I appreciated the fact that Caitlin Talmadge addressed the "elephant in the room" in an article published in the March 5, 2022, edition of The Wall Street Journal. Talmadge's article was titled, "What Putin's Nuclear Threats Mean for the U.S." The subtitle is what specifically grabbed my attention: "Washington needs to develop new strategies for a world where nuclear weapons don't deter conventional aggression."
As I think the Russian invasion of Ukraine makes abundantly clear, nuclear weapons most certainly do not "deter conventional aggression." Our idea has been that "mutually assured destruction" is a good way to prevent military aggression of all kinds, but it has now been revealed by current events that the threat of such "mutually assured destruction" is totally ineffective as a deterrent to military aggression using non-nuclear force.
No one wants to start a nuclear war, because the title of the doctrine does, perfectly, express what is the obvious outcome. If nuclear weapons are ever used then the almost inevitable result is, like the doctrine says, "mutually assured destruction." Not wanting to be destroyed, the nuclear powers are not going to use their nuclear weapons - unless by grievous error and mistake, which the presence of these weapons in the world makes unacceptably possible.
We are stymied! That is, basically, what Putin's invasion, and his threat to use nuclear weapons, has made very clear. Talmadge is certainly right to open up discussion of the topic. Now that we have seen that the strategy of "mutually assured destruction" doesn't work to achieve what we have thought it would, what's the alternative?
Well, I wish I could say that Talmadge has presented what I consider to be a good answer to the question she poses. I commend her analysis to you (clicking this link will get you there, if you can penetrate any potential paywall problems). I do not, though, think Talmadge gives us much by way of a viable solution. Here is the conclusion to her article:
The U.S. should focus its own conventional posture on the goal of denying Russia and China the ability to conduct rapid military campaigns that revise the territorial status quo. In coordination with allies, the U.S. should prioritize intelligence assets, forward deployment of munitions and equipment, and investment in weapons systems such as nuclear-powered attack submarines and penetrating bombers that have the best chance of surviving a fight with a highly capable adversary. Even in the presence of large nuclear arsenals, these conventional capabilities will remain vital to keeping the peace against opponents who may otherwise believe that nuclear weapons give them cover for aggression.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal remains the ultimate backstop of its alliance commitments. Distasteful as it is to contemplate, having the ability to threaten limited nuclear attacks, particularly against military targets, remains important for deterring Russia and China, both of which are readily deploying such weapons. The key is to signal prior to any war both that the U.S. has no desire to initiate conflict and that threats of nuclear escalation won’t force the U.S. to back down. The presence of the American arsenal can also help reassure allies that the U.S. will defend them, making them less likely to seek nuclear weapons of their own.
If I am reading this correctly, Talmadge's "solution" is "more of the same." She wants the United States to maintain its nuclear arsenal (with the idea that this is a "deterrent" of some kind - something she has convincingly demonstrated it isn't). Plus, Talmadge suggests that we get even more prepared to carry out conventional military actions everywhere around the world, specifically including getting ready to get into a conventional war with China.
How does this prescription get the world out of the box in which Putin's invasion has shown it to be confined? Answer: it doesn't! The subtitle that grabbed my attention contained the idea that "new strategies" were needed. Well, they definitely are!
I would like to suggest a different way of looking at what Putin's invasion has taught us - or should be teaching us. Let me go so far as to say that it could well be that Vladimir Putin has done us all a great good turn. He has demonstrated, as the world ponders appropriate responses to his outrageous invasion of Ukraine, that military preparations don't deter military aggression, and that the worst option would be to use nuclear weapons, in response to his threat to use them himself.
What about the idea that the United States should now tell the world what should be obvious:
- The kind of aggression that Putin has launched on Ukraine is outrageous and must be condemned and opposed by every other nation in the world, and the heroic self-defense efforts of Ukraine must be supported by all nations;
- It is obvious that military actions of all kinds have no positive benefits, and must be denounced now, and eliminated in the future;
- It is clear, since military actions don't work to keep the peace, or bring prosperity, that we need to disarm the nations of the world, and that we specifically need to eliminate nuclear weapons;
- New international ways to combat aggression must be developed, and some of the innovative ways that non-military efforts are combating what Russia has done with its invasion of Ukraine are hopeful experiments, and that these and other efforts must be increased;
- The United States will lead the way towards nuclear disarmament, and to ultimately military disarmament, using the United Nations, and not proprietary military alliances like NATO, as the forum in which these efforts will be advanced.
Horrible and outrageous as the Russian invasion of Ukraine is, the United States has carried out many such outrageous invasions itself - for what it has claimed was a good cause. These kinds of military invasions of other nations need to stop now - and so does the use of the threat of such military actions.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has been trying to build a "New World Order" on the foundation of nuclear and military threat. As Russia's invasion of Ukraine shows, military and nuclear threat is not a solid foundation on which to build world "order." As the leader in advancing the idea that nuclear and military threats are the best way to bring peace, the United States now needs to take the lead in dismantling this approach.
If we, collectively, don't dismantle the world's nuclear and military apparatus now - with efforts beginning immediately - the nuclear nations of the world, with the United States leading the pack, are going to blow the world up.
That's what "mutually assured destruction" means.
"Assured." That's the word we need to highlight.
It's time to move on!
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