The Great Debate: Theories of Nuclear Strategy
Some half-dozen years ago in his book On War Raymond Aron wrote: “The atom bomb, developed at a moment when two states were overwhelmingly more powerful than all others, has reinforced the bipolar structure of the diplomatic field. On the other hand, once the bomb is at the disposal of every state, it will contribute to the dissolution of the structure.” As the coda of the cold war alliances this is eminently concise and irrefutable.
With this prognosis fulfilled by the decay of NATO and the fission of the Sino-Soviet bloc, Aron has recently been concerned with the problems of alliance and diplomacy in the age of nuclear diffusion. In his massive Guerre et Paix entre les Nations, to be published in America this spring, he looks at future history through the eyes of a pessimistic philosopher. In The Great Debate he focuses on the narrower, but perhaps more pressing, problem of nuclear strategy: where it came from and what to do about it. Weaving the various, and continually changing, American defense doctrines into a coherent pattern, he both explains and defends them to a skeptical French audience. At the same time he touches upon some of the political disputes within the Atlantic alliance which have been fed by the debate over nuclear strategy. This book, with its descriptive subtitle. Theories of Nuclear Strategy, grew out of a series of lectures given by Aron two years ago in his role of professor at the Institut d’études politiques in Paris. It is a tribute to his acumen, and a comment on the intractability of alliance diplomacy, that the dilemmas he poses are pretty much the same today as when he unveiled them to his students. Revised by Aron last spring, and translated with style, clarity, and an admirable verve by Ernst Pawel, this is a valuable study which elucidates the still-unresolved debate over nuclear strategy that has roused NATO into a simulation of activity.
Starting from the generally accepted premise that atomic weapons have thrown most of the old theories of warfare—defeat on the battlefield, disarming the enemy, occupation of his homeland—out the window, Aron shows how both offense and defense have given way to something quite different: the art of deterrence. Nations don’t build hydrogen bombs to use them, but to prevent enemies from using theirs. Now that the victor can expect to suffer the same fate as the vanquished, the recourse to atomic warfare becomes in itself the acceptance of defeat. Thus all nations possessing the Bomb dare not use it as an instrument of warfare, yet they must threaten to use it in certain circumstances if the deterrent is to work. “It is,” Aron comments of this paradox, “as if the non-use of these weapons for military purposes were inseparable from their continuous use for diplomatic ends.”
Deterrence being a juggling act by definition, the balance is constantly changing as new nations and weapons are thrown into the arena. Kennedy came to power with the inheritance of a doctrine of “massive retaliation”—itself based on US invulnerability—that had been obsolete for years. In a serious crisis it offered only the choice between loud-mouthed paralysis (viz. Dulles on Hungary) or nuclear harakari. Deterrence had become the enemy of diplomacy, making the State Department the all-too-willing prisoner of the Pentagon’s outmoded strategy. At this point McNamara moved in with the whiz kids and computers and hammered out a new defense policy designed to reduce the real danger facing both America and Russia: that they would be sucked into an atomic war against their will either through misunderstanding, “escalation,” or the mischief of their own allies.
The result was the theory of “graduated response.” It called for a US nuclear monopoly within the West to prevent the allies from pressing the button and sending everybody up in fall-out; beefed-up land forces in Europe to keep any skirmish limited to conventional weapons; and the “hot line” to provide constant communication between the Kremlin and the White House. To reassure those Europeans who thought they glimpsed a blueprint for a gradual American deatomization of the continent, the Pentagon brought out the old and creaking “counterforce” strategy and promised that it could ensure Europe’s defense by wiping out Soviet missiles before they were fired. While no one was expected to believe this strategic improbability, it became a handy bludgeon for attacking the force de frappe and other pretensions to nuclear self-reliance.
Predictably enough, the allies were more disturbed than pleased by the new strategy. Each of them saw in it the confirmation of his own anxieties. The French, having just given birth to their little Bomb saw the McNamara doctrine as deliberately designed to discredit the atomic force they were building at such expense. The Germans, in their congenital state of alarm, envisaged a Götterdämmerung nuclear “pause” taking place on their territory so that Russia and America might be spared the horrors of escalation. The British Tories, desperately trying to preserve the last fragments of their not very “independent deterrent.” feared that the US strategy meant the end of their de-defense policy—and their term in office as well. And all of the allies were perplexed by the Pentagon’s soothing assurance that the Russians could be held at bay if they would only boost NATO’s land army by five more divisions, up to a total of thirty. Whatever happened, they asked, to those Russian “hordes” that Washington used to brandish at every NATO meeting, those 175 divisions panting to march to the Bay of Biscay? Gone without a trace. Or perhaps they never existed. Somehow it all seemed very suspicious. But the case of the disappearing Cossacks was the key to the whole doctrine of “graduated response,” for only if the Europeans boosted their armies would it be possible to halt the Russians without using atomic weapons—and thereby stop the process of escalation before it began. And only if some kind of conventional balance seemed possible, would the Europeans make the effort.
For all its dubious statistics and discomforting “options,” the McNamara doctrine was the first serious attempt to combine deterrence with defense, and hopefully to prevent war, by prescribing the conditions under which nuclear weapons would be used if the deterrent broke down. From a narrowly American point of view it seemed an eminently sensible and long overdue response to the missile age by which the US itself had become vulnerable to atomic devastation. But it could hardly be expected that the allies would be enthusiastic once the “options” began to sink in. However admirable from the point of view of the United States, “to keep hostilities from escalating,” as Aron points out, “means turning Europe into both the theater and victim of operations.” Having only recently cleared away the rubble of the last conventional war, Europeans had no desire to put more men in uniform to fight another. And they suspected that if they did, US soldiers would then be free to leave the continent, taking their atomic artillery with them. Rather than a policy of no-escalation, which seemed more to America’s advantage than to theirs, they clung to the doctrine of “massive retaliation,” which had the double advantage of costing them little and of promising to pull America into any atomic war from the start. Even a staunch Atlanticist like Aron finds continental reservations “easily justifiable by the geographical situation of the European half of the Atlantic bloc and by the dependence on the United States to which the non-dissemination of nuclear arms has reduced the European continent.”
Is the new strategy wrong? Not from an American point of view, at least, for it reduces the danger of escalation, which is the major problem facing the United States. Unfortunately, that is not Europe’s problem, or at least not the problem as Europeans see it. They are more worried about a conventional assault by the Russian armies than a full-scale nuclear war, which they consider both unlikely and unthinkable. What the new strategy has done is to emphasize that America and its allies face different kinds of risks—risks rooted in the stubborn realities of geography. What, then, are the Europeans to do? For the time being, they can only accept it, since, as Aron observes, their “security will depend on the American deterrent for at least another fifteen years.” Eventually they could build a deterrent of their own, but even if they do, he argues, they would probably have to adopt some version of “graduated response,” though not necessarily the one Washington has decreed for them. To restore peace to NATO, Aron would have the US and its allies split the difference over the strategic dispute: the Europeans would “accept the American conceptual scheme and relinquish the illusory doctrine of massive retaliation,” while the Americans should “not concentrate their attention on the strategy of use and on ways to avert escalation.”
But is this not to prescribe a Bandaid for an ulcer? The real problem, as Aron notes, though he does not pursue it, is that “even if the United States were to behave with the greatest of wisdom and…inspire total confidence, they [the Europeans] would still resent the place accorded to them in the Atlantic alliance.” Here is the nub of the dispute, one which is likely to drive America and Europe further from the false consensus within NATO because it rests upon such elemental questions as national identity and the will to independence. The Europeans resent their subsidiary place within the Atlantic alliance, yet they cannot expect a better one so long as they are totally dependent on America for their defense. And they cannot hope to be militarily independent unless they create a European consciousness that will make the sacrifices of sovereignty worth the pain. There is a price to be paid for European unity, and Aron is under no illusions as to what it will probably be: “The creation of a superior political unity,” he wrote in A New Europe? (a special issue of Daedalus now in book form) “embracing old nations weighed down in history like Great Britain, Germany or France, demands a real political will—unless it is to be a sort of abdication. But a political will is inseparable from a will to be independent, even if it is not equivalent to a will to power. Many of the Brussels Eurocrats are conscious of this fact and see the constitution of a European state, capable of taking a stand and defending itself, as the inevitable final outcome of their efforts.”
Here the two strands of defense and diplomacy come together, and an independent deterrent becomes, if not the precondition of European political unity, at least its logical result. Aron, despite his blistering assault upon the force de frappe as a purely national force in the service of French diplomacy, admits that on the question of nuclear self-reliance, “General de Gaulle seems to me absolutely right; to exist as a political unit, Europe would have to acquire the capacity to defend itself.” Thus while De Gaulle may have put a roadblock in the kind of federalism favored in Brussels, his force de frappe, combined with his policy of resistance to the US, may succeed in stimulating the creation of a European political will, which Aron sees as inseparable from the will to independence. Ironically, De Gaulle’s embryo Bomb, which has already forced the US to enter into a dialogue with Europe over nuclear strategy, even to the point of pursuing the chimeras of the MLF, already “constitutes an incipient protection against the unpredictability of future diplomacy” and “may someday form the nucleus of a European deterrent.”
Torn, like many thoughtful Europeans, between Atlantic and continental loyalties, Aron wants to see the creation of an independent and united Europe, yet deplores the atomic responsibility that is likely to be its price. But the great debate he outlines so well cannot be dodged, since the US cannot give its allies a finger on the nuclear trigger without running intolerable dangers, and the allies must remain satellites so long as the final decision between life and death remains in American hands. In the atomic age NATO is an anachronism which must lead either to an atomic wedlock of Europe and America in a politically unified Atlantic “community,” or else to the nuclear independence of two friendly, but distinct powers. “What thermonuclear weapons have rendered obsolete,” as Aron points out, “are not alliances as such, but alliances of the traditional type.” Nations will still band together in common defense, but only if they are so politically and geographically united that an attack upon one really is an attack upon all. “Alliances will either evolve toward communities or else dissolve altogether.” Which is to say that nations which can only pray together, are unlikely to stay together. As the bi-polar world collapses it seems likely that the already strained links of that cold concoction, the Atlantic “community,” will snap as America and Europe, with a twinge of regret and a sigh of relief, break up housekeeping to go their own separate, though hopefully cooperative, ways.