Deterrence of war no longer works, but prevention will

By Harlan Ullman
President George W. Bush’s vision was that by imposing democracy on Iraq, "freedom" would spread throughout the greater Middle East, ensuring the survival of Israel. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
President George W. Bush’s vision was that by imposing democracy on Iraq, "freedom" would spread throughout the greater Middle East, ensuring the survival of Israel. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

After 1945, one of the principal reasons why America lost every war it started was because of profoundly flawed strategic thinking. The tragedy is that this flaw still persists.

In Vietnam, the specter of a monolithic, Godless communist threat produced the Domino Theory. If Vietnam were to fall to the alleged Sino-Soviet colossus, so too would all of Southeast Asia. And the rot would spread.


As President Lyndon Johnson warned, "If we don't stop them commies on the Mekong, we will fight them on the Mississippi." But "them commies" were far from united. Red China and the Soviet Union harbored deep mutual animosities that led to ideological divides and armed border clashes between both. Vietnam did fall without strategic consequence.

After U.S. intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, America invaded Iraq in 2003. The cause celebre was weapons of mass destruction that had to be eliminated. The mistake was staggering: Iraq had none.


Broader strategic thinking took the form of the "freedom agenda" devised by President George W. Bush. Bush's vision was that by imposing democracy on Iraq, "freedom" would spread throughout the greater Middle East, ensuring the survival of Israel. The "geostrategic landscape of the region would be forever altered," he reasoned.

It was and not for the better. As Russian President Vladimir Putin warned and predicted, the region would be thrust into a condition of continuing violence. The current attacks against U.S. forces in Syria and Iraq by Iranian-backed militias and other anti-American factions reflect this turmoil.

The overriding strategic construct during the Cold War and since was deterrence. The underlying premise of Cold War deterrence was that by retaining the survivable capability to retaliate after absorbing any first strike and still destroy the enemy would prevent war. Deterrence was often "extended" to cover conventional war.

Deterrence became known by the ironic shorthand of MAD for Mutual Assured Destruction. Because the United States and USSR could eliminate each other as functioning societies, and probably much of mankind, as well, in a thermonuclear war --thermonuclear weapons were 1,000 times more powerful than nuclear ones -- war was too dangerous to be waged. Subvariants of deterrence attempted to balance defensive and offensive systems.


The Cold War ended without a single shot, nuclear or otherwise, being fired in anger by the United States or USSR against the other. Yet, as relations with Russia and China would grow tenser, deterrence continued to underpin strategic thinking. The current U.S. National Defense Strategy directs the Department of Defense "to compete and contain, deter, and if war comes, prevail over China as 'the pacing threat; Russia as the 'acute threat'; Iraq; North Korea; and extremism."

However, as the presidents of the United States, China, Russia and France have agreed: "Nuclear war must never be fought and can never be won."

The critical question is whether deterrence is still relevant, even at the nuclear level. Given thermonuclear is in no one's interest, where have Russia and China been deterred? Russia occupied part of Georgia in 2008. In 2014, it absorbed Crimea. And in 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine.

China is expanding its influence in Asia. It is building up its military capability in part to be able to seize Taiwan by the late 2020s. China continues to steal intellectual property and fly spy balloons over America. Where is deterrence working?

Two years ago, I argued for a new MAD -- Massive Attacks of Disruption -- to replace the old MAD. Acts of disruption, of man or nature, now form the overarching dangers to society. Climate change, destructive acts of nature and COVID-19 were among the most visible of these threats.


Now, an even newer construct is needed. And the foundation is prevention. The acronym will be MAP for Mutual Assured Prevention. The differences are profound. Deterrence is based on the reactive threat of retaliation. Prevention is active.

The aims of MAP are to prevent, contain and limit damage of massive disruptions, including war. War, then, is not to be deterred but prevented. Prevention of war includes military-to-military and arms limitations talks; confidence-building measures; agreements such as the Incidents at Sea; hotlines; personnel exchanges; and limits on provocative maneuvers and military exercises. In parallel, MAP covers the spectrum of MAD.

Failing to recognize the perils of past erroneous strategic thinking and correct them may not prove disastrous. But do not bet on that.

Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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