Joe Biden and the Doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction
by Charles Marxer
Mainstream talk supporting the “wisdom” of President Biden’s early-announced determination not to engage Russia militarily, at least directly, in Ukraine is based on the following assumption: either the US avoids war with Russia or a nuclear WWIII will be triggered. We integralists ought to be all over that binary. I maintain it’s a false dichotomy and that therefore Biden should directly intervene in Ukraine to prevent the horrific bloodbath unfolding there now from becoming even worse.
A few nights ago MSNBC’s Chris Hayes “dusted off” the old doctrine of mutual assured destruction to explain the US/NATO’s adamant refusal to engage Russia militarily in defense of Ukraine. Here’s the doctrine in its simple form, commonly assumed to govern superpowers’ policies and actions during the Cold War and afterwards, saving us all from nuclear annihilation:
Mutual assured destruction (MAD) is a doctrine of military strategy and national security policy in which a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by two or more opposing sides would cause the complete annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. (Wikipedia)
President Biden, as early as December 8, said he would not directly intervene in Ukraine. Fear of provoking a wider war by sending troops was the stated reason. By “wider war,” of course, he meant a nuclear war with Russia, a meaning which he has clarified more than once since. Looks like good reasoning at first; no one wants a nuclear war as per MAD. Best not to poke the bear. But let’s look more closely.
There are two possible interpretations of the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. The weak interpretation says that a nuclear attack - even a limited one - by a nuclear power against another would trigger an all-out nuclear Armageddon. The strong interpretation says that even a non-nuclear or conventional direct attack by one nuclear superpower against another would likely be answered by a nuclear counter-strike, resulting in the MAD scenario. The former is regarded by most analysts as true, even self-evident. But what about the latter interpretation? Not so obvious.
Suppose Russia deliberately destroyed, with conventional weapons, a US submarine cruising in Russian waters just off the Russian coast in the Baltic Sea. Would the US immediately launch a nuclear attack on Russia? Not likely; the US can spare a sub, and the Russians would respond in kind which, according to MAD logic, would be suicidal. Conversely, if the US deliberately destroyed a Russian submarine cruising in American waters in the Atlantic Ocean, the Russians would almost certainly not launch a nuclear strike in response. Why not? Because of MAD, of course. Leaders of the superpowers are not suicidal, not even Putin. They know that nuclear weapons cannot be used in a war without fatal consequences for both sides. It follows that a conventional attack by a nuclear power against another nuclear power is not likely to trigger a nuclear holocaust (especially when the attack takes place on third-party soil). The strong interpretation of MAD doctrine is false.
President Biden seems to be operating on the basis of the strong interpretation of MAD. If he sends US fighter jets to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, Putin will probably respond with a nuclear attack on US bases in Europe or on the US itself. But why would he? There is no reason to believe he is insane or suicidal. If the US entered the war with a limited tactic, such as imposing a no-fly zone, Putin could leave his nukes in mothballs, take a few punches to the gut, and then sue for peace on some sort of face-saving basis, thus avoiding destruction of his beloved Mother Russia.
Ok, so maybe Biden just thinks, better to be safe than sorry. But here is the flaw in that logic. He says, no US troops or planes in Ukraine, but on March 1 in his State of the Union address, he said, " “The United States and our allies will defend every inch of … NATO territory with the full force of our collective power—every single inch.” That means presumably, in the event of Russian aggression against, say, Slovakia, the US will defend that country with its military even at the risk of nuclear war. Would he really? Yes, the US is obligated to defend any member of NATO, but it has a record of breaking all kinds of "obligations" when it perceives its national interests are threatened. But, given his belief in the strong version of MAD, he should not rally to the defense of Slovakia, despite the NATO commitment, for the same reason he is refusing to directly engage Russia in Ukraine - the danger of provoking a nuclear war.
Do I think Biden would not move to defend Slovakia or any other member of NATO if attacked by Russia? No, of course he would do it, because his stated fear of a “wider war” is bullshit. He doesn’t really believe the strong version of MAD. He knows a conventional war against Russia in Ukraine would not likely go nuclear.* He has simply decided that Ukraine is expendable (green light for Putin), because direct involvement would have negative political consequences for him and the Democratic Party at home, e.g. soaring gas prices, hyperinflation, bad publicity in an election year. Biden has drawn his red line around the NATO countries bordering on Russia and is willing to let the chips fall where they may in Ukraine in the hope that non-direct assistance by NATO countries will make the crucial difference.
My point is, if Biden is willing to risk nuclear war (hardly likely as I argue above) in defense of a NATO country, why not risk* it in the case of Ukraine, which is a NATO country in all but name? Contemplate the suffering that might have been prevented if he had been so willing from the beginning. Ask yourself: if the US had used Russia’s build-up year to position its own military force along the southern border of Ukraine, would Putin have dared to invade? Not very likely; Russia can’t win a conventional war against the US. The same goes for establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine now.
With his cowardly refusal to intervene with the most powerful military force in the world, Biden has enabled Putin’s aggression and is sending a dangerous message to other unfriendly nuclear powers: bullying works. In his recent essay, “How Russia is Catalyzing the Transformation Age,” after praising the wisdom of Biden’s non-engagement policy, Robb Smith asks “What to do when a nuclear power decides to violate the UN Charter [doctrine] of national sovereignty and bully their neighbors, up to and including nuclear saber-rattling?” The answer is, first, to refuse to buy into the saber-rattling, because everyone knows nuclear weapons cannot be used without incurring MAD. Secondly, when a nuclear bully commits an unprovoked aggression against a neighbor, as Russia is doing now in Ukraine, get your superior army in gear and, if fair warning doesn’t work, smack the aggressor with every conventional weapon in your arsenal.
Integralists are not pacifists. We would prefer a cease-fire immediately, followed by good-faith negotiations to end hostilities permanently. But, with neither in sight any time soon, we can with good conscience advocate for a strong NATO intervention to rescue an innocent liberal democracy from extinction.