Last week, while I was
engaged in tropical debauchery exchanging learned insights with my Indian and Chinese colleagues in Honolulu, our senior students covered the late Cold War. Those were the halcyon days of Izod shirts, Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev, and Sting hoping the Russians loved their children too.
Speaking of which, nuclear deterrence comprised a big part of the political and cultural milieu. One of my favorite statements about deterrence comes from travel maven and nuclear strategist Anthony Bourdain. In one episode of his show, Bourdain is traveling near Tucson when he visits a decommissioned Titan missile silo turned Cold War museum.
After inspecting the control panel from which U.S. Air Force rocketeers would have unleashed atomic hell, Bourdain invokes comedian Denis Leary. Leary reportedly joked that if he ever became president, he would "nuke Switzerland first, and tell the world this is what we do to countries we like!"Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
A macabre jest, no doubt. But like all good humor, there's an element of truth to it. Think about it. Henry Kissinger defines deterrence as a product of one antagonist's capability to carry out some action, its resolve to carry out that action should certain redlines be crossed, and the other antagonist's belief in that capability and resolve. Deterrence — and its counterpart, coercion — is more than a numbers game.
It's also a head game. Capability abounded on both sides in the Cold War. Like Kissinger, Thomas Schelling portrays deterrence and coercion as the "skillful non-use" of force to bring about political results. This arcane art involves issuing credible threats.
For Schelling the best way to deter or coerce is to make the threat self-executing. The threat amounts to pointing a gun at the adversary, or at something the adversary prizes. If the adversary defies the threat, he himself pulls the trigger that fires the gun — or, in this case, flings a volley of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles skyward. In effect the power that issues the deterrent or coercive threat removes itself from the action/reaction cycle. The threat takes effect automatically.
Schelling adds that, short of automatic credibility, it's helpful when the opponent entertains doubts about your rationality. His logic: beware of poking mad dogs. You never know what one might do.
Which brings us back to Bourdain and Leary. Think about brinksmanship vis-à-vis a U.S. president capable of nuking an inoffensive small state for no apparent reason. What would such a commander-in-chief do when the national interest was at stake?? The possibilities beggar the imagination.
One imagines Kissinger's belief component would max out among adversary leaders, and deterrence with it. Better safe than sorry. And if both competitors resort to such tactics?