Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy

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Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy by Thérèse Delpech. Rand Corp., 2012, 196 pp.

Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century examines changes in the global strategic environment since the end of the Cold War. The bipolar balance of power no longer exists: the former Soviet Union is in decline, while China is on the rise. The acquisition of nuclear weapons by nations such as India and Pakistan and the emergence of Iran and North Korea as nuclear powers call for a fresh examination and new perspectives. The late French strategic thinker and internationally renowned expert on nuclear issues, Thérèse Delpech, ably provides these perspectives in this excellent study.

The author evaluates the relevance of Cold War deterrence concepts—such as extended deterrence (the “nuclear umbrella” protecting US allies), self-deterrence (restraint), mutually assured destruction (MAD; retaliatory capabilities that made the use of nuclear weapons unthinkable), and second strike (the ability to retaliate)—in a contemporary context. Terms such as parity (a nuclear “balance of terror”), vulnerability (to an adversary’s nuclear arsenal), credibility (the will to use nuclear weapons), launch on warning (immediate response to detected nuclear attack), and uncertainty (an opponent’s willingness to take seemingly unacceptable risks) are also discussed. During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the United States exercised responsibility and restraint. Emerging nuclear powers such as Iran or North Korea might not do so, thus creating an atmosphere of increased uncertainty and instability.

The chapter entitled “Lessons from Crises” cites numerous examples. The most important is that “Leadership Lies at the Very Core of Deterrence,” for, as the author states, “It is dangerous to disregard the importance of personalities in the nuclear decision-making process” (p. 87). Delpech also notes that “compromises, concessions, and negotiations are not necessarily recipes for peace. In some circumstances, they can lead to war” (p. 88).

In many ways, the twenty-first century is “The Age of Small Powers.” Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal—as well as Iranian, North Korean, and Syrian efforts to obtain one—creates an atmosphere in which “U.S. allies are under increased pressure from reckless neighbors” (p. 112). Regional powers that acted as proxies for the Cold War superpowers are independent actors increasingly willing to take risks, especially when, as in the case of North Korea, there seems to be no adverse consequences to aggressive behavior. The sinking of South Korea’s navy corvette Cheonen and bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010 are open challenges to the Obama administration’s policy of “strategic patience.” Delpech points out that “the answer future historians might get to their legitimate question (“How did North Korea gather so much power?”) lies partly in the terrifying weapons developed by this otherwise international dwarf, partly in the disguised protection provided by China, and partly by the West’s willingness to look the other way in the hope that things will eventually improve somehow. They won’t” (p. 103).

This study scrutinizes China’s increasing status as a world power coincident with the decline of the former Soviet Union. Although China officially maintains a “second strike” (retaliatory use only) policy, it continues to increase the size of its nuclear arsenal, supplementing mobile, land-based ICBMs with submarine- and air-launched weapons. These developments, combined with the continued modernization of China’s conventional forces, are causes for concern. Delpech cites Sr Col Liu Mingfu’s book The China Dream (2010), which declares, “China’s big goal in the 21st Century is to become number one, the top power. . . . If China cannot become number one, cannot become the top power, then inevitably it will become a straggler and cast aside.” She also quotes Col Dai Xu, who avers that “China cannot escape the calamity of war, and this calamity may come in the not-too-distant future, at most in 10 to 20 years” (p. 121–22). According to the Department of Defense’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report, “China’s nuclear arsenal remains much smaller than the arsenals of Russia and the United States. But the lack of transparency surrounding its nuclear programs—their pace and scope, as well as the strategy and doctrine that guide them—raises questions about China’s future strategic Intentions” (NPRR, p. iv; Delpech, p. 129).

Delpech also considers the emerging threats to space assets and cyber warfare. Again, Chinese capabilities in these areas require serious attention, as do those of Russia, smaller nations, and nonstate actors. Nuclear command and control systems might very well be targeted. She notes that “In the whole world, the United States is the nation-state that has the most to lose in both space and cyberspace. How it can secure its space and cyberspace advantage for its own sake and that of its allies is one of the most important security questions at the beginning of the 21st century” (p. 144; emphasis in original).

Thérèse Delpech’s Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century has much to recommend it. Incisive and clearly written, it serves as an invaluable guide to the transition from Cold War to contemporary deterrence issues. Political and military leaders, analysts, academics, and citizens concerned with defense and international relations will all find it worthwhile reading. Scholarly yet pragmatic, it deserves a place on professional reading lists, appropriate library collections, and the desks of decision makers.

Frank Kalesnik, PhD

Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio

"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."