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The Role of Deterrence in NATO Defense Strategy: Implications for Doctrine and Posture

  • David N. Schwartz (a1)


The basis of NATO deterrence strategy is the manipulation of the nuclear "threshold." When NATO's conventional component is strong and the exact nature of its nuclear threshold is uncertain to Warsaw Pact countries, NATO's deterrent will be strong. Attempts to improve the “quality” of the nuclear arsenal by making the outcome of nuclear conflict more predictable weaken NATO's deterrent power. It is the possibility that NATO may use nuclear weapons, as well as the uncertainty of the consequences of such use, that strengthens the deterrent. The number of nuclear weapons in the NATO arsenal could be reduced with no appreciable damage to the deterrent posture. Qualitative improvements in the conventional component, while increasing deterrent strength, also serve as safeguards in case of deterrence failures. To the extent that political unity within NATO increases the predictability of a NATO response to Warsaw Pact aggression, it is possible that political disunity actually adds to deterrent strength.



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* The author is indebted to Lawrence Weiler, Alain Enthoven, Kurt Lauk, and Gary Phillips, all of Stanford University, whose perceptive comments were invaluable in formulating this paper. The views expressed here, however, represent solely those of the author.

1 See Schelling, Thomas, The Strategy of Conflict (New York: Oxford University Press 1963), 3543.

2 Komer, Robert W., “Treating NATO's Self-inflicted Wound,” Foreign Policy, No. 13 (Winter 1973-1974), 3448.

3 Enthoven, Alain C. and Smith, K. Wayne, How Much Is Enough? (New York: Harper and Row 1971), 117–64.

4 Superficially, this comment would seem to contradict the credibility of a deterrent based on the premise that a small nuclear war would quickly get out of control. The ultimate assurance that a nuclear war would in fact get out of control quickly would be to allow all battlefield commanders complete and sovereign control over their own share of nuclear weapons, under the assumption that uncontrolled escalation is a greater and more visible possibility in the absence of centralized control. However, this reductio ad absurdum stretches generally valid concepts irresponsibly.

5 Enthoven and Smith (fn. 3).

6 Canby, Steven, “NATO Muscle: More Shadow Than Substance,” Foreign Policy, No. 8 (Fall 1972), 3849.

7 Schultze, Charles and others, Setting National Priorities: The 1972 Budget (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution 1971), 96100.

8 Many of these points are taken up in Gladwyn, Lord, “The Defense of Western Europe,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 51 (04 1973), 588–97.

9 This interpretation is suggested, on the basis of massive content analysis of newspaper coverage of the cold war, in Gamson, William and Modigliani, Andre, Untangling the Cold War: A Strategy for Testing Rival Theories (Boston: Little, Brown 1971).

10 See, for example, Gilinsky, Victor, Arms Control Aspects of the Deployment of Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe (Santa Monica: Southern California Arms Control and Foreign Policy Seminar 1971).

The Role of Deterrence in NATO Defense Strategy: Implications for Doctrine and Posture

  • David N. Schwartz (a1)


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