With combat operations in Afghanistan fading in the rearview mirror, the United States is turning its attention to finding ways to stem Russian aggression. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration supports the creation of a new NATO rapid reaction force and is sending more troops and tanks to Europe. These steps are intended to revive deterrence of Russia. They may do so given the nature of the challenge that Russia poses, but they also underscore the limitations of the old Cold War notion of deterrence in today’s security environment.
When the Soviet Union fielded nuclear weapons during the opening years of the Cold War, deterrence quickly became the centerpiece of U.S. military strategy. This made perfect sense. The U.S. sought to protect the system of global order, not alter it by force of arms. As a status quo power, Washington believed it was better to prevent wars than to fight them and better to stop aggression from occurring than to reverse it. This became even truer as the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers expanded. With thermonuclear weapons on both sides, even a minor war could become a catastrophe.
As it took shape during the Cold War, deterrence required capability, credibility and clarity. For it to work, the U.S. had to have the ability to destroy something of great value to the Soviets or other potential aggressors. The threat to do so had to be credible. And American policymakers had to make potential aggressors understand clearly what would provoke the use of U.S. military power.