The Futile Quest for Strategic Certainty


All too often the so-called 'debates' over the utility of nuclear weapons and missile defenses consist of one certainty talking past another.

On one side are those who have yet to see a missile defense system or a nuclear warhead modernization program they don't like and for which they would pay any money. Their unshakeable belief is that a robust nuclear posture combined with missile defenses will absolutely protect the United States. Diplomacy is at best a necessary evil, at worst a pathetic sign of unforgivable weakness.

On the other side are those whose faith in arms control cannot be shaken regardless of evidence of bad faith by other powers and a pisspoor historical record. No arms control proposal is too compromising, and there is no diplomatic option but arms control. The military option can never be countenanced, and what options exist are so deeply flawed because they cannot guarantee 100 per-cent security, so should not even be deployed at all.

As Seth and Amy say on Saturday Night Live: Really!?!

I'm slightly reassured by the fact that the perpetrators of these 'either-or' worldviews are far removed from policy circles where nuance and uncertainty are prominent in the minds of officials regardless of administration.

And that's the point. From the political right or left I trust no one who claims to have the answer to the issue of nuclear weapons, missile defenses and diplomacy, and who trashes all alternatives in order to promote his or her favored approach. I am deeply skeptical of arms control and disarmament, not because I don't want peace but because, based on the historical record, I do not believe either is useful or feasible in statecraft. I do, however, believe in the power of diplomacy when its agenda is to resolve the political animus at the heart of differences between states that is the cause of arms competition, not tinker at the edges with doomed technical agreements to fundamentally political problems. This requires statesmanship – which is, tragically, either something of a rarity today or is impossible to perform in an age of Wikileaks, intense media scrutiny and a culture of instant gratification where patience doesn't even exist, never mind a virtue.

By the same token, I do not for one minute believe that a missile defense system will be perfect – indeed, far from it – or that a nuclear arsenal, no matter how modern and robust, will inherently deter a determined enemy. I do believe, however, in a backstop that will sow doubt in adversary military plans, and even an imperfect missile defense is as good as anything else in achieving that. I do believe that if our politicians behave like grown-ups and treat our nuclear arsenal like the political weapon it is then, combined with a balanced conventional military force, deterrence will be given a chance to succeed. 

Missile defense will not stop nuclear terrorism because it's not designed to do so. This should be an obvious point, but is an argument that rears it silly head now and then. Indeed, it is just as silly – and therefore as pointless – to claim that efforts to counter nuclear terrorism cannot stop a ballistic missile attack, and so are a waste of time an effort. Speaking for myself, I'll have as much missile defense I can afford to help counter the ballistic missile threat and as much counter-nuclear terrorism capability I can afford in order to try to prevent the unconventional delivery of nukes.

Ultimately, counter-terrorism methods, diligent intelligence work and international cooperation might prevent the surreptitious delivery of nuclear weapons, just as missile defense might defend against a ballistic missile attack; or a robust nuclear posture combined with a determined political will might deter an attack; or committed, good-faith diplomacy might lead to a political settlement.

Nothing is certain. Skepticism of every means at our disposal is the only sane approach. There is no one answer or solution. All options are on the table. I suggest we use them all in the humble knowledge that uncertainty lurks at every corner. And it should be of little consolation that that very same uncertainty stalks everyone else.

I am confident (though not certain) that Thucydides and Clausewitz, if they were alive today, would probably unhappily concur.

Sleep tight and don't let the bed bugs bite.


Leave a comment

Filed under Arms Control, Deterrence, Strategy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s