April 17, 2012
A new book by the late French scholar Thérèse Delpech provides a critical review and update of nuclear deterrence theory, focusing a critical eye on nuclear issues during the Cold War, examining the lessons of past nuclear crises, and outlining ways in which these lessons apply to major nuclear powers and nuclear pretenders today.
Prior to her death in early 2012, Delpech was one of the world's most serious and respected scholars of nuclear weapons, strategy and policy. In a posthumous volume published by the RAND Corporation, "Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy," she calls for a renewed intellectual effort to reexamine deterrence concepts in a world of multiple nuclear actors, where security analysis must extend to outer space and cyberspace.
"This is a powerful and persuasive work," said Franklin C. Miller, principal at The Scowcroft Group, former special assistant to the president for National Security and senior director for defense policy and arms control at the National Security Council. "Thérèse Delpech clearly and strongly focuses the reader on the continuing relevance of nuclear weapons in the 21st century, but in so doing cautions against the assumption that 20th century deterrent concepts necessarily apply today."
In the book's foreword, former RAND President James A. Thomson, who commissioned the book, writes: "Thérèse spells out the need for revitalization of thinking about nuclear weapons, a challenge that we take seriously at RAND; reviews the key concepts of past deterrence thinking and their development up to now; reviews today's key security challenges and their relation to nuclear weapons; demonstrates how some of the concepts of the past remain relevant to today; and urges the new generation of defense and security analysts to turn their attention to nuclear deterrence, much as she did 30 years ago."
A renewed intellectual effort on nuclear deterrence is important, according to Delpech's book, because "as long as nuclear weapons are around, even in small numbers, deterrence is the safest doctrine to deal with them." The book shows how traditional nuclear concepts still may be useful, but need to be adapted to a world with more-diverse and more-reckless actors.
Today, according to the book, small powers with emerging nuclear capabilities, such as Iran and North Korea, may have different approaches to rationality and different calculations of risk that must be taken into account before a crisis. A better understanding of these actors who may adopt "new rules of the game" is warranted.
"A nuclear Iran may be said time and again to be unacceptable," Delpech writes, "but an air of resignation has taken hold in Washington, even though a nuclear chain reaction is anticipated in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey."
Highlighting the importance of updating deterrence theory in an age of small powers with nuclear pretensions, Delpech's book also reviews the changing strategic relationships between the United States and the other great powers, exploring the implications of a nuclear power triangle between the United States, China and Russia.
"The United States may have to recognize," Delpech writes, "that while it remains convinced that American interests often coincide with universal interests, such is not necessarily the view of potential adversaries." China believes "it deserves to be number one; it only needs time to prove the point," while the threat from Russia lies in "its difficulty in reconciling with the loss of its empire, its resentment toward the West for that reason, the corruption of its political elites, and its current inability to face real threats as opposed to imaginary ones."
Analyzing the rising strategic realm of space and cyberspace, Delpech's writing suggests that inadequate attention has been given to these areas in deterrence theory. She outlines the many similar strategic characteristics between space and cyberspace, such as the potential use of proxies to limit the probability of attribution, as well as the lack of international laws and even norms governing space and cyberspace. "The United States is in a unique position because of its intensive and extensive use of spaced-based systems and computer networks," she writes, "It possesses known asymmetric advantages … [and is] the nation-state that has the most to lose in both space and cyberspace."
In conclusion, the book calls for a new approach that stresses prudent and proactive strategies, rather than complacency, with an appeal for reinstating strategic deterrence as a top priority.
"Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century: Lessons from the Cold War for a New Era of Strategic Piracy" is available at www.rand.org.
Funding for the book was provided through RAND's Investment in People and Ideas program, which combines philanthropic contributions from individuals, foundations and private-sector firms with earnings from RAND's endowment and operations to support research on issues that reach beyond the scope of traditional client sponsorship.
Thérèse Delpech was one of France's foremost policy analysts and historians, and a leading global authority on international nuclear security. She had served as director of strategic studies at the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission and served as French commissioner on the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission for the disarmament of Iraq. She was the author of numerous books, including "Iran and the Bomb: The Abdication of International Responsibility" (English edition, Columbia University Press, 2007).