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culture  deterrence  iraq nuclear  iraq  mistake  nature  nuclear weapons  nuclear  robust deterrence  states  truths  weapons  years 
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Preview: RealClearPolitics - Articles - Adam Garfinkle

RealClearPolitics - Articles - Adam Garfinkle

Last Build Date: Wed, 30 Aug 2006 00:01:45 -0600

Copyright: Copyright 2007

Culture and Deterrence

Wed, 30 Aug 2006 00:01:45 -0600

Those who believe in the robustness of deterrence see a universal logic inherent in WMD that flows ineluctably from the nature of the weapons themselves. It is not as though cultural differences do not exist, or that different societies do not have different styles of reasoning--granted, they do, such advocates will admit. But all these differences are trumped by the manifest consequences of what an exchange of nuclear weapons would mean. Different reasoning styles is not the same as different rationalities or irrationality, and any rationale person will avoid personal and national suicide. That is why Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer-prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, could write in the middle of the Kuwait crisis in 1990 that it would not matter if Iraq gained nuclear weapons capabilities because "45 years of postwar history has demonstrated that acquiring such weapons in a nuclear-armed world is inescapably self-deterring." It is how Stanley Hoffmann, invoking the authority of Zbigniew Brzezinski, could write that "deterrence, which has worked against far greater powers, remains an effective substitute for preventative war. Israel could deter Iraq, and the US as well as other nuclear states could provide a nuclear guarantee to countries threatened by Iraq's nuclear capacity." These views are supposedly buttressed by inarguable historical facts. From the time in 1947 that more than one country possessed nuclear weapons, no such weapon has ever been fired in anger, notwithstanding a series of extremely tense political crises and very deep-seated ideological conflict. Not only did the United States and the Soviet Union never use them, neither has China, France, Britain or other lesser and newer nuclear powers such as Israel, India, and Pakistan. Everyone has been either deterred or self-deterred, to use Rhodes' language, and so, the argument goes, would Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and other states foolish enough to waste their resources on nuclear weapons programs. Facts are facts; case is closed; who could argue with that? Me. I argued against this view more than 15 years ago, and nothing that has happened since has changed my mind: nuclear weapons are not by their very nature universally self-deterring. Deterrence is a collective psychological act, and the human mind is shaped not only by its capacity for rationality but also by emotion, moral logic and, yes, culture. Indeed, the impact of culture on the strategic realm after 9/11 is, or should be, more obvious than ever, and that impact is highly variable. I will reprise my narrower argument in a moment, but it is worth reflecting first on the logical fallacies of the robust-deterrence school of thought at their core. I say fallacies--plural--because the mistake being made here is a compound one. It is a mistake, first of all, to simply superimpose the U.S.-Soviet experience onto other geopolitical domains, but robust-deterrence advocates have also misinterpreted the U.S.-Soviet deterrence experience itself. Both mistakes involve the underestimation of the significance of culture on strategic assessment. Mistake Number 1 A funny thing happened on the way to the Cold War. We American children of the Enlightenment are persuaded of the universal validity of certain political propositions (luckily enough, those propositions we ourselves happen to hold dear). This persuasion of ours collided in the late 1940s and 1950s with a rising social science establishment hell-bent on "hardening" its image, if not its actual work habits, as being scientific. The result is that Americans came to believe--perhaps more accurately, to assume as if by second nature--in a theory of politico-military behavior that was both universal in application and scientific in nature. Like a child who thinks that the names for objects inhere in the objects themselves, we believed we were discovering objective truths about life in the early years of the nuclear age rather than imagining (and thus inventing) such truths in culturally idiosyncratic ways. Because these truths were supposedly [...]