Tag Archives: deterrence

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.)

What to do about Iran Part III: The case for a compelling alternative (or building the conceptual basis for why the US needs to make Iran ‘an offer it can’t refuse’)

As the November election approaches and no actionable alternative vision for Iran emerges, the cloud of resignation descending over the liberal elite in Washington is palpable. Will Obama choose to support the use of force simply because action is preferable to inaction in an election year? Or can the case be effectively made that we have already been down this route with Iraq? The short-term gratification of bombing Iran now will give the American population its quick fix, but it will not provide a long-term solution. But what other alternative is there?

The United States has a military solution for almost any international problem, and as we all know, if all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail. Looking at the shape of the public debate in the US about how to engage Iran, there are few concrete diplomatic proposals for resolving the current conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. However, there is a recurring discussion about whether to use preventive force now to deter—or at least delay—the development of Iran’s nuclear program by bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities, or rely on nuclear deterrence to contain Iran once it has successfully weaponized its nuclear program. In the mean time, the US is enhancing international economic sanctions against Iran—which may or may not be having an impact on Iran’s strategic calculus with regard to its nuclear program—and Iran has agreed to return to the negotiating table. Although there is no way to tell what lies behind Iran’s desire to engage again diplomatically with the P5+1, the willingness to resume talks nearly a year after the previous round collapsed presents the Obama administration with another opportunity to implement a powerful solution that conserves force and re-establishes America as a visionary world leader. However, in order for the US to make use of this opportunity, the Obama administration must to be prepared to articulate to itself, the American public, and the world a vision of what will work and why.

Unfortunately, there are few conceptual tools available with which to build a strategically effective diplomatic vision. Right now there are excellent proposals from nuclear experts about what the technical substance of an agreement should entail, as well as diplomatic analyses of what is at stake politically for Iran. However, the analysis of how these technical proposals can and should be brought together with what is at stake politically in order to produce a long-term strategic vision is lacking. Unlike in the realm of military-strategic discourse where the concept of deterrence provides an overarching framework for a conversation about where and when to apply military force or hold it in reserve, there is no similar strategic logic driving a debate within the American national security establishment about various diplomatic solutions.

Developing conceptual tools is the first step towards having an intellectual infrastructure on which to draw when conflict arises. 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 to us on short notice when we are called on to articulate three possible responses to Iran in one page or less—which brings us back to Maslow’s aphoristic hammer: If all you have is the concept of deterrence, every proliferation threat becomes a conversation about the relative merits of preventive force versus containment.

In order to build actionable diplomatic alternatives for the future, I propose that we fill the conceptual gap with deterrence’s misunderstood, and often overlooked, fraternal-twin: compellence. On the most basic level, deterrence and compellence are two sides of the same coin. Deterrence is about making sure the costs of conflict outweigh the benefits; compellence is about making sure the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs. While deterrence emphasizes what to avoid, compellence offers an alternative to embrace. When used effectively in tandem, deterrence and compellence make for “an offer that can’t be refused.”

Compellence as a strategic concept makes its debut appearance in Thomas Schelling’s Arms and Influence. My word choice is intentionally drawn from his lexicon, in spite of the fact that compellence is not a term that captured imaginations or migrated into idiomatic parlance. Even Schelling himself was dissatisfied with it, lamenting that we have no “obvious counterpart to ‘deterrence.’ He then runs through a list of possible alternatives including “coercion,” which he interprets as capturing what he wants to say, but he rejects it on the grounds that it does not exclude deterrence. Next he turns to “intimidation,” which “is insufficiently focused on the particular behavior desired,” and “compulsion,” which he deems “all right but its adjective is ‘compulsive,’ and that has come to carry a quite different meaning.” Finally, he concludes quite simply: “‘Compellence’ is the best I can do.”

My suspicion is that Schelling’s dissatisfaction stems as much from problems with the distinction itself as it does from word choice. Schelling wants to distinguish between types of threats, explaining that the “threat that compels rather than deters often requires that the punishment be administered until the other acts, rather than if he acts.” “Therefore,” he continues, “deterrence and compellence differ in a number of respects, most of them corresponding to something like the difference between statics and dynamics. Deterrence involves setting the stage…and waiting. The overt act is up to the opponent… Compellence, in contrast, usually involves initiating an action…that can cease, or become harmless, only if the opponent responds.” In other words, deterrence is about erecting a barrier. It is the social analog to a moat with a wall and cannons. Thanks to Glenn Snyder and his book Deterrence and Defense, we have terminology for this analogy: deterrence by punishment and deterrence by denial. You can defend against attack either by threatening unacceptable punishment in return, or by building defensive barriers that appear too difficult to overcome. Compellence in this schema is the analog to offense. It is the ability to not simply defend, but to fight an enemy back until she gives up or surrenders.

The problem with Schelling’s interpretation comes from the fact that, while seemingly clear in theory, the distinction breaks down in practice. Schelling tries to explain that “to deter continuance of something the opponent is already doing—harassment, overflight, blockade, occupation of some island or territory, electronic disturbance, subversive activity, holding prisoners, or whatever it may be—has some of the character of a compellent threat.” The mental image Schelling’s version of this distinction produces is of a body at rest. Deterrence in its simplest form keeps that body at rest. Compellence, from this perspective, meets the body at rest and applies additional force to create motion. The problem comes when the body is already in motion. Is it deterrence or compellence that brings a body to rest?

In contrast, I argue that the difference between deterrence and compellence is not in terms of how active a threat is, but rather is in the nature of the action itself. Whereas deterrence is about manipulating fear, compellence is about manipulating desire. Deterrence is divisive. It is the ability to convince someone to refrain from violating your borders. Compellence, on the other hand, is the ability to convince someone to give you what you want. Whereas deterrence is about ensuring that the costs of an action outweigh the benefits, compellence is about ensuring that the benefits of an action outweigh the costs. In contrast to Schelling’s idea of compellence as imposing greater and greater costs until your opponent chooses to submit, what I am proposing is an idea of leading someone to an action through making that action either the only viable alternative or just too good to pass up.

It is very difficult to make your opponent submit through force because you are manipulating only one end of the equation. The most effective diplomatic strategies manipulate both. Take, for instance, a bank heist. The bank robber uses force to deter the occupants of the bank from leaving. If they try to leave, she will kill them. Explicit in that statement is the manipulation of fear; implicit is the manipulation of a compelling desire to live. This is why the robber also says to the bank manager, “If you give me the money, I will let you walk out of here alive.” That’s the compelling alternative. If the robber were more sophisticated, the heist could be done in ways that co-opted the desire of the manager in the first place—for money, power, or prestige—and would have required less force.

The distinction is captured by the proverbial story of the wind and the sun. The wind bets the sun that he can remove a passing traveler’s coat. The wind blows harder and harder, colder and colder, trying to blow the coat off, but only succeeds in convincing the traveler to pull her coat closer and tighter. When it’s the sun’s turn, she shines warmly down on the traveler. Perspiring, the traveler stops and simply removes his coat.

We have a tendency to use the verbs “force” and “compel” interchangeably in American culture. We also use the nouns “force” and “power” as if they were synonyms, but all of these terms are distinct. Force is but one means to an end. Power is an end in itself. We tend to conflate them through the practice of nuclear deterrence, which is about the manipulation of superior force in pursuit of power. Deterrence has a natural affinity to force because deterrence is about punishment. In contrast, compellence is not about force; it’s about power. Compellence is about drive, desire, and hunger. They key to compellence is to know what your opponent wants (or wants to avoid) and manipulate it to your own ends.

Acknowledging that the ultimate weapon exerts this effeminized form of power is what makes the punch line from this New Yorker cartoon so funny:

From www.newyorker.com

From www.newyorker.com

This cartoon captures something about the power countries like Iran experience by attracting international attention through their pursuit of the bomb.

Schelling’s analysis of deterrence and compellence does include the notion of positive incentives in his analysis through the idea that both require assurances to be effective. He argues that your opponent must have a reason to believe that whatever pain and suffering you are inflicting (or further threat thereof) will cease in the event of compliance. In contract, I am arguing that assurances are not a component of deterrence. They are a component of compellence.

The point here is that deterrence and compellence always operate in tandem. If you are not managing both, one is being done to you. While the USSR was deterring the US, the US was simultaneously compelling the USSR to maintain an unsustainable arms race, and vice versa. Someone is always doing the deterring and someone is always doing the compelling. You cannot have one without the other. Unless you preserve your own ability to walk away from a relationship at will, you are experiencing the costs and benefits of being on both ends of a compelling struggle for power.

At this point in time, Iran is not convinced that the benefits of complying with the NPT outweigh the costs it pays in terms of the status it gives up. Bombing Iran into temporary submission is not likely to change that calculus, but rather to compel Iran to pursue its goal of constructing a robust nuclear program because the benefits of achieving the status of a nuclear weapon state are just too good to pass up. Continuing down the path of blowing harder by ratcheting up sanctions is unlikely to produce the desired result of Iran giving up its enrichment without offering a compelling alternative.

The problem with the current situation between the US and Iran is that Iran is undeterred and enjoying all the power by compelling the US to take action. The more force the US has to use in order to deter Iran’s nuclear weapon program, the less powerful the US is (think of the parent who says, “don’t make me take off my belt” versus the parent who can ask a child to do something and the child willingly complies).

This, of course, is a dangerous game. It could end very badly for Iran, but so far Iran has managed to maintain the upper hand, and it will continue to do so even in the event that the US decides to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Finding a solution to the conflict with Iran needs to be about more than deterrence. The solution needs to be more complex than a line in the sand that the Iranians are told not to cross. Deterrence is something that the US does very well, but there are limitations to a strategy that equates power with the threat and/or use of force. It is appropriate for the US to prepare its deterrent strategy, but deterrence alone will not bring about a solution. A solution will come from the ability to combine deterrence with a positive diplomatic vision in which the benefits of compliance outweigh the costs. In other words, the Obama administration needs to make Iran ‘an offer it can’t refuse.’

Deterrence Works?


Vasili Arkhipov might be the most important human being who ever lived.

On October 27, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak. An American destroyer was trying to force a Soviet submarine to surface by harrying it with depth charges. The submarine’s sleep-deprived captain – cut off from radio contact and unable to know if war had broken out – ordered the launch of a nuclear weapon. The sub’s political officer, on board to provide an external check on the captain’s actions, seconded the decision.

Arkhipov, the second in command, was the last of three officers who were required to consent to a launch. He refused. He talked his comrades down from the brink and persuaded them to surface the sub, thereby narrowly averting The End Of Days.

Hardly anybody knew this until an academic conference in 2002, when the director of the National Security Archive unveiled some newly declassified documents and announced that ‘a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.’

Arkhipov is not the only person with such a claim, however.

On September 26, 1983, Soviet missile warning systems indicated that a US first strike was underway. It was at another point of extreme tension between the US and USSR, with a large US military exercise being widely perceived in the Kremlin as a cover for war preparations.

The mechanics of Deterrence meant the Soviets had to respond within fifteen minutes if they were to respond at all, and had the politburo been informed of the incoming strike they would probably have ordered a nuclear response. Institutional doctrine and bureaucratic momentum would have almost dictated it. There would have been almost no time for cool reflection.

Fortunately for humanity, nobody reported the launch to the Soviet hierarchy. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the duty officer at the early warning center that night, correctly dismissed the warning as a bizarre computer error and defied protocol by declining to report it.

Petrov – who was subsequently reassigned, took early retirement, and suffered a nervous breakdown – might also have saved the world. Yet hardly anybody knew about him either until the 1990s, when a Russian general published his memoirs.

Who knows how many other such brushes with Armageddon there have been. The secrecy around nuclear security is intense.


The logic of Deterrence – the idea that baroque infrastructures for launching thousands of nuclear weapons at our enemies on very short notice should make us safer – has been orthodoxy in security discourse for so long that its absurdity has become invisible to insiders. It is an axiom of nuclear discourse that deterrence works. Of course it works. The principle is so elegant and logical on paper, and the proof is in the metaphorical pudding: the world is still here. Academics can debate the minutiae of why it works, but only those with their heads in the sand can question the fact that it works.

Yet there is almost no evidence for this.

Consider this question: how much time must pass without a nuclear exchange before we can say there is evidence that Deterrence has kept us safe?

Reliability engineers would not conclude that a lightbulb had worked as designed until it had performed satisfactorily for several years. And they would be reluctant to conclude that a bridge was successful until it had stood for decades. We expect bridges to perform for much longer than lightbulbs, in part, because bridge failures are so much more consequential. If Deterrence fails the consequences would be biblical. Relative to that, the half century that it has been US doctrine is all but immaterial.

It is certainly arguable that there have been no great-power conflicts during the fifty-plus years of Deterrence’s tenure, but what does this prove? Throughout the Nineteenth Century the world enjoyed almost a hundred years without a clash between the world’s powers, but the Pax Britannica was not evidence that war had become obsolete. It collapsed in 1914 with the terrible carnage of the Great War: a conflict so traumatic that it was thought to have rendered all future wars ‘unimaginable.’ (Little were we to know). The Pax Romana lasted even longer – almost two hundred years. The world entered the second half of the Twentieth Century in ruins, and has been characterized since then by ever-increasing economic interdependence and the radical decoupling of territory from power and prosperity. In this context, the relatively brief ‘Pax Atomica’ – fifty years in which we declined to commit planetary suicide – hardly seems like compelling evidence of our strategic brilliance.

We spent many billions of dollars on the paraphernalia of Deterrence. We did so on the solemn advice of our nuclear shamans, who concluded – pardon me, calculated – that it was the optimal way of keeping us secure. What we accidentally wrought with our billions was a generation that owes everything – every walk in the park; every Monday morning; every chicken nugget; everything – to two middle-ranking, enemy military officers, who made difficult decisions under enormous duress and spared us all.

Eat your heart out, Doctor Frankenstein.

Time Between Failures

What to do about Iran Part II: Recapitulation and a new refrain…

Debates in the realm of US nuclear politics conform to a familiar pattern, especially in the academic realm. On the one hand, deterrence pessimists believe that US nuclear force posture must be built on the assumption that deterrence will fail. In order to be credible, a deterrent threat must be backed by a fully operational plan to fight and win a nuclear war. This leads to the operational concepts of nuclear superiority, flexible response, and damage limitation. On the other hand, deterrence optimists believe that everyone loses in the event of a nuclear war. To that end, optimists believe US nuclear force posture should presume that fighting and winning a nuclear war is not an option. To them, the sole purpose of the US nuclear deterrent should be to threaten massive retaliation in the event of a nuclear attack. By limiting the size and composition of its nuclear arsenal, the US reduces the possible pathways to nuclear war. At the same time, if done right, eliminating other options can have the effect of locking the US into massive retaliation as a last resort, increasing the credibility of a retaliatory threat. Deterrence optimism leads to relatively small arsenals that meet a minimum threshold of a secure second-strike capability. The goal is not nuclear superiority, but rather strategic stability through arms control.

In the previous post, I argued that the current debate over whether or not it is time for the US to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities maps nicely onto the old deterrence pessimist/optimist framework.  Explicit arguments that recommend conventional bombing in order to avoid—or at least forestall—a nuclear-armed Iran are implicitly based on the pessimists’ assumptions about deterrence. From this point of view, the alternatives boil down to a choice between a conventional conflict now and living in a constant state of preparation for nuclear war later. Therefore, attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is “the least bad option.” In contrast, the argument against conventional bombing is based on the optimists’ assumption that containing a nuclear-armed Iran would work. Thus, the debate boils down to an implicit disagreement over the interpretation of deterrence theory.

Viewing problems of proliferation through the framework of deterrence provides us no resources through which to assess or recommend diplomatic solutions. If the only questions to which deterrence theory provides us answers lie in the realm of “the diplomacy of violence,” our conversation will be severely limited. In contrast, a theory of nuclear fetishism creates intellectual tools to analyze why various diplomatic agreements might, or might not, work. It widens our aperture by explaining how nuclear weapons function as a currency of power. Thus, we are able to focus our attention on what the technical substance of a negotiated settlement should (or should not) contain in order to resolve the underlying political conflict. (I’ve written about the relationship between the substance and purpose of arms control and nonproliferation agreements at length in a previous post).

Currently, two different communities of experts are addressing questions of what a negotiated settlement would look like. A community of nuclear policy experts is writing primarily about what the technical substance of an agreement would need to entail, while a second community of diplomatic experts is writing about political factors at work. Bringing together these two different perspectives on this crisis, one from nuclear expert Matt Bunn and the other from Ambassadors William H. Luers and Thomas R. Pickering, gives us some building blocks with which to begin putting the pieces of a solution in place (although articulating a unified proposal will have to be work for another day).

Bunn explains what is realistic and possible in the realm of nuclear technology, and Luers and Pickering explain what it is at stake politically. In both cases the suggestions begin with answer the following three questions: “What do they want, what do we want, and what do we both want?” According to Bunn, the formal agreement would include:

  • The P5+1 agrees to allow some operational centrifuges in Iran.
  • Iran agrees to limit enrichment to 2-8 centrifuge cascades (other centrifuges in place, but not operating).
  • All centrifuge operations, R&D, manufacture (also other sensitive nuclear operations) are shifted to international ownership with a 24/7 international staff.
  • Iran agrees to the Additional Protocol and broad transparency measures.
  • The P5+1 implements an incentives package (trade, nuclear assistance, etc.).
  • Bilateral and multilateral dialogues are established to address other issues over time – including recognition and an end to sanctions if these other issues are successfully addressed.
  • The United States pledges not to attack Iran and not to attempt to overthrow the regime as long as (a) Iran complies with its nuclear obligations, (b) Iran does not commit or sponsor aggression or terrorist attacks against others.

And according to Luers and Pickering, politically an agreement would meet the following needs:

“Iran wants recognition of its revolution; an accepted role in its region; a nuclear program; the departure of the United States from the Middle East; and the lifting of sanctions. The United States wants Iran not to have nuclear weapons; security for Israel; a democratic evolution of Arab countries; the end of terrorism; and world access to the region’s oil and gas. Both Iran and the United States want stability in the region — particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan; the end of terrorism from Al Qaeda and the Taliban; the reincorporation of Iran into the international community; and no war.”

Taking these two analyses of the conflict as a starting point, the question we are left with is how they interact to create a viable solution.

What to do about Iran Part I: New lyrics, same old tune…

Timed to coincide with the growing tension between the United States and Iran, the most recent print edition of Foreign Affairs arrived last week with Georgetown professor, Matthew Kroenig’s name next to the headline “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option” In response to the question, “should the United States attack Iran and attempt to eliminate its nuclear facilities?” Kroenig answers yes, given the option between a conventional conflict and the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, the choice is clear; The U.S. should set back and potentially eliminate the Iranian nuclear program by bombing a yellowcake-conversion plant, a heavy-water reactor, centrifuge-manufacturing sites, and, of course, the contested uranium enrichment facilities is preferable to the alternative.

Kroenig is part of a new generation of “thought leaders” on issues of nuclear security being funded by the Stanton Foundation. Inaugurated in 2010, the Stanton Fellowship program was created in response to a perception that there are many new challenges in the field of nuclear security, but not many young scholars with new ideas on how to confront those challenges. So far Stanton has been successful at supporting people who are willing to put themselves out there in the contemporary foreign policy debate. In fact, another Stanton Fellow currently at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, Alexandre Debs, co-authored a rebuttal of Kroenig’s argument. In it Debs argues that attacking Iran is not “the least bad option” because Kroenig’s skepticism about containing a nuclear-armed Iran is unwarranted.

Yet, being part of a rising generation of scholars does not necessarily mean that these young men have come up with new ideas. All they have done so far is apply their forefather’s ideological framework to the current political environment. As currently framed this debate about Iran reproduces a predictable Cold War-era ideological split between deterrence pessimists and deterrence optimists.

Kroenig occupies the role of deterrence pessimist. This is an intellectual tradition with roots reaching back two generations to the work of Herman Kahn. Often vilified and derided, Kahn is famous for arguing that nuclear war was survivable and set out to prove it through a macabre mathematical analysis of who and what would survive an all-out nuclear war. Kahn’s intellectual project, like the work of all deterrence pessimists, was motivated by the belief that U.S. nuclear security strategy should be designed with the expectation that nuclear deterrence will fail. This belief leads to two operational doctrines. The first is escalation dominance; the idea that the United States should always be able to up the nuclear ante, one step at a time, responding proportionally to any attack and terminating any conflict through the threat of more to come. The second is damage limitation; the idea that the United States should always work to minimize its casualties. Kroenig’s support of escalation dominance is well known in Washington. In a recent article he argues “nuclear superior states are more likely to win nuclear crises because they are willing to run a greater risk of nuclear war in a crisis than their nuclear inferior opponents.” Also consistent with the deterrence pessimist position is Kroenig’s skepticism about the ability to contain a nuclear Iran and a desire to stop the threat before it starts.

On the other side of the aisle are the deterrence optimists, the most famous of whom is Nobel Laureate, Thomas Schelling. This school of thought advocates accepting the irrationality of nuclear war and the fact of mutual vulnerability. It does not advocate nuclear superiority, but rather seeks a condition of strategy stability. Debs’ rebuttal takes up the position of deterrence optimist as evidenced by the fact that he finds Kroenig’s skepticism about a nuclear-armed Iran unwarranted, and focuses on the success of containing a nuclear North Korea.

The only way to step meaningfully outside of this Cold-War era framework is to move away from placing the use of force in the foreground and start asking a different kind of question. The question shouldn’t be about whether or not to bomb Iran, but about what place the use of force has vis-a-vis U.S. leadership in a changing international environment. More immediately, it should be about next steps towards diplomatic solutions to the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program. Thus far, the best example of a contribution to this debate that refuses to accept Kroenig’s framing and offers and alternative is from Bill Keller of the New York Times. Instead Keller offers a parody of Kroenig’s argument in his op-ed “Bomb-Bomb-Bomb, Bomb-Bomb-Iran.” For those of you who like to get in the weeds, he also looks seriously at the elements of a nonproliferation strategy that focuses on the technical aspects of both uranium-enrichment technology and the politics of negotiations in an election year on his blog.

“Why was there historically no doomsday machine as the ultimate deterrent?”

Dear Matthias,

I am feeling nostalgic for our time together at Stanford and grateful that you planned ahead by creating a virtual space for us to share. The following text is the comment you offered at my presentation (http://cisac.stanford.edu/events/nuclear_weapons_and_the_fetishism_of_force/)
last year, in which you not only took the logic of my argument one step further than I had, but also made meaningful reference to the dialog from Dr. Strangelove in the process. Taking my work one step further was the greatest compliment anyone had ever paid me. As I’m sure you remember, all I could say at the time was “touché.”

According to The Dead Hand by David Hoffman, the Soviets did design a doomsday machine, but they stopped short of building it, instead creating a semi-automatic hybrid that still required human initiative. So, technically, your question still stands.


“Thank you Anne. Your work really opened a completely new way to combine several intellectual endeavors of mine, philosophy, nonproliferation and a new one since I am at CISAC: International Relations Theory.

The theories on which Anne?s work is philosophically based, were part of my own education – namely, german idealism with hegelian dialectics, Marx and political economy and especially Zizek and his unique dialectical merging of them with french structuralism, postmodernism, psychoanalysis and german critical theory.

So what in general is the interesting thing about using these theories, which were born in german idealism? It is about the use of an paradigmatic shift in epistemology basically saying that what we conceive as objective reality is only accessible through the subject, and this in turn makes it impossible to symbolize a phenomenal reality without infecting the description by subjectivity. In return this paradigm shift also melts the perceived adamant unchangeable objective world out there and opens possibilities to shape what is usually considered to be given. How exactly this is happening and what exactly is the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity is under debate since.

The problem is that it is easy to fall into the illusion that the reality, the social order or sub-entities of it, like the role of nuclear weapons and the current political structure of nation states is simply given and almost or even completely unchangeable. Against this paradigm of a fixed “nature of things”, which is at the core of numerous different theoretical frameworks including those who have the noun ?realism? in them, all the mentioned theories are articulating skepticism and try to open up a space for new thinking. I think this effort is important.

Let me cite Michael J. Shapiro a political scientist Good social analysis does one or more of the following:

It adds voices and perspectives to a domain of thought or inquiry that has generated silences that narrow the scope of “the political.” It invents new concepts. It disrupts the process by which we have assumed that we are attaining a deeper understanding […]. It substitutes contingency for certainty. It historicizes what is treated as timeless. In short, it unsettles the process of settling how we should interpret the social and political world.


Policy advice:

I do not want to discredit the use of theory, and I know that the constant demand to please break down complex theories into two sentences of policy advice can be annoying. But of course disarmament and nuclear weapons has to be also thought of as a problem of practice, and I sense that more could be done to connect the theory of nuclear fetishism to more direct policy advice to help disarmament. This is not a fundamental critique but meant as encouragement to think further.

Power and Materiality

According to Anne?s work nuclear weapons ultimately neglect the vulgar truth of treating violence as synonymous with power by bringing this identification to a final contradiction. In short: the most powerful weapons cannot be used in a warthey finally have no use value, they are useless, powerless.

But they are usable to threaten somebody. So if states or at least some states believe in such threats, then simply “possessing nuclear weapons can serve as proxy for the experience of power associated with winning a war” (Anne 11). Power here is still based on military strength AS IF nuclear weapons were a direct measure of power regardless of the use of them in a real battle. The hope of deconstructing this link of power to nuclear weapons is one of the main points in Anne?s work. And is it not also the hope of the four horseman to decouple power from nuclear weapons in thinking about different non-nuclear forms of deterrence? And is it not also the hope for disarmament that power is decoupled from military strength?

So let us assume we want to decouple power from nuclear weapons. Which role has the materiality of the weapons expressed in their use value. Anne states that the “materiality of nuclear weapons is very important, but it is not the source of their power” (Anne, 38).

One way to decouple power from nuclear weapons would be the dream of transforming the use value into a threat value. First dismantling the weapons, so the threat would be incorporated in fissile materials, then dispose the fissile materials so the threat would be in production facilities and in information about weapons. Without the use of nuclear power one could go even further and scrap all production facilities transforming the production technologies into knowledge about them. Finally the threat of nuclear weapons would fit onto a couple of DVDs and simulations on supercomputers. But still the use value is looming and one could argue that the world is not disarmed only the timeframes changed to load the gun.

And if we look at the topology of nuclear fetishism the use value is still incorporated in the threat value. The analogy of money and nuclear weapons, and Anne is well aware of this, obscures and thereby highlights an important difference. The difference is that the use-value of a nuclear weapon, the implication of the bomb to explode, is always going to be a part of the exchange value, as the term threat value itself implies. I cannot threaten with toothbrushes or with numbers on a Cayman island bank account. Money instead is a medium, it has no necessity for a material counterpart. It can become purely virtual.

Despite the efforts of the theorists to make sense out of the existence of nuclear weapons and to overwrite the use-value with the threat value, the use value is still quite factual as can be seen e.g. in the event of nuclear terrorism. In trying to decouple force from power, and despite all sympathy to constructivist descriptions of the symbolic order, I am not willing to forfeit the materiality of the world as being completely dissolvable into the symbolic order. It is precisely the excess of the materiality which cannot filled completely in the symbolic order. The destructive force, especially the one threatening to destruct the symbolic order itself is not dissolvable in it completely. Thus force cannot be completely separated from power, and nuclear weapons are therefore always a source of power by their very nature.

So in a nutshell, I think that deconstructing nuclear weapons as reified objects symbolizing power is a very compelling narrative to reflect on the current events like NPT, Nuclear Postures, Arms Control, Disarmament and is truly revealing. Defetishizing their role in international relations as falsely incorporating power relations is revealing. But does this critique fail to take into account the invisible symbolic structure which regulates these same social power relations? Could it be that the fetish narrative hides the very nature of nuclear weapons as structuring the symbolic order itself? Is it then the social order reifying itself in a nuclear weapon or the materiality of the nuclear weapon structuring the social order? Of course Anne?s work is reflecting this reciprocal relationship, but I sense that some more thought could go in that direction.

Let us return finally to Zizek and I cannot finish without falling back into his jargon:

I would like to offer Anne a different explanation why nuclear weapons have a sublime quality or maybe even a sublime beauty as can be experienced in the aesthetics of nuclear explosion as expressed in movies like Koyaanisqatsi. NW are sublime objects because they participate at the symbolic death. It is the absolute death, the death of the network of meaning itself which is a lack in the symolic order and cannot be represented. This lack has to be concealed by feigning to have power over the artifact which allows to access and embodies the lack: nuclear weapons. But the truth is that absolute and failsafe control over nuclear weapons is not possible.

Symbolic death was always out of the grasp of human kind until nuclear weapons allowed the human species to wield ultimate destruction over itself. There is a homology between symbolic death and individual death. The finitude of one?s existence inscribes itself into the subject and makes it ultimately responsible for what it is doing thus making it an ethical subject. Likewise with NW the finitude of the human species described itself into the symbolic order of the human society. Thus we are now radically responsible for what we are doing as human species. And exactly this excess, the connection to the possible symbolic death, is a feature of the materiality of nuclear weapons. So the conclusion is that the bomb taught human kind maturity. What will happen if we get rid of it? Will the historic lesson prevail?

According to dialectics ala Zizek sometimes we can glimpse a bit of truth in the identification of the radical extremes of a contradiction, to see the hidden solidarity between the extremes or, to put it into hegelese, the speculative identity:

So let us give it a try here: The truth of the bomb is that it is sublime. Disarmament is secretly participating in the contradictions of the bomb and keeps the nuclear order alive, in short: disarmers love the bomb. And the bomb loves us. So, as strange as it is, stop worrying and love the bomb.

Now, here, in very thin air, and in this absurd moment, it is time to hand the microphone over to the ultimate fetishist: Dr. Strangelove. He is like myself a German and unlike myself displaces the contradiction of his former Nazi identity onto his left arm, which is alienated to him and lives a live of his own trying to kill himself the U.S. collaborator. The U.S., because of a crazy air force commander, so to say by accident, is currently conducting a first strike on the Soviet Union and the Soviet Ambassador, invited to the U.S. war room, is going to expose the existence of the russian doomsday machine and stating the identity of weaponization and disarmament with regard to the russian desire for washing machines. From Dr. Strangelove we are then going to hear the essence of deterrence theory [click here].

The question this will leave behind is: why was there historically no doomsday machine as the ultimate deterrent?”

The elements of a robust discourse

These thoughts on the elements of a robust discourse emerged from many attempts at explaining why theory matters to a policy oriented audience of nuclear experts:

The need for a new set of concepts through which to understand nuclear security has become increasingly apparent.  Neither nuclear terrorism, nor the proliferation of nuclear weapons to states outside the nuclear nonproliferation regime can be effectively countered by the logic of the existing deterrence paradigm. Previously robust, changes at the operational level have eroded the self-reinforcing nature of the existing paradigm. Deterrence theory has no answer for nuclear terrorism, and nonproliferation policy provides no guidance on how to relate to India, Pakistan, and North Korea, all of which have established nuclear weapons programs, and as such are not eligible for recognition under the Nonproliferation Treaty.

The deterrence paradigm took more than 15 years to mature. At the RAND Corporation, scholars found a unique kind of institutional support for an active theoretical debate, which yielded implementable strategic policies, and effective operational and technical systems. These systems in turn influenced the theoretical ideas, leading back to revised strategic policies. Thus, as a fully mature discourse, the deterrence paradigm included robust debate and activity at a 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.

Unlike deterrence, disarmament was never a fully mature discourse. Disarmament, defined as the abolition of nuclear weapons, has existed in the shadow of deterrence as the major competing paradigm since the 1950’s. While the discourse of deterrence operated at all three levels (operationally, politically, and theoretically) the discourse of disarmament was and is primarily an operational discourse. There was never a fully mature theory of disarmament, and therefore no effective strategic policy for how to achieve the desired operational outcome of zero nuclear weapons. Even today in the midst of a renaissance in disarmament politics, disarmament has not matured into a fully robust paradigm.

This brief comparison between deterrence and disarmament is meant neither as a defense of deterrence, or advocacy of disarmament, but rather as an illustration of the importance of fostering a fully robust nuclear paradigm to counter new nuclear threats. Debate needs to thrive at the level of theory, policy and operations in order to produce actionable steps to stable outcomes.