Last week Xi Jinping directed his armed forces to surround Taiwan and carry out live fire exercises; in addition, Chinese forces carried out a series of ballistic missile launches, five of which overflew Taiwan and landed in Japanese waters. These provocative military actions reflected the PRC leadership’s fit of pique at the recent one-day visit to Taiwan by the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. As the many observers have pointed out, this military temper tantrum represents a disproportionate response to the Pelosi visit, since delegations of U.S. Senators and House members had visited Taiwan as recently as last November without eliciting this kind of over-the-top reaction.
In response, the Biden administration has canceled a long-planned test of an unarmed Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), because, as White House spokesman John Kirby said, “we have no interest in escalating the tensions.” The U.S. normally tests our ICBM system several times a year. These tests are an important part of maintaining an effective nuclear deterrent. They are a visible and powerful demonstration of the most responsive leg of our nuclear triad and a reminder to adversaries that the U.S. possesses a potent nuclear deterrent force.
The administration’s feckless decision represents a total failure to understand strategic nuclear deterrence, extended deterrence, and escalation dynamics. This decision, taken while PRC missiles were flying around Taiwan and encroaching on the territory of a treaty ally, was not the first time this year that the Biden team canceled a scheduled ICBM test. In March, shortly after Vladimir Putin launched his unprovoked, illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, the White House initially rescheduled and then subsequently canceled another long-standing Minuteman test. Putin, clearly deeply impressed and touched by this U.S. show of restraint, responded by ordering a test of his new super “America killer” ‘Sarmat’ ICBM. Sadly, Team Biden did not learn from this pointed public humiliation.
Effective deterrence relies upon potential enemy leaders recognizing both U.S. military capabilities and our will to use them to defend ourselves and our treaty Allies. If the potential enemy believes that our will is lacking, deterrence is weakened, and new acts of aggression become more likely. Moreover, failure to signal one’s determination can also lead to misunderstanding and miscalculation by other governments with enormous, indeed, catastrophic consequences.
The dangers of unanswered aggression and misreading adversary intentions were clearly demonstrated in the years between World War I and World War II, the last time the international system was characterized by such intense rivalry and use of force among multiple players. Britain and France did not respond to Hitler’s illegal remilitarization of the Rhineland. An emboldened Hitler then proceeded to annex Austria—again with no Allied military response. Believing London and Paris lacked the stomach to confront him, he next bullied British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at Munich, won a concession to take the Sudetenland—and then in violation of his Munich pledge proceeded to swallow the rest of Czechoslovakia. Again, there was no British or French military response. Conditioned by this pusillanimous behavior, there was little wonder that Hitler believed his attack on Poland would also go unanswered. He was stunned when Britain and France declared war. Similarly, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and the rest of China in 1937 went almost entirely unopposed by the international community. A failure that almost certainly contributed to the hubris of the senior Japanese leaders who made the ill-fated decision to attack Pearl Harbor. Together these misjudgments let loose the most devastating war in human history.
For Hitler and the Japanese Imperial War Council, substitute Putin and Xi—cold, calculating, risk-taking autocrats. Their aggression, escalation of conflicts, and saber-rattling with nuclear threats and ballistic missile firings has been met by consistent statements by Washington that focus on the dangers of U.S. actions that might be “provocative” and invite escalation that would put us on the “path to World War III.” Prudence about escalation dynamics is always wise, but accepting the implication that the normal, steady state management of the U.S. nuclear deterrent is somehow escalatory is very dangerous. It stands in stark contrast to the behavior of former French Foreign Minister Yves Le Drian who, at the outset of the conflict in Ukraine in the face of President Putin’s nuclear threats, pointedly reminded the Kremlin that NATO remains a nuclear alliance.
Demonstrations of weakness in the face of aggression is itself provocative and simply invites more aggression. It also unnerves allies. As the late Dennis Healey, Britain’s longest serving secretary of state for defense, famously wrote, “it takes only five percent credibility of American retaliation to deter the Russians but ninety-five percent credibility to reassure the Europeans.” Continuing recent flirtations with declaratory policies that suggest the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear weapons use or pledge “no first use” combined with the fact that the Nuclear Posture Review remains classified will only serve to undermine allied confidence in U.S. extended nuclear deterrence.
The Biden administration deserves a lot of credit for unifying the allies and assisting Ukraine in resisting Russian aggression, but it needs to absorb the traditional lessons of strategic nuclear deterrence and extended deterrence quickly, before our Allies in Europe and Asia begin to wonder if the U.S. nuclear umbrella that has done so much to protect global peace and security is transforming into the ignominious umbrella that Chamberlain unfurled as he fatuously declared that he had secured “peace for our time.”
Eric S. Edelman and Franklin Miller have held senior positions in national security affairs over administrations of both parties over a 30-year period.