Preserving Liberty Without Blowing up the World
General Brent Scowcroft, 1985
General Brent Scowcroft is a retired Lieutenant General in the United States Air Force. He has also served the United States as National Security Advisor to President Gerald R. Ford and chairman of President Ronald Reagan's Commission on Strategic Forces. Today he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace in the nuclear age.
Whiteley: General Scowcroft, you've indicated that central to the problem of achieving peace is to recognize that it cannot be achieved from a position of moral neutrality. What do you mean?
Scowcroft: I think fundamentally, John, we have two problems, two realities that we have to face at the present time. The first is that we have now, and for the foreseeable future, a competitive relationship with the Soviet Union. We hold antithetical views about history, about society, and about man's place in it. The two systems are fundamentally philosophically very far apart.
Whiteley: And that's where the issue of moral neutrality comes in.
Scowcroft: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so what we are trying to do is to preserve and extend a world in which the central feature is individual, and his rights and liberties in a world of order and of peaceful change through order. And we see the Soviet Union as having fundamentally different ideas about the organization of society.
Whiteley: Given this antithetical view of the world between the Soviet Union and the United States, what is it central to understand about the Soviet Union?
Scowcroft: I think two things. First of all that they do have this view of the organization of society and of the future of society, and fundamentally, I think they do feel that history is on their side. Now this leads them to two kinds of things: one is a kind of persistence in accomplishing their goals, a kind of patience and persistence, and on the other side, a caution. They don't need to make history; what they need to do is assist history in its course, and with that philosophical approach it makes them a very, very difficult opponent.
Whiteley: One part of understanding their behavior has been labeled their inherent expansionism. What form has that taken since World War II?
Scowcroft: I think there are various theories on it. One is that in fact they have a blueprint for world domination. The other is that it is as much Russian historicism as communist expansion, and it may be a little bit of both. My own sense is that they do not have a blueprint, but that they seek, when there are targets of opportunity, to expand their areas of control, to make trouble for the United States in areas which are more or less western oriented, and to expand their own areas of influence and control where they can.
Whiteley: What role does military power have in their view of the world?
Scowcroft: I think they have a role of military power which is much more integral to their overall thinking than is that of the United States. Political and military power are just different sides of the same coin, and I think that they use military power to advance their political goals. I don't think they're anymore interested in a war with the United States than we are with them, but what they tend to do is to use their military power in order to advance their political objectives.
Whiteley: What about the specific role of nuclear power?
Scowcroft: Interestingly enough, nuclear weapons have been more the refuge of the West, of the United States than the Soviet Union. Basically in 1952, for example, in calculating the defense of Europe, we decided that rather than develop the forces which would have been necessary in order to defend against a Soviet assault on Europe, we turn to the use of nuclear weapons, in essence as a cheaper way to do it. We are still fundamentally in that posture and therefore, nuclear weapons are really the basic defense of the West rather than they are of the Soviet Union.
Whiteley: What's the basis of the national security of the Soviet Union?
Scowcroft: I think the basis of the national security is in fact their military prowess. If you look at all the kinds of elements of national power the Soviet Union, especially in comparison either with Europe or the United States, is a great power only in one way, and that is in the area of deployed military strengths, where they're really very, very good. In all other areas, the skills of the population, or their gross national product, whatever else, they really are an advancing sort of middle level power, and not a great power in any other area other than military strength.
Whiteley: What's led them to devote such an incredible amount of resources, personnel, and the cost within their own society to develop this offensive military power?
Scowcroft: I think it's two things. I think it is a sense of a hostile world, of generally expansionist goals, and of basic insecurity, which again probably has very deep historical and Russian rather than communist roots. And those - all those combine to produce a kind of offensive/defensive mentality to assuage which they really induce insecurity in other peoples. I think the Iron Curtain, the advance into Eastern Europe, or buffer zones, and so on and so forth are all, at least in part, defensively to protect themselves against future invasion. Offensively, of course, it's to expand their own spheres of control and influence.
Whiteley: So returning to the theme we began with, of the problem of peace as one where one can't be morally neutral, you've indicated that the Soviet Union is prepared to defend itself, to take advantage of opportunities to expand its sphere of influence, and that cuts at the heart of a sense of freedom. What's been the United States' response since World War II to a fundamental challenge to its view of the world?
Scowcroft: Our response has been first to try to defend, if you will, not the status quo but the world order as it exists. In other words, an order based on the rights of individual countries to determine their own destiny, and the defense of that order, and support of the peaceful change of that order rather than its overturn by the Soviet Union. Which gets to the second part I think of the truce. The first is this fundamental competition about the nature of the world order. Is it going to be basically preserved and expanded the way it is, or is it going to be overturned. The other is the nuclear age, and that is that we cannot disinvent nuclear weapons. We can control them, we can do a lot of things with them, we cannot erase the ability to make them. And therefore, we have a twin problem. The one is to defend our vital interest against this Soviet Union that we've been describing, and to do it without, if you will, blowing up the world. Now it's relatively easy to do one or the other, and the liberals accuse the conservatives of being mesmerized by the Soviet threat, and oblivious to the dangers to civilization of nuclear weapons. And the conservatives accuse the liberals of being so paralyzed by the threat of nuclear weapons that they would concede anything to the Soviet Union to avoid it. So that doing one or the other is relatively easy; doing both at the same time, in other words defending our interest without blowing up the world, is in essence the complexity of the problem we face.
Whiteley: In addressing that complex problem with four decades of experience in the nuclear age, what is now the bases of our national security?
Scowcroft: We've gone through several periods. Right after World War II we emerged into a period of, if you will, great optimism. We were a great power, we had defeated the Nazi aggression, and I think our goal was in a sense to remake the world in our own image, following which then we'd be able to relax and it would run on its own. And we had a fairly sophisticated outlook about how to apply power, more so than in the first 150 years of our existence where power was something quite separate from diplomacy, and so on. The Korean War is a manifestation of this more sophisticated view as to how to apply power to achieve political objectives. But the Korean War and the Vietnamese War, I think, have shaken that kind of confidence, and brought about their own reaction that we didn't really know how to deal with the world, we couldn't deal with the world, and following was a fairly deep pessimism. We're coming out of that now, but I think we're a combination of the two, and I think part of our national debate now reflects the ambivalence of trying to sort a course through being able, if you will, to remake the world, and not being able to do anything.
Whiteley: Four decades into the nuclear age, how secure are we?
Scowcroft: That's a difficult question to answer. I think, fundamentally, we are probably more secure than we were in the earlier years, more secure because we have learned a great deal, some of it painfully, about what it means to be a world power, what it means to have to play a role in every international issue that comes up, and I think at the same time we have grown to realize that the Soviet Union itself has significant problems, and indeed that if we can deal with the issues that we're faced with now that over the longer run, the future is much brighter for us than it is for the Soviet Union. And I think if you go back to the early or late '50s that was not always the case. There was a great fear of the advance of communism, of its appeal in - especially in underdeveloped areas of the world. We no longer worry much about the appeal of the ideology itself. While it's used by groups who want to seize power for their own purposes, it is no longer an appealing ideology, itself, the way we feared it was right after World War II.
Whiteley: One part of our security rests on our offensive forces, what you've written about as the triad of ballistic missiles, or airborne power, of sea-based power. How strong are we?
Scowcroft: We're quite strong. It is very difficult to measure precisely for this reason. We build our forces, especially our strategic forces, for deterrence. And deterrence itself is a very nebulous, a very ambiguous concept. You can't tell whether you have deterrence or whether you don't have it unless it fails; then you know it was insufficient. But if it doesn't fail you don't know whether it's because it's working, or because there was no intent for a particular aggression in the first place. The other problem with deterrence is we debated a lot among ourselves as to what constitutes deterrence and how much force it takes and so on to deter the Soviet Union. But that's irrelevant. What is really important from a deterrence standpoint is what the Soviets think, not what we think. And so the only relevant thing is to try to put ourselves in their shoes, and analyze with their objectives, which we've been talking about, with their hopes and fears, what is it - what kind of forced posture and willingness to use it is likely to deter them. That's a much more difficult thing to answer.
Whiteley: We've relied on deterrence for four decades in one form or another. How much can we rely on it in the future?
Scowcroft: That currently is a very popular issue of debate. And we have the curious phenomenon that both on the right and on the left there is now a questioning of deterrence. And the left tends to say all we need to do is to sit down with the Soviet Union and we can reconcile all our problems, that the nature of the problem is inept or malevolent leadership, not the character of the issues themselves. And the right now tending to say that no, that's not the solution to the problem, but we can solve it through technology. I think the fact is that we are fated to rely on deterrence for as far into the future as we can see.
Whiteley: What issues do you want people to keep in mind when they're trying to make sense out of this debate over the components of deterrence, whether it's the position of the right as you described it, or the position of the left. What are the issues that are fundamental?
Scowcroft: I think the fundamental issue as it relates to deterrence itself is this: We cannot know for sure what deters the Soviet Union, whether it's the knowledge that 'X' number of their cities, or 'X' percent of their population would be destroyed, or whether it is only the knowledge that they will be unable to achieve their objectives, whatever those might be. So that what we have to calculate in my judgment is that in a sense we are buying insurance, and if we buy too much insurance, more than is necessary, we will do two things. We will waste at least tens of billions of dollars and we may stimulate an arms race which otherwise could be avoided. If we under insure, however, we may in fact be inciting a conflict, which I think neither side really wants, by encouraging the Soviets to think that by their integration of political and military means they can achieve some of their objectives.
Whiteley: One of your assessments of the Soviet position is that it has been inherently conservative. What do you mean?
Scowcroft: Yes. Well, I think they are not great risk-takers. They are not - it is not an authoritarian regime like Hitler, for example, who was prepared to risk everything on a single role of the dice. Not at all. They will take advantage of opportunities, but not risking all of their game. That's what I mean about being conservative. So that I think that in a sense is in our favor.
Whiteley: As I have tried to understand your thinking, it appeared to me that you consider one of the greatest threats to deterrence to be a conventional conflict that gets out of hand.
Scowcroft: I think of all the improbable scenarios for a nuclear war, and any scenario is improbable, that the least likely is the so-called 'bolt from the blue.' That for whatever reason the Soviets one day will simply launch a massive attack on the United States. Instead I think if a nuclear war were to come between the Soviet Union and the United States, it is most likely to arise out of either a conventional conflict, or a crisis somewhere in the world in which there is involved a basic misperception by one side or the other as to the stakes involved. It is in that kind of context that I think the greatest danger of a nuclear war resides.
Whiteley: Central to your thinking about ways to make the world safer has been the role of prudent arms control agreements. What is possible?
Scowcroft: I think Americans, with their penchant for feeling that if there's a problem, there's a solution, have tended to invest too much hope in arms control in terms of ending this whole competition that we're talking about, or ending the dangers of a nuclear war. Arms control can't do that. Arms control cannot really significantly reduce the damage of a nuclear war if it should take place if either side wants to create damage to population, because the amount of terrible damage that can be done to cities, to people, to the domestic infrastructure is so great, and it takes only such an insignificant portion of the nuclear arsenals on each side, that arms control cannot usefully even do that. What can it do? Several things, but I think the most important is that in conjunction with prudent modernization of our strategic forces, it can improve strategic stability. What I mean by that is it can reduce the chances that, in a crisis which is likely to occur from time to time between these two competing powers, that the nature of the weapons systems on each side will be an incentive to turn that crisis into a conflict. That is, the vulnerable systems, the incentive to first-strike. I think arms control can play a real role in reducing that incentive. Now that's a modest role compared to what we usually imbue our arms control goals with, but I think it is nonetheless very useful.
Whiteley: What are some specific kinds of accomplishments that would fit the criteria you offer.
Scowcroft: I would say, John, that the goal - the two goals that I could point out: One would be to try to make our own systems survivable against easy attack, and the second is to reduce the value of each one of those targets so that even if the Soviets can find them it will take as much or more effort to destroy them than the value of what they will destroy. And I think if we can do both of those things we will reduce - we won't prevent a nuclear war by any means, but what we will do is reduce the chances that the characteristics of the weapons themselves will produce a nuclear war.
Whiteley: As part of thinking about changing the characteristics of the weapons, you see two ways to do it: To continually modernize our forces, to use arms control. Yet we've had three major arms control agreements negotiated under three different Presidents of the United States that haven't been ratified by the Senate, which in our series of checks and balances is one of the ways that we determine as a society that a particular agreement is within the national security interest of the United States. Were these defective agreements, do our fellow citizens need to think about the worth of arms control in different ways? What needs to happen if, in your view, arms control can help, so that processes we set in motion lead to a conclusion?
Scowcroft: We've not always in the past been very clear about what we were really seeking in arms control. We have been much more focused on the desirability of arms control than what specifically we wanted to achieve by it. Our focus has tended to be on reducing the numbers, and the numbers by and of themselves I think are relatively insignificant. As a matter of fact, one can make an argument that greater numbers are more stabilizing than fewer numbers because there is less temptation. If you can get 90% of 100 weapons, the ten that are left are still - you know, still are not very good. If you can - if you have 10,000 weapons and you get 90%, there's still plenty left over to do terrible damage.
Whiteley: By way of retaliation.
Scowcroft: By way of retaliation. So that just the numbers aren't important. Much more important are the characteristics of the systems, and unfortunately, some of the ways we have gone about arms control for very good reasons, the ways we have counted systems, have tended to go away from the direction of stability because it has driven both sides to very large, very large missiles for example, each with a number of warheads. Those are very valuable targets, and if one side can with one warhead destroy, for example, ten, then one can expend quite a bit of effort trying to do that.
Whiteley: And that's the advantage of a first-strike.
Scowcroft: Then you have an advantage in a first-strike, so over the longer run we need to try to move away from systems which do have those kinds of liabilities.
Whiteley: I'd like to return to a theme that's been in your writings that the greatest hope for peace in a nuclear age is lent by the strengths of liberty itself. What do you mean?
Scowcroft: I think, as I say, we're in this difficult period right now where we do have a very formidable opponent. But our problem in coping with this opponent is only a problem of will; it's not whether we can do it, but will we have the energy, the foresightedness, to do it. The problems on the Soviet side are much, much deeper. And over the long-run I think one of the basic questions is can they continue the competition, because their system is fundamentally repressive of the basic energies and creativity of man, whereas ours is supportive of it. And I think over the long-run that that will be decisive, but it may not be unless we can survive the short-run.
Whiteley: General Scowcroft, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a more peaceful world in the nuclear age.