In October 2003, during their informal gathering
in Colorado Springs, NATO's defence ministers considered how their military
forces might cope with a terrorist threat involving chemical and biological
weapons. While details of the discussions remain classified, it seems
that the defence ministers got a clearer picture of future operational
and decision-making requirements, including the urgency of pursuing the
development of the NATO Response Force and the rest of the transformation
agenda approved at last year's Prague Summit.
The discussions were valuable because they may help
to foster what the Alliance needs more of - wide-ranging and thorough
debate about strategy, including strategic concepts and their practical
requirements and political implications. The strategic thinking advanced
in the United States since September 2001 in various documents - above
all, the Quadrennial Defense Review, the Nuclear Posture
Review and the National Security Strategy - deserves critical
analysis and could serve as a point of departure.
To date, the debate on new security concepts that has
taken place in the United States has attracted more attention than that
in Europe, though Europeans may be catching up following publication of
an EU security strategy. Nevertheless, as disagreements over the Iraq
campaign demonstrate, there is a need for the Allies to examine US concepts
seriously and thereby carry forward an informed transatlantic debate.
Three of these concepts deserve particular attention: dissuasion, deterrence
by denial, and pre-emption.
Dissuasion is of course the word the French use for
deterrence, but the US Department of Defense gave dissuasion a specific
definition in the Quadrennial Defense Review, a definition that
has been used in subsequent documents. In short, "dissuasion" means to
persuade other powers to refrain from initiating an "arms race" or competition
in military capabilities with the United States. The official strategy
documents suggest that dissuasion is to be achieved by convincing the
adversary of the futility of competition with the United States, either
on a general basis or in a particular category of military power, which
could be nuclear weapons or fighter aircraft or attack submarines or anything
else. The goal is to lead the adversary to conclude that it would be pointless
to compete in the acquisition of military capabilities. In the May/June
2002 issue of Foreign Affairs, US Secretary of Defense Donald
Rumsfeld described the logic of the concept by giving an example. "We
must develop new assets, the mere possession of which discourages adversaries
from competing," he wrote. "For example, deployment of effective missile
defenses may dissuade others from spending to obtain ballistic missiles,
because missiles will not provide them with what they want: the power
to hold US and allied cities hostage to nuclear blackmail."
If we consider this example, there is clearly a role
for the Allies in dissuasion. Moreover, by this logic, the Allied role
in dissuading potential adversaries from seeking ballistic missiles will
grow to the extent that Allies and the Alliance as a whole develop and
deploy missile defenses.
Some NATO Allies have been pursuing shorter-range missile
defences for years. The United States has been working with Germany and
the Netherlands on Patriot PAC-3 and with Germany and Italy on MEADS,
the Medium Extended Air Defence System. The French-Italian Aster system
has been deployed on the French aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle;
and France and Italy plan to deploy the first ground-based versions in
2005. Some Allies are also acquiring or intend to acquire Aegis radars
and Standard Missile 3 interceptors for sea-based missile defence.
In addition, the Alliance as a whole has completed
various Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) studies. In November 2002 in Prague
the Allies went beyond TMD for the protection of deployed forces when
they decided "to examine options for protecting Alliance territory, forces
and population centres against the full range of missile threats". The
feasibility study for this is expected to be complete in the first half
The fact that Allies are pursuing missile defenses
- actual capabilities as well as studies - does not, however, mean that
they accept the US theory of dissuasion. In fact, a number of Allied observers,
like some US observers, have expressed caution, if not actual scepticism.
The usual comment is that, even if NATO or the United States dissuades
adversaries from pursuing one type of military capability, determined
adversaries will pursue other options, including asymmetrical warfare;
and we must be as well-prepared as possible to deal with this threat.
The US administration has, however, been concerned about this risk as
well, as discussions of asymmetrical threats in the United States indicate.
With regard to Secretary Rumsfeld's specific example,
critics have asked, to what extent will NATO or US missile defenses discourage
missile-builders and missile-buyers that are interested in being able
to launch missiles against non-NATO countries? If the immediate targets
of their missiles are regional antagonists outside NATO territory, the
strike capability that could be redirected on command against NATO is
a bonus. By this logic, greater utility for NATO resides in the capacity
of missile defences actually to defend against missile attacks than in
their potential effect on missile acquisition decisions. The US government
is, however, interested in operational effectiveness as well as in trying
to achieve dissuasion, if possible. Indeed, achieving dissuasion depends
on attaining such practical effectiveness. Even if the capabilities fail
to prevent military competition, US strategy documents suggest that they
may complicate the adversary's planning and shape the competition in directions
advantageous to the Alliance.
Critics have raised further objections. If the purpose
of dissuasion is to persuade potential adversaries not to compete in the
accumulation of military capabilities, could this not be achieved by methods
other than - or in addition to - publicising Allied and US military superiority?
As various Allied and US observers have pointed out, other activities
could contribute to the aim of discouraging arms competitions, and these
activities generally involve cooperation with allies and other security
partners. They include shaping the security environment by upholding export
controls, legal norms, and non-proliferation regimes; cultivating positive
political relations to lessen incentives for military competition; promoting
regional political stabilisation and security to reduce motives for competition
with neighbours; and nation-building and state-building, notably to support
democratisation and the free market.
While such cooperative activities have not been highlighted
in some US strategy documents, the US position has been evolving. In practice,
it seems, the United States is increasingly disposed to accept an expanded
definition of how to achieve dissuasion. The clearest signs of this include
the interest in nation-building and state-building in Afghanistan and
Iraq and the efforts to carry forward the peace process in Israeli-Palestinian
Deterrence by denial
If dissuasion does not work, arms competitions and
conflicts may follow, and the goal then will become deterring aggression
or coercion. US strategists have for years advocated supplementing the
Cold War's dominant form of deterrence - deterrence by threat of punishment
- with deterrence by denial. Deterrence by denial means persuading the
enemy not to attack by convincing him that his attack will be defeated
- that is, that he will not be able to achieve his operational objectives.
In January 2002, US Assistant Secretary of Defense
for International Security Policy J.D. Crouch made a reference to this
approach to deterrence when he discussed the findings of the Nuclear
Posture Review. Crouch suggested that the United States could employ
missile "defenses to discourage attack by frustrating enemy attack plans".
In other words, if the missile defences do not discourage an enemy from
acquiring missiles (the goal of dissuasion), they might discourage him
from using them (the goal of deterrence by denial).
The deterrence by denial theory is not limited to missile
defences, of course. The theory applies to any capability that can deny
an enemy success in achieving his objectives. For example, passive defences
such as decontamination equipment and suits and gas masks for protection
against chemical and biological weapons might help to convince an enemy
not to use such weapons. The National Security Strategy suggests
that "consequence-management" capabilities for responding to weapons of
mass destruction (WMD) attacks may contribute to both dissuasion and deterrence
by denial. It states: "Minimizing the effects of WMD use against our people
will help deter those who possess such weapons and dissuade those who
seek to acquire them by persuading enemies that they cannot attain their
To be sure, it is hard to prove the validity of any
theory of deterrence or dissuasion since it is not possible to demonstrate
conclusively why something did not happen. The absence of arms race activity
does not prove that a competitor has been dissuaded, just as the absence
of aggression does not prove that a hypothetical aggressor has been deterred.
Moreover, even if we were correct about a deterrence arrangement working
for a while, we could not be sure of its permanent reliability.
In other words, deterrence may fail and war may come
with little warning. This possibility brings us to the controversial topic
of pre-emptive action, which is linked to doubts about the reliability
of any kind of deterrence. The National Security Strategy states
that: "Traditional concepts of deterrence will not work against a terrorist
enemy whose avowed tactics are wanton destruction and the targeting of
innocents; whose so-called soldiers seek martyrdom in death and whose
most potent protection is statelessness. The overlap between states that
sponsor terror and those that pursue WMD compels us to action."
"We must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the
capabilities and objectives of today's adversaries," the document continues.
"Rogue states and terrorists do not seek to attack us using conventional
means. They know such attacks would fail. Instead, they rely on acts of
terror and, potentially, the use of weapons of mass destruction - weapons
that can be easily concealed, delivered covertly, and used without warning."
It concludes that: "The United States has long maintained the option of
pre-emptive actions to counter a sufficient threat to our national security.
The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction - and the
more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves,
even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy's attack.
To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United
States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively."
The concept of "pre-emptive action" is controversial
partly because the US administration has elevated it to the status of
a doctrine, instead of an option available to all governments in extreme
circumstances. Moreover, definitional issues have exacerbated the controversy.
The US government has chosen to call "pre-emptive" what many Americans,
Europeans, and others would call "preventive" war. Many observers would
make the following distinction: Pre-emptive attack consists of
prompt action on the basis of evidence that an enemy is about to strike.
In contrast, preventive war involves military operations undertaken
to avert a plausible but hypothetical future risk, such as an unacceptable
imbalance of power, a situation of increased vulnerability, or even potential
subjugation - or the possibility of a transfer of WMD to a terrorist group.
The latter risk was one of the main justifications advanced by the US
government for the military campaign against Saddam Hussein's regime in
Iraq in March and April 2003.
On the whole, even Allied governments that opposed
the US-led action to end Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq have no objection
to the idea of pre-emption on the basis of evidence that an enemy is about
to attack. In fact, that principle appears explicitly in the most recent
and authoritative expression of French security policy, the military programme
law for 2003-2008. This document states that: "The possibility of a pre-emptive
action could be considered, as soon as a situation of explicit and known
threat was recognised."
Allied and US critics of US policy argued that there
was no evidence that Saddam Hussein was about to attack the United States
or to transfer WMD to terrorists, so this was not a pre-emptive action
but a preventive war - a war on the basis of a hypothetical future threat.
Critics condemned the idea of preventive war as a violation of international
law. Both critics and supporters of the use of force against the Saddam
Hussein regime in Iraq asserted the need to uphold the authority of the
United Nations Security Council. Critics also argued that the US approach
amounted to a prescription for permanent war, unless the United States
could somehow dominate the entire world.
The critical analyses sometimes failed to acknowledge
the problem that in some exceptional cases pre-emptive or even preventive
action may be the wiser choice - that is, in some cases, notably involving
WMD, pre-emption or preventive intervention may be more prudent than waiting
to be attacked. The challenge is identifying which cases truly require
pre-emptive action, and which cases may even justify preventive war. This
is not a new problem. It goes back at least as far as Thucydides and the
Peloponnesian War, but it has been rendered more acute by modern technologies.
The draft EU security strategy paper presented in June
2003 by EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy
Javier Solana pointed out that WMD-armed terrorist groups could "inflict
damage on a scale previously possible only for states and armies. In such
cases, deterrence would fail." By way of prescription, Solana suggested,
among other points, that: "Pre-emptive engagement can avoid more serious
problems in the future... With the new threats the first line of defence
will often be abroad. The new threats are dynamic. Left alone, they will
become more dangerous. The risks of proliferation grow over time; left
alone, terrorist networks will become ever more dangerous (we should have
tackled al Qaida much earlier). This implies that we should be
ready to act before a crisis occurs. Conflict prevention and threat prevention
cannot start too early.We need to develop a strategic culture that fosters
early, rapid, and when necessary, robust intervention."
While some of these formulations are ambiguous, they
could contribute to an Alliance-wide debate on strategy, notably with
regard to pre-emption and preventive intervention. There will, however,
be no easy solution to the problem of assessment and choice.
It is constructive to debate the issues in general
terms. It is useful to discuss, for instance, questions such as the following:
Under what circumstances may the resort to pre-emption or even preventive
war be justified? Should the international legal regime be explicitly
modified to provide in extreme situations for new defensive options, even
preventive war, that take into account unprecedented vulnerabilities arising
from modern technologies? How should the classical criteria for pre-emption
of "necessity" and "proportionality" be construed in light of modern technologies
and strategic options? What principles in addition to "necessity" (or
"imminence") and "proportionality" should govern the decisions? What might
be the consequences for international order of recognising such new precedents
and principles in international law? How could risks of precipitate and/or
ill-founded actions be diminished? To what extent might policies of pre-emption
or preventive intervention encourage adversaries to adopt similar policies
and thus lead to more volatile crisis situations? To what extent could
the responsibility for undertaking pre-emption or preventive intervention
(and dealing with its consequences) be shared? While the US government
has recognised the obvious desirability of multilateral legitimisation,
notably via the UN Security Council, for preventive or pre-emptive action,
such legitimisation might not be available in all circumstances. If it
is not available, what constraints should states and coalitions observe
in exercising the right to self-defence recognised in Article 51 of the
UN Charter? To what extent, and in what ways, should the Alliance's decision-making
structures and capabilities be modified to enhance the ability of Allies,
acting under NATO auspices or in other coalitions, to assess evolving
threats and to conduct pre-emptive actions?
Discussing such questions may well deepen understanding
of the risks and responsibilities in policies of pre-emption or preventive
intervention. At the end of the day, however, we will be forced to make
decisions about specific cases.
The US National Security Strategy offers a
point of departure. It recognises that: "No nation can build a safer,
better world alone. Alliances and multilateral institutions can multiply
the strength of freedom-loving nations." NATO holds an exceptional role
in US policy, because "There is little of lasting consequence that the
United States can accomplish in the world without the sustained cooperation
of its allies and friends in Canada and Europe." When it comes to contingencies
in which "pre-emptive" action may be required, the National Security
Strategy suggests three guidelines for action. It states: "To support
pre-emptive options, we will build better, more integrated intelligence
capabilities to provide timely, accurate information on threats, wherever
they may emerge; coordinate closely with allies to form a common assessment
of the most dangerous threats; and continue to transform our military
forces to ensure our ability to conduct rapid and precise operations to
achieve decisive results."
The second guideline - to "coordinate closely with
allies to form a common assessment of the most dangerous threats" - is
most important if we are to preserve Alliance cohesion. As we saw in the
Iraq case, Allies may differ sharply in their assessments of the gravity
of the threats in specific cases, and in their views about the right way
to deal with them. Given the likelihood that the Allies will face more
challenges of comparable gravity, the need for close coordination in making
assessments and defining policy choices is increasingly imperative. Concepts
will carry us only so far. In the end, we will be forced to deal with
messy realities that do not fit into tidy conceptual categories.
Accordingly, to complement the decisions on NATO's
transformation taken in Prague, the Allies should initiate a determined
effort to develop a common assessment of the most dangerous threats to
Alliance security and possible responses, on the occasion of NATO's next
summit, scheduled to be held in Istanbul in June 2004.