Kenneth Waltz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Theory and International Politics: Conversation with Kenneth N. Waltz, Adjunct Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; February 10, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Deterrence and Rogues

The perception of the Bush administration and the men of ideas around the Bush administration, however faulty, is that there is a new configuration in the world.

There is.

And in that configuration, the threat -- even to the most powerful country in the world, but also the world in general -- is the links among so-called rogue regimes. Rogue states are getting the capacity to act with weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, biological, and chemical -- and there are links to transnational terrorist organizations. That is the primary rationale for the new preemptive strategy.


What is your analysis of that apparent configuration of power, as a Realist? Does a Realist say this is baloney, or what?

Well, I can tell you exactly what this Realist says.


In the first case, in the first instance, one wants to point out that the word "preemption" here is entirely misleading. "Preemption" by its dictionary usage, by its common usage among people who think about military strategy, is what occurs when you have good and very strong reasons for believing that the adversary is just about to strike. And you strike. This would make sense if you knew that, and knew it pretty much for sure, to strike first.

Now, we have no reason to think that Saddam Hussein is about to strike anybody -- not anybody in the region, let alone Europe or the United States. I mean, that's entirely fanciful. So it's not a case for preemption. The question is, is it a case for prevention? The rationale of prevention is that over time, the adversary will become so strong that you'd better fight him earlier while he's relatively weak and you can win easily, instead of waiting until he becomes strong, and then you would have a more difficult war. Well, Iraq is so weak! Its gross domestic [product] is $15 billion. We're spending almost $400 billion on our military alone. I mean, it's a pitifully weak country. Much weaker than it was in 1991, when we fought the Gulf War. And we know that. American military estimates bear that out.

So the question becomes the one that you posed: Might a country, such as Iraq, develop nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction and then share them with terrorists? The first point to make about that is they can't use them, themselves. They are contained and deterred.

That is, the regime, they could not use it?

Right. No matter how often the Bush administration people say "containment and deterrence do not work," it works as well as it ever did for the purposes that we always thought it was designed to accomplish. That is, it deters other countries from using their weapons in ways that would endanger the manifestly vital interests of the United States or those it supports. So the question reduces to: Might they give these things away? Well, I don't think we have to worry about Saddam Hussein doing that, because if any terrorist ever got weaponry that they could not well get from sources other than Iraq, we would say, "Saddam Hussein did it," and we'd slam him. He knows that.

It's a funny thing, that over and over again, people say -- and we hear it every day -- that these rogues are undeterrable. "Do you want to rely on the sanity of Saddam Hussein?" George Bush has said, "I do not want to rely on the sanity of Saddam Hussein." I do! This guy is a survivor. He's been in power for thirty years. People who are insane do not maintain themselves in power against a host of enemies, internally as well as externally. I mean, they have been able -- this is true of Kadaffy in the old days, who we used to think of as being very roguish (we don't think of him being so roguish anymore). It's true of Kim Song Il. It was true of his father. I mean, these rogues, these guys we call rogues, are survivors. How can you at once be foolhardy to the point of insanity and be a survivor in a very difficult world? It's much more difficult than winning a second term for President of the United States.

These guys are pressed from all sides, as I say, internally and externally as well, and they survive. They're crafty. They're ugly, they're nasty; I believe all those things. But they're also crafty. You've got to carry them out in a box. They've got power and they want to hold it and they want to continue to hold it. They want to pass it on to their progeny, as a matter of fact. They have proved themselves able to calculate where that line is. Crossing that line means you're going to be put out of business. To be a ruler, you have to have a country to rule. If you invite intense retaliation upon yourself, you're dead, and your country is destroyed as a going political entity. Nobody's going that far. These rogues are self-limiting.

What is your answer to people who would say that you are too focused on the state as a unit in addressing these current problems? Obviously, Iraq and North Korea are states, but when you begin to talk about al Qaeda and what they might accomplish, these are not states. They are units or entities that could obtain weapons, whether from North Korea or Saddam Hussein, that conceivably could steal them from the former Soviet Union, and could act in a way that would affect us and our national security, if not our relative position in the world. I guess what I'm trying to get at is, what should the greatest power in the world be doing about these [nonstate] threats, in a way that's consistent with a Realist's view of the world?

It's almost impossible to believe that Saddam Hussein -- and these states do act as units; you could say "Saddam Hussein," you don't always have to say "Iraq," and the same for North Korea [and Kim Song Il] -- that he would go to such tremendous lengths to acquire nuclear military capability [and then be willing to share it]. Remember the Israelis destroyed their nuclear facilities at Osirak in June of 1981. I mean, this goes back a long time. There has been a persistent sustained effort on the part of Saddam Hussein to acquire this military capability. Now, if he ever were to achieve it, he certainly would not want to share it with anybody. He would guard it. He would have only a small capability.

It's possible to control a small amount of nuclear materials and a small number of nuclear warheads, a small number of delivery systems, in a way that is very difficult if you have hundreds, or especially if you have thousands, as we and Russia do. book coverIf you're going to steal something, it's a much better bet stealing it from Russia than it is trying to steal it from a new (and because new, necessarily very small) nuclear power. If you've got a lot of it, it's hard to keep track of.

The United States has lost track of some of its nuclear material, which a lot of people overlook or forget about. They've got so damned much of it. How are you going to keep track of all of it? But, boy, if you have ten or twenty or fifty, that's pretty easy to keep track of.

It's also very easy to believe, and Saddam Hussein would have to believe this, that if somehow a terrorist got hold of the nuclear materials or nuclear warheads, we would say, "We have evidence that this came from Saddam Hussein." Boom! Like that.

Now, let's separate this from Saddam Hussein. Let's say that al Qaeda or factions of al Qaeda would come to power in Pakistan, which is a possibility -- a very divided country and so on. Would that situation change the equation in the sense that the rationality, which we can assume that Saddam Hussein has as a survivor in power, would that be the same of a group? Would they be socialized by state power? Or might they do things because of their ideology, a deviant form of Islam, which, at one level, seems to say that to die is good?

One of the striking things about nuclear deterrence is that it has worked, no matter what country we're talking about, no matter what kind of government the country has, no matter what kind of ruler the country has had. The most striking case, of course, is Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. It lasted from 1966 to 1976 in China, where China was in seemingly unheard-of chaos. And yet China, a country with a fair number of nuclear weapons at the time, managed to take care of those weapons very well indeed! The government separated foreign policy to a certain extent, and nuclear policy completely, from the Cultural Revolution.

The one thing about those governments -- millenarian or whatever they may be like -- is that they almost surely will want to stay in power. If they come to power, they will be deterrable. The difficulty is if irregular groups, terrorists, get control of weapons of mass destruction. Something like biologicals are much more of a worry (and chemicals to a certain extent, but biologicals, especially) than nuclear weapons, I think. Then they are not deterrable. We've always known that deterrence does not cover this kind of situation.

The cliché now is, of course, and has been for a long time, that you have to have "an address." You can threaten retaliation against Iraq; you can't threaten retaliation against terrorists, because you can't find them. You don't know where they are.

So if it is the responsibility of the most powerful country in the world, as part of its own interest, to do some of the management of the whole system, what is a sensible policy for addressing this threat, which might come from a transnational terrorist group that does not have power?

What indeed can one do about that? Everything possible to prevent nuclear materials, including nuclear warheads, from getting into their hands.

We do that to some extent. We've subsidized Russia to enable it to dismantle its nuclear weaponry and to guard the nuclear weaponry that it does have. That makes great sense, and we should do more of that. We should continue to deter and contain other countries that do or might have nuclear weapons. But if a country badly needs, and therefore, badly wants nuclear weapons, it is almost impossible in the long run to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear military capability.

If we declare a country to be a part of an "axis of evil," and if that country is anyway in a perilously weak position, as obviously North Korea is, then we'd have to ask ourselves, if we were the ruler -- no matter how nasty that ruler is -- if we were Kim Jong Il, wouldn't we conclude that, "My God, we're likely to be attacked, and since we are weak, we'll lose unless we have nuclear weapons, which have proved to be the greatest and, indeed, the only reliable deterrent the world has ever known"? Conventional deterrence has not worked very well. We can figure out why that is, but nuclear weapons have been a great deterrent. Now, if one were Kim Jong Il, it's impossible to imagine that he would not want to do everything he can do, so you could make this less likely by making him feel less insecure. The more insecure you make him feel ...

See, any fool can see that the only way you can deter the United States is with weapons of mass destruction. You cannot compete on conventional grounds. That's absolutely impossible. Russia can't do it. China can't do it. Obviously, these rogue states -- it's just a fantasy. They could not even begin to, right? So if they believe that their security is directly in danger and even, indeed, specifically from the United States, the United States acting in conjunction with other countries in the area, they are going to do everything they can to acquire deterrent weapons -- again, the best one being nuclear military means.

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