Should We Overcome Deterrence?
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Sergei A. Karaganov

Professor Emeritus
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Academic Supervisor;
Council on Foreign and Defense Policy
Honorary Chairman of the Presidium


SPIN RSCI: 6020-9539
ORCID: 0000-0003-1473-6249
ResearcherID: K-6426-2015
Scopus AuthorID: 26025142400


Email: [email protected]
Address: Office 103, 17, Bldg.1 Malaya Ordynka Str., Moscow 119017, Russia

The wave around the idea of the “nuclear zero”, has not calmed down yet. The idea from my point of view was not only unrealistic, but out right dangerous.

Now a new wave of discussions is building up. About the necessity of overcoming “deterrence”. The four great American strategists, which previously called for “nuclear zero”, than partially back tracked from the idea and called for strengthening U.S. strategic forces – former state secretaries H.Kissinger and G. Shultz, former minister of defense W. Perry and former chairman of the Armed Forces Committee of the U.S. Senate S. Nunn – published a new article in which they call for overcoming deterrence based   on the concept of “mutual assured destruction”. It is not clear from the article how that could be done. The only concrete measure offered – asymmetrical cuts of tactical nuclear potential. Which is for many reasons unpalatable for Russia. And is not a threat to anybody except in the   eyes of strategists of the gone age.

Recently, a number of young researchers linked with the Valdai international discussion club, began to publish articles – which have already drawn a wide response – with renewed calls for overcoming deterrence in Russia-U.S. relations. The same calls are found in the Valdai club’s paper titled The U.S. – Russia relation after the “Reset”. Building a new agenda. A view from Russia which is being prepared by the Russian Group of the Valdai International Discussion Club.

Young political scientists, as their predecessors, fear the renewed confrontation in U.S.-Russia relations because missiles of both countries are still targeted at each other. Hence they believe that these relations are doomed to recurring hostility.

Let me remind the reader unfamiliar with nuclear theology of the essence of the concept of deterrence. The parties refrain from delivering a nuclear strike at each other by the threat of a retaliatory strike, which would cause unacceptable damage to the potential enemy. This concept had many varieties and spin-offs. For example, “extended deterrence” offered possibility of the American first use nuclear weapons in case of the Soviets’ successful attack on U.S. allies, especially in Europe. In actual fact, Americans had no intention to defend their allies with nuclear weapons, fearing retaliation at their territory. But the Soviets believed in the threat.

I will not elaborate further on this theology, yet I would claim that deterrence worked successfully. The unprecedented geostrategic, military and ideological confrontation of the Cold War, as or more severe than between the Nazi Germany and democracies of the West or even between Hitler and Stalin, did not escalate to war. The availability of nuclear weapons curbed the conventional arms race: less so in the Soviet Union, which to a certain degree could ignore the poverty of its people, but more so in the West. With its powerful economic superiority, the West could have beaten the Soviet Union in the conventional arms race. However, the West rejected this option counting on extended nuclear deterrence.

Yet the most important function of nuclear weapons proved to be “self-deterrence,” which was little spoken about during the Cold War, though. Of course, each side considered itself to be very peaceful, and would not admit that it, too, had to be deterred. The danger of escalation of any conflict to the nuclear level with unpredictable consequences kept either opponent from reckless and dangerous action on more than one occasion, letting these actions unfold at safer lower levels.

When Russia was temporarily disabled and could not present a serious threat of an escalation, self-deterrence softened, and the U.S. ran off the rails. It did things that would be unthinkable before. It went as far as to bomb a European country, Yugoslavia without a UN mandate. And it did twice – in 1995 and 1999. Impunity and exultation led the next U.S. administration to unprovoked aggression against Iraq, and invasion of Afghanistan. The United States tasted defeat and its might toppled, trillions of dollars of defense spending were politically devalued. It is scarcely less powerful militarily at present, yet it sure does not look all that strong.

I believe U.S. historians will regret the weakening of self-deterrence in the 1990s. It unleashed adventurous politics. If the situation had taken a different turn, the U.S. would have seemed a much more powerful and influential state at present.

I am prepared to substantiate further that nuclear weapons have played and continue to play a civilizing role in international relations, although they are horrendous in that they pose an immoral threat to destroy millions, or, possibly, the whole mankind. But it is because of the mystic horror they instill that we lived in relative peace during the Cold War confrontation. We now have the opportunity to have little fear of a Third World War, despite the fact that the unprecedentedly rapid change of the correlation of power in the world is creating classic conditions for unleashing it.

So do we really need to overcome nuclear deterrence? And its base “the mutual assured destruction”? Only if we assume that we – people, countries, and humankind at large – have become so ideal and humane that we no longer need deterrence or self-deterrence.

The strategists of the previous century held that the problem could be resolved by cuts in nuclear arsenals – whose size at one point exceeded all reasonable levels – to “minimal deterrence” (100 to 300 warheads) or even to zero. These ideas have survived up to date, although they are unrealistic, if not dangerous (which I have repeatedly underlined in my publications).

But perhaps these strategists were not right. A mere possession of nuclear weapons, even if aimed at each other, does not make the countries enemies. The Soviet Union had hostile relations with China when it practically had no nukes. I am confident that at present, Russian and Chinese strategists assume that part of their countries’ potentials may be targeted at each other. But this does not spoil the remarkable bilateral relations: rather, it improves them. For example, Russia, with its formal nuclear superiority, can have no fears regarding China’s possible strengthening in the field of conventional forces.

I am almost sure that French nuclear strategists secretly kept part of the country’s nuclear potential aimed at the U.S. And I know for certain that both the French and British potentials were viewed as “Bickford fuses,” so that a hypothetical Soviet attack could not let the United States keep aloof. Nuclear theologians thus hoped to strengthen the deterrence of Moscow. But objectively, the “Bickford fuse” was also aimed against Washington’s interests; and that despite the fact that the U.S., France and Great Britain have been and are still allies.

So I do think the point is not nuclear weapons. They rather facilitate normal relations, like a good fence is conductive to good neighborly relations. Nor these relations would be harmed by a good-sized dog in a yard, if kept on the chain.

Moscow and Washington must seek to build relations such as now exist between Russia and China, Russia and France, or the U.S. and France and Great Britain.

Russian and U.S. elites should rid themselves of animosity and suspicion which remain a dangerous atavism from the times of direct confrontation. They belong to the world of the past, and only weaken them individually and collectively.

To this end, they should aim at real cooperation in the fields where it is both necessary and possible, especially as both sides are getting rid of messianism and the striving for imposing one’s outlook and system of rule.

 Arms reductions – in limited dosage – might be useful for building up of new relations. But ams control is based upon the concept of the balance of forces, which is a sure ground to revive confrontational and militaristic thinking.

The talks on European anti ballistic missile defense cooperation might come very handy, too. Most likely, this defenses are unnecessary, as they may find no threat to aim at. But the Obama administration and other American realists – who are probably aware of the impossibility and uselessness of creating multi-level anti ballistic missile defense – need such talks. They have to pretend that they intend to deploy it in order to please the powerful nuclear isolationists in the U.S. and its reactionary romanticists, who are dreaming about the past golden age of the U.S.A.’s strategic invulnerability.

The talks over creating limited regional, and, possibly, joint anti ballistic missile defense systems, might prevent the development of long-range missiles by Europe’s neighbors. These weapons may prove disadvantageous. Such small anti ballistic missile defense systems might be useful in covering some countries as part of optimally joint security guarantees – for example, to Israel or even Iran, if the latter stops short of producing and deploying nuclear weapons.

But the main thing is that such talks and projects will help overcome the old habit of seeing an opponent or even an enemy in each other.

But the main thing is that is necessary to start to develop effective cooperation where it is really necessary for the two countries and the world, above all in keeping in check the increasing instability in the Greater Middle East, preventing Afghanistan from turning into yet another source of threat, and preventing a chain reaction of nuclear proliferation. So far only the U.S. and Russia, hopefully with the assistance of China, India and EU, can handle these problems more or less effectively. They certainly can begin to provide security guarantees to responsible countries of the region. Sooner or later, peace will have to be imposed upon the Israelis and the Palestinians, who have proven to be incapable of reaching a peaceful settlement on their own. Keeping the conflict in the present conditions is fraught with catastrophe.

Leading countries will have to work towards integration, not just deterrence of Iran, a potentially great power of the Middle East.

The two countries need not farcical rivalry, but cooperation in developing new sea routes and possible energy deposits in the Arctic, interaction with China and other countries of the Asia-Pacific region in joint development of the resource potential of Siberia and the Far East and the development of modern farming there. Russia will not be able to develop the region on its own, and developing it with China alone can prove to be a dangerous strategy.

But if we fail to overcome the bad habit – if not the ignominious affliction – of mutual suspicion, the remaining quite powerful nuclear arsenals will continue to serve as deterrence and self-deterrence. That is, if we are unable to make ourselves think and act in a civilized way.

| Rossiyskaya Gazeta