Saber Rattling Works, But Which Way?

 In Peace Action West News

This is a guest post from Martin Hellman reprinted from Martin’s Defusing the Nuclear Threat blog. Martin is a professor at Stanford University, best known for his invention of public key cryptography. But his blog covers a primary interest of his: how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic.

We hear repeated assurances that appearing strong and belligerent will get our adversaries to back down and behave. A 1995 USSTRACOM report even argued that we should cultivate a national persona that is “irrational and vindictive” in order to induce fear in our opponents. But the historical evidence indicates that such behavior sometimes has the opposite effect from what was intended. Plus, in hindsight, our perception of “bad behavior” was sometimes far off the mark.

Khrushchev’s threats over Berlin didn’t get us to back down, nor did his putting missiles in Cuba. While it might be argued that our bluster got Khrushchev to back down in both those cases, the Berlin Wall and Kennedy’s trading our Turkish missiles for Khrushchev’s Cuban missiles make that less than an ironclad case.

More recently, a Reuters article argued that sending US soldiers to train Ukrainian troops is likely to have blowback:

As part of its effort to support Ukraine, the U.S. military recently sent 290 troops … to train the Ukrainian National Guard. … while the administration’s decision is understandable, it is likely to result in retaliation by the Kremlin in a variety of ways that are not in America’s best interests. …

First, Russia will likely become even more brazen in its support for its separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region. … Second, we will likely see further nuclear saber rattling by the Russians in the upcoming weeks …

Russia also just took a small, but provocative step against NATO member Norway. Russian Deputy Prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, who is banned from entering Norway due to international sanctions against him over Ukraine, stopped on the Norwegian island of Svalbard on a trip to the North Pole — an action that infuriated Norway.

It’s time that we stopped assuming that our actions will always have their desired outcomes and started looking at the evidence. If we did, diplomacy would be given a larger role in solving international conflicts, and military solutions would be seen as they should – as a last resort.

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