During the Cold War, deterrence helped preserve the peace. Now, America and the world are facing the truly frightening prospect of future cold wars, as hostile regimes around the world come closer to developing their own nuclear weapons. North Korea, it appears, already has them. Iraq would have them if not for our intervention. It is easy to imagine a proliferation of nuclear-armed nations within a few decades.
Deterrence worked for 40 years with the Soviet Union, notwithstanding numerous close calls. Many believe deterrence will keep Iraq at bay as well.
But the concept of deterrence is breaking down. Iraq and North Korea do not require long-range missiles to attack the United States. They have an alternative delivery system: terrorist organizations. Launching a strike against us would be a matter of using such organizations or their own operatives to smuggle in weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
The attacking nation could keep its participation secret. As several observers have pointed out, this reality negates the idea of deterrence. Were such an attack to occur, determining culpability would be very difficult, if not impossible. A smuggled-in nuclear bomb detonated in an American city would leave little if any trace of physical evidence as to who carried out the attack. This would hold true for biological weapons and other WMD as well.
It is akin to the criminal world: if the identity of murderers always could be known, the fear of certain retribution would result in fewer murders. Similarly, in the past the fear of certain retribution deterred rogue nations. But now that their complicity can be kept secret, we are much more vulnerable to catastrophic attacks.
Even if we could eventually ascertain a nation's complicity, the mere fact that it may think we could never do so, and try to get away with it, is enough to negate deterrence.
The situation reflects the larger changes that have been taking place since the end of the Cold War. We have entered the era of "Fourth Generation Warfare" (a phrase coined in 1989 in a "Marine Corps Gazette" article, which denotes warfare against nongovernmental terrorist or criminal groups like Al Qaeda). This type of warfare is typically waged by highly mobile, secretive terrorist or paramilitary groups that do not necessarily act under the direct control of a foreign government. They blend in with civilian populations, and often are glad to sacrifice their lives to kill civilian or military personnel. They may act as proxies for hostile governments, which supply weapons, training and other support. The advent of WMD means such groups can inflict casualties on a scale that in previous times would have required large armies.
The geopolitical scene has changed as well. No longer (for now) are we squaring off with a hostile superpower, but with an assortment of rogue states that have or could soon have WMD. The increasing availability of lethal technology means the risks of the unthinkable are rising every year. Given the nature of petty tyrants, it is only a matter of time before one of them decides to use WMD, including nuclear weaponry, against us or one of our allies.
The North Korea situation demonstrates what happens when rogue regimes are allowed to obtain WMD. It is an excruciating predicament indeed (and shows that we - as opposed to rogue nations - can still be deterred). The immediate lesson is that we must prevent more of these predicaments, beginning with Iraq.
We are living in unique times, indeed, where the widespread availability of WMD is profoundly changing the geopolitical equation. For our planet to survive, America and the allies have to do things they would not normally do. It includes preemptive military action. Though such action certainly carries large risks and consequences, I see no other way to stop the onset of a world full of nuclear-armed despots.
Taking military action against Iraq, and making clear we are doing so because the civilized world will not tolerate the proliferation of WMD, will send a powerful message to current and future tyrants not to develop such weapons. It will be an effort to scare them into submission. And those who are not scared will have to be dealt with militarily. Otherwise, if they gain access to WMD, they will not be deterred.
Patrick Chisholm, a former foreign affairs analyst at the State Department and a graduate of American University's School of International Service, is a Washington, D.C.-based writer/editor.