The problem with being a post-deterrence U.S. president is that without deterrence, the world we live in quickly becomes dangerous.
- By Suzanne NosselSuzanne Nossel is executive director of the Pen American Center and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department.
The more chaotic the world seems, the more nostalgic for the Cold War we become. In April, Secretary of State John Kerry mused that the Cold War era "was easier than it is today — simpler is maybe a way to put it." How quickly we forget. With its proxy wars, civil wars, and nail-biting crises in Suez, Berlin, and Cuba, the Cold War was hotter and more frightening than some care to remember. If there was anything simple about it, it was the governing logic of deterrence: the idea of projecting power as a way to dissuade others from taking hostile action. Deterrence holds that would-be attackers will stand down if they know that the consequences of the contemplated aggression are too great to bear. Like would-be schoolyard bullies, traffic scofflaws, thieves, and insider traders, countries constrain their worst impulses when they know bad behavior may be severely punished.
After George Kennan’s seminal 1947 "X Article" laid the groundwork for a U.S. policy based on containment of the Soviet Union, the imperative of deterring aggression by the Soviets and their allies became a governing principle of U.S. foreign policy, motivating (for better and worse) the formation of NATO, the nuclear arms race, and the Korean and Vietnam wars — both of which were aimed, at least in part, to deter communist expansion.
Since the end of the Cold War, deterrence has receded as a policy pillar. The illogic of long and costly wars that killed tens of thousands in the name of deterring hypothetical future conflicts was manifest long before Saigon fell. Some of the Cold War’s titans, including former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, eventually repudiated a nuclear weapons strategy predicated on "mutually assured destruction" — deterrence in its most extreme form — in favor of a steady reduction in arsenals and determined drive to counter nuclear proliferation worldwide. Since then, most presidents have sought to perfect a much more measured form of deterrence. President George H.W. Bush was chided for not deterring Saddam Hussein’s 1990 advance into Kuwait, but his subsequent intervention fired a warning shot on cross-border aggression that was heard around the world. President Bill Clinton launched more than a dozen mostly small-scale military interventions and reflected near the end of his tenure that "deterrence remains imperative." George W. Bush broke the pattern. Spurred by the 9/11 attacks, he took deterrence to a warped extreme by launching preemptive war against Iraq’s non-existent nuclear weapons program. He gave Saddam Hussein and his sons a 48-hour ultimatum to leave Iraq, saying anything short of Hussein’s ouster would amount to craven appeasement of a murderous dictator.
In reaction, Barack Obama, particularly in his second term in office, has posited himself as the nation’s first post-deterrence president. While Obama has been unafraid to go after individual terrorists through targeted and lethal operations, he has grown increasingly skeptical about mobilizing American force writ large to shape geopolitics.
At West Point in late May, he dismissed the view that "America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos" and pooh-poohed the notion that Washington’s failure to act in Syria or Ukraine "invites escalating aggression in the future." The centerpiece of his foreign policy has been U.S. disengagement from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a firm refusal to enter ongoing wars. He has repeatedly trumpeted his commitment not to deploy ground troops, whether in Libya, Syria, Ukraine, or now post-post-war Iraq. He has decried the notion that military action should be contemplated in places like Syria or Ukraine just because doing so "would look strong." His view is undoubtedly informed by the fact that some of his most formidable foes may be undeterrable — jihadists who venerate suicide, fanatic regimes, and militant rebels with nothing to lose. And let’s not forget that he’s been weathered by a largely futile effort to turn around the Afghan war early in his term through dispatching extra troops.
The appeal of this position is obvious. It allows for redeployment of resources away from weapons programs and toward domestic needs. It fits a national mood of exhaustion and ambivalence about the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars in military resources to maintain America’s historic global role. It parallels a domestic logic that recognizes that the answer to school shootings and campus killing sprees is not more guns. In a post-deterrence world, so the argument goes, the logic of schoolyard bullies can give way to that of diplomats and mediators. Brinksmanship would wither and multilateralism would flourish. It posits a world where leaders and governments are enlightened enough not to need to be deterred.
The problem with being a post-deterrence U.S. president, as Obama has now seen, is that the world it is based on is not the world we live in, and that without deterrence, the world we live in quickly becomes dangerous.
Without U.S. leadership, the constraining force of the EU, the U.N., or anyone else to counter global aggression is modest. A central pillar of America’s indispensibility in the global system is its historically unique ability and willingness to deter aggression. But look what’s happened with that in retreat.
Russia has swallowed Crimea, sent tanks to the Ukrainian rebels, and now cut off the country’s natural gas supply. Putin does take occasional breaks to parry, but one never knows when the next thrust will come. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 160,000 of his own people and spawned the worst refugee crisis since World War II. A band of marauding extremists has invaded Iraq, seemingly bent on creating a murderous, cross-border Sunni caliphate. The hopeful new nation of South Sudan has spiraled into a crisis that threatens millions of lives. Much of Libya has fallen into the hands of militias and tribal groups locked in deadly conflict. Pakistan is in the throes of a major violent battle with its own, homegrown, Taliban-aligned militants. Vietnam and Japan are getting into more frequent and dangerous spats with China.
It is impossible to say which of these and other crises would have been mitigated by greater U.S. involvement and resolve. Yes, some of these belligerents are beyond reason. But the overall sense of a global unspooling is tangible and frightening. A senior State Department official commented to me in private last week that the multiplying crises make this the most challenging moment not just in Obama’s tenure, but beyond.
The deterrence vacuum is not going unnoticed. Secretary of State John Kerry, policy maven Robert Kagan, and the New York Times’s David Sanger have all ruminated that America’s retreat from global engagement risks exposing alliances that have thrived under Washington’s security umbrella and emboldening hostile adversaries. Kagan’s notion that Americans yearn for a simpler time, a "return to normalcy" might be at least partially satisfied through a 21st-century version of the logic of deterrence that made Cold War foreign policy relatively cogent and explicable. A logic of deterrence also stops well short of bellicosity, and helps distinguish future policies from the disastrous indulgences of force during the George W. Bush years.
Obama needs to rediscover the virtues of deterrence as it operated before George W. Bush tainted the concept. Using force as part of a calculated strategy of deterrence can avert, rather than invite, war. It is not as though the United States lacks the means to reassert itself. It maintains a huge military, deployed in more 100 countries, and spends lavishly on military technologies — policies that make no sense other than to convince the world that the United States is actively on patrol. And Obama has followed the logic of deterrence before, notably in his use of drone strikes and the plan to concentrate more American resources in East Asia. So deterrence is already in what President Obama refers to as his foreign policy "toolkit." He just needs to acknowledge it to use it more convincingly.
The first step involves a conceptual shift. The president and his advisers need to rethink the narrative they have been telling themselves and the world. Withdrawal from Iraq was not the unqualified accomplishment Obama claimed. If there was any doubt before, it should be clear now that the exit from Afghanistan will be thorny and unpredictable. Ending wars, come what may, is not a foreign policy doctrine.
Obama deserves credit for repudiating preventive war, but now needs to concede — and not just rhetorically — that there are times when only the threat of force and its necessary corollary, the use of force, will avert a dreaded outcome. Obama admitted as much in Libya, but his caveats — captured in the shorthand of "leading from behind" — spoke louder than his actions.
The experience of the Bush years notwithstanding, not every military engagement lasts years, yields mass casualties, saps credibility, and ends in chaos. U.S. interventions over the years in Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and elsewhere are examples of the confident yet measured use of force to shape immediate outcomes and, at the same time, reinforce norms of international behavior. It may be understandable that Obama, after his own traumas overseeing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, sees the use of force — beyond pinprick drone strikes and special ops — as a possible disaster in the making. But the alternative to war isn’t always peace.
As Obama is witnessing now in Iraq, the alternative to war may be war at a time and place of an opponent’s choosing. We’ll never know if a more determined effort to retain a residual force in Iraq would have deterred ISIS. But that strategy has worked most of the time in most of the rest of the world where the United States maintains a military presence.
The president also needs to change his rhetoric. Preemptive vows not to put "boots on the ground" play well domestically, but they signal to the world that, no matter how a situation escalates or what interests are threatened, the United States will do only so much and no more. In Iraq, the president has already quietly reversed himself, saying no boots on the ground and then deploying 300 military advisers with the potential for more to come. Elsewhere, blanket pronouncements have left unanswered questions as to what would happen if Putin took his territorial ambitions to Moldova, Estonia, or Poland. Those pronouncements also reinforce perceptions that America’s foreign policy is dictated by domestic politics. Obama’s abstemious rhetoric may be genuinely aimed to deescalate, but it can boomerang by emboldening adversaries like Assad to slaughter more stridently, or Putin to pursue Crimea free of fear of reprisals. Rather than promising what you won’t do, it’s sometimes better to be silent and let adversaries worry about what you might do.
Lastly, the president needs to show he’s not averse to action. He now seems to have recognized that words and gestures won’t convince the world that he’s not going to passively witness Iraq’s descent into chaos. Information always will be imperfect, outcomes uncertain, and risks significant. But with a murderous jihadist regime of thugs claiming a swath of territory the size of Jordan, Obama knows diplomatic pressure, sanctions, and ostracization won’t curb the threat. The president has taken a good first step in consulting with Iran. His dispatch of the military advisors will help ensure that any action is better informed. The next step, as the White House seems to be coming to grips with, could involve risky measures that may not work. But having now learned the lessons not just of the 2003 entry into war but also of the 2011 exit from it, the administration is probably better placed to make sound decisions than any other could conceivably be.
Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, four and a half years ago, feels as if it was delivered in another era, by another president. He spoke before his best efforts to vindicate the Afghanistan conflict as a war of necessity came up short, before nearly 1,400 American soldiers lost their lives there on his watch. In that speech, he said: "Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason."
The very forces the president sought to keep at bay have now caught up with him. It is time he re-embraced the logic of deterrence in order to catch up with them.