This article was written by my friend and DSS classmate Kip Holdridge, and is an excellent rebuttle of the idea of nuclear deterrence with rogue states and terrorists:
The October 24, 2005, edition of The Wall Street Journal contained an opinion piece titled “The Nuclear Taboo
” by Thomas C. Schelling. In it, Mr. Schelling argues that a universally held taboo has emerged concerning nuclear weapons due to their lack of employment over the past six decades. It is true that on several occasions the nuclear option has been considered seriously and in each case the leadership decided against it. However, sixty years of not using nuclear weapons does not, in itself, prove the existence of a universally held taboo against their use.
Looking towards the future, Schelling identifies Iran, North Korea, and terrorist organizations as concerns the United States may have to face in a nuclear context. The solution, according to Schelling, is to get these actors to buy into the notion of deterrence. Schelling appears almost comfortable with nuclear proliferation under these terms, believing these state actors would never conceivably divert nuclear weapons to non-state actors, and that it would not be in the interests of either to use them. He states, “Nuclear warheads should be too precious to give away or to sell, too precious to ‘waste’ killing people when they could, held in reserve, make the U.S., or Russia, or any other nation, hesitant to consider military action.” The problem with such a notion is that Schelling assumes that these actors will buy into an American style of deterrence. Although the United States has appreciated the influence that can be wielded by possessing nuclear weapons, these other actors may not be interested in this same type of influence; to assume that they would be and to discount automatically all other possibilities is foolish.
Schelling continues his line of reasoning by extending American style deterrence thinking to terrorist organizations, by stating, “They will discover, over weeks of arguing that the most effective use of the bomb, from a terrorist perspective, will be for influence.” If a terrorist organization can demonstrate possession of a nuclear weapon—which Schelling believes they can—he believes it will give the terrorists a status similar to that of a state under which it can engage in deterrence. There are two problems with this line of reasoning.
First, Schelling predicates deterrence on a terrorist organization demonstrating possession of a nuclear weapon, which is necessary. However, a terrorist organization has no way of demonstrating possession of a nuclear device without using it. A video released on the Internet of terrorist leaders crowded around what appears to be a nuclear warhead proves nothing, except perhaps that the Al Sahab Institute for Media Productions has a good prop department. What appears to be a nuclear device on the outside may be empty on the inside: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Statements of possession likewise have no inherent credibility. The United States, indeed the world, would be skeptical of any such announcement, and terrorist organizations realize this. Further, since they are not states, terrorists cannot—nor would they want to—organize a “viewing” of the device for the leadership of the world’s leading states. Such a viewing would compromise the security and covertness of the organization, opening itself up to attack by U.S. forces. Thus, the only way for a terrorist organization to demonstrate credibly possession of a nuclear weapon is to use it, which Schelling says they will never do.
Second, Schelling believes that engaging in a deterrence relationship with the United States and other nuclear powers is the best and most logical conclusion for a terrorist organization, and one that they will come to on their own. Terrorist organizations have shown no aversion to using chemical and biological agents in the past, and al Qaeda, the unnamed terrorist organization to which Schelling alludes, devised a way to turn commercial aircraft into their own version of a weapon of mass destruction. Just because no terrorist organization has obtained a nuclear weapon does not mean that none are interested in obtaining one with the intent to use it against the United States or our allies. Deterrence is not compatible with the aims of terrorist organizations—al Qaeda in particular—and therefore would not interest them. Terrorist organizations seek nuclear weapons not for the influence that stems from deterrence, but for the influence that stems from detonating them over the world’s high-population centers.
Further, the United States would not—and definitely should not—allow a terrorist organization to engage us in a deterrence relationship. Deterring a state and deterring a terrorist organization are two very different things, despite what Mr. Schelling may think. A state has a bureaucratic structure that provides a degree of rationality and internal controls. Terrorist organizations lack a large bureaucratic structure and are largely under the influence of what would be called an authoritarian leader if the terrorist organization were a state. States also have a vested interest in protecting their population and territory during a nuclear confrontation, concerns not shared by terrorist organizations. Because of these differences between states and terrorist organizations, the traditional model of deterrence cannot be applied. If we engaged in such a “deterrence” relationship, the United States would not be able to deter a terrorist organization, and the terrorist organization would simply hold the United States hostage.
The existence of a nuclear taboo for state actors is an issue open to debate. However, Schelling’s arguments—which are developed with state actors in mind—do not extend to terrorist organizations. The actions of terrorist organizations, past and present, demonstrate no evidence of a nuclear taboo for terrorists.