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Shadows on the Wall: Deterrence and Disarmament

Shadows on the Wall: Deterrence and Disarmament by Keith B. Payne. National Institute Press, 2020, 187 pp.

Shadows on the Wall: Deterrence and Disarmament is the latest installment of deterrence thought from Dr. Keith B. Payne and takes on the strategic nuclear deterrence policy debate from a unique perspective. This well-conceived and well-researched book reviews three competing philosophical viewpoints regarding expectations of human and state behavior vis-à-vis nuclear weapons and strategic deterrence within the current international system. These competing narratives share the same goal of precluding nuclear war but envision very different routes—from nuclear disarmament to the preservation of robust nuclear capabilities. These are the philosophical foundations for the contending arguments in the US nuclear policy debate. While Payne concludes as he begins, that “nuclear war must be prevented and deterrence remains a critical tool for this purpose,” his assessment of these three narratives can educate the reader using a framework and acumen to inform effective nuclear war prevention strategies.

Dr. Payne is cofounder of the National Institute for Public Policy and professor emeritus at Missouri State University. He contributed to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review and authored, coauthored, or edited over 100 published articles and 17 books and monographs.

The central thesis of this book is an assessment of the contending philosophies or “narratives” underlying the US nuclear policy debate from the 1960s to the present. This assessment is constructed around three narratives: a nuclear disarmament assertion reflecting idealist thought and two very different deterrence approaches that share some initial points of realist thought. Payne labels these latter two narratives “easy” deterrence and “difficult” deterrence.

First, Payne delivers perhaps the most efficacious and contextual understanding of realism and idealism as they pertain to competing world views and national priorities. These philosophies are informed by varying conjectural expectations of human and state behavior within the contemporary international system. He reminds us that for realists, the enduring interstate system is an anarchic “self-help” world that involves competition and the potential for aggression and conflict. Conversely, Payne reviews the idealist’s anticipation of a cooperative global world order and goal of transforming the international system into one that facilitates and enforces peaceful resolutions of interstate conflict. These two divergent perspectives of the world form the context for his elegant presentation.

Next, Payne deconstructs the idealist’s goal of international transformation and nuclear disarmament as the means to remove the omnicidal risk of nuclear war. The belief is that the current international order can be transformed via a rigorous, mutually complaisant effort so compelling that individual states willingly surrender their nuclear arsenals in favor of “alternative global security mechanisms.” Payne surmises that to a nuclear idealist, the continued existence of nuclear arsenals poses a greater risk to global security than would their voluntary retirement, and a policy of nuclear deterrence is “an impediment to disarmament because it suggests a positive and important value for nuclear weapons.” Unfortunately, Payne opines that international transformation and disarmament demand a preceding level of enlightenment, mutual trust, and cooperation that has not been seen in the history of mankind and generally is not deemed plausible by realists.

Payne then presents two alternatives to the idealist nuclear disarmament narrative. Couched as “easy” deterrence and “difficult” deterrence, Payne’s bifurcated expressions of nuclear deterrence have common realist starting points but diverge from there. His assessment of these competing alternatives offers the reader a cogent understanding of deterrence that rivals the Kahn-versus-Schelling principles. Since international cooperation cannot be expected and “the world lacks an overarching authority with sufficient power to regulate interstate behavior reliably and predictably,” nation-states must act in their own national interests, sovereignty, and security. Consequently, states are “on their own” to pursue sufficient power to ensure their own existence and purpose. In the realist’s worldview, nation-states generally act in their own survival interest first and foremost. For the realist, “nuclear weapons are a symptom of the enduring realities” of today’s international system, according to Payne. His narratives of “easy” versus “difficult” deterrence provide a splendid framework by which to consume this expert’s rationale.

Under “easy” deterrence, Payne posits that the “essential requirements for stable mutual deterrence are easy to understand, easy to meet, and are largely predictable and reliable.” This narrative, derived from the works of Schelling and Waltz, relies on rational or “sensible” adversaries, “crystal ball” effects, and relatively modest second-strike nuclear capabilities. The key is an obviously easy mental transaction based on mutual fear of intolerable catastrophe or existential destruction. However, Payne carries this deterrence narrative into a clarity that any layman can comprehend. For the modern idealist, the disarmament narrative envisions the fear of nuclear war as a catalyst to enable global disarmament and enlightened transformation. Contrastingly, the “easy” narrative envisages the fear of nuclear war as a reliable means for minimizing the potential of actual nuclear war. These are two very different routes to the same goal of precluding nuclear war.

“Difficult” deterrence, Payne theorizes, shares the goal of precluding nuclear war but acknowledges that deterrence is a never-ending and messy pursuit of peace and stability, devoid of standard formulas or fully predictable behavior. Unlike “easy” deterrence, “difficult” deterrence does not assume all rational adversaries would behave in a foreseeable manner or necessarily calculate the costs and benefits of war akin to American values. Payne clearly describes “difficult” deterrence as an ongoing, complex challenge “with no fixed approach and no corresponding finite and fixed set of nuclear capabilities that can predictably provide the desired deterrent effects.” Moreover, he states, to think otherwise would be a “fatal error.” Thus, the lesson of this narrative is that deterrence strategies must be “tailored” to each adversary and account for each opponent’s characteristics, values, and goals—an effort made difficult because it is imprecise and ever-changing.

Of the three narratives explored, idealism and “easy” deterrence offer society much greater comfort and perhaps a false sense of stability and security. Idealism projects a new and more peaceful world order without nuclear weapons while “easy” deterrence expects deterrence to preclude nuclear conflict without the need to transform the international order. Payne’s clear-eyed assessment questions both the idealist solution of a timely, profound transformation of the international system and the “easy” deterrence expectation that all sensible leaders will respond with predictable caution if confronted with a nuclear deterrent threat to their societies. He adds, however, that the “difficult” deterrence narrative offers little comfort or ease; it alone confronts the two apparent realities that the timely, global, and cooperative transformation necessary for disarmament is unlikely and that effective deterrence ultimately is far from easy “because leadership decision-making is variable and unpredictable.” Payne concludes that this is the challenge that must continually be met because “nuclear war must be prevented and national security preserved.”

This book is a must-read for those serving in the nuclear enterprise or those interested in international relations. Dr. Payne’s 187-page disquisition presents the most cogent review of today’s competing nuclear narratives, and his conclusions provide a new framework by which to devise a strategy to achieve a stabilizing deterrence effect.

Curtis McGiffin
Air Force Institute of Technology

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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