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Turning Deterrence Into Absurdity

Published: February 18, 2014 (Issue # 1797)


In an old, Soviet-era joke, a resident tells his apartment building manager, “Voice of America just reported that the roof of our building has been leaking for the last year.” To which the manager answers, “Yeah, the same old U.S. lies and slander.”

Nowadays, that same manager would probably say that such reports are an attempt by the treacherous U.S. to contain Russia, now that it has risen from its knees during President Vladimir Putin’s 15 years in power. In a recent meeting with representatives of the Public Council for the Preparation of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin gave his own, peculiar interpretation of the theory of deterrence. “A theory took shape in Cold War times: It was called the deterrence theory,” Putin said. “This theory and its policies were aimed at hindering the development of the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, now we are seeing the same thing. The remains of this outdated deterrence theory are still alive and well [in the U.S.]. Whenever Russia demonstrates positive development and when it shows itself to be a new, strong player and a new source of competition, this is bound to cause concern [in the U.S.] in terms of its economic, political and security interests.”

Related: Russia’s Win Now Followed by the Hard Part

But the traditional interpretation of deterrence has always carried a primarily military connotation — namely, deterring a potential aggressor from using nuclear weapons against the other side. Nobody doubts that this question was urgent during the Cold War, when the possibility of a military confrontation was real and serious.

The first was the attempt to stop the spread of Soviet influence throughout the world, leading to bloody wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Afghanistan and many other places.

Related: Strong-Armed Tactics

The second and most important thrust of deterrence was the desire to prevent the Soviet Union from launching an attack. U.S. theorists argued that an attack could be deterred if the potential aggressor knew that the other side was capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on his own country. The main deterrence theorist of the 1950s was the professor and future U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. He believed that to deter a potential aggressor, a country must possess the guaranteed ability to destroy, even after sustaining a first strike, one-fourth of the aggressor country’s population and one-half of its economic potential.

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