Michael KreponFred Iklé on the Second Nuclear Age

Fred Charles Iklé has not gotten the credit he deserves as a strategic thinker, perhaps because of the density of his prose. Here he is twenty years ago, in “The Second Coming of the Nuclear Age” in Foreign Affairs:

“Now that the bipolar order of the Cold War has crumbled, nonuse and deterrence will no longer sustain each other. However, nonuse is the sturdier of the two. The success of nuclear deterrence is an interpretation of recent history; nonuse since 1945 is an indisputable historical fact. Deterrence is theoretical; nonuse is concrete and unambiguous. Faith in nonuse made it easy for both hawks and doves to place their confidence in deterrence

“The strategic order among the major nuclear powers is fragile precisely because it rests so heavily on beliefs and untested theories. As soon as these beliefs are confronted with compelling evidence to the contrary, the strategic order will start to break up. A nuclear detonation that resulted from an accidental missile launch or a malfunctioning command chain would force national leaders to promise a fundamental change in policy. ‘Ready’ and ‘robust’ deterrent forces would no longer suffice as the answers to the dangers of the new nuclear age.”

Fred Iklé was an advocate of missile defenses, but this inference barely scratches the surface of his insights. Muscular moves by Russia and China require U.S. steps to reaffirm extended deterrence. Theater missile defenses have become an essential component of alliance cohesion as Russia and China seek changes in the status quo around their peripheries, and as North Korea’s untested leader threatens the use of ballistic missiles armed with nuclear weapons.

What hasn’t changed is the opposition to missile defenses by those who seek to protect arms control, or the pursuit of missile defenses by those who seek to dismantle what’s left of arms control. Because neither camp has felt obliged to meet the other halfway, debates over missile defenses have been on automatic pilot since the Cold War ended, interrupted by periodic breakdowns of deterrence involving missile strikes. Whenever this occurs, supporters of missile defenses are empowered, while opponents of missile defenses are weakened.

If a breakdown in deterrence by means of missile strikes leads to the detonation of a nuclear weapon – North Korea being the foremost, but not the only worry – the Nuclear Deterrence Enterprise and the Arms Control Enterprise would be shaken to their respective cores. What’s the point of having so many warheads and strategic nuclear delivery vehicles if they cannot prevent an outlier from firing off a single nuclear weapon? And how much help would this nuclear excess be in controlling escalation?

Iklé was exactly right that excess does not reduce nuclear dangers. And yet, if the nuclear threshold is again crossed in a minimal way, many are likely to rally around nuclear deterrence and leaky missile defenses. It is less clear that they will rally around arms control, disarmament, and nonproliferation accords.

Iklé was also fundamentally right about the central importance of non-use of nuclear weapons. Deterrence does not, after all, have a great track record. Nonuse – “an indisputable historical fact” – is the most essential construct we’ve got during hard times, Putin’s nuclear bluster, and the possibility of nuclear brinksmanship by Kim Jong-un.

The theoretical construct of deterrence remains prone to failure. So far, breakdowns in deterrence have resulted in conventional warfare between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear-weapon states and two instances of limited warfare between nuclear-armed states. The basic construct of nuclear deterrence – that use will prompt unacceptable retaliation – has been persuasive. It’s the superstructure of belief built atop this foundation – the abstractions that have produced well-entrenched nuclear enclaves, extensive targeting strategies, and excessive force levels – that defy common sense.

Iklé warned that this vast superstructure has given us false confidence in deterrence. Nuclear deterrence without diplomacy and reassurance is far too dangerous – and yet the imbalance between the hardware of nuclear deterrence and the software of diplomacy and reassurance is growing. One central task of our time is to extend the “concrete and unambiguous” benefits of the norm of non-battlefield use. Another is the systematic downsizing of the superstructure of belief that has been built atop nuclear deterrence. It will be safer and more sustainable to do so bilaterally with Russia than unilaterally.