Argument

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Unified Threats Need Decentralized Deterrence

The United States can’t afford to contain its allies anymore.

By , a senior advisor at the Stanford University program on geopolitics and technology.
Taiwanese soldiers operate U.S.-made guns.
Taiwanese soldiers operate U.S.-made M109A2 self-propelled guns during annual military drills in Taichung, Taiwan, on July 16, 2020. Sam Yeh/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, the U.S. intelligence community released its worldwide Annual Threats Assessment. The report covered the usual range of risks facing the United States and the globe, from drug trafficking to regional instability to cyberattacks. Yet front and center in the intelligence community’s assessment—listed ahead even of pandemics like the coronavirus—were two key threats: “China’s Push for Global Power” and “Russian Provocative Actions.”

China and Russia are increasingly aligned, forming an autocratic entente aimed squarely at the West. More concerning, the two revisionist powers are putting themselves on a war footing. A strategy of decentralizing U.S. deterrence can help defend the liberal international order against the threat of autocratic territory grabs.

Last month, the U.S. intelligence community released its worldwide Annual Threats Assessment. The report covered the usual range of risks facing the United States and the globe, from drug trafficking to regional instability to cyberattacks. Yet front and center in the intelligence community’s assessment—listed ahead even of pandemics like the coronavirus—were two key threats: “China’s Push for Global Power” and “Russian Provocative Actions.”

China and Russia are increasingly aligned, forming an autocratic entente aimed squarely at the West. More concerning, the two revisionist powers are putting themselves on a war footing. A strategy of decentralizing U.S. deterrence can help defend the liberal international order against the threat of autocratic territory grabs.

As Russia and China threaten their neighbors while cooperating more closely with each other, the United States confronts the frightening possibility it might face two major military challenges at once. That scenario doesn’t bode well for the U.S. Defense Department. Even if Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t deliberately coordinate, the U.S. military would struggle to effectively respond to two concurrent great-power assaults in conflict theaters that are thousands of miles apart. Washington might be forced to pick which war to wage and which to concede; either choice would deal a sharp blow to the liberal international order.

The United States may be a global superpower, but the stark reality is it does not possess the assets to deal with all the threats it faces concurrently. The United States will need a new, decentralized approach to deterrence—one that makes the most of its democratic alliance system—to avoid overextension and defend the international order it has created. And it must move quickly before strategic vulnerability leads to strategic disaster.


After World War II, the United States built a global network of alliances—NATO in Europe and a set of mostly bilateral alliances in Asia—to contain Soviet expansion and secure U.S. interests in critical parts of the globe. Those alliances serve an equally critical purpose today. They represent the hard-power foundation of the liberal international order and a check on the aggressive tendencies of revisionist dictators in Russia and China. A loss of confidence in this system of alliances—and in U.S. security guarantees that underpin the system—would shake the entire liberal order.

Traditionally, U.S. alliances also served a second, less appreciated purpose. For decades, the United States took responsibility for deterring attacks on dozens of allies and quasi-allies around the world, principally in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East. It did so not simply to deter aggression but also to discourage its allies from acquiring nuclear capabilities of their own. In effect, the United States sought to contain allies as well as rivals—a luxury it could afford as an unchallenged superpower but one that is becoming unsustainable today.

But the United States now faces more, tougher adversaries than it did two decades ago. China and Russia have both conducted broad military modernization programs to undermine the United States’ ability to defend geographically distant allies in Eastern Europe and the Western Pacific. Although the Chinese challenge is far starker than the Russian equivalent, the balance of power in both regions has worsened dramatically.

Inadequate allied defense spending exacerbates the problem. Key U.S. allies, such as Germany and Japan, have grown accustomed to spending extremely low levels of national wealth—under 1.5 percent of GDP—on their own defense. In Europe and the Asia-Pacific, front-line states have little hope of protecting themselves without U.S. intervention.

Even as allied defense spending has modestly increased in recent years, the entire U.S. alliance system has increasingly come to rest on a single point of failure: the U.S. military. And in the current environment, with intensifying threats from China and Russia, this arrangement threatens the integrity of the entire alliance network.


In cybersecurity, networks that are highly centralized or have a single point of failure are particularly prone to catastrophic collapses when subjected to intense pressure. To address this vulnerability, increasing a network’s “redundancy” can make it far more resilient. This entails adding links and nodes that enlarge the number of data paths in a network, thereby making it harder for attackers to compromise the network’s overall integrity. It’s the difference between a company storing its data in a cloud service or storing it on millions of users’ phones.

The same is true in geopolitics. By decentralizing deterrence capabilities within its alliance network, Washington can make it costlier and more difficult for adversaries to compromise that network. It can also diminish the pressure for direct U.S. military intervention at a time when U.S. resources are not plentiful enough to go around.

There are historical precedents for this approach. In the 1970s, the Nixon administration coped with exhaustion after the Vietnam War by devolving greater responsibility—through arms sales, intelligence support, and diplomatic cooperation—to “regional sheriffs,” such as Brazil, Iran, and South Africa. That strategy worked temporarily but eventually faltered because former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s regional sheriffs were mostly brutal and often unstable authoritarian regimes that relied on morally abhorrent methods to contain those movements.

The new nodes, in other words, were not sufficiently reliable. Today, the situation is more favorable because in regions where aggression would be most damaging—East Asia, followed by Eastern Europe—most of the United States’ key allies are stable democracies. This matters because the United States and its democratic allies can leverage a key asymmetric advantage: Democracies don’t wage war on one another. Autocracies regularly do. Unlike China or Russia, the United States enjoys a global alliance network of largely responsible democracies that are neither militarily aggressive nor set on revising the world’s geopolitical status quo. Unlike democracies, autocracies rarely maintain long-term loyalty or trust one another—for good reason.

The United States can thus afford to delegate increased responsibility for deterrence and defense to its allies in a way that Russia or China never could because those countries lack a comparable alliance network and autocratic pacts—even when they do emerge—simply cannot boast the same level of cohesion and trust as partnerships between democracies. Look at North Korea, China’s only formal ally, where the relationship between Pyongyang and Beijing is so fraught that Kim Jong Un had his uncle executed out of fears he would act as a Chinese puppet. That’s a strategic edge the United States should exploit.

Decentralized deterrence would thus maintain U.S. commitments to these allies while empowering them to take a greater role in their own regional defense. The United States would identify key regional defense hubs in Europe and the Pacific and help them acquire the advanced military capabilities necessary to blunt Chinese or Russian aggression. Call it a 21st century version of former U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt’s argument that the United States should serve as the world’s “arsenal of democracy.” Allies need to spend more, but the United States can also help them do much more with that money.


In practice, decentralizing deterrence would involve two complementary approaches.

The first approach entails substantially expanding the supply and sale of select conventional weapons to key allies. To be sure, the United States already sells advanced weaponry—including the F-35, the most sophisticated attack aircraft the United States possesses—to key allies and security partners. But F-35 exports are as much about decreasing the unit cost of each aircraft—or, in some cases, rewarding Middle Eastern partners for constructive diplomacy—as they are about strengthening allies in relevant ways against the most pressing threats they face.

The better method is to focus on helping allies and partners acquire larger numbers of relatively inexpensive, asymmetric capabilities that can blunt aggressive action or inflict a serious toll on an authoritarian attacker. In doing so, the United States can complicate Russian or Chinese use-of-force decisions by making it harder or costlier for them to secure swift military victories.

In Europe, for instance, the United States might provide exposed front-line allies, such as Poland and the Baltic states, with conventional ballistic missile capabilities they could use to retaliate against Russian aggression. This would ensure Moscow cannot act with impunity if it chooses to start a war with a smaller neighbor; there’s a price Russia must pay for its aggression even if the United States does not intervene. It would also give NATO offensive weapons inside the “bubble” of anti-access/area denial capabilities Russia constructed in Eastern Europe and the Baltic, making it easier for Washington to project power if it does intervene.

In the Pacific, Washington could encourage friendly countries like Japan, Taiwan, and Australia to invest heavily in capabilities from sea mines to lethal attack submarines to anti-ship missiles that would allow them to frustrate Chinese attacks. A decentralized deterrence strategy essentially turns China’s anti-access/area denial strategy against it, by giving front-line allies and partners the ability to significantly weaken Chinese attack forces or coercive endeavors.

The United States is already adopting a version of this strategy. According to reports obtained by Newsweek, U.S. President Joe Biden is set to approve his administration’s first weapons sale to Taiwan, which includes self-propelled artillery and related equipment. Similarly, the U.S. Army and Marines are considering how they might use ground-based fires against Chinese naval targets. Australia also appears headed in this direction: Its recent defense review emphasized the acquisition of long-range, anti-ship missiles.


A second approach to decentralizing deterrence would focus on nuclear weapons. To be clear, this would be a radical and controversial move. But if the United States is serious about maintaining a global alliance structure at a time of stagnant resources and increasing threats, it must discuss whether containing allies’ ambitions is still viable.

The logic behind nuclear deterrence has changed in recent decades. During the Cold War, the United States extended a “nuclear umbrella” over its allies, promising to undertake nuclear escalation on their behalf if it could not defend them conventionally. That was only plausible, however, because the loss of Western Europe to a Soviet attack would have radically shifted the global balance of power against the United States. Today, a Chinese attack on Taiwan or a Russian attack in the Baltic would be very damaging to U.S. interests but not so catastrophic that Washington could reasonably justify initiating a nuclear war. An attack on the periphery of the United States’ alliance system would probably not merit a direct nuclear response from the United States.

Decentralizing nuclear deterrence could enable trusted U.S. allies in the Pacific, such as Japan and Australia, to redress a deteriorating military balance by confronting Beijing’s regional aggression with the prospect of a nuclear response from countries it targets. The same approach, when applied to South Korea, could reduce the defense burdens the United States faces in protecting the Korean Peninsula.

This would not be the first time the United States acquiesced in, or even assisted, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by allies. During the Cold War, the United States ignored the United Kingdom, France, and Israel when they acquired their own nuclear arsenals, due in part to concerns about upholding U.S. defense guarantees. U.S. officials later implicitly acknowledged those arsenals strengthened deterrence and fought to exempt them from U.S.-Soviet negotiations over arms control.

Nonproliferation advocates will certainly object to decentralizing nuclear deterrence, and there are undoubtedly risks in any strategy that enlarges the number of countries that possess nuclear weapons. Yet, it is worth considering whether concerns about Australia or Japan using nuclear weapons irresponsibly are overblown, given that both countries are democracies and committed U.S. allies. Additionally, it is unlikely their acquisition of nuclear weapons would trigger a regional domino effect since the malign actor in East Asia that is most likely to seek nuclear weapons—North Korea—already has them.

Today, in fact, East Asia is home to four nuclear powers, or their forces. Three of them are openly revisionist autocracies hostile to the U.S.-led liberal order: Russia, China, and North Korea. The fourth is the United States. No U.S. ally in the region possesses a nuclear deterrent capability. A strategy of decentralized deterrence could invert this paradigm by encouraging key democratic allies to develop nuclear capabilities of their own.

The window for creative responses to a worsening strategic predicament is closing. Before it does, the United States should enact a strategy of decentralized deterrence to harden the democratic world against the threat of authoritarian aggression. Otherwise, the next threat that hits a vulnerable spot could bring everything down.

Jacob Helberg is a senior advisor at the Stanford University program on geopolitics and technology, an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the author of a forthcoming book on the nexus of technology policy and national security. Twitter: @JacobHelberg