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A Policy in Search of Doctrine

The next time we have to face another North Korean-type nuclear crisis, our national response should flow seamlessly from a broader and more calibrated U.S. strategic doctrine.

Louis Rene Beres

Louis Rene Beres

In the face of seemingly irrational threats from North Korea, at least one American conclusion should be obvious and prompt: Nuclear strategy is a “game” that sane world leaders must play, whether they like it, or not. President Obama can choose to play this complex game purposefully or inattentively. But, one way or another, he will have to play.

Should he opt for the more sensible style of engagement, he will need to move significantly beyond his currently misconceived search for global denuclearization (“a world free of nuclear weapons”) to a far more thoroughly realistic plan for (1) controlling further nuclear proliferation and (2) improving America’s own nuclear posture. More than anything else, this indispensable move will require the creation of a more suitable U.S. strategic doctrine.

Earlier, at the start of the Cold War, the United States first began to codify vital orientations to nuclear deterrence and nuclear war. At that time, the world was tightly bipolar, and the indisputable enemy was the Soviet Union. Tempered by a shared knowledge of the unprecedented horror that finally ceased in 1945, each superpower had readily understood the core need for cooperation (or at least coordination), as well as for conflict preparedness.

With the start of the nuclear age, American national security was premised on seemingly primal threats of “massive retaliation.” Over time, especially during the Kennedy years, that calculated policy was softened by more subtle and nuanced threats of “flexible response.” Along the way, a coherent and generalized American strategic doctrine was crafted to accommodate every conceivable kind of adversary and enemy encounter. Systematic and historically grounded, this doctrine was developed self-consciously, to evolve prudently, and in carefully considered increments.

Strategic doctrine, defense intellectuals had already understood, is a “net.” Only those who cast can catch.

Today we live in an increasingly “multipolar” system. No longer is the world under the controlling ambit of either Washington or Moscow. Now, there are complex and sometimes intersecting axes of global conflict. Among other things, this means that we must construct our national nuclear strategies with a deliberate view toward impacting multiple and interdependent centers of global power. Moreover, this view still includes some of the usual suspects, especially Russia.

Moscow has continued to reinvigorate its production of intercontinental ballistic missiles and ICBM supporting infrastructures. In part, this represents an entirely predictable Russian response to expectations that America may yet push ahead with its plans for expanded ballistic missile defense in Europe. In Russian calculations, which are by no means eccentric or devoid of merit, such plans are actually offensive. This is because they would threaten to undermine the always-basic deterrence requirements of mutual vulnerability.

At this moment, we may at least hope, Obama’s primary strategic focus is on North Korea, Iran, and an already-nuclear Pakistan. There certainly is nothing wrong with such a focus (quite the contrary); the problem is that each case is likely being considered as if it were altogether singular, ad hoc, or unique. Instead, acknowledging that generality is a trait of all scientific meaning, the president should now be fashioning a comprehensive doctrine from which logically appropriate policies for each of these urgent cases could then be properly extrapolated.

In all three cases there are more-or-less plausible concerns of enemy irrationality. In such alarming situations, where leadership elites in Pyongyang, Tehran, or Islamabad might value certain presumed national or religious obligations more highly than physical survival, the logic of deterrence could fail. Such a scenario is improbable, but it is certainly not inconceivable.

Also important to understand are possible interactions or synergies between major adversaries. North Korea and Iran, both with documented ties to China, Syria, and Russia, have maintained a long-term and consequential strategic relationship.

Other major problems face us. These threats may even be unrelated to what is happening in Russia, North Korea, Iran, or Pakistan and might only be indirectly connected to the belligerent intentions of other nation-states. Such problems could stem, in part, from the effectively uncontrolled growth of certain virulently antagonistic sub-state guerrilla and/or terrorist organizations.

This sort of growth, moreover, is made more likely by ongoing events in Syria and also by the UN’s recent tilt to further formalizing Palestinian statehood. Now already a “nonmember observer state,” the Palestinian Authority is closer to becoming, together with Hamas in Gaza, a palpably more effective base for launching significant anti-Israel terror attacks.

In the past, certain insurgent enemies were able to confront the United States with serious threats in assorted theatres of conflict, but they were never really capable of posing a catastrophic hazard to the American homeland. Now, however, with the steadily expanding prospect of WMD-equipped terrorist enemies – possibly, in the future, even well-armed nuclear terrorists – we could at some point have to face a strategic situation that is prospectively dire and historically sui generis. How shall we do this in the absence of coherent doctrine?

From the start, all U.S. strategic policy has been firmly founded upon an underlying assumption of rationality. We have always presumed that our enemies, both states and terrorists, will inevitably value their own continued survival more highly than any other preference or combination of preferences. But this core assumption can no longer simply be taken for granted.

Confronted with jihadist enemies, both states and terrorists, Obama must now understand that our primary threats to retaliate for first-strike aggressions could fall on deaf ears. This holds true whether we would threaten massive retaliation (MAD) or the more graduated and measured forms of reprisal included in nuclear utilization theory (NUT).

Ultimately, U.S. nuclear doctrine must also recognize critical connections between law and strategy. From the standpoint of international law, for example, certain expressions of preemption or defensive first strikes are known formally as anticipatory self-defense. Anticipating possible enemy irrationality, when would such protective military actions be required to safeguard the American homeland from diverse forms of WMD attack?

Recalling, also, that international law is part of the law of the United States, most notably at Article 6 of the Constitution (the Supremacy Clause), and in a 1900 Supreme Court case (the Pacquete Habana), how could these military actions be rendered compatible with both conventional and customary jurisprudence?

Any proposed American strategic doctrine will need to consider and reconsider key issues of nuclear targeting. The relevant issues here would concern differences between the targeting of enemy civilians and cities (so-called counter value targeting), and targeting of enemy military assets and infrastructures (so-called counterforce targeting). Most Americans still don’t realize that the actual essence of massive retaliation and MAD was always an unhidden plan for counter value targeting.

At first glance, any such partially resurrected targeting doctrine could sound barbarous or inhumane, but if the alternative were a less credible U.S. nuclear deterrence, certain explicit codifications of counter value might still become the best way to prevent millions of American deaths, from nuclear war and/or nuclear terrorism.

Of course, neither preemption nor counter value targeting could ever guarantee absolute security for the U.S. and its allies, but it is nonetheless imperative that Obama finally put serious strategic thinkers to work on these and other critically related nuclear issues. The next time we have to face another North Korean-type nuclear crisis, our national response should flow seamlessly from a broader and more calibrated U.S. strategic doctrine.

About the Author: Louis René Beres (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is professor of political science and international law at Purdue University and the author of many books and articles dealing with international relations and strategic studies.


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