Jeffrey LewisDeterrence and Reassurance

In meetings over the past few weeks, I have heard repeated references to the wonderful 1983 essay Deterrence and Reassurance by the late Michael Howard.

Point of fact — Sir Michael Howard is not dead. But with the way in which conference goers continuously distort his seminal article, published as both an Adelphi Paper and an article in Foreign Affairs, it sure feels like he ought to be rolling in his grave.

(This reminds me of the grim joke during the carnage in Bosnia: “None of this would have happened if Warren Christopher were still alive.” The humor, of course, being that the septuagenarian Christopher was the sitting Secretary of State. But I digress.)

Several speakers have cited Howard to make the point that assuring our allies may be more difficult than deterring our adversaries. One speaker went so far as to style the proposition that reassurance will be more difficult than deterrence as Howard’s Dictum. Howard’s Dictum is then invoked to suggest that the United States may need to retain certain capabilities that do not contribute meaningfully to deterrence (cough, TLAM-N, cough) because they do contribute to assurance of certain allies like Japan.

This proposition may be true — though I very much doubt it — but true or not the proposition that assurance requires the United States to deploy capabilities in excess of those for deterrence is opposite of what Howard argued in 1983. Howard did argue that reassurance was more difficult, but the relationship he described was rather different.

Many capabilities such as the Pershing II that Washington judged necessary to deterrence, Howard argued, were in fact deeply unsettling to our European allies. In his Adelphi paper, Howard warned of “a serious disjunction between deterrence and reassurance.”

The object of deterrence is to persuade an adversary that the costs to him of seeking a military solution to his political problems will far outweigh the benefits. The object of reassurance is to persuade one’s own people, and those of one’s allies, that the benefits of military action, or preparation for it, will outweigh the costs.


It is also apparent, at least in Europe, that reassurance cannot be re-established by any improvement in the mechanism of deterrence, certainly not of nuclear deterrence. Perhaps the people of Western Europe ought to feel safer when the installation of Pershing II and cruise missiles has made clear our capacity to counter an SS-20 first strike, but I doubt whether they really will. Perhaps we should all feel safer if the United States did develop the capacity to carry on, and ‘prevail’ in, a prolonged nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union but in fact public opinion in Europe is terrified by the prospect – and so is much of it in the United States. In the calculus of nuclear deterrence both developments may appear appropriate, even essential, but such a calculus does not translate easily into the language of political reassurance and certainly not in a Europe where any nuclear exchange, on however limited a scale, spells almost inconceivable disaster. Limited nuclear options do not look very attractive if we are likely to be one of them ourselves.

It is, as the late Samuel Huntington admits even in dissent “original in thought, elegant in phrasing, and penetrating in analysis.” I would simply say it is a beautifully written article.

Although the situation in Europe in the early 1980s provides, however, only a few vague clues about what to do in our current predicament, there are some parallels. These are parallels are not found in the military balance of respective armories, but rather the distorting effects that arise when democratic allies abdicate responsibility for their own defense:

How has such a widespread and grotesque misunderstanding come about? Obviously there is a whole complex of reasons, in which simple cultural friction plays its part. But it is at least in part the outcome of the process I have described, by which the defence of Europe has become perceived not as the responsibility of the Europeans themselves but increasingly in terms of a system of ‘extended nuclear deterrence’ manipulated from the United States in accordance with strategic concepts with which few Europeans are familiar.

At some level, this diagnosis may be actually quite similar to the problems that bedevil the Washington-Tokyo alliance, although the manifestations appear very different.

Howard’s proposal to reassuring Europe in the 1980s may, in very general terms, offer some clues about reassuring allies in Europe and Asia today. At base, Howard’s proposals about less about building military capabilities than establishing a Transatlantic consensus:

How are we to deal with this problem? How are deterrence and reassurance to be once more reconciled? This is the task that will confront statesmen and strategists for the rest of this century.


Our first task must therefore be to get Soviet power and intentions into perspective. The exaggerated melodrama implied in the term
‘The Soviet Threat’ seems and has always seemed to me unnecessary and counterproductive.


One does not have to attribute to the Soviet Union either predatory intentions or ambitions for global conquest to persuade all but a stubborn minority that the states of Western Europe have a problem of military security that must be solved if normal intercourse with the Soviet Union is to be sustained on a basis of equality.


The second task therefore is to show that Europe can be defended, and that the costs of doing so would not outweigh the benefits.


So where does this leave us? First, the requirement for effective deterrence remains, if only because the Soviet Union cannot be expected to observe a higher standard of conduct towards weaker neighbours than other states, whatever their political complexion, have shown in the past. Second, deterrence can no longer depend on the threat of a nuclear war, the costs of which would be grotesquely out of proportion to any conceivable benefits to be derived from engaging in it. Third, proposals to make nuclear war ‘fightable’, let alone ‘winnable’ by attempting to limit its targets and control its course, however much sense this may make in the military grammar of deterrence, are not persuasive in the political language of reassurance. And finally the problem cannot be solved by any massive transferral of resources to conventional capabilities. The immediate social costs of doing so, whether one likes it or not, are unacceptably high.

This is a rather elegant expression of the same point I made more clumsily in my remarks to the Carnegie Endowment last week regarding both NATO and Japan.

The obvious analogue to Howard’s analysis in, say, the case of Japan would not be keeping TLAM-N any more than Howard thought we could assuage European concerns by adjusting the Pershing II deployment. Rather, we need a sustained US diplomatic effort to put the threat from North Korea (and to much lesser extent, China) in perspective and to make clear the possibilities of defending Japan, primarily with conventional weapons.


  1. anon (History)

    At the core of the problem is that too many people equate “security guarantee” with “nuclear umbrella.” We may need to rely, in some cases, on nuclear weapons to guarantee the security of our allies. But, in most cases, our allies will feel reassured, without any reference to our nuclear capabilities, if they believe we are behaving as a responsible and reliable ally. This is partially a military statement, but mostly a political statement. Our allies will be reassured, if our actions, words, and capabilities are reassuring to them. Its not just our capabilities. And its certainly not the micro-characteristics of our capabilities (i.e., there are those who seem to believe that some allies measure the credibility of our extended deterrent as the inverse of the number of days it has been since we conducted a nuclear test.)

  2. Anon

    Sure the costs far outweigh the benefits – that’s why we pay the Norks not to develop nukes

  3. The other FSB (History)

    Jeffrey – ‘the late Michael Howard’?!!! I know he’s getting on in years, but I’m pretty sure he isn’t dead yet, or did he pass away literally in the past day or so?

  4. The other FSB (History)

    Never mind – my failing eyesight missed your punchline! I’m glad the old [fellow] is still alive and presumably well.

  5. kme

    Speaking as a citizen of such an ally, US conventional capabilities are far more reassuring than nuclear ones. This is because we realise that when it comes down to it, if a US President faces the choice to initiate a nuclear exchange in defence of an ally, they are quite unlikely to actually take that step (and we certainly can’t blame them for that!).

    On the other hand, the deployment of substantial conventional capabilities faces a much lower barrier, and thus is more likely to actually happen in practice (though still not 100% likely, although in this case it is still the best bet we can make).

  6. RAJ47

    Septuagenarian and not septugenerian.
    “Rather, we need a sustained US diplomatic effort to put the threat from North Korea (and to much lesser extent, China) in perspective and to make clear the possibilities of defending Japan, primarily with conventional weapons.”

    Why push Japan when it is not willing to reach a revised agreement with the United States on the relocation of the Futenma air station in Okinawa by the time President Barack Obama visits Tokyo on 12/13 th of next month.

    I agree with Anon that “allies will be reassured, if actions, words, and capabilities are reassuring to them”. The point is that US capabilities are known and if actions are not reassuring, then words really become irrelevant. Whether it is septuagenarian or septugenerian, the meaning is clear.

  7. bruno

    Jeff, Howard’s piece ranks indeed among the best of what UK strategists were able to offer on these matters. However, a meaningful debate on reassurance has to go deeper and recognize the possible distinction between the elites and what Michael called “the people” [of Western Europe in that case]. Namely, one of the problems of this whole debate in Europe in the 1980s was that many European governments wanted the PII and GLCMs in the late 1970s, but the debate became more complex after significant portions of European public opinions opposed it – especially after they heard loose talk from Washington in the early years of the first Reagan administration about the “winnability” of nuclear war. Who does the US want to reassure: a few key officals, the elite, the population at large? And what happens when there are significant disagreements in the protected country about the requirements of reassurance? I don’t have your knowledge of Japan but I suspect that there are parallels.

  8. T Nishi (History)

    Your remarks to the Carnegie Endowment about Japan overlaps in part with former defense minister Shigeru Ishiba’s argument. He proposed NATO-style consultation to Secretary of State Rice. That he faults the Japanese for its absence, however, is an evidence for bruno’s point. Shigeru Ishiba and Kazuhisa Ogawa, Nippon no Senso to Heiwa [Japan’s War and Peace] (Tokyo: Bijinesusha, June 2009), pp. 276-80.

  9. Georgetown Student

    This seems to be the problem. If you’re facing the Soviet Union, and you want to show no-nuclear deterrence capability, the only way to do that would be a massive arms buildup. IN that way, you’ll replace nuclear deterrence, which is politically unpalatable, with conventional deterrence, which would become politically unpalatable after the massive increases in military spending. I think the deeper problem is that neither method of deterrence was going to be acceptable. And so, the leadership, had to find a deterrent method with the least amount of trouble.

    In that light, does the Pershing II deployment look too terrible? It appears that his solutions are, if not mutually contradictory, require a bit of a switch. They are maintain deterrence, discuss the Soviet Threat to lessen its implications, then spend some money to reach conventional parity. But, not too much money so that it isn’t runious. That appears to be modern day US deterrence policy against China. Talk down the threat, unless one needs to pitch a new warship, spend some money, but, again, not a massive amount, and for the most part ignore nuclear weapons in that standoff.

    On that note, just within the last few days, a similar event has happened. Russia announced a ‘revised’ nuclear profile, that may allow nuclear strikes against conventionally armed opponents, even small neighbors. This is, in a sense, similar to NATO. Unable or unwilling to spend the astronomical amounts of money to match conventional arms, nuclear weapons become a ‘cheap’ way of defeating the enemy.

  10. RAR (History)

    Sir Michael was my thesis supervisor and a great historian — the leading military historian in England at the time. He was the “real deal.” When he wrote these words, the nuclear freeze movement was almost irresistible. He was trying to support a rational middle ground and to make sure that the anti-nuclear, anti-US (and anti_Reagan) wave in England did not overwhelm the long term interests of the alliance. He was a voice of reason at a very contentious time.