Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Part 2: “Rethinking Deterrence”

PART II: Rethinking Deterrence

The following is the second of a two-part series.

So What Now? 

Applying the experiences of the Cold War to the United States’ present circumstances suggests that a renewed strategy of containment, backed by a nuclear deterrent, will face substantial obstacles.

One daunting challenge is the prospect of a new arms race.  While the Cold War began with U.S. nuclear superiority and ended with rough strategic parity, Russia retained its full range of tactical nuclear weapons, with an estimated 2,500 warheads. In addition, while the United States has suspended most of its nuclear weapons development, Russia continues to develop the means to make weapons more usable. Russian tactical nuclear weapons today may well include artillery and rocket-delivered tactical neutron weapons, which would, by design, have less blast and thermal effects but a greater initial neutron pulse, making them far more usable in warfighting than older weapons. At the tactical level, the only U.S. or NATO response to such weapons would be nuclear bombs delivered by F-16 or comparable aircraft, which would likely have difficulty coping with modernized Russian air defense. 

At the strategic level, while the United States has maintained its triad of nuclear capable bombers, submarine launched ballistic missiles, and silo-based ICBMs, both Russia and China have developed new delivery systems; for Russia, these include a new family of road-mobile ICBMs and a few upgraded bombers armed with supersonic missiles, while China is developing a number of road-mobile solid fuel ICBM’s concealed across central China, as well as a few submarine-launched systems. Furthermore, while the United States is working on updating its manned bomber fleet and a rudimentary missile defense system oriented against relatively unsophisticated North Korean threats, Russia and China have unveiled plans for several new strategic systems, including hypersonic weapons and nuclear-armed unmanned underwater systems.

The combination of Russian tactical systems and new Russian strategic systems threatens to decouple the United States from its alliance commitments. Russian tactical systems make nuclear use “thinkable” at the tactical level, as has been evident in several Russian exercises.  This is the so-called “escalation to deescalate.” Russian doctrine explicitly contemplates a first use of nuclear weapons. What makes this especially destabilizing, however, is that the new Russian strategic systems—especially their undersea drone with multimegaton weapons, which is currently under development—might lead Russia to believe that, in a crisis, or after first nuclear use in Europe, the United States might indeed withdraw, back away, or otherwise fail to follow through on its commitments to allies. 

 In addition, new technologies pose strategic threats to the United States in a time of extreme crisis. If not defended against, cyber technologies could cripple key elements of the American economy like transportation, electric power, finance, and petrochemicals. The electric grid itself is extremely vulnerable to an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP), which could be generated by a single high-altitude nuclear burst or strategically placed special conventional weapons. Even if key defense assets were protected, an EMP could fatally cripple the United States, leaving three hundred million people without power or a means of survival.  

Russia and China can use the more open and interconnected global environment to gain power and reduce the economic, commercial, and political advantages we enjoyed during the Cold War. With the exception of North Korea, the most urgent problem the United States must now confront is not the likelihood of a direct invasion that would threaten U.S. allies or the U.S. homeland, but rather the expansion of Russian or Chinese influence into both neutral and allied countries. Not unlike during the Cold War, the Russian expansion of air defenses and military basing in Syria, air defense and advisors in Venezuela, military assistance to Egypt and to Libyan warlord General Haftar, and even the sale of SA400 air defense systems to Turkey establish Russian relationships that undercut American interests, potentially threaten allies, and ultimately erode the power and influence of the United States. Even NATO member Turkey risks forfeiting its allies in the West. As their relationships with Russia grow, countries fall implicitly within the sphere protected by Russian military forces, where U.S. forces cannot intervene without fear of collision with Russian forces. The delicate dance of U.S. and Russian airpower in Syria since 2015 was managed without a major air-to-air confrontation, but Russian air defense emplacements have steadily expanded the no-go areas for U.S. and Israeli aircraft. 

China, meanwhile, has moved aggressively to claim the South China Sea by building airfields on deserted atolls, emplacing weaponry, and ignoring the subsequent international legal judgments. China’s expansion began with fishing vessels, followed by armed coast guard vessels, and eventually warships and construction. Meanwhile, the growth of Chinese blue water capabilities coincides with a “string of pearls” of bases stretching from southwest Cambodia to Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Djibouti.

Unlike the Cold War, both Russian and Chinese expansionism today are undergirded by investments. Russian funds in British institutions, and investments in British real estate and business, exert a strong pull on British domestic and foreign policy. Russian investments are also present on Wall Street, in South Florida, and in some states that elect especially influential representatives to the U.S. Congress, like Kentucky. Russia also aims at energy dominance in Western Europe, both from the north, with the Nordstream 2 pipeline, and from the south, with the proposed reconstruction of Syria’s oil and pipelines and a gas pipeline into Turkey.

For years, China has sponsored railroads and other infrastructure through loans to developing countries in Asia and Africa. No Western government can match these loans. Chinese financing has also recently been incorporated into China’s strategic One Belt One Road Program. Chinese funds have penetrated deeply into Eastern Europe and increasingly into Hungary and Italy, as well as in Latin America and the Caribbean. In combination with lower-priced Chinese technology providers like ZTE and Huawei, Chinese infrastructure investments and trade opportunities have already undercut U.S. influence in much of the world. The pull of Chinese markets has also been a substantial influence on U.S. foreign policy for more than two decades, and this has been reinforced by the influence of three decades of Chinese students and scholars at American universities. Overall, it has been difficult for the United States and Europe to recognize the “whole of society” approach the Chinese have taken to expanding their influence. It is also difficult for Americans to realize the consequences of facing a strategic competitor with four times the population and an economy already at purchasing power parity with the United States—not to mention one that is growing twice as fast.

China, Russia and other countries are moving to offset the enormous power of the U.S. dollar, and the U.S. Treasury. Efforts to circumvent sanctions and financial controls have multiplied, with China seeking to make the RNB a global convertible currency and other nations, including allies, looking for other baskets of currencies for use in international trade. Commercial crypto-currencies open channels for money-laundering and other transactions that pose a powerful threat to US global power.

In contrast to the Cold War period, today both Russia and China have vigorous, strategic leadership. Vladimir Putin is nearing twenty years in power, and has built a formidable supporting structure of oligarchs, intelligence, a reformed and reinvigorated military, and an array of friends and supporters outside Russia. His aims have been public: to reestablish the Soviet space, and to reduce American influence in the world. Xi Jinping is completing his tenth year at the top of an increasingly centralized Communist Party and state. He has articulated his fears of Western democratic values in Chinese Party Directive #9, calling it the greatest threat China faces.  He and his strategists have made clear China’s determination to extend its control through “the first island chain” as a near term objective, displacing the United States and eventually dominating the Western Pacific, including Guam and the “second island chain.” He has refused to rule out the use of force to gain control of Taiwan, but of course China’s aim is “to win without fighting.”

Both China and Russia use sophisticated information and cyber techniques to further their efforts. At the strategic level, Russian and Chinese social media intrusions impact democratic governance by undercutting faith in institutions and leaders, seeking to intensify divisions on political, economic, and social issues, and in general seeking to destroy the legitimacy of Western democratic systems. Enhanced internet communications, cellular technologies, and social media provide valuable attack vectors.

The United States is facing hard choices: will it willingly fall back toward its continental boundaries, loosening its alliances and surrendering its influence in global institutions, and accept China’s leadership and Russia’s increasing role in Europe, Asia the Mideast Africa and Latin America?  Will it challenge that influence, reshaping its priorities and strengthening its institutions and its alliances in an attempt to retain its power?  Or will it merely use U.S. military power to challenge reactively—through intimidation, military threat, or small-scale military action—the emerging constellation of forces against it?

Confronting the Future 

Today, the U.S. strategy is inchoate. U.S. national strategy correctly understands the challenges; individual services are reorienting away from almost two decades of counterinsurgency, and renewed attention is being directed toward the U.S. strategic deterrent. At the same time, however, the United States still relies excessively on military instruments of power, while lacking essential economic means, and failing to use existing diplomatic and legal tools. The current U.S. president is, himself, conflicted. On the one hand, he advocates for a stronger military, and is seemingly eager to deal with threats. At the same time, he has expressed to his followers an intention to pull back American forces, challenging American allies and questioning the value of the alliances, institutions, and arrangements—all of which have given the United States much of its global influence. 

As a result, the Cold War U.S. strategy of containment is now being applied against the United States itself. Against the Russian and Chinese strategies—characterized by what  some call salami tactics, with each move calculated to be below the level at which the U.S. military could respond with force—bold U.S. military deployments and exercises will likely be inadequate. Moreover, should the United States succeed in pushing back against Chinese and Russia presence by some combination of military threat and diplomacy, China and Russia may well use force to maintain their presence. Indeed, during the Cold War, both Russia and China did use force—China against the United States, Vietnam, and Russia, and the Soviet Union in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan—and used it most aggressively when their gains and achievements were threatened.

U.S. missteps could place the United States in the same situation vis-à-vis Russia and China as the Soviet Union found itself in 1962 in Cuba, as reckless overreliance on military means could run up against the hard threat of a nuclear response and result in a U.S. withdrawal.  

Facing these challenges, the United States must modernize its deterrent. This requires modernized delivery systems to assure that air launched missiles can penetrate Russian airspace, a development which likely requires hypersonic capabilities. U.S. ballistic nuclear submarines must be taken to the next level of stealth, with newer, quieter propulsion and more up-to-date materials. U.S. ballistic missiles remain the most vulnerable element of the Triad. This aging force requires a clear launch-on-warning policy. It must either receive protection by defensive systems, be replaced by road-mobile systems that could confound targeting, or be removed from the Triad. 

In order to maintain “coupling” to allies and forward deployed forces, nuclear warheads must be modernized. The so-called small warhead must be developed and deployed to answer to Russian tactical and theater capabilities without resorting to our strategic deterrent. The current “dual-capable aircraft,” with several dozen aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons, will lack credibility in a crisis against modern Russian air defense. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles used early in a conflict will likely be perceived as a strategic response. Thus, some kind of long-range, land-based, nuclear capable missile is required and must be forward deployed prior to a crisis.

In addition to existing ballistic missile defense systems oriented against North Korean and potential Iranian threats, protection of the United States from the threatened Russian autonomous undersea drone with megaton warheads must be given additional priority.

Finally, continuing emphasis must be placed on space-based intelligence and communications, as well as the cyber protection of data, communications, and planning and operational systems. This will require new investments in satellite redundancy and defensive measures, as well as continuing participation in daily cyber-jousting with hostile state actors. Selective investments must also be made to counter EMP threats.

It is worth noting, however, that, in the United States, far too much attention is directed at military means. Nuclear modernization does impact defense spending, and it is a particular lightning rod for propaganda and fake news from potential adversaries. However, it is the non-military efforts which will be more significant in sustaining American power and influence in the world, and in avoiding the slide into crisis in which military force is likely to be used. 

Of course, the United States still enjoys broad advantages in the appeal of its values, laws, and society. There is no push to immigrate to Russia or China comparable to the never-ending stream of would-be immigrants seeking to become Americans. This soft power is vitally important. According to a Chinese propaganda ministry official, “China wants to invest in [the U.S.] movie industry, so China can understand how to make the world love China as it loves America.” American values and standards of living, and the perception of America as the “land of opportunity,” still dominate global opinion. We must continue to strive to live up to these values, and to protect ourselves from the continuing threat of Russian and Chinese hybrid warfare which uses our own values to attack our democracy from within. 

The United States must also recognize that China, in particular, presents a formidable institutional challenge as an example of an alternative system of government: technocratic authoritarianism. Without a profound resurgence in American domestic investment in infrastructure, education, health, and the population’s social mobility, we cannot expect to maintain our soft power advantages.

America’s economic power must also be more adroitly deployed abroad in service of American national interests; this requires a new set of tools as well as new understandings with businesses. To engage successfully in contested spaces, and avoid the erosion of its relationships with friends and allies, the United States must empower its business community to work abroad on behalf of U.S. interests. Today, large American businesses work for their own profits rather than for the larger national interest, and the tens of thousands of American entrepreneurs who would gladly surge abroad in pursuit of infrastructure projects in power, water, and health lack access to the financial resources to succeed.

American entrepreneurs need access to small packages of development capital, as well as government insured debt instruments, unencumbered by commercial restrictions imposed by Congress. These grants and loans must be made precisely to those who would not qualify for commercial equity and credit, but who could instead be seen as long-term strategic instruments, generating a new type of person-to-person power in host countries.  With these tools, Americans can create businesses, develop infrastructure, and work effectively to counter Chinese state-owned enterprises, as well as Russian investments.  Some efforts will succeed and yield sizeable returns, in which case the United States deserves some of the proceeds; many more may struggle. These efforts are like a twenty-first century Peace Corps—building the infrastructure and relationships that bind nations to the United States. 

Beyond the start-ups and entrepreneurs, large, established American businesses should appreciate the protection of the United States. In the aftermath of the Cold War, many of these businesses have acted as though they are themselves sovereign, maneuvering through tax laws and seeking out locations with no greater aim than to provide the greatest returns to their shareholders. To contest the economic power of China and Russia, the United States will have to work to alter its business leaders’ responsibilities.  Leaders of these major corporations should be encouraged to gain the perspective of U.S. national needs through attendance at U.S. service schools and institutes, and through periodic personnel exchanges with government agencies. They should be expected to assist the United States when called upon.


Today, globalism is being replaced by a new nationalism, and the open, transparent international system to which we have aspired—and which seemed so real when the United States was the lone superpower—is fading. Russia and China have emerged as a new bloc shaped by resentment of, and resistance to, the United States and, as such, the United States must adapt militarily, strategically, and economically to this new reality. In this new era, deterrence and containment will require new means and increasingly sophisticated measures in order to succeed.

Wesley K. Clark is a businessman, educator, writer, and commentator. General Clark serves as chairman and CEO of Wesley K. Clark & Associates, a strategic consulting firm; chairman and founder of Enverra, Inc. a licensed investment bank; chairman of Energy Security Partners, LLC; as well as numerous corporate boards including BNK Petroleum and Leagold Mining. In the not-for-profit space, he is a Senior Fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations, Director of the Atlantic Council, Founding Chair of City Year Little Rock/North Little Rock, and President of Renew America Together. Clark retired as a four-star general after thirty-eight years in the United States Army, having served as Commander of U.S. Southern Command and then as Commander of U.S. European Command/Supreme Allied Commander, Europe in his last assignments. He graduated first in his class at West Point and completed degrees in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Oxford University as a Rhodes scholar. His awards include the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and honorary knighthoods from the British and Dutch governments.

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