ARLINGTON, Va. — President Donald Trump’s abandonment of America’s Kurdish allies is a victory for Russia and raises questions about his fitness as well as his motivations, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark said Monday.
For those living in Moscow’s shadow, Trump’s decision raises the specter of “appeasement” and “1938,” he said, a reference to the year that the United Kingdom, France and Italy allowed Nazi Germany to seize the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.
The unfolding disaster in Syria was foreseeable and preventable, Clark said.
“It’s a real tragedy for U.S. foreign policy and for the Kurds,” he said.
“What we did was open the door to a Turkish invasion. We betrayed our Kurdish allies, who lost 10,000 people fighting for us against ISIS. We’ve let ISIS prisoners escape, and their command structure is still intact. So now they’ll be stood up again and coming after the United States. By pulling back, we allowed Syria’s [President] Bashar Assad to reoccupy in the region. And he’s been criticized by us for a decade for human-rights abuses, for oppressive tactics, for wanton killing of civilians. We’ve opened the door to Iran for greater passage, through Syria, to threaten Israel, and we’ve given Russia the strong role of leadership in the region,” he said. “None of that is in the interest of the United States. And here’s the point: Our 50 U.S. troops up there were not in danger. We didn’t have to do this. The question is why we did it.”
The rapid removal of U.S. troops from northern Syria — with little advance notice — was “inexplicable,” Clark said.
“The hardest military operation to run is a withdrawal under pressure. So if you’re not careful, a withdrawal turns into a retreat and a retreat turns into a rout,” he said.
“In this case, the United States is not only withdrawing forces, but it’s, as a national policy, trying to realign itself in the region to compensate for two decades of overextension,” he said. “President Trump is absolutely right. It was a terrible strategic mistake to invade Iraq. However, how you get out is critical.”
The consequences of Trump’s decision should come as no surprise, Clark said.
“Every military and national security expert would have told you what would happen if we pulled those troops out. It’s not partisan. We all know the region. We all understand the complexities,” he said.
With allies doing most of the fighting, the number of U.S. casualties in the area had been low, Clark noted.
“It would be one thing if we were over there at enormous expense losing 100 soldiers a month like we did at the height of the conflict in Baghdad in 2007. But that’s not what’s happening. Actually, there were very few losses from this. We had stabilized the region. So that’s why it’s inexplicable why this decision was made,” he said.
Asked whether Trump’s conduct raises questions about his fitness to be commander in chief, Clark said: “[It] raises many, many questions. We may never understand why he did it. But if you ask the people in the region, they have their own theories. They see it as a betrayal. They believe that maybe he was blackmailed by [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan. … Maybe his hotel interests in Turkey conflicted with this. Maybe [Russian President Vladimir] Putin whispered in his ear and said, ‘It’s time to leave.’ Nobody knows why he did it, and we may never find out. He says he trusted his gut. It didn’t work in this case,” Clark said.
Trump’s decision on Syria will have repercussions around the world, he predicted.
“There’s damage in the region, certainly. People like the Kuwaitis, the Qataris, even the Saudis, where he’s reinforced with troops, are asking questions. But it’s actually broader than that. Something like this has global impact.”
In South Korea, confidence could be undermined, he said. In Ukraine, “where people are fighting for the very Western principles that we say we stand for,” concerns were already elevated, he added.
“The basic principle of American diplomacy since the end of the Second World War is, when countries that are weak are facing adversaries that are armed with nuclear weapons, that’s where we come in to help maintain freedom. That’s what NATO was all about. And Ukraine’s not a member of NATO. But these other Eastern European countries that border Ukraine, they are members of NATO. Their leaders told me in New York that this is like 1938 in Europe. They can see the appeasement and they can see what’s coming, so this has global implications,” he added.
Clark, 74, was born in Chicago but raised in Little Rock. Three years after his career with the U.S. Army ended in 2000, he became a Democratic candidate for president, but he withdrew from the race in 2004.
Last week, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican and former presidential candidate, was among those who had pleaded with Trump to reverse course, calling it “a HUGE mistake to abandon Kurds.”
“They’ve never asked us to do THEIR fighting-just give them tools to defend themselves. They have been faithful allies. We CANNOT abandon them,” Huckabee tweeted on Oct. 7.
A Section on 10/15/2019
Print Headline: Ex-commander Wesley Clark decries Trump’s Syria decision
Is there a place for civility and rational debate during the heated political discourse of our times?
Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, believes the answer is a resounding “yes.” He shared his thoughts on the topic and a broad range of other issues in a public forum held at Lyon College on Thursday, Sept. 26.
Clark, a retired four-star U.S. Army general and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, was on campus as part of his “Renew America Together” initiative, focusing on civility and the major concerns Americans face now.
“We hear that this is the most divided American electorate and the nastiest politics in anybody’s memory, some people say it’s worse than that period before the American Civil War,” Clark said.
Clark’s thesis, however, is just the opposite. He argues that meeting people from across the country, it appears we “mostly agree on most everything.”
There may be a difference in priorities or intensity of feeling, he said, but the divisions in the American populace are fewer than one might think. The media and members of both political parties make their existence possible by stirring up differences rather than focusing on common values and interests, according to Clark.
“The question is, what are we really interested in?” Clark asked. “Is it the issues of the moment, gun control, immigration, abortion?”
“Or is it the longer-term issues like climate change, how to manage the ascent of China, how to get financial security, how to deal with a world that needs U.S. leadership . . . These are the questions we have to resolve.”
Clark foreshadowed that unless American democracy solved these challenges, “they’ll be addressed and solved some other way.”
Beth Anne Rankin, owner and president of Beth Anne Productions Inc. and a former Miss Arkansas, joined Clark in the discussion.
Rankin, who ran as a Republican for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010 and 2012, joked she was grateful neither she nor Clark were making their appearances as candidates for office.
The two found common areas of agreement throughout the course of the discussion. Both agreed, for example, that the viciousness of the 24-hour news cycle, a beast that has to be fed constantly, is such that it contributes to “the perception we are more divided than we really are,” said Rankin.
The two likewise found common ground in their concern about the soaring national debt which, at more than $22 trillion, is at the highest levels ever. Clark said, however, that as crucial as it is to address the national debt, he would not put it above such issues as student access to quality preschools or a college education, or maintaining a source of income for senior citizens.
Both also concurred that the role of money in politics has left a negative impact, especially dark money, with anonymous donors hitting nearly $150 million in the 2018 election cycle alone. Each also found agreement in the need to create a nation of “lifelong learners” who can find retraining at local universities and colleges, so that Americans better adapt to the rapid pace of technological change.
“I do agree with General Clark, these jobs are changing, and our workers of the future are going to have to be resilient,” Rankin said. “We need to create a mindset of resiliency. Because, otherwise, life is going to be disappointing.”
Aside from the issues, Clark conceded that no contemporary politician has been a better communicator, especially in the age of social media and on Twitter, than Donald Trump.
“Now you may not like what he says, or you may love it, but it’s quick, it’s pertinent, it’s on target,” he said. “He’s got an opinion on everything . . . and it doesn’t waste a lot of time.”
The event concluded with questions and answers from the audience who filled the auditorium for the evening’s discussion. Audience members ranged from veterans of foreign wars to current Lyon students and faculty.
Clark’s non-profit Renew America Together was created to promote and achieve greater common ground in America by reducing partisan division and gridlock. Its stated mission is “to revitalize public and political discourse by teaching and promoting civics, citizenship and civility.”
The Lyon College Division of Advancement hosted the event, which was moderated by The William Jefferson Clinton Professor of International Politics at Lyon College, Dr. Bradley Gitz.
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.
Today, the United States finds itself facing two near-peer competitors in Russia and China. Both are asserting their power and exhibiting expansionist tendencies. Both understand the logic of the Cold War period, the U.S. strategy of containment, and the U.S. concept of deterrence, but neither is likely to precisely replay the moves that led to the United States’ emergence as the lone global superpower. Indeed, both are determined to use the lessons of the Cold War, and our own misinterpretation of them, to their advantage.
Expansionism ultimately rests on military power as its foundation. Russia has rebuilt its military, fitting it into a concept of hybrid warfare that includes cyber attacks, intimidation, interference in elections, spreading false information and malicious rumors, corrupting politicians, and fledgling institutions of government to regain its control of the “near abroad.” At the same time, it has created an expeditionary military capability, prominently on display in Syria. Russia has also deployed, and is still developing, an upgraded nuclear force consisting of refurbished long-range strike assets, as well as a new class of low-yield and more useful tactical nuclear weapons. This new class of battlefield nuclear weapons has enabled a new Russian military doctrine called “escalating to deescalate”—that is, to use these nuclear weapons to terminate a conflict by challenging NATO or the United States to either give in or escalate to strategic nuclear destruction in response to battlefield setbacks. This doctrine suggests that nuclear weapons are more likely to be used in a future conflict.
China is also greatly enhancing its military capabilities, investing in new long-range strategic nuclear forces, agile anti-ship nuclear capable long-range ballistic missiles, stealth aircraft, modern air defense, counter-satellite capabilities, cyber weapons, and a blue water navy to be built around a force of aircraft carriers. Under Xi Jinping’s China Dream, China has built a serious of armed atolls to extend its reach into the South China Sea, and is asserting its influence through economic suasion and intimidation among its neighbors in Asia. Chinese writings have been clear in aiming to disrupt American alliances in the Pacific and push American forces back east of the “first and second island chains,” essentially isolating America’s allies in the Western Pacific.
The United States is well aware of these challenges, and has issued both a 2017 National Security Strategy and a 2017 National Defense Strategy in response. The latter was followed by a bipartisan commission to examine the National Defense Strategy. All of these documents call for a reliance on nuclear weapons and invoke the concept of nuclear deterrence in pursuit of what is essentially an effort to rebuild “containment” in a wholly different era.
It is from this perspective that a renewed examination of the Cold War’s lessons of deterrence—partially learned, half forgotten, and too often misunderstood—is required. And what we will find is that nuclear deterrence, as an academic concept, is inadequate to guide U.S. strategy.
What Was Nuclear Deterrence?
The theory of nuclear deterrence began with the academic writings of famed strategist Bernard Brodie, along with others, including Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling, who further refined the concept. Deterrence rested on the belief that nuclear war would be so destructive that no adversary could hope to win. So long as U.S. nuclear forces were able to withstand an adversary’s surprise first strike and respond with overwhelming destructive power, and the potential adversary believed that the U.S. had the will to use these forces, then logically there should be no major war. Deterrence was an exercise in rationality. It seemed a happy paradox of the twentieth century that nuclear weapons were essential in executing a strategy of “containment” without ever actually being used for the purposes of warfare.
For the military, nuclear weapons at first seemed an extension of the strategic bombing of World War II, especially as applied against cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, and Tokyo, as the aim was essentially to destroy industrial infrastructure and capability, and to break down the will of the population to resist. Under President Eisenhower, “massive retaliation” was a formal policy threatening an aggressor state with overwhelming destruction. A Strategic Air Command was created, built around a force of B-47, B-52 and B-58 bombers, along with air-to-air refueling assets. The Navy developed its own nuclear strike capabilities on aircraft carriers; the Army developed the 280mm “atomic” cannon to fire nuclear artillery shells, and reorganized its forces into “Pentomic” divisions.
As the Soviet Union built its own nuclear capabilities, there was continual exchange between academics, the policymakers, and practitioners. Deterrence theory was refined. City-busting raised strong moral issues, and the United States began to experiment with targeting policy; could it be “counterforce,” rather than “counter-value?” This targeting approach, of course, required not only high degrees of accuracy, but also exquisite knowledge of Soviet forces and locations. There was also “extended deterrence” to protect allies, as well as “crisis deterrence” or “crisis stability” to denote whether, as tensions escalated, the U.S. deterrent was still sufficiently survivable in the event of a first strike, and to avoid the destabilizing “launch on warning” policy. To assure this kind of a stable and survivable deterrent, the United States adopted a “nuclear triad” of land-based air missiles, strategic bombers, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Soviets also used a triad, but placed great reliance on road-mobile missiles to assure survivability. The United States, on the other hand, considered but ultimately rejected rail and road mobile land-based ICBMs. Both sides nominally gave up their efforts to create anti-missile forces under the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, so they were, at least in practice, reliant on what became known as “mutual assured destruction.” Some theorists in the United States went further, to push for the concept of “minimum deterrence.”
In the end, the United States never went to war with the Soviet Union, both the Soviets and the Chinese were largely contained, and both sides had nuclear weapons. Yet, the impact of nuclear deterrence was far more complex than these three measures of success.
Cold War Lessons Learned
Containment was a messy and expensive strategy, and U.S. success in the Cold War came as much by accident as by design. The Cold War was a time of continuing competition, crises, and conflict. Nuclear deterrence was but one factor that contributed to the eventual outcome.
The ideological competition began immediately after the end of World War II, with the Soviet Union championing its victory as a mark of the success of Marxism-Leninism and subsequently promoting pro-Soviet coups and government takeovers in Eastern Europe, as well as efforts to capture new nationalist movements in the developing world. The United States fought back with its zeal for decolonization, the Marshall Plan, and a variety of other measures like the Fulbright scholarship program to contrast the success of democratic capitalism with Marxism-Leninism. U.S. allies had their own perspectives, with West Germany pushing for deeper engagement with the East (Ostpolitik), and France advocating a more independent defense policy (tous azimuts) while still remaining part of NATO’s political structure. U.S. nuclear weapons presented a key target for Soviet propaganda and disinformation in this long campaign, creating frictions within NATO, as well as political vulnerabilities in most NATO member countries. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, strategic arms treaties, and a theater nuclear treaty, in addition to the eventual Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, were all part of the American effort to keep the moral high ground in the continuing ideological competition between East and West.
In 1949, despite U.S. military assistance, China fell to the Mao Tse Tung’s Communist Party in a sweeping final military campaign. By 1960, the French government had lost its colonial war against Communist nationalists in both Indochina and Algeria. The United Kingdom succeeded in putting down a Communist-led insurgency in Malaya, while the United States fought to a draw against Communist North Korea and China, and suffered a tragic defeat in South Vietnam against the Soviet and Chinese-supported North. Wars by proxy were waged in a dozen countries across Asia and Africa, including bitter fighting by the Soviets against the U.S.-supported Afghan Mujahideen. Nuclear weapons were not actually employed in any of these conflicts, but they did help limit direct U.S.-Soviet conflict, which both sides understood might escalate into a nuclear war.
There were several crises between the Soviet Union and the United States which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, but which stopped short of conflict; these included disputes over access to Berlin in 1961, Soviet efforts to deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba in 1962, and Soviet fears of a U.S. first strike, which arose from a new president’s strong rhetoric and a NATO nuclear exercise. There were other crises between the Soviet Union and the West, such as in Suez and Hungary in 1956, and with the Soviet military occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. In each, nuclear weapons played a catalyzing role in escalating fears and bounding possible outcomes. From these crises emerged a greater understanding of each actor’s vital interests, and demonstrated how far from the homeland a nation’s nuclear deterrence could be extended.
The Cold War was also marked by an arms race, which undercut U.S. nuclear superiority at first and, by the late 1960s, threatened stability. Nuclear weapons became more powerful, growing from kilotons to megatons-equivalent of TNT. Intercontinental ballistic missiles bypassed air defenses, reinforcing the idea that no one could win a nuclear war. When ballistic missile defenses threatened the “assured destruction” upon which deterrence depended, a treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union capped this line of competition. Later, as the Soviet Union’s programs for actually winning a nuclear war became more widely understood, U.S. President Ronald Reagan questioned reliance on mutual destruction, and therefore sought actual defenses against nuclear threats through his “Star Wars” program. This decades-long nuclear arms race was both expensive and politically challenging for the United States; in response to worldwide criticism, the United States joined with the Soviet Union in the 1962 Test Ban Treaty, and, in 1983, unilaterally denounced Soviet efforts to build third-generation nuclear weapons such as the so-called neutron bomb, which would have made smaller nuclear weapons much more usable on a battlefield.
The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a function of both relative economic failure and moral resolve. Looking back, the Soviet Union’s collapse seems inevitable, but a hodge-podge of Soviet strategies, policies, and problems were crucial contributors. Among these factors were an aging, often ill Soviet leadership, haunted by memories of World War II (Kosygin, Brezhnev, Andropov); the extraordinary level of Soviet defense expenditures (up to 25% of GDP); over twenty years of bitter competition with Mao Tse Tung’s Communist China; the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev’s clumsy efforts to open the party and promote institutional reform (perestroika). The U.S. policy of containment, and the nuclear deterrent which backed it, were a necessary but insufficient factor in explaining the ultimate outcome.
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, and 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.