Jeffrey LewisWard Wilson Wednesdays Part 4

Yeah, so I missed a couple of Ward Wilson Wednesdays. Suck it.

Ward’s final contribution contains an elaborated version of my favorite joke about the epistemology of deterrence.  Like the others, it’s an enjoyable read.  It’s been a pleasure hosting Ward these past few weeks. In case you missed them, here are links to parts 1, 2, and 3.  And remember, Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons is available at a fine bookstore near you.


Doubts About Nuclear Deterrence, Part IV: The Squirrel Man
by Ward Wilson

So I ran into a guy on a street corner in New York. He was dressed a little strangely and he was whirling something over his head. I looked closer and it looked like he had a dead squirrel that he’d spray painted bright, day-glo pink. Holding it by the tail whirling it like a lasso. You see all kinds of things in New York and I didn’t think anything of it, but there was a tourist from England standing nearby and he accosted the squirrel man. “I say old chap, what is it that you’re doing there?”

Squirrel man says, “I’m whirling a squirrel over my head.” (Like: what’s it to you?)

Englishman: “Yes, yes, I see that. I see that very plainly. But why are you twirling a squirrel over your head, my good man?”

Squirrel man: (patiently) “To keep away the elephants.”

Englishman: (obviously–but still politely–incredulous) “Elephants?”

Squirrel man: (tired of this conversation) “Yep.”

Englishman: “I say, you do know that there are no elephants within four thousand miles of this place?”

Squirrel man: (knowingly) “Yep. It works.”

This is a deterrence joke. The problem with the squirrel man’s answer (“Yep. It works.”) is the same problem I have with nuclear deterrence. Just because there’s been an absence of nuclear war doesn’t mean nuclear deterrence is doing its job. After all, just because there had never been a hurricane of the force and size of Sandy over the last 100 years didn’t prove that Sandy could never happen.

Deterrence is by definition a non-observable phenomenon. It goes on inside someone’s head and can’t be measured or recorded. A leader who is deterred has a strong interest in denying that deterrence had anything to do with his decision afterward. You can’t observe deterrence and you can’t necessarily rely on the testimony of participants afterward. Which makes it a tricky subject to pin down.

Deterrence is usually proved by absence, the way the squirrel man proved his day-glo squirrel was working. I threaten you, telling you not to do something. Then when you don’t do it, I claim success. But the fact that there’s been no nuclear war doesn’t prove that we’ve got an ironclad method for preventing it.

One way to see if nuclear deterrence is working is to set a fairly clear set of criteria for success and then go back over the evidence and see if it looks like the criteria have been met. Since nuclear deterrence proponents generally argue that nuclear weapons induce caution, I’ve gone back to look for instances of rashness and aggression. And found a surprising number. It’s unnerving.

Moving the goal posts

One way that proponents of nuclear deterrence answer these objections is to say that nuclear deterrence worked, it just didn’t work in the way I’ve defined it. The problem here is that this seems to me like moving the goal posts.

For example, I think John Lewis Gaddis moves the goal posts in the Berlin crisis. The Berlin crisis of 1948 was the one that led to the famous Berlin Airlift, in which West Berlin was supplied by air after the Soviets cut off ground and rail access to the city. The crisis began in April 1948 and in June word “leaked” to the press that B-29 bombers had been redeployed to England. The B-29 was the bomber that dropped nuclear weapons on Japan and it was widely assumed (and the Truman administration intended it to be widely assumed) that the bombers in England were nuclear-capable. They weren’t. Only one squadron had been specially modified to be able to dropped the hefty nuclear bombs of the day, and it was still in New Mexico. But everyone took it to be a nuclear threat.

The threat was clearly a failure. On the face of it, it did not resolve the crisis. The redeployment was made in July 1948, the crisis didn’t resolve itself until May 1949–11 months later. It would be ludicrous to try to argue that the Soviets ignored the danger of nuclear war for 11 months and then suddenly were so overwhelmed with fear that they capitulated and ended the blockade. So it looks pretty clearly as if nuclear deterrence failed.

But the nuclear threat is described by Gaddis as a success. He sees it as a success, rather than a failure, because he’s redefined the purpose of the threat. The threat’s purpose wasn’t to resolve the crisis, the threat’s purpose was to prevent the crisis from getting worse. Truman moved bombers to England in order to keep the Soviets from, for example, shooting down the US supply planes that were flying into Berlin. And, according to Gaddis, it worked. The crisis did not escalate.

Of course, Gaddis could be right. No one in the Truman administration ever said what the purpose of the threat was–it was an entirely implied threat: no public statement was ever made defining the goal of the redeployment.

But it makes little sense to think of it as an attempt to head off escalation. If you’re in a crisis, and there’s a problem, and you’re thinking of threatening nuclear war, you do it in order to solve the crisis, not to keep the crisis from getting worse. How often have you thought, “Wow. Things are bad. I’d better take extraordinary measures to keep them from getting worse”?

Most tellingly is the attitude at the time toward nuclear weapons. In 1948 nuclear weapons were new. No one knew what their capabilities were. No one had ever tried to use them in a crisis. Initial assessments in 1945 had been that the ability of nuclear weapons to influence events was limitless. It would make sense, knowing what we know now about the failures of nuclear deterrence to influence events, to imagine that the Truman Administration assigned an appropriately limited objective to their nuclear threat. They just wanted it to keep things from getting worse. But imagining that the Truman administration understood the limits of nuclear deterrence is to imagine that they understood the multiple failures that we know about now. They had no such knowledge. In their minds nuclear weapons were the miracle weapon that had suddenly and unexpectedly forced Japan to surrender. Why wouldn’t you try to use a miracle weapon to resolve the crisis?

But even if you accept Gaddis’s redefinition of the purpose of the threat, there’s a further problem. Because in 1950, when the Korean war broke out, the United States repeated the trick with the B-29 bombers. They shifted bombers to Asian bases and then made the information about that redeployment public. Some people argue that the move was designed to keep the Soviets from entering the war–and it worked. But I look at the move and notice that it didn’t really prevent the war from getting worse. True, the Soviets didn’t come in on the side of the North Koreans. But the Chinese did. Which seems like a failure to me.

There is a fallback to explain this failure, though. I have heard people argue that the redeployment was actually not intended to keep the Chinese from entering the war–there was no way to stop them from entering the war–it was intended to keep them from invading Formosa and Taiwan when they did. And therefore it worked. This is like the witch doctor whose patient dies and the angry relations say, “You said the potion would cure him!” And he says, “Yes, but the potion prevented a great deal of pain.” If you’re adroit at redefining success, magic always works.

Because nuclear threats are rarely entirely explicit, it’s always possible to change somewhat the purpose of the threat. It feels to me as if proponents of nuclear deterrence are always moving the goal posts in order to make nuclear deterrence successful. Deterrence failures are more frequent and less talked about than anyone would like to admit, I think. I talk about this more in my book. (Yeah, a little crass attempt at book selling there.)

Goal post movers, instead of setting clear criteria and then looking for fair tests in the evidence of history, redefine nuclear deterrence as that magic-whatever-it-is-process that prevents nuclear war. And then, since there’s been no nuclear war, claim that it obviously works. Unfortunately, there are enough instances where nuclear war was avoided by luck that this notion of a smoothly functioning doctrine doesn’t hold up. The evidence from the Cuban Missile Crisis is particularly clear: we avoided nuclear war by sheer, dumb luck. If the U.S. fighters had happened to run into the Soviet fighters while both were looking for the lost U-2, nuclear weapons would have been detonated over the Soviet Union. And odds are that that would have led to nuclear war. Claiming that nuclear war was averted during the Cuban Missile crisis because deterrence worked especially well is to ignore the facts.


Batting .333 in the Gulf War

Last but not least, let’s look at what happened in the Gulf War. This episode matters in part because General Kevin Chilton (at one time commander of all U.S. nuclear forces) argued in Strategic Studies Quarterly that it was proof that deterrence worked. Remember this threat? After Iraqi forces had invaded and occupied Kuwait in 2000 (but before Coalition Forces had begun their counterattack) U.S. Secretary of State James Baker delivered a letter to Saddam Hussein. In it President Bush (senior) told Saddam not to use chemical or biological weapons in the coming conflict. If he did, the United States would respond with “the strongest response possible.” And the Iraqis didn’t use chembio weapons. Chilton points to this episode as proof that nuclear deterrence works.

But if you go back and read the letter Baker delivered, you find that it actually draws three red lines in the sand: don’t use chembio, don’t set the oil wells on fire, and don’t make terroristic attacks against our friends and allies (Israel). And as we all know, the Iraqis did two out of three of those: they set the oil wells on fire and they launched scud missile attacks against Israeli civilians. So are we arguing that nuclear deterrence only works one third of the time?

In baseball, if you bat .333 you’re doing really well. You can make a lot of money if you get a hit every third time you come up to the plate. But nuclear deterrence is not baseball. If it only works one third of the time, that is not nearly good enough. I’m not claiming here that based on this one episode we can deduce how often nuclear deterrence works. I’m just trying to figure out how reliable nuclear deterrence is? That’s the sixty-four dollar question.

There’s no question that ordinary deterrence (the kind that deters children in everyday life or people from committing crimes) works some of the time. Even though there are still murders (some people are not deterred by the threat of capital punishment), still, capital punishment probably does deter some people some of the time. And there’s little doubt that nuclear deterrence probably works some of the time. Nuclear war is pretty scary. But “some of the time” isn’t good enough. Because any failure of nuclear deterrence could lead to a catastrophic nuclear war. When the stakes are so high, nuclear deterrence has to be 100 percent reliable. As Martin Hellman is fond of pointing out, even if the risk of a catastrophic outcome is relatively small, we still have to take it very, very seriously. And a catastrophic nuclear war would be devastating in a way that it is difficult for us even to imagine. You could say that with nuclear deterrence, failure is not an option. But the evidence seems to show that the risk of nuclear deterrence failing is much greater than we have complacently told ourselves.

Some people argue that over time proof by absence becomes more persuasive. Every day that the sun rises again is further proof that it will rise tomorrow. They look at the last sixty years, count the number of days we haven’t had a nuclear war and conclude that that’s pretty good evidence that deterrence is working. But I’m a historian and we historians take a somewhat longer view. Human history–events we have some real record of–goes back about 6,000 years. Across the course of that span of time, war has shown itself to be a remarkably durable and stubborn accompaniment to human civilization. If you take 6,000 years as the time frame of human history, drawing conclusions about the likelihood of war from evidence over the last 60 years is drawing conclusions based on 1 percent of the evidence. Doesn’t strike me as too large a sample, actually.


The evidence of clear failures of nuclear deterrence throughout the Cold War record is undeniable. None of those failures led to nuclear war, but there were plenty of times when the risk of nuclear war did not cause leaders to pull back and be cautious. Far from being perfect, there were, on the contrary, a significant number of times leaders acted aggressively and made matters worse despite the risk of nuclear war. Which raises the question: How can we rely for our safety and security on a process that doesn’t seem very reliable? Particularly where the costs of failure are so high?

If we are to base our safety and security on nuclear deterrence, it has to be a doctrine that works, not a joke about pink squirrels.t


  1. kme (History)

    There was a certain amount of goalposting-shifting on display in the comments to your earlier posts in this series.

  2. George William Herbert (History)

    Minor goof – Gulf War 1 was 1990, not 2000.

    Otherwise, useful perspective etc.

  3. anon (History)

    I really enjoy Ward’s theories and his writing. But enjoying is not the same as agreeing. My overriding problem is that he uses the phrase “nuclear deterrence” to mean many different things, including some things that aren’t nuclear deterrence. I mentioned this in a comment to an earlier post, when I pointed out the the Falkland’s war was not a failure of nuclear deterrence, but a failure to apply nuclear deterrence. This is also the case with the Berlin crisis, and to some extent, the Korean War. Neither of these are cases of deterrence. They are cases of compellence. Particularly in Berlin. The Soviet Union had alread instituted the blockade. If we deployed bombers to Britain to influence Soviet behavior on the blockade, we clearly weren’t trying to deter the blockade as it was already in place. If we were trying to push them back by threatening a nuclear attack, we failed. Same with Korea. The war was already going on. Nuclear threats didn’t stop it, or convince those already committed to the conflict to stop fighting. But, again, that’s a failure of compellence, not a failure of deterrence. So you’ve convince me, nuclear compellence is a weak and unreliable tool, prone to failures. But I already knew that. So, now tell me something about deterrence…

    Very simply, a threat to respond to an action with nuclear weapons can’t deter the action if the threat is not credible (two possible measures of an absence of credibility: the capability to respond does not exist or, given the horrific nature of nuclear attack, the action to be deterred is not severe enough to justify a nuclear response.)

    I’d argue that the case of the first Gulf War is somewhat ambiguous. I agree that Baker’s letter did not stop Iraq from shooting scuds at Israel or lighting the oil wells on fire. First, there’s the issue of how clear and explicit the nuclear threat was (hint, it wasn’t explicit at all). But please, tell me, would a nuclear attack on Iraq really be a credible response to the oil well fires? He undermines a portion of the oil production, so, to punish him, we turn off the rest of it???? Its not credible to me, and I doubt it was credible to him. Yet, I’d bet he believed that we’d nuke him if he dropped chemicals on our troops. That’s a more direct threat to us and a more proportionate response (although I’d think its still way out of proportion, which is why the U.S. never had any intent to use nukes in Iraq, regardless of what Saddam did…)

    The Scuds attacks on Israel are a little more difficult. Its clearly more credible for us to respond to an attack on an ally (that’s the central tenet of extended deterrence), but we don’t offer Israel a firm nuclear-backed security guarantee, so there was some gray area in this threat as well. Its possible Saddam didn’t find it credible because he didn’t think we were that committed to Israel. But, if he’d put chemicals in his missiles, the calculation may have been different (or maybe it was different, which is why he didn’t put chemicals in the missiles.)

    So, the Gulf War case does make Ward’s central point. The threat to use nuclear weapons does not always deter the bad guy’s action. But, just as you can’t generalize to say that “deterrence works” you can’t generalize this case to say that nuclear deterrence is unreliable. There are circumstances when its not likely to be reliable because its not attempted, or its not communicated well, or its not credible because the stakes aren’t high enough. And there are cases where its likely to be far more reliable because it is credible and well-communicated.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      “Enjoying is not the same as agreeing.”

      That’s the perfect mission statement for this exercise.

    • kme (History)

      Isn’t this just the No True Scotsman fallacy? Nuclear deterrence works when its credible; ergo in any demonstrated case when it failed it must not have been credible?

    • anon (History)

      No. Its not meant to be a defense of cases where nuclear deterrence worked (or didn’t). Its meant to be a comment about the analytic framework of deterrence. My problem with Ward’s work is that he often seems to claim that deterrence failed in cases when it did not even apply. Some of those absence of applications are cases of compellence, not deterrence. Some of them are cases (like the Falklands) where a nuclear threat was not made and probably not intended. My point is that, if one wants to increase the probability that deterrence will succeed in the future, then one has to work hard (in setting up the deterrent threat) to make sure that the threat is credible. That is, I believe we are more likely to see a deterrent threat fail if we “over-threaten” or threaten a nuclear response to a situtation where the bad guy just doesn’t believe us. Given that we did not respond to the Scud attacks with nuclear destruction, I’m guessing that we either did not employ nuclear deterrence (the threat was so vague that it neither Saddam nor we considered a threat of nuclear response), or the threat was not credible because the provocation was not central enough to our vital interests to warrant a nuclear response. As I said, the calculation may have been different for us (and possibly was different for Saddam) if he had put chemicals in the Scuds. My particular concern in this direction was evident during the Bush Adminisitration, where we heard a proliferation of “do this and we may use all means possible in the response” threats. For example, there was an implicit threat of nuclear response to cyber attack, and an implicit threat of nuclear response to a nation financing a terrorist nuclear attack. Personally, I believe that if you make such cavalier and incredible nuclear threats, you undermine the credibilty of the deterrent threats that focus on your vital interests. If everything warrants a nuclear response, then maybe, in the mind of the adversary, nothing warrants a nuclear response…

    • FOARP (History)

      The problem is that in each of the cases of compellance you point to, an actual threat to use nuclear weapons would either have not been credible (i.e., the opposition would simply not have believed that nuclear weapons would have been used) or would have locked the threat-maker into a choice between unnecessary escalation or a severe loss in credibility. That is: a threat to use nuclear weapons could not be made even in circumstances of open war because it would lock the threat-maker into backing up their threat.

      Taking the Falklands example, since Maggie Thatcher didn’t know the invasion was going to happen, the threat would have to have been “withdraw from the Falklands or we’ll nuke you”, and Thatcher would then have to choose between making Buenos Aires glow in the dark (or whatever) and backing down. Such a threat would be excessive, lack credibility (who would believe Thatcher would do it?), self-destructive (who would support it?), and ultimately un-certain to be carried out (who would do it?).

      You can point to the above as an example where nuclear deterrence just couldn’t be used, but if you cannot credibly threaten the use of nuclear weapons in the face of an invasion, when can you use them? The only circumstance where the aggressor would expect nuclear retaliation is against nuclear attack, and maybe not even then – would you expect nuclear retaliation against the use of, say, nuclear depth-charges, or high-altitude nuclear explosions, or the use of nuclear weapons in space?

      In any other situation, a situation is likely to arise too quickly to allow a threat of nuclear attack to be made (e.g., an un-announced invasion), or is such that a nuclear threat will not be credible because it would not be a proportionate response. And if nuclear deterrence is only really a credible deterrent to strategic nuclear attack, doesn’t this have clear implications for the arsenals of the nuclear powers – that a minimal deterrent of a few hundred strategic weapons is sufficient in all circumstances?

    • krepon (History)

      Compellance has a lower batting average than deterrence.

  4. TPM (History)

    Like Anon, above, I appreciate Ward Wilson’s discussion of the B-29 deployment during the Berlin Blockade, not least because it’s a topic I’ve taken a recent interest in. My qualms about Wilson’s argument that this is one historical example of a deterrence failure stems from my own uncertainty about what the true goals of the deployment really were. I don’t think that deterring the Soviets was one of them.

    I spent most of a recent afternoon sifting through FRUS and HSTL documents on the Berlin Blockade trying to learn what I could.

    Oddly enough, in all of the documents that I was able to find on the topic, the B-29s played almost no role in the discussions surrounding the blockade. At least in the US, the most senior policy-makers at the time didn’t seem to be focusing much on the B-29s, and certainly didn’t believe that their deployment would have much impact on Soviet behavior, or the outcome of the crisis.

    The most substantive mention of them that I’ve found comes in a State Department telegram (available from the HSTL website) from 14 July 1948. It says:

    “The British have now given complete clearance for the movement of additional B-29s from the US to the United Kingdom, though Foreign Secretary Bevin has requested that publicity be handled in such a manner as to avoid definitely linking this movement to the situation in Berlin.”

    So what do we make of this scrap of information in the context of a much larger non-B-29 centric paper trail on the blockade?

    From the looks of it the decision to deploy the B-29s was a US initiative (as distinct from a British request for assurance), but it could have been done with a few purposes in mind.

    One of them could have been to give the appearance of doing ‘something muscular’ in order to placate US, West German or British public opinion.

    It’s also possible that plans that had already been on the books to base US bombers in the UK as part of our larger early Cold War strategy were accelerated because of the crisis.

    But in either case, I think that the American, British, or German publics were the key target audience for this action. I don’t think that sending a nuclear weapon-backed message to the Soviets was one of the goals. Why? As Wilson correctly notes, only bombers in the 509th Bomb Group were equipped to deliver atomic bombs at the time. Surely the JCS would have anticipated that the Soviet intelligence services were watching the 509th, and would have known that any nuclear ruse that didn’t involve actually sending elements of the 509th to the UK would have fallen flat.

    In other words, the action that was taken was, at the time, sufficient to fool the general public, but not sufficient to fool the Soviets who had an understandable interest in US nuclear order of battle. The smart folks in the JCS would have known this, and if they’d wanted to make a nuclear threat, they would have used the only bombers that the Soviets knew were nuclear capable. To circle back to Wilson’s argument, deterrence cannot fail if deterring the adversary was never the real goal in the first place.

    An interesting question that remains is: Why, if the B-29s that were sent to the UK in July/August ’48 were not nuclear capable, did the Truman administration decide to augment them with genuine nuclear capable bombers in April ’49? Was THIS an attempt to send a message, or just a continuation of ongoing plans to bolster our globally dispersed strategic bomber force as new bombs and bombers were built?

    In any case, I appreciate Wilson’s thoughtful commentary, but having combed through some of the available historical documents, am skeptical that the ’48 Berlin Blockade B-29 deployment was even a genuine, early effort to either deter or compel the Soviets.

    • TPM (History)

      I should add that if anyone can point in specific terms to more, better or conflicting primary or secondary sources on the underlying motivations behind the Berlin Blockade B-29 deployment, I’d be really grateful.

  5. 3.1415 (History)

    Was the non-nuclear Argentina afraid of attacking Her Majesty’s outpost next door?

    Would Israel really feel safe just with its own nukes if Uncle Sam no long wants to run its protection business in the Mideast?

    Our species seem to have an inborn (dare I say genetic) ability to judge what is fair play, which is why we have been so successful on this planet. Our earlier cousins who did not acquire this ability had evidently wiped themselves out in their non-equilibrium games. There will always be a few lunatics who try every once a while to ruin our nice equilibrium, but the kinetics is unlikely to be strong enough to disrupt one of the most fundamental defining feature of humanity.

  6. Dwayne Day (History)

    I attended Wilson’s talk in DC a month ago and found his discussion of deterrence to be a bit odd. He seems to set up a lot of strawmen that he then knocks over. For instance, deterrence theory today is significantly different than it was in the 1950s and 1960s. But he seems to resurrect the theories from 50+ years ago and say “See? That proves that deterrence is bogus.” But nobody has been making those arguments for decades–or others have dealt with those issues long ago (see for instance Jervis). Or, putting it another way, even if the goal posts moved, they moved a LONG time ago and everybody shifted with them.

    However, some of the fundamentals of deterrence theory seem to get ignored by Wilson. For instance, the possession of nuclear weapons seems, so far, to have deterred the use of nuclear weapons by others. And the possession of nuclear weapons seems to be a pretty effective deterrent to invasion, which is one reason why many countries (Iraq, Libya, Iran) seem to have wanted them.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Ward may wish to weigh in, but several us have made the argument that while his arguments may demonstrate that nuclear weapons make poor weapons for compellence, but are not sufficient to disprove their efficacy for core deterrence.

      By raising the Falklands and the Yom Kippur War, I believe Ward is trying to respond to those criticisms.

      I happen to think the story is much more complicated — that nuclear weapons are less about compellence and deterrence than self-assurance, but that’s my own essay I have yet to write.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I cannot excuse Ward’s failure to distinguish deterrence from compellence. In Ward’s defense, though, why is the distinction so critical?

      Guns are not just useful for murder or for deterrence. Guns can be used to compel unarmed citizens to submit to robbery or rape. Similarly, guns can be used to compel robbers, rapists, and murderers to submit to arrest. It would be an odd sort of weapon that can only be used to deter, but cannot be used to compel.

      How did nuclear weapons achieve this oddity, “useful for deterrence, not useful for compellence”? It seems to me, under the right circumstances, a failure of compellence should be interpretable as evidence for similar failures of deterrence.

      Not all types of compellence are feasible, of course. How does one use a gun to compel a man to commit suicide? Similarly, how does one compel a Japanese emperor to submit to “unconditional surrender” and perhaps execution? Not even the American bombing of cities, and Russian entry into the war, caused Japan to surrender. Only after the U.S. government gave assurances, however vague, that the emperor could keep his throne did Japan finally surrender.

      If the U.S. had made a more sensible compellence demand (e.g., return all Japanese troops to Japan), the compellence demand would have had greater chance of success. If a sensible compellence demand had failed, we could then ask, what does that imply for nuclear deterrence?

      Indeed, many people today instinctively view the claim, “nuclear weapons cannot be used for compellence” as mythological. Do we truly know that nuclear weapons cannot be used for blackmail, e.g., “Give us $10 billion in foreign aid or we bomb Seoul, Tokyo, and/or Beijing” or for conquest, e.g., “Let us put loyal Shiites into your government”?

    • John Schilling (History)

      Jonah: While the role of firearms in interpersonal conflict is in many respects similar to the role of nuclear weapons in international conflict, and I have used the analogy myself, there is one critical difference: Most gunfights have a winner and a loser. Nuclear wars are generally understood to have only losers. Mutual Assured Destruction makes the range of credible threats rather smaller.

      Perhaps a better analogy, if you wish something on a personal scale, would be a world in which handguns had never been invented but fragmentation grenades were well known. Could, say, a woman use a grenade to deter a rapist? Certainly. Could a rapist use a grenade to compel a woman to submit to rape? Probably not. Could the police use grenades to compel a rapist to surrender? Even that would be tricky, particularly if the rapist has grenades of his own. Indeed, the traditional sort of fragmentation grenade was also referred to as a “defensive grenade” because of the inherent asymmetry in its use.

      For nuclear compellence to be credible, you would need a gross mismatch in capability, e.g. US vs DPRK, or Britain vs Argentina. And you would need the conflict to be reliably confined to those parties, which is I believe where compellence fails in the real world – for most of the nuclear era, just about everybody has been under somebody’s implicit nuclear umbrella, and nuclear compellence has been considered so abhorrent and unprecedented that even one’s allies cannot be counted on to react favorably.

      And there may be a personal-scale analogy to be found there: consider the use of guns to enforce compellence in the United Kingdom. Just Not Done, on either side of the law, because the dominant power of the realm considers it abhorrent. Virtually every other sort of violence is tolerated (i.e. officially denounced as wrong, but met with inadequate countermeasures), and shockingly commonplace. But the whole might of the crown falls upon those foolish enough to believe that using guns to compel obedience from their unarmed neighbors is a winning strategy, so even career criminals generally don’t do that or associate with those who do.

      The British example also suggests that this may not be as stable a situation as we might like, though it seems to be holding tolerably well so far. The same is true on the international scale w/re nuclear compellence.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Anyone attempting compellence with nuclear weapons is presumably hoping for a limited nuclear use (or no use), not an unlimited nuclear conflagration with no winners. All sides in any conflict have a mutual interest in avoiding Mutual Assured Destruction. Assuming that not all nuclear usage leads to annihilation, what stops attempts at nuclear compellence?

      One possibility is that in international society, great crimes cannot be hidden: One nation cannot invade, conquer, or destroy another without everyone knowing who did what to whom. The downside is lack of international police, so there is not 100% assurance of punishment. Off-setting this, if one nation egregiously violates “the rules,” it becomes perceived as a threat to all, motivating all to punish.

      Whether compellence, per se, is abhorrent is questionable. It depends on what one is trying to compel. As precedent, two atomic bombs were used to compel Japanese surrender. Whether it was the bombs that compelled surrender or something else is debatable, as was the morality of it. Nevertheless, it is widely viewed as an acceptable act, even today.

      I am glad to hear that the “gun taboo” is working tolerably well in the U.K. Perhaps the “nuclear taboo” will also work in international society. We cannot take that for granted, however. Even one violation could prove very tragic.

    • anon (History)

      Jonah, the same thing that limits the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence limits the range of circumstances where one might try nuclear compellence. CREDIBILITY. If the bad guy doesn’t believe you will nuke him, or, if his commitment to achieve the goals he’d already begun to act on exceeds your commitment to stop him, then he won’t believe you’d follow through on the nuclear threat. This is true whether or not you think nuclear war can remain limited (many see this as a questionable belief), even the use of a single nuclear weapons would be a leap over a boundary, compared with an ongoing conventional conflict. Would we have dropped nukes on Soviet troops in E. Germany to keep the air lanes open to Berlin? Kill the baby to save the baby???? As long as we believe nuclear use would be truly horrific (and, unfortunately, it is possible to find some who do not believe this), then the stakes would have to be really, really, really high, or the scope of the bad guy’s action really, really, really bad, for us to issue a credible nuclear threat.

      In all but the most extreme circumstances, nuclear compellence would not be credible because the bad guy would have already have indicated that the stakes were high enough for him to act. Your stakes would have to be equally high, or higher, and your conventional options limited, for you to even threaten nuclear use. And then the bad guy would have to believe you….

    • John Schilling (History)

      “All sides in any conflict have a mutual interest in avoiding Mutual Assured Destruction”

      The side which believes is about to suffer unilateral destruction, has no interest in avoiding mutual destruction. The sort of Kahnesque gamesmanship you suggest, is equivalent to entering a gunfight over a matter not worth dying for, but that’s OK because you’re just going to shoot the other guy in the arm and he certainly won’t do any worse to you.

      To win, at least in the nuclear case, you have to carefully not destroy the enemy. And you have to effectively signal to an enemy who has every reason to distrust you that you will not destroy him. And the enemy has to believe that submission to nuclear compellence is not equivalent to destruction. And all three conditions have to be met for every party, at every level of escalation, in spite of the fear and confusion generated by imminent or ongoing nuclear warfare.

      Theorists who imagine that sort of thing is likely to work in the real world, are devoid of clue. Practicing politicians, even the ones who are members of the Stupid Evil Party, are generally more realistic than that. And what is the potential reward for nuclear compellence to justify the risk? The Falklands? The Sinai? Zhenbao Island, maybe?

      I doubt that the present situation is so stable as to endure for even another century, but I am only mildly surprised that it has lasted as long as it has.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Anon said, “the same thing that limits the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence limits the range of circumstances where one might try nuclear compellence. CREDIBILITY.” I quite agree. The stakes must be really high, and plausibly higher than those of the opponent.

      To fix ideas, suppose we try to deter a Soviet invasion of Western Europe by threatening nuclear war. Suppose the Soviets don’t believe us or decide to risk it. After the invasion, any use of nuclear weapons is either for tactical war fighting or for compellence. If either or both of these latter uses is inadvisable or counterproductive, this reduces the credibility of the deterrent threat. Hence, we must examine any compellence failures–if there are any–for their possible implications for deterrence.

      John, If you re-read my first posting on compellent threats, you will see three examples of sensible compellent threats that pass the tests you pose. In none of the examples is there any reason for the enemy to fear destruction if the threat is complied with.

      I do not advocate nuclear war when little is at stake, nor do I advocate gun fights over trivial matters. Keep in mind, many of our ancestors willingly entered into gun duels for reasons of personal honor. Many of the nationalistic Asian nations now appear willing to fight over uninhabited islands, so maybe your pessimism about the avoidance of nuclear war is justified. Culturally, we outgrew gun duels, so perhaps international attitudes towards war can also change.

  7. Magpie (History)

    Deterrence takes many forms. Saddam’s chemical weapons in Gulf I were a deterrence – not to respond to any particular form of attack used against him, but to enforce the Golden Rule of Tinpot Dictators: stay in power. He lobbed conventional scuds at Israel as a way of saying: look, come after me and the next batch will be much worse. And we heard the message – we backed off before it got that far. He wasn’t holding back out of fear of nukes or whatever – he was preserving a threat that could keep him in power.

    …and then, only once we could be pretty damn sure that his weapons had safely expired, we went back in to finish the job. Which would have been a stunningly terrible idea re: the ongoing survival of folk in Tel Aviv *if* he’d still had ‘em, but come on – even the CIA can read an expiry date.

    (And yes, I did say that before the fact, so nyah).

  8. archjr (History)

    Mr. Wilson asks, “How often have you thought, “Wow. Things are bad. I’d better take extraordinary measures to keep them from getting worse?”

    My answer: plenty of times. I save money, or take a leap to change jobs – an extraordinary measure, at least for me – when I’m not sure how long my job will last. If I were in charge, I might well keep these weapons as a hedge, and there’s the rub, of course. So this particular contention becomes either a trivialized simplification of nuclear decisions that were made – and their results – or an inapt analog for same.

    A bigger question is how confident one can be in discussing what are viewed as deterrence “failures.” I’m not sure I can identify a single one.

    I really enjoy Mr. Wilson’s ruminations, and thank him for putting them out front in an environment when only people who read this blog choose to think about such subjects. But I can argue it round or square, and I think deterrence “failures” are as lacking in evidence as “successes.”

    At least we agree on this: I have no idea why these damn things are needed, certainly not in the numbers and varieties we have.

    • archjr (History)

      By the way, I have never used a nuclear weapons threat to keep a job or get a new one.

  9. Moe DeLaun (History)

    Jonah Speaks wrote:

    “It would be an odd sort of weapon that can only be used to deter, but cannot be used to compel.”

    That sounds like a challenge to a group of sci-fi writers to come up with just such a weapon for a good story.

    A minefield could be supposed to compel certain action, such as overland transport to bypassed mined harbors, or resupply by air to cross mined terrain. Such compelled action might be analogous to beaters flushing the quarry for a better shot.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Yes. By design, land mines deter or slow down enemy advance, but cannot be used to compel any particular act. In principle, computers and sensors can be hooked up with nukes to create a “nuclear mine field,” but it’s not normally done that way. Hence, there is no obvious technical reason why nuclear weapons cannot be used for compellence.

      If there is a good reason why nukes are not useful for compellence, it must be some psychological, sociological, or political reason based on the nature of nations, national leaders, or international relations.

    • Magpie (History)

      They’re not good for compelling others to certain acts because of the cost of use. The costs necessarily attendant on any use of nuclear weapons are likely to be far greater than any gain – they can only be used to counter existential threats to a nation. That’s the only scale where you might get a positive cost-to-benefit return – and even then you might be setting up a worse threat to your nation in the long term anyway.

      So if you’re trying to compel action that ***is as important as the continuing survival of your nation*** then yeah, I guess you could use it to compel. But short of that it’s very hard to see a situation where you could. As long as it’s physically possible to achieve your objective by any other means, you are likely to have your bluff called.

      The US can’t say “give us better terms of trade or we’ll glaze Sydney”, because we’d say: “uh, no you won’t”. The threat has to be proportional to the importance of the action. So the US won’t threaten any kind of violent act for that situation – it’s not worth it, and both parties know that. Instead they’ll bring it all the way back to “if you don’t give us better terms of trade, we won’t sign off on point of that treaty, or limit our quota of finagles in your preferred market”. The threat has to be proportional, or no-one will believe it.

      Use of nukes would have such serious consequences for the government who did it, there really isn’t any credible demand that could justify it short of survival.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      How do you view extended nuclear deterrence? Suppose the Soviets invade Western Europe and the only way to reverse it is through some form of U.S. nuclear compellence. Presumably, the survival of our own nation is more important than the independence of other nations, and resort to nuclear compellence would threaten U.S. survival. Is nuclear compellence justified in that situation? If not, is extended deterrence simply a bluff?

    • anon (History)

      Jonah, the U.S. extended deterrent to NATO did not rest on a compellence threat. A compellence threat would say, after an attack began, “pull back or we’ll nuke you.” That’s not what the U.S. and NATO said. They said, “if you attack, we may use nuclear weapons to break up and push back the attack, and it may escalate to the use of strategic nuclear weapons.” That’s a deterrent threat. Deterrent threats occur before the event, compellence threats occur during the event. If the event had occured, and NATO had used nuclear weapons, it would have been to defend NATO and defeat the WP advance. There was the threat of escalation, which may be seen as a threat to compel withdrawal, but that assumed nuclear weapons had already been used. It would not have been to threaten to use nuclear weapons only if the WP didn’t pull back on its own. There are credibility issues iwth extended deterrence, (would we trade New York for Bonn), but its not because compellent threats lack credibility. That’s a different issue, and not in play in NATO strategy.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      It is my understanding that NATO would use nuclear weapons first only if conventional force defense fails or is expected to fail. If NATO uses nuclear weapons, the Soviet Union almost surely will too. This will greatly magnify the deaths, suffering, and damage from war. Unless there is reasonable prospect that the Soviets can be compelled to withdraw, what is the point? Revenge? Punishment? Because we said we would? Because we had put nuclear war on autopilot?

      In other words, the ability to compel Soviet withdrawal (if deterrence fails) needs to be part of the deterrent threat. If compellence cannot be achieved, whether by physically destroying Soviet forces or by causing so much pain the Soviets prefer to withdraw, this greatly reduces the reasonableness and motive to go nuclear, and reduces the credibility of the deterrent threat.

    • anon (History)

      You are missing the distinction, and the definition of compellence. Compellence would exist if NATO used the THREAT to escalate to nuclear weapons, after the attack began, to induce a withdrawal. If NATO said “withdraw or we’ll nuke you” that’s compellence. NATO strategy was not to threaten to use nuclear weapons, but to actually use them, to break up the attack, defeat the attack, and push back the attackers. That’s not compellence. That’s fighting the war. Yes, NATO knew the Soviets might respond with nuclear weapons and that this might escalate to general war. That’s the deterrent threat. If the Soviets knew that NATO would fight the war this way, and that it might result in general nuclear war with everyone dead, then the Soviets might be deterred from launching the attack in the first place. Deterrence, not compellence, because the threat of escalation to general war was evident BEFORE the attack occured. As I said before, there are huge credibility issues here. Throughout the Cold War, NATO sought to define the capabilities and war plans that would make escalation look possible, and escalation control (a most important concept in this environment) favor NATO. Don’t know that NATO ever succeeded (my guess, is if the war had happened, and NATO had gone nuclear, we’d have seen all h*ll break loose almost immediately. Noone would have controlled anything…)

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Anon, There may be two usages of “compellence.” Lisa Nemeth’s review reports: “Schelling’s conceptualization of coercion as comprised of deterrence and compellence launched two paths of study: one which maintained the distinction and another that blended them together into a general concept of coercion.”

      I think you are correct that NATO would have used tactical nukes early and often. Call it war fighting if you wish; it would likely have resulted in a rapid slide into strategic nuclear war within a few days, or even a few hours.

      In the event deterrence fails, immediate Armageddon is not a sensible strategy for compelling Soviet withdrawal. A more sensible compellence strategy would have employed more limited attacks over a much longer period of time.

      For analytic convenience, I choose to nest the compellence strategy, if deterrence fails, as part of the overall deterrent strategy. Perhaps this does not comport with a rigid distinction between deterrence and compellence, but I think it makes sense analytically.

    • FOARP (History)

      “give us better terms of trade or we’ll glaze Sydney”

      Thing is, North Korea appears to be an example of a regime for which we have no way of telling if their threats are serious or not. They regularly respond to minor increases in sanctions with blood-curdling war-like language. If North Korea responded to sanctions by threatening a nuclear attack, would we know for sure that they were bluffing? What would we do if they actually carried out such an attack?

  10. Russ Wellen (History)

    Speaking very generally, I still have the same reaction to the subject of deterrence (and compellence) that I did when I first learned of it years ago: nuclear weapons thinkers were getting one over us when they turned into a whole strategy and school of thought something so elemental and obvious that it came instinctively to stone-age man and even animals.

  11. Russ Wellen (History)

    Thought you might get a kick out of one of Greg Mello’s observations from the latest Nuclear Deterrence Summit that he always attends:

    There was much discussion over the money and how it will be spent, i.e. shared out. But all the talk only goes to show that “It” – Nuclear Deterrence – truly is an essential, precious, and many-splendored thing which cannot be praised highly enough. This year, like other years, aging cold warriors are brought forth to lead the hosannas, renew the faith, recall the glory days when the enterprise was running on all eight cylinders (when it was as large and “important” as the U.S. automobile industry itself) and contribute their ideas as to how to keep faith alive in an age of doubt. I stress these ideological components of the discourse because I think they are much more important than the management ideas expressed, which after all only implement the former.

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