US Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently visited Berlin to assure allies that the US would deter aggression. NATO leaders are worried that Russia might invade the Baltics in a Crimea-style fait accompli, and then threaten nuclear escalation unless the alliance backs down.
Moscow’s treaty violations and “nuclear sabre rattling,” Carter warned, raise “questions about Russia’s commitment to strategic stability” and to “the profound caution that world leaders in the nuclear age have shown over decades to the brandishing of nuclear weapons.”
This is but the latest confirmation that we’ve entered a new nuclear age — one characterized by different rules, more actors, less predictability and the paradox that America’s conventional superiority may make deterrence harder.
After noting that opponents might be tempted to employ nuclear weapons to overcome conventional inferiority, the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review observed that US nuclear forces should deter nuclear-armed adversaries from escalating their way out of failed conventional aggression.
“Escalate to de-escalate” tactics have already been publicly embraced by Russia but could also be used by North Korea or China. Instead of graduated rungs along an “escalation ladder,” adversaries may well be tempted to lower their nuclear thresholds to forestall conventional defeat.
Last November, then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called nuclear deterrence the department’s “highest priority mission.” But it is official US policy to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and pursue a world without nuclear weapons. This may weaken nuclear deterrence because allies and adversaries will wonder how the US might respond to limited nuclear employment.
Plotting to offset US conventional superiority has prompted some states, like North Korea and Iran, to pursue nuclear weapons, and others, like Russia, to increase their reliance on nuclear weapons…