Living With Mutually Assured Destruction
By Anthony de Jasay
Capacity of the second strike can impose the peace
It may look incongruous to speak of Mutually Assured Destruction—MAD—the sign of nuclear catastrophe, as something reassuring. However, the logic of reassurance is impeccable, or rather it is in a static world. In this world, two adversaries confront each other and each can respond to an initial attack by the other with a second strike which is equally a disaster. In other words, an attack by one adversary would destroy or at least incapacitate its victim, but at the same time also the attacker. Therefore the attack would have an outcome which is inferior to doing nothing, and this would equally be the case for both adversaries. Peace would be secured, because either adversary would prefer to survive rather than being destroyed or at least disabled.
This peaceful outcome would almost certainly be disturbed in a dynamic setting. One adversary or the other would move and use its technical progress to make its capacity for the second strike more and more efficient and thus more and more intimidating. It would have to be land-based, but also with airborne and submarine missiles to make its second strike less vulnerable; it may also defend itself with anti-missile installations. Its adversary in turn would be forced to use its own technical progress to imitate it, or indeed to steal a march over it. A highly technical competition would result, with neither adversary being able to afford to be left behind the other. It was such a competition President Reagan was credited with forcing the Soviet Union into, a competition which forced Russian industry to exhaust itself in keeping pace with the American, as well as forcing it to neglect all the other tasks which economy would have to fulfil. Reagan and American industry were thus able to accelerate the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
America and Russia are currently living with a mutual armament treaty whose object is to put the intercontinental nuclear capacity of each on an equal and descending scale. Even so, the American intercontinental nuclear capacity stands at 1,400,000 warheads and the Russian capacity is of comparable size. For mutually assured destruction, this arsenal is probably many hundreds of times sufficient for overkill, even if either side is also increasing its anti-missile defences. Nevertheless, the balance of probabilities would still indicate that neither side would wish to be the first to launch an intercontinental nuclear attack on the other. A look back at their spats.
The Cold War: America and Russia are each scoring two goals
The Berlin Air Lift.
During the Cold War, Berlin fell in the Russian zone of Germany, but was divided in four quarters, each quarter being governed by one of the four occupying powers with the Russian quarter being one of the four. The three western powers had the right to commute by road between West Germany and their own quarter in Berlin. In June 1948, the Russians suppressed this road traffic with the clear intention of starving the three western quarters of Berlin. America, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand responded to the Russian blockade by organizing an airlift, transporting by air all the necessities from food to coal and oil, maintaining this airlift till May 1949, at which point the Russians gave up the blockade and restored the right of the western powers to resume road traffic to Berlin. This victory had a huge moral effect everywhere, and particularly in Germany. It also signified a loss of face for Russia.
The Hungarian Uprising.
In October 1955, Russia and the three Western powers lifted the four power occupation of Austria and concluded a treaty for the neutrality of the country. This had a profound effect in neighbouring Hungary, which continued to live under the occupation of the Russian army and a government wholly subservient to Moscow. There was a profound desire to obtain in Hungary the same treatment that Austria has received. In October 1956, there was a spontaneous uprising, with the civilian population unanimous in demanding the end of the Russian occupation with Molotov cocktail attacks against the Russian troops. In Moscow, the Police Bureau, since the death of Stalin three years before, was no longer under the influence of a dictator but functioned instead as a board of government, and was apparently undecided about how to handle the Hungarian uprising. Instructions to withdraw from the country must have reached the Russian troops which had started to move to abandon their positions and move in the direction of the frontier separating Hungary and the Ukraine. (This frontier was the result of the Soviet Union moving its own frontier forward at the end of the war). By the end of October, the withdrawal of Russian troops from Hungary was partly completed and was regarded as an accomplished fact. At this point came the public address of President Eisenhower, offering to pray for the success of the Hungarian people in their fight for freedom. This prayer by the American soldier President was obviously sufficient for the Police Bureau to decide that reaffirming Russian military rule over Hungary involved no risk of any international conflict except a prayer. The Russian armed forces were ordered to come back to their initial positions in Hungary, and additional fresh troops from the Ukraine were added to the occupying forces. By November 4, 1956, the Hungarian uprising was over. The provisional government was arrested, taken out of the country and its members executed. A new government obedient to Moscow was installed and socialism was rescued.
The Cuban Missile Crisis.
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed with Fidel Castro that Russian nuclear missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland would be installed in Cuba. President John F. Kennedy warned Russia that the United States would not allow this. The U.S. navy blockaded Cuba and forced the Russian ships transporting the missiles to turn back. The misadventure caused a loss of prestige for Khrushchev as well as Russia itself.
The Prague Spring.
The “Prague Spring” was an attempt by one part of the Czechoslovakian communist party under the leadership of Alexander Dubcek to form a government with a certain degree of independence from Moscow. It was also regarded as the end of socialism in Czechoslovakia. Moscow having learnt from the Hungarian uprising of 1956 that it has a free hand, undisturbed by American interference, to install any government in the area of its exclusive influence, invaded Czechoslovakia. Russian troops and troops from other Warsaw Pact countries entered Czechoslovakia and terminated the Prague Spring.
NATO is no longer a certainty, but only a probability
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) was convened in 1949 under the leadership of the United States with a combined membership of 28 countries in North America, Europe and Turkey. Its purpose was to provide an organised defence against Russia in case the Cold War was to turn from cold to hot. In essence, NATO’s Article 5 provides that any attack by any member state of NATO should be treated as an attack against all. The 28 countries taken together represented a military potential several times greater than that of Russia and any of its allies. In this way, the defence potential of NATO and its capacity to respond to an attack resembles the “capacity of the second strike” mentioned at the beginning of this article. It was to function as a deterrent which would make the capacity of the first strike an act of suicidal folly.
During his campaign for the American Presidency, Donald Trump explained to a rather pleased audience that the United States would not feel obliged to defend a member of NATO if the member concerned was not doing enough for its own defence. This, of course, is a denial of Article 5. It makes the United Statesa judge of what another country ought to do for its own defence, and authorises the United Statesnot to come to the defence of the country whose efforts to defend itself it considers inadequate. It is in effect, an arm against the “free rider,” the member country that relies on the United States to defend it because it has not done or will not do enough for its own defence. It is tantamount to the United States deciding on a case by case basis whether it will honour article 5 of the NATO treaty or not.
“When it is just a probability distribution rather than a certainty that the United States and other members of NATO do or do not really want to fight, the Russian military planners must make the decision about which probability they will judge most probable.”
President Trump has subsequently more or less withdrawn what as a candidate he had said in a campaign speech. His position now about Article 5 of NATO is anybody’s guess. It is, however, impossible for responsible military planners in Moscow not to take account of it when preferring spread sheets, computer simulations, and whatever else military planners use to instruct their masters in the Police Bureau. They have to summon alternative plans in which the enemy action has alternative probabilities. They have to have plans where the U.S. armed forces have a greater or lesser engagement, and also whether various other members of NATO will or will not imitate the United States and decide whether another member is worthy to be defended or not. Inevitably, when it is just a probability distribution rather than a certainty that the United States and other members of NATO do or do not really want to fight, the Russian military planners must make the decision about which probability they will judge most probable. They must make a political judgment.
Ever since the Bolshevik Revolution, the Police Bureau has tended to avoid military adventures and regretted to avoid having to engage in them. They have lost wars in Finland (1918), Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Finland again in 1939, and of course the Great War against Germany (1941-1945) which they wanted to avoid. This was hardly an encouragement to an aggressive foreign policy.
When running for the Presidency Donald Trump did the best he could to empty NATO of much of its credibility. He made it a question of judgment, rather than mutual obligation. (He also called it “outdated,” whatever he may have meant by this.) His new Defence Secretary General James Mattis has since stated a contrary view but for the Kremlin, the President must count for more than his Defence Secretary.
For more on these topics, see “He Is No Gentleman” by Pedro Schwartz, Library of Economics and Liberty, April 3, 2017; “Russia Fails Once Again: Putin Must Punch Above His Weight”, by Anthony de Jasay, Library of Economics and Liberty, February 2, 2015; and “Russia’s Economy: Putin and the KGB State”, by Paul Gregory, Library of Economics and Liberty, September 5, 2011. See also Risk of Nuclear War, by David R. Henderson, EconLog, July 28, 2016.
Vladimir Putin has the difficult role of both a bully who will frighten the adversary and a risk-averse statesman who knows how far it is safe for him to advance. He still enjoys immense popularity in Russia because he has given the country the prestige and recognition that had been lost when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. In 2014, he recovered for Russia the Crimea and the eastern half of the Ukraine by manoeuvres in which the Russian armed forces played a decisive role, but whose role was one of “deniability;” the recovery of these lost possessions was pretended to be a spontaneous action by the local populations. Since then, Vladimir Putin has not made further victories unless the decisive role of the Russian Air Force in the recovery of Syria for the Shiite regime were to count as a Russian victory. However, with every year that now passes there will be a rising impatience among the Russian people for one further victory, the recovery for Russia of the three Baltic states—Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia—that every Russian patriot regards as Russia’s by rights. The independence of these three countries is defended by their own population, in which Russians are in a minority, as well as by NATO whose role has become a matter of judgment by the United States and of the other members of the alliance. If Russia decides to reconquer these three countries, it will no doubt make it “deniable”—a matter of the local population and not of the Russian army.
Whether or not Vladimir Putin and his court make the attempt to treat the three Baltic States as he has treated the Eastern half of the Ukraine, it must be taken into account by the West that Russia is a weak country masquerading as a strong one. It will have gained cause only if the West mistakenly takes it to be a strong one.
*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State as well as other books, including Social Contract, Free Ride, Political Philosophy, Clearly, Political Economy, Concisely, Economic Sense and Nonsense, Helmut Kliemt, ed., and Justice and Its Surroundings. His books may be purchased through the Liberty Fund Book Catalog.
The State is also available online on this website.
For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.