Date?  Tellingly, it’s an article that has fourteen sentences end in question marks.

One of the problems with the word “deterrence” is that it is too often used interchangeably with nuclear (or strategic) deterrence.  Contrary to such a position, I’d offer that deterrence (nuclear or otherwise) varies greatly but it is 1) always in the eye of the beholder and 2) it is always designed to keep something from happening.  Did U.S. nuclear deterrence keep the Soviets from invading Afghanistan?  No.  Did Russian, Pakistani, and Chinese nuclear deterrence keep American from invading Afghanistan?  No.  So are there limits to nuclear deterrence?  Yes, and as Bob points out, they involve proportionality and connectedness.

In the song Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous To Steal (emphasis added), the writer’s girlfriend attributes his nervousness to be a deterrent to his own criminality.  In this case, it can be assumed that the sum total of the likelihood of being caught stealing, the payoff associated with successfully committing the crime, and the workings of the criminal justice system are sufficient to keep this one particular person from becoming a thief.  However, deterrence may cease to work if the individual is under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, is off his/her meds, in a rage, desperate for money, sees an old John Deere with the keys in the ignition, etc. 

Every day, we all attempt to deter crime by locking the doors to our homes, workplaces, and vehicles.  And we know from all those Mission Impossible and heist-type movies that deterrence can take also take the form of physical security, data encryption, alarms, monitoring, etc.  Hey, John Dillinger robbed banks because (after all) that’s where the money was.

So while stealing may be deterred by a nervous condition (in some), others, like Dillinger, are clearly not as nervous.  What to do?  Revoke the law and drop the threat of being caught (and punished) because deterrence has failed?  Certainly not. 

Regarding what it takes to deter nuclear war, the answer it seems (based on the fact we haven’t had any), is in doing the things we’ve long been doing: investing in intelligence and surveillance; possessing missile warning; having nuclear command and control; holding a credible retaliatory force should nuclear deterrence fail; and finally, a world that understands all of these things.  Are these things guaranteed to ensure nuclear deterrence, that is, the absence of nuclear war?  Of course not, but without them, a reasonable person would think nuclear deterrence has been weakened.  The real issue is how much we are willing to pay.  This is because the issue of ‘how much nuclear deterrence do we want?’ correlates nicely with our spending on those capabilities.

But ponder the main difference between the Soviet Union under Stalin and North Korea today.  Both murdered, starved, and suppressed the population so arguably, the major difference is that Stalin didn’t have nuclear weapons.  Yet somehow North Korea is considered a rogue and the USSR—after it stole the ideas for got those nuclear weapons and until its collapse—was considered a superpower.

Back in Cold War era, the United States was willing to buy a great deal of nuclear deterrence (analogous to buying insurance) in large part because of the magnitude of the threat and our own ignorance of Soviet capabilities.  Is today, as they say, a new day (as well as a great chance to end a sentence with a question mark)?

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