Tag Archives: deterrence

Cyberwarfare and International Relations

Iranian President Ahmadinejad visits a uranium enrichment plant near Natanz where the Stuxnet virus infected computers and damaged centrifuges.

Are advances in “cyberwarfare” moving faster than states’ ability to manage them?  Two New York Times articles this week raise some interesting–and at times disturbing–questions about the implications of cyberwarfare for national security and international relations.  The United States and Israel have used cyberattacks over the past few years in an effort to cripple Iran’s nuclear program, but the long term consequences of relying on such tools are unclear.  In an article entitled “Mutually Assured Cyberdestruction?” New York Times columnist David Sanger raises the following questions:

“Does the United States want to legitimize the use of cyberweapons as a covert tool? Or is it something we want to hold in reserve for extreme cases? Will we reach the point — as we did with chemical weapons, and the rest of the world did with land mines — that we want treaties to ban their use? Or is that exactly the wrong analogy, in a world in which young hackers, maybe working on their own or maybe hired by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army or the Russian mob, can launch attacks themselves?”  As Sanger notes, treaties–a key source of international law–have been used to codify opposition to chemical weapons and land mines.  More broadly, international norms (generally unwritten expectations about appropriate behavior) have arisen that prohibit the use of weapons of mass destruction–chemical, biological, and nuclear.  Could treaties and norms also be used to manage the spread and utilization of cyberweapons?

Sanger compares the cyberwarfare “learning period” in which we find ourselves to the early years of the Cold War, when the world was grappling with the dangers and utility of nuclear weapons: “It took years after the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima for the nation to develop a common national understanding of when and how to use a weapon of such magnitude. Not until after the Cuban Missile Crisis, 50 years ago this October, did a consensus emerge that the weapon was too terrible ever to employ again, save as a deterrent and a weapon of last resort.”  This may seem like hyperbole, but Sanger quotes Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as warning that the “next Pearl Harbor we confront could very well be a cyberattack that cripples our power systems, our grid, our security systems, our financial systems.”  A second recent NY Times article, entitled “Expert Issues a Cyberwar Warning,” notes that military contractors, including Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, are already developing devastating computer viruses for different U.S. intelligence agencies.  Are we approaching the point where we need to begin thinking of deterrence in the cyber domain, as we have in the nuclear arena?

What do you think?  Given their destructive potential, should cyberweapons be categorized alongside nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as weapons of mass destruction?   Should their use be banned by international treaty?  Or are cyberweapons a way to accomplish important missions without the bloodshed and “collateral damage” of conventional weaponry?

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Missile Defense, the Security Dilemma, and Russia-NATO Tensions

Russia tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) last week after NATO confirmed its commitment to building a missile defense system.

At a NATO summit in Chicago last week, members of the 28-country alliance reiterated their commitment to building a missile defense system.  The system would place radars and other anti-missile hardware in Turkey, Romania, Poland, and Spain.  NATO claims the missile “shield” is designed to protect Europe from a ballistic missile launch by a country such as Iran, but Russia–the former Cold War adversary of NATO–alleges that the system is intended to neutralize its missiles and strongly opposes the deployment of such a system.

Going back at least to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972, missile defense has been regarded as a threat to the stability produced by Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  MAD is the strategy of nuclear deterrence that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union adhered to for much of the Cold War.  This doctrine states that if one side launches a first nuclear strike, the other side will retaliate with unacceptably devastating losses (i.e., if you destroy my country, I’ll destroy yours).  Hence, no rational leader would supposedly contemplate a nuclear strike, knowing this would be tantamount to national suicide.  But a missile defense that reliably prevented nuclear retaliation would upset this balance and tempt its owner to launch a first strike with impunity.  The ABM Treaty prohibited the construction of national missile defense, thereby keeping both the U.S. and Soviet Union vulnerable to retaliation and maintaining MAD. (President George W. Bush pulled out of the ABM Treaty after 9/11, citing the need to develop missile defenses against new threats).

President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was an ambitious attempt to develop a missile shield that would render nuclear missiles obsolete, but it faced serious technical and political obstacles and was never built.  But smaller defenses that can stop a limited number of missiles are more feasible and have been pursued by recent U.S. administrations–and now, NATO.

Even if a missile defense shield does not render its owner immune to retaliation, critics charge that it could increase tensions and provoke enemies to build up their arsenals in an effort to penetrate the shield and maintain their deterrent capability–thus sparking dangerous and unnecessary arms races.  This suggests a security dilemma may be operating here: steps that countries take to make themselves more secure may paradoxically make them less secure.

While it does not appear that the limited system envisioned by NATO could even come to close to threatening the Russian nuclear deterrent (given its thousands of nuclear weapons), if Russia perceives the defense system as a threat then  its responses could make NATO countries less secure.  Thus far Russia’s numerous threats, missile tests, and other saber-rattling efforts indicate NATO may indeed be facing a security dilemma in the context of missile defense.

What do you think?  Is NATO’s planned missile defense a good idea, given the threats faced by Europe and the likely responses of Russia?  Let us know your thoughts by scrolling down and taking the poll on missile defense posted on May 22.

Is Nuclear Disarmament a Good Idea?

The atomic explosion over Nagasaki, August 9, 1945.

The Obama administration is reportedly considering nuclear disarmament options that would include reducing the U.S. arsenal to as few as 300 strategic nuclear weapons, an 80% reduction from current levels.  A policy of deep cuts would be consistent with President Obama’s vision of a nuclear-free world.  It would also be consistent with the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which calls not only for non-nuclear states to refrain from obtaining nuclear weapons (a well known provision) but for existing nuclear states to eventually eliminate these weapons (a lesser known provision).  Article VI of the NPT states:

“Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

Some analysts believe that a 300-weapon nuclear force would be sufficient for deterring adversaries and would help to convince countries such as Iran and North Korea to forgo nuclear weapons development.  But critics, including Republican members of Congress, have denounced such ideas as “reckless lunacy” that would undermine American security and do nothing to dissuade rogue states from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The Associated Press story that broke the news of these plans notes the revolutionary nature of the changes:

“New U.S. cuts could open the prospect for a historic reshaping of the American nuclear arsenal, which for decades has stood on three legs: submarine-launched ballistic missiles, ground-based ballistic missiles and weapons launched from big bombers like the B-52 and the stealthy B-2. The traditional rationale for this “triad” of weaponry is that it is essential to surviving any nuclear exchange.”

Indeed, during the Cold War the impetus for building thousands of nuclear weapons and dispersing them across multiple types of delivery vehicles and geographical locales was that if all of a country’s nuclear weapons could be destroyed in a first strike, retaliation could not be assured and there would be nothing to deter the enemy from striking first.  (The doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, or MAD, was built from these premises).

What do you think?  Are dramatic cuts in America’s nuclear arsenal a good idea or a dangerous one?  Take the poll and let us know your views.

Israel, Gaza, and the Challenge of Deterrence

Israeli medics evacuate a person injured in the attacks of August 18.

Thursday’s deadly attacks on Israeli civilians, allegedly perpetrated by militants from Gaza, illustrate the limits of deterrence.  Deterrence involves the use of threats to prevent undesired actions.  Deterrence threats take the form “don’t do X, or else,” where X is the undesired action and the “or else” is the threatened punishment.

Israel has relied on the threat of costly retaliation to prevent militants in Gaza from attacking Israelis, but recent changes in the security environment have made these deterrence efforts much more difficult.  Specifically, the chaos in post-Mubarak Egypt has reduced Egypt’s ability or willingness to police the Sinai Peninsula, opening up a vast new territory from which Gazans (who can easily escape Gaza through tunnels into Egypt) can attack Israel.

Successful deterrence requires the ability to pinpoint the actor who took the undesired action so that actor may be targeted for retaliation.  However, as noted in a Christian Science Monitor article on Friday, “Unlike attacks launched from Gaza – a small, densely populated territory run by Hamas – attacks launched from the Sinai are potentially harder to trace to a specific group, and thus harder to assign ultimate responsibility for.”

This problem of identification and accountability is the reason why some scholars and policymakers, particularly since 9/11, have concluded that we cannot rely on deterrence to prevent states from giving weapons of mass destruction to non-state, terrorist organizations.  That is, if a state’s leaders believe the weapons it gives to terrorists can’t be traced back to the source, they will not be deterred from doing so.  This, of course, is a key argument in support of preventive war, as articulated by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks.  Preventive war involves striking an enemy (or potential adversary) before the threat has fully materialized.

What other factors besides the problem of identification/accountability may undermine efforts to deter unwanted behavior in world politics?  Is there any way to overcome these problems?  When deterrence cannot be achieved, is preventive war the answer?

A Realistic Policy in Iranian Nukes?

Stephen Walt offers an interesting critique of John Bolton’s “unrealistic realism” this week. Bolton was on the Daily Show  last week,  offering his usual policy advice on Iran, namely, that the United States should do whatever is necessary to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

But what is interesting about Walt’s analysis is his discussion of how unrealistic such a policy is. According to Walt, any U.S. efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will likely either involve the use of coercive diplomacy, which runs the risk of helping Iran to overcome internal political differences which might produce a more open government or runs the risk of involving the United States in another protracted ground war with no clear end in sight. Neither case seems particularly promising.

Yet Bolton’s dream of a world in which the United States is the sole nuclear power, able to cajole others into ceding to its demands, is—as Walt discusses—also highly unrealistic. Such a world would only create greater impetus for other countries to acquire nuclear weapons for themselves. And contemplating such a world only creates greater incentives for countries to acquire the deterrent capabilities (glossary) nuclear weapons afford. So, in essence, the greater the force the United States brings to bear on a country to end its nuclear program, the greater the pressure for that country to actually develop and deploy its own nuclear weapons.

It is worthwhile to recall that South Africa is the only country to ever give up its nuclear weapons after developing a nuclear weapons capability. And it’s even more important to remember that it did so not because it was under immense external pressure (or indeed threat) to abandon its nuclear weapons program.  South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons because of (1) domestic political pressure to do so, and (2) because its external security situation no longer warranted the need for such weapons. Bolton’s proposed stance ensures that neither of those two criteria would be met in the case of Iran. Hardly a hopeful situation.