Joshua PollackThomas Schelling: Compellence in Asia

For the first part of this two-part essay, see: Thomas Schelling: Deterrence in Europe.

(Now with minor corrections and an update in the middle of the post.)

* * *

So much for Europe. Let’s consider the role of events in Asia in shaping Schelling’s ideas.

“The brink” is the central metaphor in Schelling’s explanation of “the threat that leaves something to chance.” The Strategy of Conflict may have helped to popularize the word “brinkmanship,” but did not introduce it into the English lexicon. And therein lies a tale, one that gives a hint about the events, ideas, and people that informed aspects of Schelling’s thinking. This tale does not primarily concern deterrence but rather compellence, a word that seems to have originated in Arms and Influence.

Still with me? Good.

“Brinkmanship,” it turns out, is owed to Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956. At a February 25, 1956 campaign event, he slammed President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, for “boasting of his brinkmanship—the art of bringing us to the edge of the nuclear abyss.” (New York Times, February 26, 1956, p. 64.)

What drew Stevenson’s ire was a passage in an interview by James Shepley, which appeared in the January 16, 1956 issue of Life under the headline “How Dulles Averted War.” Dulles recalled three episodes in which he believed that he (and, of course, the president) had faced down the enemy with threats of nuclear war: first, threatening to use nuclear weapons to conclude the Korean War in March 1953; second, posturing aircraft carriers with nuclear weapons aboard in April 1954 to deter Chinese intervention in Vietnam; and third, threatening to intervene against China during the 1954-55 Taiwan Strait crisis, which involved deploying nuclear artillery to the islands being shelled by the Chinese. In all three cases, you’ll note, the enemy was China, which lacked its own nuclear weapons at the time.

Dulles acknowledged that the true significance of these actions would only emerge once evidence about adversary decision-making became public, but judged it “a pretty fair inference” that “the policy of deterrence” had worked. He congratulated himself on his tough-mindedness, and President Eisenhower for his manly firmness, although Ike must have been irked by the account, especially with that headline. Dulles said:

You have to take chances for peace, just as you must take chances in war. Some say that we were brought to the verge of war. Of course we were brought to the verge of war. The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art. If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war. If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost. We’ve had to look it square in the face—on the question of enlarging the Korean war, on the question of getting into the Indochina war, on the question of Formosa [as Taiwan was then called]. We walked to the brink and we looked it in the face. We took strong action.

It took a lot more courage for the President than for me. His was the ultimate decision. I did not have to make the decision myself, only to recommend it. The President never flinched for a minute on any of these situations. He came up taut.

These remarks—from a policymaker, not from an academic—might make Dulles the first to openly recognize the difficulty of confirming the success of a policy based on threats. It’s the old question of, Did the other side actually back down, and if so, was it in response to anything we said or did?  For what it’s worth, Dulles’s three cases are among those examined by Alexander George and Richard Smoke in their 1974 tome Deterrence in American Foreign Policy: Theory and Practice, which takes a generally dim view of U.S. policymakers’ inferences about their adversaries’ perceptions and decisions. But more to the point, Dulles also presented a concept of “deterrence” based on competitive risk-taking: going “to the brink,” albeit against a non-nuclear-armed foe. Thus Stevenson’s coinage, “brinkmanship.”

Schelling does not mention the Life interview in his writings, as far as I have noticed. But by introducing the word “compellence” in Arms and Influence (1966) to describe what the Chinese termed “nuclear blackmail and nuclear threats,” he might as well have been correcting Dulles’s choice of the word “deterrence” a decade earlier. “Deterrence” might apply to the 1954 Vietnam case, but fits poorly in the Korea and Taiwan cases, when the United States used nuclear threats to try to compel China to stop fighting, not to deter it from starting.

It is perhaps no accident that the word usually translated from Chinese into English as “deterrence”—weishe—is often used in Chinese military texts to mean both of the forms of coercion—deterrence and compellence—and long had distasteful connotations, although it seems to be outgrowing them as Chinese military power itself grows. When Eisenhower entered office, the American security problem in Europe was one of deterrence; in Asia, Communist foes were already on the march, presenting Washington with a choice between compellence or war-fighting—or so Dulles would have it. But the manipulation of risk would play a role in either version of coercive strategy, either deterrence or compellence.

Here’s the most important point: Schelling neither invented the name nor inspired the practice of brinkmanship. Rather, judging by the contemporary examples he cited in his workshe observed it in action, and sought to give it a clearer definition. His explanations did not in any obvious way change how deterrence or compellence worked. Despite all his Harvard colleagues who went to Washington and his role in Pentagon-sponsored wargames, it’s not clear how much his ideas ever influenced official thinking. For example, the Department of Defense still uses “deterrence” to cover all sorts of situations, and “compellence” has never caught on. (It is, after all, the Department of Defense, not Offense.) He did advance our understanding of these policies and their problems. It must suffice.

[Update: I neglected to mention the role of Schelling’s Harvard colleague John McNaughton, who tried fruitlessly to apply his ideas about coercive strategy to the bombing of North Vietnam from within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Fred Kaplan told this story in 2005.]

Before we leave Asia, let me share a final observation. Americans taught Asians about nuclear war in 1945 and about nuclear-armed brinkmanship in the 1950s. Mao and his lieutenants seemed to find brinkmanship repulsive—killing millions of Chinese was their job, thanks, no assistance required—and in the process of acquiring their own nuclear weapons to nullify American threats, they strove to avoid creating the impression that they planned to follow American-style policies. (For a fuller rendition of that story, see Paper Tigers: China’s Nuclear Posture, by Jeffrey Lewis. Be sure to read the obligatory blurb from Thomas Schelling.) But there’s another piece to the regional nuclear puzzle. North Korea also considers itself to have been in America’s bombsights, and it doesn’t share China’s reticence.

Indeed, it can be remarkable how closely Kim Jong Un’s North Korea follows Schelling’s reasoning about deterrence of a conventionally superior foe. North Korea appears to have developed a doctrine involving the credible threat of using nuclear weapons against the enemy’s conventional forces in theater, paired with strategic nuclear forces that endanger the enemy’s homeland. The uncontrollability of events is recurring theme in North Korean warnings to the United States, especially prior to its annual joint exercises with the South Koreans. Most striking of all, after the August 2015 crisis with South Korea—remember the landmines and the loudspeakers?—Kim Jong Un crowed to his Central Military Commission that “the peace reclaimed from the brink of war on the edge of a cliff was not obtained from the negotiating table but achieved by the infinitely mighty military power built around the self-defensive nuclear deterrent cultivated by the great party,” etc., etc.

Did you catch it? It’s right there: a reference to brinkmanship. The student has become the master.

* * *

How important is the role of chance, really?

How much of the interpretation in this two-part essay is new, I’m not sure. Robert Ayson’s intellectual biography, Thomas Schelling and the Nuclear Age: Strategy as Social Science (2004), consistently emphasizes how Schelling’s background as an economist shaped his understanding of stability, and only briefly notes those themes connected to the irreducibility of chance. Some theorists have even disagreed with the role that Schelling assigned to chance events, insisting that only human actors, not “nature,” make decisions in conflict. (I know, I know. Tell it to the Spanish Armada.) But major works by Robert Jervis and Robert Powell, among other thinkers, treat Schelling’s view of risk as foundational. As they should.

Clausewitz observes that the role of chance events—“friction”—is what distinguishes war in theory from war in reality. To the best of my knowledge, this view is not at all controversial among military professionals today. For Clausewitz, the pervasiveness of chance events is a source of obstruction and difficulty in military operations, all of which tends to limit warfare. For Schelling, who showed no great sign of having been influenced by Clausewitz,* chance played the opposite role, as a potential accelerator of crisis or conflict. But this difference is not a contradiction; it simply reflects the opposed conditions of conventional warfare and nuclear deterrence. Here we see forces engaged in grueling, urgent combat and logistical operations. There we see forces in being, built for a single, convulsive action, waiting and watching for an attack to come.

(* Each of his two books of the 1960s cites the preface of a different English-language edition of On War, but not the text itself.)

Beyond theory, there is also strong evidence of the role of chance events, in the form of an uncomfortably long list of nuclear close calls.

This is not a welcome conclusion. Here is what I find most troublesome about threats that leave something to chance. If the risk of nuclear war, by its nature, cannot be reduced to zero, and if it is even seen in some countries as the very engine of deterrence against a conventionally superior foe, to be preserved and manipulated as needed, rather than minimized—then the next use of nuclear weapons, sooner or later, is all but inevitable.

That’s a difficult note to close on, but this is a difficult subject. Losing Tom Schelling means losing a link to the era that gave rise to his study of strategy under the shadow of the Bomb, and to so many of the departed scholars who shared his journey. We are condemned to continue struggling with the implications of nuclear weapons without the benefit of their company.

Previously: Thomas Schelling: Deterrence in Europe.


  1. Robert Libby (History)

    For those “millenials” that might be struggling with deterrence, compellance one might consider icons from popular culture whose late ’50’s/early 60’s themes addressed “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) – the movies “7 Days in May,” “Dr. Strangelove” & “High Noon.” This 2 part essay is a welcomed addition to the debate in the face of changing American foreign policy & the President-elect’s apparent re-opening the nuclear arms race. Thank you.

  2. Cthippo (History)

    A big part of the problem is that we always seem to have a very flawed understanding of our adversaries motives. It’s very hard to predict someone else’s actions when we don’t understand what they hope to achieve by those actions. This is especially true with North Korea where we have no idea what domestic political considerations are driving the decision making.

    Of course, at this point I can’t even figure out what is driving decision making in THIS country, so…

  3. Michael Krepon (History)

    Lots to chew on here, Josh.
    Last month I taught an interactive class on deterrence and compellence to 120 Pakistani students at Quaid e-Azam University in Islamabad. Schelling lives on.
    In retrospect, at least in my view, the great minds who helped guide us through the perilous times of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race were captives to their brainpower. They didn’t dwell on accidents, screw ups and irrational acts because to acknowledge the centrality of these factors would turn their sturdy theorems into sandcastles.

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