Central to America’s Cold War strategy was the principle of MAD—Mutually Assured Destruction. The idea was to make nuclear warfare a lose-lose proposition. Whichever side was attacked would retain the capability to counterattack. Both sides would end up devastated, if not annihilated.
I studied MAD in graduate school and considered it sane. I had spent time in the Soviet Union and concluded that the men in the Kremlin were evil but rational. They believed that Marxists like themselves were on the right side of history (to coin a phrase) so there was no need for “adventurism.” And the horrors Russia had suffered in World War II were still fresh in their memories.
Now, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin rules the roost. He’s no dialectical materialist. He’s more of a l’état c’est moi kind of guy. To be fair, he’s not alone in believing that he’s destined to be the redeemer and czar of Russkiy Mir, Russian World, the idealized vision of a revived pan-Russian or even pan-Slavic empire.
Three days after invading Ukraine he put his nuclear forces on alert—the term he used was “special combat readiness.” He warned the United States and other NATO countries that any attempt to prevent him from pillaging and conquering his neighbor would result in consequences “such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
Was he threatening to use chemical or tactical nuclear weapons against Ukrainians? Or cyberattacks against Americans? Or was he saying he won’t play by MAD rules? We can only guess, which means he has established what’s known as “strategic ambiguity.”
He dares to be so aggressive now because his many past aggressions and transgressions elicited only feckless responses from the United States, NATO and the chimera known as “the international community.”
President Biden, from the moment he moved into the White House, has been eager to placate Putin and reluctant to “provoke” him. Last year, he restricted arms assistance to Ukraine, gave his blessing to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (while curbing domestic oil and gas production) and agreed to a five-year renewal of the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. This latter despite Russia’s record of cheating and the fact that the agreement imposes no limits on Putin’s shorter-range nuclear weapons—the kind he might use against Ukraine or in a future war against NATO.
These policies were consistent with those of former President Barack Obama, who seemed to believe that his magnetic personality coupled with clever diplomacy could alleviate all tensions with Moscow, Tehran and others.
But back to MAD: One president was uncomfortable relying on it even in Soviet times. President Ronald Reagan’s plans for high-tech missile defense were derided by his critics as “Star Wars,” a crazy scheme to “hit a bullet with a bullet.”
Nevertheless, research and development yielded results, during his administration and the George H.W. Bush administration that followed. In August 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bragged that an American “defense umbrella” would protect the United States and its allies from nuclear weapons that North Korea possessed and that the Islamic Republic of Iran was attempting to acquire.
I had my doubts. So did Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council. We responded by publishing an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal granting that a “defense umbrella” was a marvelous idea but adding that America’s was full of holes.
The George W. Bush administration had worked only on missile-defense systems capable of intercepting a small number of ballistic missiles. There had been no attempt to build a comprehensive architecture, one that would be capable of neutralizing a large salvo of nuclear-tipped missiles.
To build that would require much more research, development and funding. But both the Obama administration and Congress were—at that moment—slashing the Pentagon’s budget for anti-missile systems.
In addition, as part of his “reset” with Russia, Obama relinquished the Bush administration’s plan to deploy ground-based radars and interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic. That system was intended to defend only against missiles from the Islamic Republic of Iran, but Putin charged that it might protect Americans from his missiles, which would violate the MAD doctrine.
On the American left, there were objections to space-based missile defense on the grounds that such systems would “militarize” space. “This is dead wrong,” Berman and I countered. “A space-based missile defense capability would instead block and destroy weapons that enter the Earth’s orbit on their way to their targets.”
We concluded: “The capability to make Iranian, North Korean, and other foreign missiles useless has already been developed and field-tested. Only America has it, and we should deploy it.” We urged the U.S. government to build, as rapidly as possible, “a comprehensive and impenetrable ‘defense umbrella’ to protect itself and its allies.”
Needless to say, our advice was not taken. Nor did the Trump administration make missile defense a priority.
Over the weekend, Putin used a hypersonic ballistic missile to destroy an underground arms depot in Western Ukraine. It was another threatening message to the United States, which has not yet fielded its own hypersonic missiles and is very late in developing defenses against them.
MAD had its day. That day passed. Robust deterrence—a capability based on overwhelming military power, clear projection of the will to utilize it, coupled with defense systems that make it much harder for our enemies’ missiles to reach their intended victims—should have been the highest national security priority of American leaders from both parties.
Instead, we took a holiday from history and spent a peace dividend. We ought to be correcting those mistakes without further delay. We’d be mad not to.
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”