Experts Question a Core U.S. Arms Control Tenet

WASHINGTON — International security experts attending a recent workshop challenged a core tenet of the Bush administration’s arms control strategy, called dissuasion, which has been used to justify a number of U.S. national security policies.

The idea of dissuasion as indicated in U.S. strategy documents is that U.S. research and development of advanced, potentially revolutionary military capabilities, as well as other actions, can discourage potential adversaries from pursuing certain new capabilities of their own because they view such efforts as futile.

Although the idea dates back to the beginning of the Cold War, the Bush administration has given it unprecedented prominence, the experts said, using it to support the consideration of new nuclear weapons, the pursuit of advanced conventional capabilities and the fielding of a national missile defense system.

Other U.S. policies, such as the invasion of Iraq and the implied threat of a nuclear response to a chemical or biological attack, also have been called dissuasive.

Experts attending a workshop in September hosted by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Contemporary Conflict and the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, however, argued that such key Bush administration policies may prove counterproductive, driving potential adversaries to seek greater capabilities for deterrence against a seemingly growing U.S. threat.

Dissuasion “may be effective for de-motivating certain types of military competitions,” wrote Brad Roberts, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses, in a paper presented at the workshop.

“But it may likewise motivate other responses, whether asymmetric military ones or a general desire to compete in order not to be taken advantage of,” he wrote.

He argued the United States has at least five options for dissuasion against China, all with potentially negative consequences, and that achieving a deeper relationship with the country “may instead require restraint in the development of some key military capabilities.”

Center Director Peter Lavoy told the workshop that dissuasion is difficult to use against ideological enemies who are “predisposed not to be persuaded by you,” which appears to be the case with the so-called rogue states of today, according to a summary of the workshop released by the center.

Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the summary said, argued that efforts to dissuade proliferation by states such as North Korea and Iran are undermined by the U.S. pursuit of regime change against such nations.

A Prominent Goal“Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States,” the administration wrote in its September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States.

The administration’s National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction declared dissuasion the primary method for preventing foreign acquisition of weapons of mass destruction, wrote Air Force Col. Chuck Lutes, a senior fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Proponents have said the policy was recently successful in persuading Libya to renounce its WMD ambitions and, more historically, in the Soviet Union’s decision not to develop an aircraft carrier during the Cold War.

They have argued that with the prospect of new advanced strategic capabilities such as earth-penetrating and WMD-incinerating nuclear weapons and missile defenses mapped out in the Defense Department’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, potential adversaries such as North Korea, Iran and perhaps China might judge efforts to gain certain new or improved weapons capabilities pointless.

“A broader array of capability is needed to dissuade states from undertaking political, military, or technical courses of action that would threaten U.S. and allied security,” that review said.

Potentially CounterproductiveThe Bush administration’s approach in that seminal review, however, may instead encourage nuclear proliferation by rogue and ‘fence-sitter’ states, argued Stanford University professor Scott Sagan at the workshop.

Increased U.S. nuclear superiority in the interest of dissuasion “clearly conflicts with the Article VI [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)] commitment to work in good faith toward the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons,” Sagan wrote in his paper for the meeting.

“In a wider set of non-nuclear weapons ‘fence-sitter’ states, especially those in which domestic political actors may hold contrasting positions about getting nuclear weapons, the belief that that the United States has abandoned Article VI commitments had increased,” he wrote.

Elaine Bunn, a research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies of the National Defense University, wrote, “U.S. deployments may dissuade them [North Korea and Iran] from building more weapons of mass destruction, from throwing good money after bad.”

She added, though, that “The debate in the U.S. over the limitations and ineffectiveness of missile defenses, and their ability to be overwhelmed by countermeasures or saturation, might convince them that their investment in ballistic missiles remains a good one, and have the opposite effect.”

Roberts argued that U.S. emphasis on developing new strategic capabilities, the so-called “New Triad” outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review — nuclear and conventional offensive strike systems, active and passive defenses and a revitalized defense structure — could spur China to accelerate its efforts with the idea of invading Taiwan if it can gain some medium-term advantage before the Triad is realized.

“Rather than pace the development of U.S. [ballistic missile defense] with incremental improvements to its strategic forces, China might opt to race the New Triad envisioned in the Bush administration’s 2002 Nuclear Posture Review,” he wrote.

“The wrong dissuasion strategy may motivate China to compete for strategic advantage over Taiwan,” he wrote.

Uncertainty of OutcomesMany of the experts at the workshop said it is difficult to determine whether policies of dissuasion would be, or were in the past, effective. Many factors, some perhaps unknown, may also influence an adversary’s decisions, they said.

“Much like deterrence, this is an effort to ‘prove a negative,’” wrote Jeffrey Giles, assistant vice president and manager of the advanced concepts and strategies division at Science Applications International Corp.

Russia may have failed to develop an aircraft carrier because of the “the natural obstacles that a traditional land power would face in trying to develop an ocean-going navy,” he wrote.

Some countries “may choose not to compete with the United States in certain categories of traditional military strength (e.g., fighter aircraft) because they are investing heavily in transformational technologies,” he added.

The Iraq war may have affected various so-called rogue states differently, Bunn asserted. While Libya may or may not have been dissuaded as a result of the Iraq invasion, the apparent continuation of suspected North Korean and Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons suggests they were not deterred by the invasion.

“Iran is also showing every sign of being determined to go forward, rather than being dissuaded,” she wrote.

While Iraq was presented as “a warning to other states” by U.S. officials, pragmatists in the administration feared it would backfire by motivating Iran and North Korea to accelerate their WMD acquisition efforts, Litwak said according to the conference summary.

The administration currently appears to be very reluctantly pivoting away from regime change and preventive war policies toward policies of deterrence, and assurance of regime survival, he said.

November 5, 2004

WASHINGTON — International security experts attending a recent workshop challenged a core tenet of the Bush administration’s arms control strategy, called dissuasion, which has been used to justify a number of U.S. national security policies.