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NORAD wants to know if you’ve been naughty or nice.


This article from The Atlantic is too good not to share.

In 1955, Sears ran a ‘call Santa on the phone’ newspaper promotion. Due to a (frankly wonderful) typo, however, it listed NORAD’s top-secret, “the-Russians-are-attacking” telephone number by mistake. (Actually NORAD’s predecessor, CONAD, but whatever.)

But wait, it gets better. After some initial confusion, the officer on duty, Colonel Stroud (a name that should be immortalized by Hollywood immediately), played along.

Bemused by the first caller — a lachrymose girl who wanted to know if he was one of Santa’s elves — the good Colonel couldn’t bring himself to deny it. The steely-eyed missile men of CONAD soon found themselves roped into quizzing children on whether they’d been naughty or nice. And so began an endearingly incongruous holiday tradition; NORAD offers a ‘Santa tracking’ service to this day.

The fifties really was a simpler time.

Is there a traumatic kernel to deterrence?

Preparing a paper for the ISA conference in San Francisco on Cyber-Deterrence, I wondered what happened to the “terror” of deterrence. Today deterrence is a merely theoretical shell expressing a rational calculus.


On Cyberdeterrence

Since the beginning of the atomic age it was immediately clear that access to this force allowed for a direct connection – a shortcut – to power. The paradox to be solved was, how nuclear weapons can be “used” and not be “used”, how they will never explode but still be useful. The answer was deterrence theory

2nd Wave Deterrence.

Deterrence theory laid out the rules how states can “use” the destructive force of the atom to play a rational game that allows them to participate in the power struggles of the new, the nuclear world order.

By representing the dilemma of nuclear deterrence with new game theoretical methods and rational choice theory which rationalized and mathematized social processes, deterrence theorists were able to fabricate a new texture of meaning for the thing, which has the capacity to disrupt this web of meaning itself, to destroy the symbolic order itself. They took seriously that the new strategy was not to use the bomb ever (explode it), and redefined the “use” of a weapon to be a threat to others.

This made nuclear weapons useful items, powerful items in the sense that their destructive force had to be translated, transferred, displaced to be useful and be used in power relationships and negotiations between states. Such, a new language – the language of nuclear deterrence – was developed and invented. Today the system of nuclear deterrence is in place allowing states to hedge the destructive power of nuclear weapons in a meaningful way while still engaging in power politics.

3rd Wave.

The third wave of nuclear deterrence theory in the 1970s expressed critique on some of the assumptions of deterrence theory. The superficial question asked by third wave deterrence theory is how perception, culture and norms influence the values of a quadrant in a payoff matrix or if a utilitarian rational actor without internal dynamics and differences can be reasonably assumed. The third wave of deterrence theory laid open all the flaws in the second wave. But to consider all accessible psychological and circumstantial and norm based factors etc. also stabilized the “rational choice approach to understand actor’s strategic decision-making”. Although it “did not resolve the deficiencies it identified” and did “not replace rational deterrence theory” below the surface nuclear deterrence was made fit on an operational level to address new challenges, while still reaffirming the nuclear order.

During that process the core of what constitutes nuclear deterrence was subtly altered. Deterrence was genereralized, abstracted, augmented to apply in a topological sense to examples beyond the nuclear realm.

But nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of individual denial of benefits or a threat of punishment, a microeconomic rationalization of calculus or bargain with a payoff matrix.

The disturbing fact which has to be actively displaced, concealed, obfuscated, hidden, occluded is that nuclear deterrence is not only the threat of mass murder on an exorbitant scale but the threat to be responsible to literally destroy the world, the threat of absolute death. It is second order death, the death of the network of meaning itself.

One could of course argue that this apocalyptic dimension can be represented again in a payoff matrix, were the costs are almost infinitely high. I want to argue that absolute death is not representable in a rational game and nuclear deterrence is since its invention secretly participating at this ethical dimension. In political science literature such an ethical dimension of nuclear deterrence is sometimes partly captured by emphasizing the influence of norms on the practice of deterrence, based on the amorality of nuclear weapons – a nuclear taboo. But despite the fact that norms “channel constrain, and constitute action” this does not capture what in a slight alteration of Nietzsches aphorism would be: if you are gazing long into the nuclear abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.

So, the question is: Is the theory of deterrence structured around this ethical dimension and does it change the theory of deterrence substantially if it is translated or applied to other fields like cyberdeterrence? Is each application of “a” deterrence theory unique, and do these other fields of application impose their own unique norms, changing the metric of deterrence itself?

I am not going to say much about cyberdeterrence here.

But to develop the grammar or metric of cyberdeterrence it is common to compare it to nuclear deterrence. Most authors agree that cyberdeterrence and nuclear deterrence have only few similarities, but that the nuclear example in general can give important lessons.

The main difference though between both is that nuclear deterrence is deterrence by punishment and threatens large scale destruction.

Cyberdeterrence operates in an environment unsuited to traditional models of deterrence. It will be most effective in deterrence by denial strategies and will probably not have a strong deterrence by punishment element. The obvious question is, what these substantive/topological differences in the logic of deterrence mean for cyberdeterrence and for attempts to produce the deterrence effect.

Can cyberdeterrence go beyond a mere cost/benefit calculation and is the metric of deterrence going to work effectively? For the strategic role cyberdetereence could play it will be decisive, if cyberdeterrence is an effective language that allows an actor to participate in power relationships like with nuclear weapons



By displacing the ethical dimension, the traumatic kernel in nuclear warfare, nuclear deterrence theory allowed to solve the deterrence paradox of nuclear use/non use and made nuclear weapons useful. While hedging their destructive force nuclear deterrence allowed nuclear armed states to engage in power politics and provided a common language. In the last decades the concept of deterrence subsequently diffused by applying the deterrence “skeleton”, the empty frame of rational calculation of costs and benefits, to non-nuclear fields. But the principal difficulties of the deterrence calculus remained. How do we measure goals and values, how do we quantify credibility, how do we treat epistemological and ontological uncertainty about the perspectives of the other? Deterrence is a blunt tool, it worked with nuclear weapons while survival was at stake.

Even if there is a clear declaratory policy for cyber deterrence strategies and an integration of deterrence with other policy tools, the question remains, if deterrence without large scale destruction is operationally/causally working or if deterrence is a theoretical shell to capture aspects of the metastructure of antagonistic adversarial relationships, but in the end it is quite unpredictable if the imagined deterrence calculus will work in the real world.


In that sense I am using  deterrence by denial or punishment on a day by day basis, to deter my daughter not to take unwanted action. (But even there I sometimes deter her e.g. from eating berries or mushrooms by claiming they are poisonous and deadly, which they are not – most of the time.)

The Price of Nuclear Reductions

Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, has threatened to block $75 million from the FY 2014 budget for reductions to the US nuclear arsenal. The planned reductions will bring the US into compliance with its commitments under the New Start Treaty. The bi-lateral arms control agreement with Russia commits the US to reducing deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018.

Public battles over funding nuclear programs are a major change from the blank check that Congress handed the US nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War. At the time, Congress related to the production and maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in much the same way the public relates to the manufacture of circulating coinage and paper currency. On the one hand, politicians knew very well that the U.S. arsenal was not free. After all, Congress financed the nuclear weapon complex. Yet, on the other hand, the arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union proceeded as if it were costless. U.S. nuclear security policy was not set within the budgetary constraints that applied to other public programs. Nuclear weapons were considered cheaper than conventional forces because they offered “more bang for the buck.”  Nuclear weapons programs evaded the intense scrutiny of partisan politics and garnered strong bipartisan support. Moreover, the financial costs of nuclear weapons were shielded from public scrutiny by classification levels that kept most information about costs out of the news media. It was as if the supply of nuclear weapons was infinite, and the U.S. could just continue producing nuclear weapons much the way it minted money.

This practice of treating nuclear weapons as virtually costless changed after the Cold War ended. For the first time current and former costs of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex were subjected to ongoing scrutiny by nongovernmental organizations, and as the process of reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal became a reality, budgets for research, development and modernization became tighter. (The effects of budget constraints are already visible to anyone personally acquainted with the National Labs.)

The biggest changes, however, are yet to come. In his first-term, President Barack Obama made reducing the role of nuclear weapons a central feature of his administration’s foreign policy agenda, an initiative that the Republican-controlled Congress vigorously opposed. Obama is said to be considering further reductions during hus second term. Given the resistance in Congress to passing New Start, Obama will likely seek an informal agreement with Russia in the form of a Presidential Nuclear Initiative, obviating the need to seek ratification in the Senate. That leaves the appropriations process as the battleground and will likely lead to a very public debate about the current financial costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal.

And so it begins…the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee has made their approval of the $75 million for New Start reductions contingent on a report specifying the planned reductions. For his part, Rep. Rogers wants a “personal commitment” that  Obama “will not seek reductions that circumvent the treaty or the congressional authorization process.”

If You Are Transfixed…There Are Good Reasons For That: Hyper-Rationality in Cleveland

The discovery that three women, all of whom had gone missing a decade ago from their neighborhoods in Cleveland, had spent that time enslaved to a seemingly average middle-aged man has dominated the news cycle since Amanda Berry’s brave escape with her six year old child on Monday. Her first act of freedom was to borrow a phone from a neighbor to call the police, ending their imprisonment and leading to the arrest of the suspected perpetrator.

The man who imprisoned Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight ruled his house like a tyrant, but appeared to be an average guy. If he had the intelligence and opportunity to control a country he would have been the equivalent of today’s most most malevolent dictators, characters like Hussein, Ghaddafi, and Kim Jong Il. All of these men were socially adept–charasmatic even. They also all routinely committed atrocities.

Knowing that these men could or do control nuclear arsenals provokes a heightened level of threat perception because they might actually be crazy enough to carry out a nuclear attack. As a result there has been a healthy debate about whether or not they are “rational” or “irrational” actors. However, there is another possibility: We perceive them as irrational precisely because they actually approximate the rational ideal. They are hyper-rational because they lack the capacity for empathy. There is something about their rational pursuit of self-interest that is actually inhuman.

He Had to Have Two Personalities
The 24 hour news cycle has picked up this story and is providing a constant stream of information and commentary, which is no surprise because the narrative is transfixing. It has all the elements of a procedural crime drama like Law & Order, Cold Case or CSI. It involves everyday people caught up in an extraordinary series of events, at the center of which is an unthinkable act carried out by an evil-doer masquerading as “one of us.”

Neighbors reported that the perpetrator appeared to be a “regular joe.” He played bass in local Latin bands and made small talk with them. He drove a school bus and was known to offer kids rides to the park on his bike. He had a Facebook page where he thanked god for the beautiful day.

Even though Grimalda Figueroa divorced him back in 1996 after he beat her repeatedly, no one suspected the extent of what he was capable of when there wasn’t anyone looking. Learning his secret came as a shock. How could someone other’s expereinced as normal turn out to be such a monster? It just didn’t make sense.

Trying to reconcile this kind of extreme asocial behavior with the image of someone who appears to understand basic social norms and rules is not easy. We want to think of these people as different from us in a fundemtal sense. As the perp’s uncle put it, “He had to have two personalities.” There had to be something more about him that makes him irrational, unpredictable, and crazy.

If You Are Transfixed…There Are Good Reasons For That
The details of this crime are horrific, the product of a deranged mind, and yet we don’t look away in disgust. Why is that? In her coverage of the story, Rachel Maddow repeatedly reassured her audience that “If you are completely transfixed by this story, if you are glued to the TV on this one, there’s no reason to feel guilty about that, there are good reasons for it. This is a genuinely transfixing and dramatic human story. The reason it is genuinely transfixing and dramtic is because it is objectively so rare.” As she explained just prior to making this statement, only 2% of the people in the US who go missing each year are kidnapped by someone unrealted to them.

Maddow’s message is reassuring on multple levels. First, she alleviates worry that there is something wrong with feeling obsessed with the details of the crime. She tells her audience that the feelings they are expereincing are normal. Second, she explains to them why they feel transfixed by the event. She says that they are interested because it is so rare. This explaination has the has the added benefit of reassuring her audience that this kind of atrocity is unlkely to happen to them.

The problem with this explanation is that it misidentifies what is so transfixing about this kind of crime. Maddow is correct that this specific kind of abduction is statistically rare, but there are lots of uncommon events that do not call our interest, much less glue us to our computers and TVs wanting to know more. Rather than telling her viewers the uncomfortable truth, Maddow, like any good performer, tells them what they want to hear: They are safe and there is no need to worry.

We are transfixed by what happened in Cleveland not because what happened is rare (although it is), but rather because the desire to do harm is a forbidden pleasure. We all have dark drives that arise unbidden from the depth of our subconscious. We also all live in a culture in which acknowledging that we have these drives (even to ourselves) is taboo–a taboo that is constantly reinforced by procedural crime dramas in which someone with those drives is exposed, hunted down and punished–so we develop the ability to behave as if these drives do not exist. We all act as though we never have asocial thoughts of agression, control and domination (directed at ourselves or others).

The brave escape of Amanda Berry revealed to the world the forbidden fantasies that existed in one man’s head. We are fascinated by revelation, which provides us with an opportunity to reassure ourselves that even in our darkest corners we are not that depraved. This crime is so absorbing for the same reason that procedural crime dramas that run in sindication 24 hours a day on TV–not because the perp is so different from all of “us,” but rather because he is so much the same.

Thus, a more satisfying (if less reassuring) way to explain our fascination with what happened in Cleveland is to answer a slightly different question. Rather than asking what the perp has that we do not (i.e. a second personality), the most fruitful way of approaching the discomfort this crime evokes is to accept that we all have dark drives and ask “What is it that I have, but that he is lacking?” or “Why do I choose not to act on these types of asocial drives, while he does?” There is something that stops us, which this man this lacking.

The answer to what stops us is different for different people. Sometimes it is simply fear of the consequences, but more often than not it is empathy. Most people are prevented from acting out violent fantasies by connecting with it might be like to be on the other end of their actions. For instance, you may fantasize about revenge killing, but ultimately you are stopped by the thought of the pain it will cause. This is why soldiers dehumanize the enemy. The same is true of engaging in torture. Americans were so shocked by the pictures that came out of Abu Grahib, yet that dehumanizing behavior that was put on display is exactly what “enhanced interrogation techniques” require of the perpetrators (at least as it was portrayed in the film Zero Dark Thirty).

Many people can tap into their dark side in order to carry out acts of domination and violence–and even enjoy it–if these behaviors are made socially acceptable in the name of the greater good. Far fewer people have the volition to act out these fantasies on their own. What makes a man like the perp in Cleveland different from others is that he is always motivated by narcisstic self-interest, regardless of whether his behavior is socially acceptable or not. Even when he is behaving “well,” he is never motivated by the kind of shared experience that would require him to be able to empathize with others.

The Rationality of Irrationality
The success of nuclear deterrence requires us to be able both to make a rational threat of nuclear attack, while at the same time knowing that actually carrying out that attack would be irrational. Although Schelling does not actually endorse a policy of appearing irrational to enhance the credibility of a deterrent threat, he does make the observation that appearing crazy enough to carry out a nuclear attack may offer a tactical advantage. If my conjectures are correct, the reason to fear these individuals is not that they are irrational, but rather that they are hyper-rational. Unlike the rest of us who allow human emotions, like empathy, to interfere with our ability to maximize our individual goals, these men may actually be capable of a level of rationality that is the very definition of psychopathic, asocial behavior. They will be better at deterrence that the rest of us (not withstanding imperfect information and strategic mistakes) because their threats will always be more credible, precisely because we interpret their hyper-rationality as irrationality. There is a reason to fear these individuals, but it is not because they are irrational, but rather because they are so inhumanly rational that they just may be able to beat us at our own game.

The Irony of Deterrence Failure

Sequester was, in principle, set up as a strategy of deterrence. The idea was to create an outcome that would be so terrible for all of the parties involved that the costs of standing on principle would outweigh the benefits of compromise. Hence, the language of the Fiscal Cliff, with which all Americans are familiar. The Fiscal Cliff was a combination of across the board automatic government spending cuts (sequester), the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, and the end of the pay-roll tax cuts. Unless Congress could pass a budget before the end of the year, taxes would go up and spending would go down, deepening the financial crisis. The budget debate dragged on throughout December as each side pulled the other closer to the edge of the cliff threatening to step off. Scrooge-like, the politicians begrudged the American public their holiday from partisan politics and the gloom of financial distress.

The fiscal cliff debate reads like a page out of Thomas Schelling’s instruction manual on nuclear deterrence. He instructs statesmen in how to manipulate the risk of nuclear war in order to prevail in a conflict of wills. Likening the situation to two individuals hand-cuffed to one another standing at the edge of a cliff, in order to prevail, one must convince the other that he or she is willing to jump, plunging both to their death, unless the other caves.

In the end, the threat of the Fiscal Cliff failed to do its job. It did not force a grand bargain, but rather a minor compromise (preserving  Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class, but raising taxes on the top 2%. and delaying sequestration). Deterrence failed and sequestration has now taken effect. And now for the irony. As Jeffrey Lewis so nicely points out here one of the only things not being cut is support for the US nuclear deterrent.

More Nuclear News

Deterrence Ball

Deterrence Ball

US Strategic Command, the institutional owner and conductor of the American nuclear arsenal, gives out knick-knacks at its (semi)public events: pens, desk toys, lapel-pins – what Lynn Eden refers to as “tchotchke” and I prefer to think of as “swag”.

I learned this a few months ago, at “StratCom’s” annual ‘Deterrence Symposium’ in Omaha, Nebraska, where the senior suits and brass of the US nucleocracy gather to reassess and reaffirm their raison d’être.

These goodies appeal to me in a sardonic sort of way. To my mind, at least, their mundanity belies StratCom’s apocalyptic purpose, and testifies to the intellectual distance that nuclear interlocutors have created between themselves and their abysmal subject matter. I spent my breaks amassing a small arsenal of swag, most of which now adorns my apartment in Bristol.

Pride of place in the new collection is a ‘stress ball’ painted like a globe with StratCom’s logo on it: a miniature world you can hold in the palm of your hand and casually crush when you’re under pressure.

Anyone at the symposium in search of a metaphor would not have had to look far.

The ball reminds me of Weber’s misgivings about bureaucracies and their structural indifference to moral purpose. Deterrence and introspection have never been compatible. Omaha is littered with missile silos, each controlled by uniformed men and women who pack the kids off to school every morning and then report to their bunkers for duty, fully prepared to end the world should duty require. The organization to which they report hands out branded stationary.

We traditionally think of the advent of nuclear weapons as a problem for security researchers, but perhaps the most pressing questions it  raises are sociological and anthropological. They have to do with our relationships with institutions, and our institutions’ relationships with the societies they ostensively serve.

Nuclear Policy and the Politics of Knowledge Production

“The international security environment has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The threat of global nuclear war has become remote, but the risk of nuclear attack has increased…These changes in the nuclear threat environment – especially the heightened concern about nuclear terrorism and nuclear proliferation and the less dangerous strategic interaction between the United States and Russia – have not emerged overnight. They have developed over the last twenty years, and Administrations of both parties have responded with modifications of U.S. nuclear weapons policies and force posture. But those modifications have not gone far or fast enough. As the President has said, we have to ‘put an end to Cold War thinking.’” Nuclear Posture Review Report, April 2010

If policymakers want to “put an end to Cold War thinking” they will have to invest in creating an intellectual space for new thinking at the level of basic theory. It is not enough to ask for innovation at the level of policy. There must also be an active investment in over-turning entrenched interests among intellectual elites in maintaining existing paradigms. There is a politics of knowledge production that is relevant to the process of legitimating any large-scale policy transformation. The kinds of questions addressed at this level will not necessarily produce results that are immediately relevant to any one policy, but rather will lay the conceptual and theoretical foundations for a new program of study. There was an opening of this nature within the US academy during the 1990’s due to the failure of prominent scholars within the field of International Relations to foresee the end of the Cold War. However, that temporary opening has been replaced with a resurgence of interest in deterrence. The current trend is to look for ways to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while expanding the practice of deterrence to encompass cyber and space with the ultimate goal of achieving cross-domain effects. Work on nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament is alive and well among policy-oriented think tanks, but is still underrepresented at the level of theory. [1]

At the dawn of the nuclear age, scholars found a new type of institutional support and interdisciplinary environment for an active debate at the level of theory, which yielded implementable strategic policies, and effective operational and technical systems. [2] As a fully mature discourse, the deterrence paradigm includes robust debate and activity at the concrete, operational level, at the level of applied ideas as realized through the strategic policies that directed those actions, and at an abstract level of theoretical analysis through which we comprehend the nature of human interactions with social and material environments, articulate what is politically possible, and make value judgments about what is desirable.

Responding to the call that US President Barack Obama made in his April 2009 speech delivered in Prague to “put and end to Cold War thinking” in US nuclear policy will require a similar shift in the relationship between means, ways and ends in nuclear strategy that occurred in response to the introduction of nuclear weapons. Creating that shift will require more than a response at the level of policy. In fact, the transformation is already underway at the operational and policy levels. It is the realm of theory that has yet to catch up. With a few notable exceptions, theoretical innovation has lagged behind changes in other realms. Entrenched institutional interests among established intellectuals make it difficult to see beyond the existing paradigm, placing limits on innovation in the academic realm and hampering the developing of a robust theoretical discourse to compete with the nuclear deterrence paradigm.

As Philip Taubman revealed in his book, The Partnership, this limitation exists even among reform minded deterrence experts. In 2010 leaders and innovators of the Cold War order, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn and Sidney Drell, gathered a group of forward thinking defense intellectuals for another in a series of conferences held at the Hoover Institution to discuss alternatives for moving toward a new paradigm. Yet, Taubman reports that they were unable to escape the strictures of deterrence theory’s foundational assumptions. They exhibited an “enduring devotion” to nuclear deterrence, ultimately succumbing to the seductive qualities of its logic. Taubman also reports that the resistance to any idea of moving beyond the current paradigm was even stronger at a 2009 gathering of defense experts convened by the directors of the Los Alamos and Livermore National Labs. There Sidney Drell and William Perry were confronted with a breed of deterrence purist that insists on maintaining a large nuclear arsenal with numbers determined exclusively by military target planners, arrived at independent of any political guidance or considerations such as treaty limitation. An idea to which Perry responded by pointing out that targeting plans do not exist independently of political guidance. [3]

Shlutz, Perry, Kissinger, Nunn, Drell and others like them understand the political character of the Cold War nuclear order and the conflict that they played an important role in guiding to a safe conclusion. They have articulated an ambitious and forward-looking policy agenda based on intuitions developed out of many years of practical experience, at the center of which is a basic hypothesis about the relationship between military deterrence, arms control and nonproliferation, and the goal of nuclear disarmament. This hypothesis is encapsulated in the following statement from their 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed:

“Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America’s moral heritage. The effort could have a profoundly positive impact on the security of future generations. Without the bold vision, the actions will not be perceived as fair or urgent. Without the actions, the vision will not be perceived as realistic or possible.” [4]

In other words, what Shultz, Perry, Kissinger and Nunn posit is that enhancing the credibility of the US pledge to disarm is necessary (although possibly not sufficient) to motivating the cooperation of states in restricting access to sensitive nuclear technology and reducing the incidence of nuclear proliferation. This assertion is testable, but since their hypothesis is not derivable from any existing theoretical framework, efforts at testing have looked at it through an empirical lens and not yet considered the full range of hypotheses.

Developing additional conceptual tools is the first step towards having an intellectual infrastructure from which to draw to out new hypotheses and possibilities for political action. This does not necessarily mean that deterrence will be discarded, but that there will be more strategic concepts in the policymaker’s toolbox. Without those resources, we are likely to return to what we know because policymakers have neither the time nor the patience to listen while concepts are built, nor should they. It simply takes too long to form a concept from a group of principles or ideas. The concept of deterrence was built and disseminated methodically over 50+ years through hundreds of briefings, thousands of conferences, millions of pages, and many lifetimes of intellectual work. It is now the intellectual tool available on short notice when they are called on to articulate three possible responses to Iran in one page or less—which brings to mind Maslow’s aphoristic hammer: If all you have is the concept of deterrence, every nuclear threat becomes a conversation about how many nuclear weapons are necessary to maintain a credible deterrent threat.

Today we take for granted that ‘nuclear deterrence’ can stand alone as a phrase in a one-page policy document. There is a reasonable expectation that decision makers will understand that it refers to the manipulation of nuclear threats to ensure that the costs to an adversary of military aggression will outweigh the benefits. Yet, back in 1946 when Bernard Brodie first proposed the ideas that are routinely accepted today as the foundation of deterrence theory, whether and how nuclear deterrence would work was not at all clear. The suggestion that the US would produce an entire category of weapons for the sole purpose of preventing rather than waging war was considered strange to the point of being absurd. [5] It went against a set of foundational assumptions about the nature of the international system and the role of the military in maintaining the security of the nation. When the civilian and military leadership in the US were still working within the existing policy paradigm and endorsing strategies to win nuclear wars through massive retaliation, Brodie was already asking a new and more fundamental set of questions. He was talking about atomic technology as revolutionizing the ends of military strategy itself, famously claiming that “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.” [6]

Deterrence—not simply as a tactic, but as a national security strategy—gives rise to new forms of power politics in which states play out international conflicts by bargaining over the use and possession of armaments. is an historically specific techno-political and international diplomatic practice that is enabled and constrained by the human capacities for surveillance and destruction. As the institutional and technological context changes, so will the possibilities for nuclear disarmament.

Building the conceptual architecture that will help us move the debate about nuclear policy forward will require going beyond the current nuclear deterrence paradigm by bringing together a group of scholars that are working on ideas that are usually considered too strange or radical to be part of the mainstream. In other words, this kind of work needs an institutional home for policy research akin to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (another of William Perry’s visionary innovations), or similar to the one that RAND provided for the development of the deterrence paradigm. These are institutional spaces that exhibit a commitment to critical inquiry and interdisciplinary research, accept a high rate of failure, and do not strangle nascent research programs by sacrificing conceptual innovation in favor of short-term policy relevance. There are institutional spaces that and funding programs exhibit some of these aspects, promoting and developing those programs, even in an era of budget austerity, should be a component of the US nuclear security policy.


[1] For instance, these are the types of questions that are being debated at the annual Deterrence Symposiums hosted by STRATCOM: This trend is also reflected in and reinforced by the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report. What the report makes clear is that policymakers still consider nuclear deterrence a key element of US national security, but there is an overwhelming sense that moving beyond a Cold War mindset is necessary for the US to maintain its national security. These are also the issue areas the Department of Defense is funding for social scientific study through their Minerva Initiative:

[2] Fred M. Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983).

[3] Philip Taubman, The Parnership (New York: Harper Collins, 2012).

[4] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn. Wall Street Journal. (Eastern edition). New York, N.Y.: Jan 4, 2007. pg. A.15

[5] Marc Trachtenberg, History and Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), 152.

[6] Bernard Brodie, The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order, ed.  (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946).