Document created: 1 June 03
Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 2003
The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction by Keith B. Payne. University Press of Kentucky (http://www.uky.edu/UniversityPress), 663 South Limestone Street, Lexington, Kentucky 40508-4008, 2001, 172 pages, $19.95 (softcover), $35.00 (hardcover).
Since 11 September 2001, discussions about the applications of nuclear deterrence have been relegated to the back burner while our national security focuses more on the threat of nonstate actors and "axis of evil" rogue states than it has on possible peer competitors. Nevertheless, Keith Payne’s book, although written before 11 September, is relevant to the national security needs of the moment. The passing of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the increasing likelihood that rogue actors may obtain nuclear weapons, and the recent episode of brinkmanship between India and Pakistan all combine to thrust to center stage any questions about the importance and utility of nuclear weapons in the twenty-first century.
Payne is no newcomer to this subject. The chief executive officer and president of the National Institute for Public Policy and the editor in chief of the journal Comparative Strategy, he has published numerous books and articles on nuclear deterrence, missile defense, and other strategic issues. In this most recent and relatively short work, his opening salvo sets the tone: because the logical structure of deterrence rests on a tautology, it is flawed. The tautology is as follows: "Rational leaders would be deterred via mutual nuclear threats because, by definition, they would be irrational if they were not so deterred." Payne then proceeds to tick off numerous examples of adversaries in recent history- including Hitler, Castro, and North Vietnam’s leadership- who did not behave according to Washington’s definition of "rational and reasonable." We have no reason, he continues, to expect that future adversaries will behave and respond in ways we would anticipate or could predict. Payne is so persuasive that readers will cringe, ever after, when they encounter categorical statements such as "the exact same kinds of nuclear deterrence that have always worked will continue to work" (Jan Lodal) or "if we could deter the ‘evil’ empire for four decades, we can almost certainly deter today’s rogue states" (Harvard professor Steve Walt). If ever a clear message existed in the aftermath of the events of 11 September, it is that the threats to our nation have changed drastically from those in the Cold War and that the enemy mind-set is not necessarily one that shares our values or matches our description of "rational and reasonable."
From his basic rejection of all-encompassing deterrence, Payne begins to hint at the implications for missile defense: "In fact, in the post–Cold War era, missile defense in concert with other defensive capabilities may be necessary for the U.S. freedom of action long taken for granted in Washington." Although he fails to elaborate, his point is well taken- the failure of deterrence leaves the United States rather naked and vulnerable to the coercive power and threat of any nation or actor who might develop and field nuclear weapons. Payne makes one particularly haunting observation: during the Cold War, the United States countered the Soviets’ conventional superiority in Europe with the implied intent to resort to first use of nuclear weapons to halt a conventional onslaught by the USSR. If the lesson learned is that this approach was successful, it does not bode well for the United States in the twenty-first century since adversaries across the spectrum will likewise seek to use nuclear weapons (or other weapons of mass destruction) to counter the global conventional superiority of the United States.
What, then, is Payne’s prescription (the "New Direction" portion of the book’s title)? First and foremost, we must not adhere blindly to the old belief that America’s nuclear arsenal sufficiently deters any and all threats, and we must accept the fact that in some instances deterrence will simply not work at all. Second, we must develop a more empirical and specialized approach to strategic confrontations, tempered by knowledge of an adversary’s particular "beliefs, will, values, and likely cost-benefit calculations under specific conditions," and produce carefully designed declaratory policies and specific responses to an adversary’s actions. Such a tailored approach stands in sharp contrast to the "blanket" application of classical deterrence.
The last third of the book is devoted to a case study- a potential future crisis with China over the issue of Taiwanese independence. Payne builds a scenario in which classical deterrence theory simply does not work since the stakes for Chinese leadership are incomparably higher than those for US leadership. The Chinese leader faced with either the outright failure of his state and its philosophy (allowing Taiwan independence) or potential nuclear war with the United States does not have an easy choice. Payne notes that "all alternative courses frequently appear costly or even fatal, and yet a choice still must be made. How leaders will respond to this dilemma hardly is so predictable."
As a whole, The Fallacies of Cold War Deterrence and a New Direction is a refreshing examination of the swiftly disappearing classical-deterrence approach to strategic confrontations. However, it also leaves a feeling of incompleteness, having insufficiently explored the roles of missile defenses in such confrontations and having failed to address questions about how the United States should respond to the first use of nuclear weapons by a rogue actor and other queries relevant to our current national security situation. Given Payne’s experience in this field of strategic theory, I both hope and suspect that a sequel is in the works.
Maj John E. Shaw, USAF
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.